What’s in a Title?
A title is a way of framing the meaning of a paper, a movie, a book, a song, a job, and even a person. You might take great pains to come up with a catchy title for a term paper (or just stick with the tried and true “Term Paper”). What do human titles represent?
We use titles, information that precedes peoples’ names, in order to provide meaning about that person. In public forums, titles convey status and expertise. News programs regularly confer expertise on the people they interview by including a title, even it is one that is only meaningful for the story (like “witness,” “neighbor” or “resident”). Our more stable titles reveal how we create order and meaning of others’ identities on a more regular basis.
Unlike countries with monarchies, the U.S. has relatively few formal titles. No Counts, Countesses, Dukes, Duchesses, Viscounts, Lords, Ladies, Sirs, Dames, Princes or Princesses here. These titles connote family status, status gained through birth, marriage, and in some cases, status granted by royalty in recognition of an accomplishment.
American titles may seem simpler, since we have far fewer, primarily just Mr., Miss, Ms., Mrs., and Doctor. But they too are telling of how our society makes certain aspects of our identity salient. Go to any automated site where you “choose” your prefix, and typically your only options are the five listed above.
We have very few titles that indicate accomplishment. "Reverend," "Father," "Rabbi" and other clergy get titles. For those elected to public office, often “Senator,” “Representative” or “President” becomes their permanent public title. But “Doctor” is the one occupational status that replaces one’s prefix. Medical doctors, dentists, and people who have earned doctorates can claim a status change based on their educational attainment, privileging these degrees.
Historically, women’s titles changed when they married, shifting from “Miss” to “Mrs.,” while men remained “Mr.” regardless of their marital status. In fact, some references to married women erased her first name too (e.g. “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”). Until the late nineteenth century, women had few legal rights and were essentially in the custody of their fathers and then their husbands, thus their names and titles changed accordingly. The wedding tradition of a father “giving away” the bride had literal legal meaning in the past, rather than a symbolic gesture as in western nations today.
In the middle of the twentieth century, as college attendance among women rose, the phrase “earning an MRS degree” became more popular. Particularly for women from families that had the means to pay for them to attend, some women attended college with the goal of meeting a college-educated husband. Some left with a husband but no degree; when my mother was a student in the early 1960s, workshops for female students encouraged them to at least finish their degree before getting married. Just a few years ago, when I asked freshmen in one of my courses to write about their goals while in college, one student wrote “find a husband.” So some still seek the “MRS” degree today.
Advocates for gender equality in the 1960s and 1970s who raised awareness surrounding gender, status, and marriage began using “Ms.” for females, which the U.S. government approved as a legal title in 1972. Many women today—married or unmarried—opt to keep their original last names and choose “Ms.” as their title.
And yet many adult women, whether married or not, are still addressed as “Mrs.” A colleague of mine who holds a Ph.D. spoke of being called “Mrs.” repeatedly by a coworker. In an academic institution, this is essentially a demotion, since it disregards the doctorate necessary for the title of “Professor.” She told the individual that he could call her by her first name or refer to her as Professor or Doctor. Students occasionally refer to female professors as “Mrs.” as well, regardless of whether they are married, emphasizing status through marriage rather than their earned doctorate.
We often take titles for granted, yet they tell us a lot about how a society grants status to its members, as well as what measures a society uses to establish status. In the U.S., it is a reminder of the salience of gender in particular. What other titles do other countries or cultures have to assign meaning to their members? What other titles might we add (or subtract) from ours?