First off, thanks to all the wonderful comments on previous installments of this series. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to start there. Ya'll have thought about these issues way more than I.
In English (and in every other language I know about), the title for most people immediately conveys your gender. Are you Ms. or Mr.? Do you have ovaries or a penis? Some people, by virtue of their professional status can transcend this titular distinction. They can become Dr. So-and-so and or the Honorable Such-and-such, but for mere mortals, you gender is immediately recognizable via your title.
Does this matter? Do we ever want to disguise our gender? Do adults even use titles?
Academia is pretty informal so most of the time, people are just referred to by their first name (or first and last). Besides, if we were going to be formal, many can transcend gender-based titles by virtue of their doctorate. The only time I’ve run into an issue of what to call someone was what to have my students call me during class. I settled on the informal convention of going by my first name.
But how about outside academia where things might be more formal and fewer people have doctorates. In industry, for example, you might be told to send a prospectus to Mr. So-and-so or Ms. Such-and-such. Immediately, a mental image begins to form of the client based on their gender. And is Mr. going to get better service than Ms.? I’m way outside my field here, but I’m guessing that some of the time, the answer is yes.
How about times when your gender is immediately apparent because you are face-to-face with the person addressing you? Obviously then the first issue becomes a de facto non-issue. The clerk at the grocery store is not going to know your professional status, but most people are pretty easy to binary sort into male/female. So that brings in the marital status question.
As a principle, I don’t think it’s anyone’s business whether a woman is married or not. For a man, it’s never an issue at the grocery store, bank, or post office. He’s always Mr. For women, we’ve got Ms. as the analog. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the default speech setting for many people.What really gets to me is the assumption that because I look young and I'm in a college town that I must be Miss. Never mind the wedding ring, and often the husband (also young looking) in tow. At the grocery store, etc. I am always told "Thank you, Miss ScienceWoman, have a nice day." And I can definitely see where if I were unmarried but had a child with me, these same people (often women themselves), would say "Thank you Mrs. ScienceWoman..."
When we are mis-titled should we just let it roll off our backs? On an individual case-by-case, this makes a lot of sense. No point in chewing out a minimum wage worker because she made a unconscious assumption. But if we let these individual slights roll off our backs, how will these women ever learn that what they are saying (and the assumption behind it) is incorrect and offensive? How do we change the system while being more polite than those who mis-title us?
Apologies for the rambling post, but what I really wanted to do was to get you (my readers) talking about these issues. Go for it!