Lately when I fill out forms, I ignore the deliberately ambiguous "Ms." and firmly check the "Miss" box. Don't get me wrong: I respect "Ms." It's the logical equivalent to "Mr.," and it represents hard-won territory in the history of women's issues. Ms. magazine is great, and I use the prefix for other women. But personally, I'm a 43-year-old "Miss."
I choose "Miss" from acceptance of my status as a never-married woman. I choose it as a tribute to the many single women who had no choice but to be "Misses," before the popularization of "Ms."
Many of those women carried that prefix proudly or without concern, no doubt. For some, particularly those beyond a certain age, "Miss" may have carried a whiff of lavender sachets; it may have suggested images of a house full of cats, evenings spent on solitaire, or some other old-maid cliché.
I read recently about an event in which her publicist called the Hollywood star "Miss Renée Zellweger," which was encouraging, but many misses in popular culture have not been so appealing. Think of Gloria Swanson portraying aging film star Miss Norma Desmond, cooing "I'm ready for my close-up." Or Charles Dickens's character Miss Havisham, or William Faulkner's creation, Miss Emily – both spinsters. The former catches fire in her ancient and tattered wedding dress, worn since the day she was jilted. The latter killed her lover and kept his skeleton in an upstairs bedroom.
I don't know if there is a typical "miss" today, but I sense that stereotypes remain. For one thing, when I tell people that I have cats but no children, I sometimes get a knowing look, as if they're thinking, "Ah, future crazy cat lady."
At times, I have found myself giving a long explanation: "But I love dogs, too, really all animals, and children, but I never got married, I just happen to have cats, they just turned up," and so forth. And I say these things as if I'm not proud of my two cats, Peaches and Mango, and don't carry pictures of them in my billfold. Shame on me.
I like the Mexican custom a friend tells me about. To be polite, one may call any woman "Señorita" (Miss), rather than "Señora" (Mrs.), until instructed or invited to do the latter. One would not presume to know a woman's age or relationship with a man.
I liked, too, being called by "Miss" and my first name when I lived in the Deep South. A woman of any age and marital status may be called "Miss" in this affectionate and friendly manner, and it's particularly endearing when said in the drawling lisp of a child. When someone first called me "Miss Lisa," I knew I finally belonged in my adopted state.
So, for now, I'm claiming my "Miss" status with self-respect. Maybe I'll get married someday, or maybe not. Maybe someday I'll establish a magazine called Miss. Maybe I'll be a role model to other misses, young and old. Or maybe I'll become a crazy cat lady, which is not such a terrible thing, really – at least for the cats.