Using ‘Ms’ is still a feminist issue

National Rail don't have a problem with women using Ms

“This will probably seem a bit silly.” That’s how I started the conversation with my bank manager in my hometown of Teignmouth that got me laughed out of his office.

“I want to change the name on my account from ‘Miss Cook’ to ‘Ms Cook’” I told him. At this point I expected him say “yes of course” and within a few clicks I would have the prefix on my bank statement that I use everywhere else. Instead he laughed. A lot. When he composed himself from the devastatingly witty joke he said, “You’re right. That does seem silly.”

My Caitlin Moran sexism alert was going off in my head. “This is sexism!” I thought. “And it’s happening to me.” Why does a bank manager in 2012 find a woman wanting to change her prefix funny? This should be an every day occurrence. I was under the illusion that Ms was the default honorific for women. Perhaps I just read too much of the Guardian, which in their style guide says, “use Ms for women subsequently unless they have expressed a preference for Miss or Mrs”. Well if the Guardian would call me Ms why are you laughing MR bank manager?

I tried to explain to him why I wanted to change it. It was simply because men are called ‘Mr’ their whole lives and I wanted to have a prefix I could use in the same way. Pretty logical I thought.

“But ‘Ms’ is for divorced women. Are you divorced?” – he thought he had me there. “No I’m not but I know lots of women who choose Ms.” He laughed again and dismissed me. I thanked him for his time and stormed out of the office in true Apprentice boardroom style.

I was riled. But I do get that on the scale of women’s rights issues it hardly even deserves a place. Being called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ is not something that’s going to make the pay gap widen, cause the conviction rate for rapists to lower or fuel street harassment. I was still annoyed though. I was at the bank anyway opening a savings account and it would have taken one minute.

When I went in the next week to cash a cheque, I asked the woman behind the counter to change the ‘Miss’ and she left the manager a message asking him to change it. He never did. By this point it was less about wanting to have a prefix and a name I could keep for my entire life – Ms Chloe Cook does have a certain ring to it – but more about the point that bank staff refused a customer’s request because it was a feminist issue.

The inevitable time came when I ran out of money for baked beans and vodka and needed to extend my student overdraft. I went into the meeting determined not to take no for an answer. That conversation ended, Me–“So you won’t change it?”. Him–“No.”

It turns out Bournemouth, where I go to university, is a pretty good place for gender equality. After all the trouble with the bank back in Devon a clerk behind the counter changed it within minutes. “They really wouldn’t change it?” she said. “That seems silly.”

Written for The People’s Republic of South Devon.


4 thoughts on “Using ‘Ms’ is still a feminist issue

  1. I think this is actually a pretty reasonable thing to be upset about. Having a changeable prefix denotes a change in character or ownership, and implies that whether a woman is married or not should be the first thing you know about her.

  2. Hi Chloe, I had a similar experience in a bank a year and a half ago when investing some savings with them. I wonder if it was the same chain and whether they need to send their staff on a women’s history course…

    I had filled in a form while in the office of the staff member to open a new account. I passed her the form, and she typed some things into the computer, stopping to say, ‘oh you’ve put ms, I’ll just correct that’. After I had written it, in front of her.

    I was embarrassed to correct her so left it. I feel like there are some uncomfortable class politics to this, although I don’t see them in the case of your bank manager, who just sounds like he was trying to annoy a feminist because Jeremy Clarkson said it was funny. I’m not saying people who aren’t middle class don’t have these feelings too, but I know that my decision to use ‘ms’ was strongly influenced by my university education and knowledge of what ‘miss’ and ‘mrs’ imply. At the time I didn’t want to assert my class privilege by correcting her, but I’m sure there are ways of pointing out that you’re not a man’s property either currently or in potentia without this problem, it was just how I reacted in the moment. I think you should write a complaint to your bank’s head office (also praising Bournemouth as a comparison) because your manager’s behaviour was really off.

    I had the same thing when registering for a doctor in York – the woman on the other end of the phone ‘corrected’ my records, saying ‘it says ‘ms’ here, you’re not old enough for that, I’ll just correct it’. Same problem as yours, people assuming for some reason that it means you’re divorced. It’s happened a bunch of other times, but as with other feminist annoyances like street harassment, you start to filter it out as part of the background noise of sexism.

    Good old France, even with the horrible Sarkozy in power, still the residues of 68 & 1789 come to the surface occasionally with their lovely idealism.

    • I really wonder if it is the same chain. Did you write any letters or anything? I think I will now. Like you said it’s probably just the staff needing a bit more training.

      I thought about the class politics of it all after you posted this and if I hadn’t have gone to university I probably wouldn’t have even known about Ms or the reasons behind using it. I sometimes feel, like you said, that is it asserting my class privilege and it’s uncomfortable. I spent some time in China last year learning Mandarin (again class privilege) and all the women teachers were called “Ms …”. If China, a place where it’s not great to be a woman, can get it a basic thing like that right it just shows what an odd place the UK is.

      Exactly. It does filter out into the background but it still niggles. haha yes, the French and the Italians both are amazing!

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