The following article explores ways of naming women in the Legislature and is underscored by a brief history of the titles Ms. and Mrs. since the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, this discussion looks toward re-evaluating aspects of current parliamentary language with the topic of gender-neutral address.
A Brief History of Ms.
At a recent Hansard Association of Canada conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, a panel dialogue suggested that Ms. was the most popular title for women parliamentarians in Canada. It seems logical, then, to begin with Ms., a widespread, accepted way of acknowledging women in Anglophone cultures. In 2009, American linguist Ben Zimmer traced Ms. back to a 1901 edition of the Sunday Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. An anonymous entry proposed the title as a merging of Miss and Mrs., which both evolved from older terms for female master: the Middle English mistress and the Middle French maistresse. Ms. was also presented as an elegant solution to not knowing a woman’s marital status, for “to call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss” (see Zimmer 2009).
The popularity of Ms. picked up steam in the 1950s, and it eventually became emblematic of the 1970s feminist movement, with the founding of Ms. Magazine in 1971. Today, Ms. denotes respect through ambiguity, bypassing the issue of marital status. But instead of avoiding the gaffe of incorrectly addressing a woman, which would signify a loss of stature according to the Republican’s early 20th-century contributor, the impetus now is more about questioning the relevance of domestic and gender norms in how people are identified, along with the values often assigned to those identifications. To go a step further, assuming that any gendered title must be used becomes problematic if the options given do not satisfy a person’s needs. I will expand on this later when discussing gender-neutral language in the Legislature.
Usage of Ms. and Mrs. in Parliamentary Documents
With his analysis of naming conventions in Canada’s House of Commons, Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen suggested that Conservative female MPs prefer the “traditional honorific” of Mrs. more so than women in other parties (see McGregor 2010). Out of the 50 female Liberal candidates elected federally in 2015, over two-thirds of them chose Ms., while just under a third chose Mrs. For the 17 female Conservatives, it was pretty much an even split, and 17 out of 18 female New Democrat MPs opted for Ms. In the 2021 federal election, there was a similar trend: in the case of the 69 female Liberals, nearly five times of them preferred Ms. to Mrs.; Conservatives showed a fairly even split, with an increased preference for Mrs. among their 22 female members; and the 11 New Democrat female MPs favoured Ms. almost entirely.
Though with Mrs. there is a clear representational slant towards the Conservative side, somewhat of a multipartisan mix persists for the term, with a handful of examples seen also within the Bloc Québécois from 2015 to 2021. This suggests that linking particular titles with particular parties, relying on stereotypes of what is conservative or progressive, fails to accurately foretell who will be called what in the Legislature. As McGregor noted, “there’s no predicting who will take which title in any party” (2010).
Reasons for using either term vary. Ms. is bolstered by feminist arguments against defining a woman’s name through the institution of marriage, which is historically rooted in patriarchy. There is no male equivalent for Mrs., after all, and men are named Mr. by default, with no thought of matrimonial circumstance. However, recent precedents set in parliamentary and government communication could mean that using Ms. signals adherence to a cultural norm rather than a deliberate statement of liberation. The European Parliament went so far as to ban the titles of Miss, Mrs., Madame, Mademoiselle, Frau, Fraulein, Senora and Senorita, and their High-level Group on Gender Equality and Diversity “adopted guidelines on the use of gender-neutral language in parliamentary documents and for the purposes of communication and information” (see European Parliament 2009). Meanwhile, the Government of Canada style guide cites Ms. as the default for official documents: “Use Ms. when referring to a woman unless a preference for Mrs. has been indicated” (see Public Works 2022).
On the topic of personal preference, one possible reason for choosing Mrs. is the desire to affirm one’s relationship choices. This provides an opportunity for female politicians to self-define vis-à-vis the different roles they occupy. Canadian Conservative MP Kelly Block, who continues to choose Mrs. today, has stated that using that form of address “provides people with a really good understanding of the fact that I am married, without having to explain it … I think of myself as a wife and a mother, and then a member of parliament” (see McGregor 2010).
Second-wave feminism taught us that “the personal is the political” (see Hanisch 2006), and the act of naming women indeed resonates at both the societal and individual level, as does how a woman communicates information about herself to the world or chooses to explain nothing at all. This analysis also extends beyond choosing Ms. or Mrs. to exploring gender-neutral titles as a way of meeting the needs of those who do not identify with a normative gender framework.
Gender-neutral Address in the Legislature: Alberta as an Example
The Alberta Legislature may serve as a case study for the use of gender-neutral language. In Alberta’s Hansard, members are commonly identified by titles, followed by their last names–for example, Ms. Issik. Member for Strathcona-Sherwood Park Estefan Cortes-Vargas was Alberta’s first member to request a move toward more non-gendered language. On the morning of 1 December 2015, Cortes-Vargas addressed the Assembly, sharing perspectives from the trans and gender-variant communities on naming, and questioning the relevance of gender-specific titles to the debate transcript: “You know, I’m being called Member Cortes-Vargas because I don’t think it is relevant to know in the transcripts whether I’m a woman or a man … What if I don’t know whether I’m a woman or a man? It doesn’t matter. I’m a person, and Cortes-Vargas is my name, and that’s all you really need to know” (see Cortes-Vargas 2015).
With Cortes-Vargas’s request, editors at Alberta Hansard were given the opportunity to review their practices concerning gendered language. In response, they added Member as an option on an intake form for newly elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), and each MLA may update their choice at any point in their legislative career. Out of the group of 87, four MLAs, who collectively represent more than one gender, are identified in transcripts as Member, followed by their last names, when they go on record; for example, when Rod Loyola speaks, Hansard indicates this by noting “Member Loyola:”, followed by Loyola’s remarks. Similarly, a small group of MLAs are called Member or Minister, followed by their surnames, when referred to by table officers reading division vote tallies. With this accommodation afforded members,Alberta Hansard is able to support greater inclusivity in the way that legislative information is presented.
Accommodating someone’s preferred form of address could be seen as the baseline of good behaviour, elementary to the rules of decorum so that legislative proceedings may occur in a respectful fashion. This standard could also be equated with existing protocol outlining how members are to be identified in the Assembly–for example, by their constituencies or, in the case of Ministers, by their portfolios, not their actual names. However, as Alberta Hansard is a substantially verbatim report, the general practice is to leave remarks as said if an error in address is made–for example, if a gender-assigning title is used incorrectly in committees, where members may name each other. In particular, if there was commentary on the misuse of a prenominal, the error would be left as said. However, if the member realizes their error and then uses the correct term, that would fall under the general editing rule of self-correction, and the error would be removed as a superfluous element.
Whether one assumes Ms. over Mrs. as a feminist statement or Mrs. over Ms. to declare marital status, or refuses gendered address altogether to promote neutrality, at the core of these decisions is a growing societal understanding of language and its everyday implications for citizens. With each title comes the potential loss of power felt when being labelled inappropriately or pressured by convention instead of finding a suitable way of self-identifying in the world. What is paramount is that one’s choice is respected. There is no place where this is truer than in the Legislature, where we uphold democratic ideals of decorum and equality. To cite Alberta MLA Cortes-Vargas: “It’s how we show that we are willing to educate ourselves and we are willing to accept differences amongst everyone” (2015).
A portion of this article is based on a prior publication by the author in the Canadian Parliamentary Review in 2017, Vol. 40 No. 3 (Autumn) under the title “Miss, Mrs., Ms., or None of the Above: Gendered Address for Women in the Legislature.”
Amanda LeBlancis the Deputy Editor of Hansard with the Legislative Assembly Office in Alberta, Canada.
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