Show Hide image

Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of women’s titles

In a paper published in the autumn issue of History Workshop Journal Dr Amy Erickson unravels the fascinating history of the titles used to address women. Her research reveals the subtle and surprising shifts that have taken place in the usage of those ubiquitous M-words.

In July composer Judith Weir was named as the first woman to hold the post of Master of the Queen’s Music, following in the footsteps of dozens of eminent male musicians with the same title. The Guardian reported that “the palace never even suggested ‘mistress’ of the Queen’s music and neither did she”.  

When the role Master of the King’s Music was created in 1626, the words master and mistress were direct equivalents. Today mistress carries multiple connotations, one of which the Daily Mail alluded to in a headline before the announcement asking if Weir might be the Queen’s first Music Mistress.

Research by Cambridge University historian Dr Amy Erickson, published in the autumn issue of History Workshop Journal, unravels the complex history of an extraordinarily slippery word and suggests that the title of Mrs, pronounced “mistress”, was for centuries applied to all adult women of higher social status, whether married or not.

Erickson’s inquiries into forms of female address emerged from her study of women’s employment before the advent of the national census in 1801. What she found in registers, records and archives led her to question existing assumptions and track the changes that have taken place in the history of titles.

She says: “Few people realise that ‘Mistress’ is the root word of both of the abbreviations ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, just as Mr is an abbreviation of ‘Master’. The ways that words derived from Mistress have developed their own meanings is quite fascinating and shifts in these meanings can tell us a lot about the changing status of women in society, at home and in the workplace.”

Throughout history “mistress” was a term with a multiplicity of meanings, like so many forms of female address. In his Dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson defined mistress as: “1. A woman who governs; correlative to subject or servant; 2 A woman skilled in anything; 3. A woman teacher; 4. A woman beloved and courted; 5. A term of contemptuous address; 6. A whore or concubine.”

Neither “mistress” nor “Mrs” bore any marital connotation whatsoever for Dr Johnson. When in 1784 he wrote about having dinner with his friends “Mrs Carter, Miss Hannah More and Miss Fanny Burney”, all three women were unmarried. Elizabeth Carter, a distinguished scholar and lifelong friend of Johnson’s, was his own age and was invariably known as Mrs Carter; Hannah More and Fanny Burney were much younger and used the new style Miss.

Erickson’s investigations have revealed that “Miss” was adopted by adult women for the first time in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, Miss was only used for girls, in the way that Master is only ever (today increasingly rarely) used for boys. To refer to an adult woman as a “Miss” was to imply she was a prostitute.

She explains: “Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing. Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names. Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black.

“Historians have long known that Mrs indicated social status, but they normally assume it also shows that the woman was married. So they have wrongly concluded that women like Johnson’s friend Elizabeth Carter were addressed as Mrs as an acknowledgement of distinction, to grant them the same status as a married woman.”

Erickson suggests that this interpretation is mistaken. “Mrs was the exact equivalent of Mr. Either term described a person who governed servants or apprentices, in Johnson’s terms – we might say a person with capital. Once we adopt Johnson’s understanding of the term (which was how it was used in the 18th century), it becomes clear that ‘Mrs’ was more likely to indicate a businesswoman than a married woman. So the women who took membership of the London Companies in the 18th century, all of whom were single and many of whom were involved in luxury trades, were invariably known as ‘Mrs’, as the men were ‘Mr’. Literally, they were masters and mistresses of their trades.”

This 1698 tax list from Shrewsbury records the most prominent persons in the district first: William Prince Esqr, Mm [Madam] Elizabeth Prince Wdd [widow], Mm Mary Prince Wdd, Ms [mistress] Mary her daughter, Mm Judeth Prince, Mr Philip Wingfield, and Ms Gertrude Wingfield [who is either the wife or the sister or the daughter of Mr Wingfield above]. The women who follow are recorded only by their first and last name, with no prefix. Ms is used here for an unmarried women (Mary Prince) and for a woman whose marital status is unspecified (Gertrude Wingfield). Madam appears to be used here for married or widowed women of social standing.

Historians have often misidentified women as married because they were addressed as “Mrs” – when they were actually single. “It’s easy enough to identify the marital status of a prominent woman, or those taking the Freedom of the City of London (since they had to be single),” says Erickson. “But it’s much harder to identify whether those women described as Mrs in a parish listing of households were ever married - especially the ones with common names like Joan Smith.”

Erickson’s research into the 1793 parish listing for the Essex market town of Bocking shows that 25 heads of household were described as Mrs. She says: “Female household heads were by definition either single or widowed and, if Bocking was typical of other communities, around half of them would have been widows, and the other half single. But two thirds of these women in Bocking were specified as farmers or business proprietors. So Mrs is more reliably being used to identify women with capital, than to identify marital status. Only one woman was Miss: the schoolmistress.”

It seems that it was not society’s desire to mark either a woman’s availability for marriage (in the case of ‘Miss’), or to mark the socially superior status of marriage (‘Mrs’) which led to the use of titles to distinguish female marital status. Rather, socially ambitious young single women used ‘Miss’ as a means to identify their gentility, as distinct from the mere businesswoman or upper servant.

This trend was probably fuelled by the novels of the 1740s such as those by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Sarah Fielding, which featured young gentry Misses and upper (single) servants titled Mrs. The boundaries between the old and new styles are blurred, but Mrs did not definitively signify a married woman until around 1900.

In the course of her research, Erickson has also looked at the way in which from the early 19th century married women acquired their husband’s full name – as in Mrs John Dashwood (Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, 1811). Austen used this technique to establish seniority among women who shared the same surname. England in the early 19th century was the only place in Europe where a woman took her husband’s surname.

To many women in the late 20th century, the practice of replacing her first name by his first name added insult to injury. That’s why this form of address was satirised as “Mrs Man”, and why it has dropped out of use in all but the most socially conservative circles – except of course where a couple are addressed jointly. The introduction of Ms as a neutral alternative to “Miss” or “Mrs”, and the direct equivalent of “Mr”, was proposed as early as 1901.

“‘Those who objected to ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ argue that they define a woman by which man she belongs to. If a woman is ‘Miss’, it is her father; if she is addressed as ‘Mrs’, she belongs to her husband,” says Erickson. “It’s curious that the use of Ms is often criticised today as not ‘standing for’ anything. In fact, it has an impeccable historical pedigree since it was one of several abbreviations for Mistress in the 17th and 18th centuries, and effectively represents a return to the state which prevailed for some 300 years with the use of Mrs for adult women – only now it applies to everyone and not just the social elite.”

The question of which titles are appropriate for which women is likely to remain hotly contested. In 2012 the mayor of Cesson-Sevigne, a town in France, banned the use of “mademoiselle” (the French equivalent of “Miss”), in favour of madame (the equivalent of “Mrs”), which would be applied to all women, whether married or not, and regardless of age. The proposal has not met with universal favour. Some women protested that calling an adult woman “mademoiselle” was a compliment.

Dr Amy Erickson’s paper, “Mistresses and Marriage”, is published in the autumn 2014 issue of History Workshop Journal. Her research on this topic is one thread of a much larger University of Cambridge project that will eventually reconstruct the occupational structure of Britain from the late medieval period to the 19th century.

Credit: Arrow Films
Show Hide image

The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”