In Defense of Miss

The use of Ms. is pervasive. Ms. seems to have won the day. Is it so? It seems to be the default address, even for Christians, despite its caustic roots in the Sexual Revolution a la Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine. I hear it defended by the words “my marital status doesn’t define me.”

Doesn’t it? It doesn’t? Then it will not matter if you do or do not have children or how you raise them. It will be of little consequence whether you marry or not, and, of course, whether you stay married. Does it even matter how you act while you are married? Cheat. Why not? It’s not really cheating any more, is it? It’s like switching credit cards or patronizing a different restaurant. Those choices don’t define me. So why would my marriage?

But all our choices define us, and marriage most of all. In fact, everyone in a community is defined by his (or her) relationship to marriage.

As the Son is defined by His relationship to the Father and the Father likewise, who we are depends on who we are for others. Of all the ways to relate to humans, marriage is the ultimate relationship, depicting not only God’s relationship to the soul, but the Trinity and Christ’s relationship to the Church. The sacramental promise of marriage is earth-shattering in its symbolism and world-shattering in its consequences. Today as you stare at the small face, the small hands and brown eyes, ask this: who are you, child? Born into human history, endowed with an immortal soul, destined to rise in the resurrection, what will you do, who will you be? Can it be that your parents made you in their marriage? Can it be that Christ held them when they made their wedding vows? Did they hear Him saying: “I am ready to die for any child you bring into being. I have awaited that child from all eternity.”

Marriage is no small thing—the whole world is made and knit together by marriage. Marriage is the model we have for what it would mean for humans and nations to love one another as God loves us.

Thus, marriage defines us. If you marry, you can never be the same, your spouse will never be the same, and the world will never be the same. Who you are will depend ultimately on how you lived within the calling that was given you. Mrs. is a badge of honor, weighted in gold like a crown.

It seems foolish to point out that men do not take a special title for marriage; they do not change their name. The second person of the Blessed Trinity took flesh, took a new name, died on the Cross. The Father? All He had to do was sit by and watch. The wife becomes a Mrs., takes a new name, bears the children. The father? All he has to do is sit by and watch. Does anyone seriously think that some kind of oppression is going on? That these differences are the sign that someone is more important than the other? Does anyone think that a vocation to mirror Christ in relation to the Father is getting the short end of the stick? Does anyone think that watching the beautiful free one bow and suffer—when you love this one more than life itself—does anyone think that is “coming out on top”?

Marriage is the living icon of the Trinity in the world. Marriage must define us. Ask yourself what Wendell Berry asks:

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: will this satisfy
A woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
Of a woman near to giving birth?
--"Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front", in Reclaiming Politics, Fall/Winter 1991, 62.

I rejoice when women use Mrs. I use Miss. According to Alasdair MacIntyre (see After Virtue, p. 240), the spinster, before that title had its sad, teary connotations was an integral part of society—directly in proportion to her role within and for families. Before the highly romanticized 19th and 20th centuries and the sexually liberated 20th century, it was the honor of the spinster to help families live up to their calling, to come into their glory. It was for the spinster to carry the load wherever helpful, to afford the parents a break, to help them model for the children, to be the kind of Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee character, who like the woman in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce turned wives to husbands and made husbands “truer, to their own wives.” However, if marriage doesn’t matter, doesn’t define us, then why lift a finger to watch someone else’s kids or teach them history? Let parents wipe their own kid’s snotty nose—or not. If marriage doesn’t define us, let parents walk out.

Although mean and ignorant people can beget and bear children, to beget and bear children is neither mean nor ignorant. We expect mean people to do mean things. We do not expect God’s extraordinary mercy to let mean people cooperate in His creative work. And then even further—to cooperate and know you are cooperating and want to cooperate in His creative work—isn’t this to come into the Kingdom?

In the end, I defend titles. If you are a king, take the title; if a wife, go by Mrs.; if a priest, go by “Father.” We are not honoring you—we’re honoring the revelation of God you put before us. Though, maybe we are honoring you a little for having the guts to accept your calling.

And I hope I have the guts to go by Miss while I am unmarried. Contrary to what some might say, it is not a woebegone back-handed plea for a husband. Isn’t the age-old temptation for women to loathe themselves, to feel inadequate, to want admiration? Only God can give it to us. He calls people to different, more or less glorious callings. I’d go with the Church and rank vowed virginity over marriage, and both over “being single.” But I’d never suggest that women should pine after some other calling to make themselves feel worthy. I’d never suggest that women act as if the callings were the same or as if callings didn’t matter. Throw away callings, and you don’t elevate women, but denigrate them. God loves us all—and that you can’t earn. Want a glorious calling, want to be truly admirable? Then take the calling you have been given and live it well. A Miss is not admirable if she pines for marriage “to improve her status.” A Miss is not admirable if she “goes cheap for power” and sweeps away the titles as if “marriage didn’t define us.”

A Miss is admirable if she marries for love, determined to live out her heroic calling. A Miss is admirable if she does not marry, but isn’t too jealous or self-doubting to honor marriage for what it is. I think I’m in good company with Miss Jane Austen, Miss Anne Eliot, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Flannery O’Connor, Miss Caryll Houslander, Miss Anne Shirley, Miss Cordelia Flyte, Signorina Caterina di Siena, Miss Louisa May Alcott, Miss Jo March, Miss Willa Cather, Miss Antonia Shimerda, Miss Edith Stein and Miss Dorothy Day.  Some married, some didn’t, some gave it up for the Lord, all knowing (more or less consciously) that who they were depended greatly on how they prized and served the mystical adventure that is marriage.

There. I have done.
Secunda me,

Miss Gwen Adams



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