Farewell Madam, can we get rid of Miss, Ms and Mrs too?

They mightn’t pay the new Doctor Who as much as a man but at least she doesn’t have to choose between Miss, Mrs or Ms.

I am quite certain the young man at the supermarket checkout was being extremely polite when he called me “Madam”, but I felt as if I’d aged two decades while he scanned the frozen peas.

The term of address, respectful as it was meant to be, also cut dead any hope of conversation. What could “Madam” possibly have to say at the checkout when she’s passing through on her steed?

There’s nothing like an overblown honorific title to drive a wedge between people.

All the same, it’s infinitely better to feel archaic and awkward in front of a real talking person than peering into a beeping machine.

I’d take a very formal young man over an automatic checkout, any day. In fact, I’d even take a “luv” or a “pet” rather than be greeted by a flashing screen.

Having said that, just what do you call a woman if you want to show respect? It continues to be a very tricky — and loaded — question.

Yes, of course, you can argue that women have far bigger battles to fight, particularly in a week when the pay gap at the BBC was exposed in such shocking detail – its top earner Chris Evans earns around £2.2m (€2.45m), four times more than the corporation’s highest-earning woman, Claudia Winkleman, who takes in between £450,000 and £499,999.

No wonder everyone’s making the same joke: the real reason the new Doctor Who is a woman — the wonderful Jodie Whittaker — is because she won’t have to be paid as much.

Very depressing, but there’s one tiny upside. She has “Dr” before her name so when she goes to buy a plane ticket — not that she’ll need one — or fill in the microwave guarantee form she won’t have to declare herself a “Miss”, “Mrs” or “Ms”.

All men have to do is tick the box that say “Mr”. Those two little consonants act as a screen that hides status (martial or otherwise) and a social leveller that offers equal treatment for all.

The ladies, meanwhile, are left to trip through a minefield.

Miss doesn’t seem right for anyone any more, unless you’re Miss Piggy, Miss Daisy or, perhaps, are still young enough to wear pink princess dresses.

As for Mrs, oh where do we start? The fact that it reveals a woman is married is the least of it. The term of address is barnacled with so many prejudices that have attached themselves over the years it feels as if you are slipping on a social straitjacket if you put it before your name.

At least now, the custom of calling a woman by her husband’s name and merely putting a Mrs before it is all but gone. Although, that did throw up some interesting formulations. I had an uncle who was affectionately known as Dr Jim, while his wife was called Mrs Dr Jim.

That brings us to Ms, a godsend to those of us who had to say we were something but didn’t want to be described in terms of our marital status.

Sheila Michaels, the woman who reintroduced the honorific into common parlance in the 1960s, died last month but we owe her so much. Somehow, those two little letters gave women a breathing space that had not been there before.

It’s ironic to see her referred to in obituaries as “Michaels”, with no title of any description before it, but that is just proof that what she was working towards has finally taken hold.

Some still baulk when a newspaper refers to a woman by her surname; perhaps it’s too reminiscent of those schoolyard days when it was harsh and boyish to be called by a family name.

However, there is something deliciously egalitarian about it and that is part of the reason that Sheila Michaels, a civil-rights organiser, New York cab driver, technical editor and oral historian, campaigned to introduce a term, like Mr, that did not declare a woman’s marital status.

She first came across it when her Manhattan flatmate received a letter from a Marxist publication that was addressed to “Ms. Mari Hamilton”. At first, she thought it was a typo but was told that Marxists knew the historic context of the title which went back as far back as 1901 at least.

Sheila Michaels had a flash of inspiration – ‘Ms’ was the perfect generic title to fill the gap in the English lexicon. Her fellow women’s rights campaigners thought they were more pressing issues but the term started to gain traction when Sheila Michaels used it in a radio broadcast.

Soon, afterwards, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes started a feminist magazine and called it ‘Ms’ – the term was firmly back in fashion.

For many decades, it offered a little wriggle room for women who did not want to be defined in terms of their relationship to men. And it served us very well.

However, it too has been dented and bashed over the years, picking up a few negative associations along the way.

I wouldn’t be alone in being asked if I was a ‘Miz’, by a person (okay, a man) who took the ‘z’ sound and made it long and sibilant and ugly as if it was a badge of shame.

Others see it as a veiled form of attack; a poke in the eye from a silly woman who is just trying to differentiate herself from a doormat.

Yes, things have changed, thanks to women such as Michaels. By reclaiming a neutral, generic honorific, she gave a generation of women a very welcome option.

Now, however, perhaps the time has come to rethink the whole issue of titles. In Germany, the official use of Fräulein (Miss) was banished in 1972.

In France, it could be the beginning of the end for Mademoiselle after a town in Brittany, Cesson-Sevigne, banned its use on official documents in 2012.

Could we take a leaf from their book here too? After all, Madam has no business getting her hands grubby at the supermarket.


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