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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Many Faces of the Mistress.

The Many Faces of the Mistress

C.A. Asbrey 
"Who am I? I'm the Mistress of this ere 'ouse and this s the young Squire."

I'm speaking to the female readers here. What do they call you? What title do you like to use? Do you hide your marital status, or wear it proudly? I know someone who uses her maiden name with her title of doctor. When asked why she doesn't take his married name she says quite simply, "Because my husband doesn't have a medical degree." 

I use both my maiden and married names as it suits me. I always have. I see no contradiction in it as I can be different personas in different spheres. I performed different roles in both. I built up a reputation in work, using my maiden name, so I continued to use it there. Socially, I was quite happy to use my married name, as that reflected how people saw me in that world. I see no problem with it, and I didn't consider that it diminished my husband in any way. Nor did he. In many ways keeping my work life separate to my domestic life was a good thing. I didn't see that using my married name diminished me either, as I was quite happy to be identified as a married woman. I understand why some women think otherwise, and use only their own name at all times. That one-size-fits-all doesn't allow for individual expression, and I'm all for us accepting differences of opinion.  

This 1698 tax list from Shrewsbury records the most prominent persons in the district first: William Prince Esqr, Mm [Madam] Elizabeth Prince Wdd [widow], Mm Mary Prince Wdd, Ms [mistress] Mary her daughter, Mm Judeth Prince, Mr Philip Wingfield, and Ms Gertrude Wingfield [who is either the wife or the sister or the daughter of Mr Wingfield above]. The women who follow are recorded only by their first and last name, with no prefix. Ms is used here for an unmarried women (Mary Prince) and for a woman whose marital status is unspecified (Gertrude Wingfield). Madam appears to be used here for married or widowed women of social standing.

With so many opinions we now have so many options, but it was it really so simple in the past? There is a belief in some quarters that women have always taken their husband's name, and that unmarried women were identified by the title of miss. But the truth is way more complex, and also depends on the country. I am Scottish. To this very day Scottish women legally retain their own name for life. Marriages are entered on legal documents as an alias. For instance my character's name of Mrs. Quinn would be written in Scotland as Abigail MacKay alias Stewart alias Quinn. Stewart was the name of her first husband who died, and the aliases are legally posted in order. 

Missus, abbreviated to Mrs., was originally a term for a woman who was your social superior. It was the female version of master, and did not reflect marital status in any way. Right up to the 18th century it could mean a married or unmarried woman. True to the misogyny of the time, it could also reflect a woman of dubious sexual character, depending on context. Many insults aimed specifically at women were designed to keep her in her place, but derive from perfectly innocent titles. For example, hussy, was a diminutive of housewife. Dame, queen, madam, and even girl, can all be used to diminish a woman  or act as a warning not to get above herself. Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755,  captured this duality when he defined mistress as: “1. A woman who governs; correlative to subject or servant; 2 A woman skilled in anything; 3. A woman teacher; 4. A woman beloved and courted; 5. A term of contemptuous address; 6. A whore or concubine.”

Many women called themselves 'Missus' simply because they ran a home, or staff. It was customary for the woman running the kitchen of a large home to be called 'Missus' as a work title right into the 20th century. It had no bearing on their marital status.

Historians generally agree that the usage of 'Miss' became a way to identify marriageable females, not because it was forced on them by men. Socially ambitious society ladies had to find an easy way to communicate quickly and easily that they were available. They also wanted to be different to the businesswomen, and the upper servants, who used the title 'Missus'. This trend was both fuelled by, and reflected by, the novels of the 1740s onwards which featured young gentry 'Misses' and upper (single) servants titled 'Mrs.'. The boundaries remained blurry right up to the 20th century. 'Mrs.' did not definitively mean a married woman until around 1900.  Married women being called by their husband's full name was also to reflect status – as in Mrs John Dashwood (Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, 1811). It was used, particularly by upper class women, to establish seniority among women who shared the same surname. England in the early 19th century was the only place in Europe where a woman took her husband’s surname. As I pointed out earlier, it was not even routine throughout all of the British Isles.   
Over the 19th century, this method of referring to women gradually extended to all married women, as both Mr and Mrs were gradually used to people of every social class. Mrs progressively lost its usage to distinguish social standing until only its marital meaning remained. By the 20th Century. only upper servants still used the nomenclature of Mrs when unmarried.

Titles of any sort were an indication of social status until at least the middle of 19th century. Most women had no prefix at all, and were simply called by their name. Those at the bottom of the servant's pecking order were even lucky to to be called their name. Quite often they were referred to by their position, such as 'Tweenie' (a between maid) or  'Stoorie' (an under maid - stoor being an old word for dust - indicating that they got all the dirtiest jobs). The housemaids would be 'Maggie' or 'Betty' or whatever their name was, while the housekeeper got to be called Missus. The woman of the house was referred to by her social title, and her married name changed to that of her husband.  

Today it is often assumed that women taking the man's full name is a remnant of centuries of subjugation. It wasn't, but it was already meeting challenges by the 1840s, only 40 years after the fashion began. Throughout the 20th century it got a much more hostile reaction when it was seen an oppressive removal of a woman's identity. By the 21st century, it has all but gone.

'Ms.' is hated by some, but it's much older than people think. It was first proposed in a US newspaper editorial in 1901 to solve the problem of not knowing how to address a woman because of not knowing her marital status. It never really caught on until the 1960s and 1970s, when more and more women didn't want to be identified by the man in their life, or by the lack of one 

It's more than a little ironic that 'Ms.' restored the original function of 'Mrs.' – and that it's just one of the many 17th-century abbreviations for Mistress. We appear to have come full circle.
Innocent Bystander EXCERPT
A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. What a fascinating tour you took us on. I loved it. Language and its journey through time is such fun. I did not know about the Scottish women retaining their name. Thank you for that bit of information. I'll be re-reading again, I know. Doris

  2. Thanks, Doris. Yes, we do keep our names, a legacy of our culture. I learned things researching this. One of the reasons that research is my favourite part.

  3. Well, there was certainly a bunch of information in here that I never knew before. I think hey should have just stayed with the name a woman was born with...that's their name after all. There is so much falderal involved with a name change when a woman marries. All those documents to attend to like the name on the social security card and work name. Ugh!
    I guess it's a romantic notion for a woman to take the name of her husband when she marries and I imagine it's an ego boost for the husband, but it seems unnecessary. I'd like to stand with the Scottish way of dealing with all this mess. Okay, maybe if your maiden name is something horrid like Pigg, I would reconsider a name change and gladly take my husband's name. (I knew some people with that last name and their was the inevitable joke that just had to be told.)
    So, I see, once again, the Scots got it right. LOL
    I want to wish you all the best with your release, Innocent Bystander.
    This was a fabulous post, C.A.

  4. Thank you, Sarah. I learned a lot researching it. I get that thing about having a terrible name. Us Scots have some terrible traditional names too. I used to work with a Marion Smellie. I also once stopped a car as a police officer. The driver's name was Ruby Nipps! I'd want to change those for sure.

  5. What an interesting and informative post, C.A. I'll have to keep it for future reference when I'm dithering over Missus or Mistress or Mrs. in my western historicals. It makes perfect sense to keep one name associated with a career built before marriage and also to keep one's private life private. This particularly benefits writers and singers.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I honestly thought men chose to give women their names. It was a revelation to me that women chose it to jockey for social position. I think being Scottish helped me to keep my own name. The women in my own family used their married name, but were careful to make sure we all knew their real name too. I simply followed their lead.

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  8. Finally had the chance to read this, now that the first few weeks of classes have settled in. A fascinating post -- I always love tracing changes in culture and language over time, and from place to place. I kept my name, when I married, in large part because I was already 40 and I had too much life behind my birth name to want to give it up, but I think the important thing is that women have a choice to do what's right for them.

    1. Totally agree that it's about choice. Some of have built things up under one identity, and that can be hard to let go.

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