Liebes On Women’s Lib

C.S. notes this New York Times article on the history of the title “Ms.”:

In the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., tucked away in an item at the bottom of Page 4, an unnamed writer put forth a modest proposal. “There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill,” the writer began. “Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.”

How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” namely, Ms. With this “simple” and “easy to write” title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.” The writer even gave a pronunciation tip: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

The item in the Springfield paper made a minor splash, getting picked up and discussed over the next few weeks in other newspapers around the country, from Iowa to Minnesota to Utah. As 1901 drew to a close, however, the Ms. proposal faded from the public eye — though it seems to have made enough of an impression to lurk just below the radar for decades to come. In 1932, it reappeared: a letter writer in The New York Times wondered if “a woman whose marital status is in doubt” should be addressed as M’s or Miss. And in 1949, the philologist Mario Pei noted in his book “The Story of Language” that “feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’).”

The genesis of Ms. lay buried in newspaper archives until earlier this year, when after much painstaking hunting through digitized databases I found The Sunday Republican article that started it all. A few years ago I stumbled upon a mention of the article in another newspaper, The New Era, of Humeston, Iowa, on Dec. 4, 1901. Fred Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” then found an excerpt from The Sunday Republican article in The Salt Lake Tribune. After discovering that The Sunday Republican had recently been scanned and digitized by Readex, a publisher of digital historical materials, I was finally able to zero in on this forgotten document.

Though Pei identified the early proponents of Ms. as feminists, the Republican writer (most likely a man) presented the argument for the title as one of simple etiquette and expediency. As the linguist Dennis Baron recounts in his 1986 book “Grammar and Gender,” these considerations remained the driving force in the 1950s, when some guides to business correspondence offered Ms. as a stopgap solution. Fraily and Schnell’s “Practical Business Writing” of 1952, for instance, recommended it as a title “that saves debating between Miss and Mrs.” Two years later, Brown and Doris’s “Business Executive’s Handbook” briefly noted that “a few business concerns now use ‘Ms.’ ” Outside of secretarial circles, however, Ms. remained largely unknown.

It was certainly unknown, in 1961, to Sheila Michaels, a 22-year-old civil rights worker in New York City, who one day spotted it on a piece of mail that her roommate received. In fact, she initially took it as a typo, albeit a felicitous one. Fiercely independent, Michaels abhorred having her identity defined by marriage. Struck by Ms., she became a one-woman lobbying force for the title as a feminist alternative to Miss and Mrs. She even unwittingly replicated The Republican’s rationale for pronouncing Ms. as “mizz,” since she had noticed this ambiguous spoken form when she was a child growing up in St. Louis.

For several years her fellow activists evinced little interest. The turning point, Michaels told me recently, came when she was interviewed on the progressive New York radio station WBAI in late 1969 or early 1970. The program “Womankind” invited her on with other members of a radical group known simply as the Feminists, and during a lull in the show she plunged into her impassioned plea for Ms. Her advocacy finally paid off. The following August, when women’s rights supporters commemorated the 50th anniversary of suffrage with the Women’s Strike for Equality, Ms. became recognized as a calling card of the feminist movement.

Just days before the national demonstration, on Aug. 24, Gloria Steinem registered her approval in her “City Politic” column in New York magazine. “Personally,” she wrote, “I’m all in favor of the new form and will put it on all letters and documents.” Still, she was uncertain about the pronunciation: “An airline clerk asked me, ‘Miss or Mrs.?’ on the phone, and I was stumped. How the hell do you pronounce Ms.?” By the time Steinem and her colleagues introduced Ms. magazine in 1971, both the “miss” and “mizz” pronunciations were considered acceptable — with “mizz,” the “bucolic” form in the 1901 proposal, eventually winning out in common usage.

In some quarters, recognition of Ms. was slow in coming. The New York Times waited until 1986 to announce that it would embrace the use of Ms. as an honorific alongside Miss and Mrs. Eighty-five years after The Sunday Republican’s unassuming contribution to our modern lexicon, The Times admitted that the “void in the English language” had been filled.

In an undated responsum, Rav Yitzhak Isaac Liebes responds to a R. Antelman (sp?), principal of “the Yeshiva of Providence” (presumably the Yeshiva Gedolah of Providence/New England Rabbinical College, founded in 1984), about the desire of female office workers and teachers, both single and married, to replace the traditional titles of “Mrs.” and “Ms.” with the uniform title of “Ms.”:

ב”ה,

שלום וברכה ברביי’ והמשכה להרב המופלא ומופלג יו”ש מו”ה מ”ש אנטעלמאן נ”י מנהל ישיבת פראווידענס ב”א.

בדבר שאלתו שבמשרד הישיבה יש נשים ובתולות העובדות שמה וגם בצוות המורות ובהשפעת ה-WOMENS LIBERATION המה רוצות להיקרא בשם MS.‎ בין בתולות ובין נשואות לא כמו שהי’ תמיד הדרך לקרות לבתולות ופנויות Miss ולנשואות Mrs.‎ ועכשיו כולן רוצות להיקרא בשם אחד אם אין זה נגד התורה ומנהגי ישראל בעניני צניעות.

תשובה:‏

הנראה לי בזה דודאי אין לקרות לאשת איש בתאר שקורין לבתולות ולפנויות כי נותנין מכשול לגברים רווקים דהרי באשת איש אסור להביט ביופיה, … אבל הסתכלות בבתולות או בפנויות בכוונה כדי לבדקה אם היא יפה כדי שישאנה מותר, לכן ממילא לפי זה אם אשת איש נקראה M.S.‎ הרי אם איש רווק רואה אותה וסבור שהיא פנויה ומסתכל בה כדי לבדקה לישאנה הרי היא מביאתו לידי איסור תורה של הסתכלות באשת איש דאם הוא היה יודע שהיא כבר נשואה הרי אין לו עסק עמה ואיכא בזה משום לפני עור, והרי כל כוונת המנהג הרע הזה הוא כדי לטשטש הגבולים בין אשת איש לפנויה ולפרוץ גדר הצניעות ובודאי בישיבה שמטרתה ללמד תורה וצניעות לבני ישראל אסור זה בהחלט, … ותיתי לי’ לכת”ר שעומד על המשמר להגן על דרכי הצניעות ובפרט בבתי החינוך של ילדי ישראל יישר חילי’ לאורייתא, ומנהג זה הוא אותיות גהנם והצדק בזה עם כת”ר.

ועיין בשו”ת חות יאיר סימן קצ”ו באמצע התשובה שמבואר דאשת איש צריכה להיות במלבושיה נכרת שהיא אשת איש ולא כמנהג הבתולות יעו”ש.1

But while R. Liebes is concerned about the confusion that eliminating the titular distinction between single and married women will engender in well-meaning, eligible swains, the חות יאיר that he references actually invokes a darker worry, stemming from “the custom of young Jewish rakes” to take liberties with single women, but not with married ones:

ועוד יש לחוש לכמה חששות ותקלות כי מנהג בחורי ישראל הפריצים לנהג קלות ראש עם הבתולות מה שאין כן עם הנשואות גדרו גדר ואין מי שנוהג קלות ופן וחלילה יכשילו בה לגמרי2

This is as good a time as any to note a responsum of Rav Moshe Shternbuch that I recently encountered, ruling that smoking for women falls under the Biblical prohibition against cross-dressing, damages the fear of Heaven of the members of the woman’s household and detaches her from the sanctity and modesty of the daughters of Israel:

שאלה: אם מותר לאשה לעשן

נראה שראוי לחשוש בזה לאיסור תורה דלא ילבש, ואף שהיום מצוי בעו”ה בנשים, היינו בעכו”ם וחפשיים, אבל הצנועות שומרות גם היום רובן ככולן ייחודן וקדושתן, ואשה שפורצת גדר כאותן הנשים שעיקר כוונתם בזה להדמות לאנשים, עוברת גם היום באיסור לא ילבש שתלוי במנהג הצנועות.

ובבית גם כן אסור, דאיסורא דלא ילבש הוא גם בבית כשאין רואים, ומזיק ליראת שמים לאנשי הבית, ועליה להרחיק עצמה מהרגילה זה ולא ליכשל באיסור ומנתקת עצמה בזה מקדושת בנות ישראל וצניעותן.3

Smoking as a symbol of women’s liberation is, of course, the message of “one of the most famous advertising campaigns in US history”. One of the ad texts’ references to the bad old days – “Back then, every man gave his wife at least one day a week out of the house.” – perfectly captures, of course, Rambam’s famous opinion on a woman’s place.

  1. שו”ת בית אבי חלק שני סימן קל”ב – קשר []
  2. שו”ת חות יאיר סימן קצ”ו – קשר []
  3. תשובות והנהגות חלק א’ יו”ד סימן תנ”ו – קשר []
This entry was posted in news, אבן העזר and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *