It was in the late 1970s when I first encountered the word “Ms”. It seemed to my budding feminist ears a marvellous solution to an age-old problem.
Why should a woman’s marital status be denoted by her title? No one can tell whether a man is married just by hearing his name.
It cheered me, and at 14 I became and remained Ms Ledger. A bold move in rural North Cumbria in 1979.
I loved the hiss of Ms, the edge, the declaration of non-conformism. At first, when I went into teaching in Waltham Forest in 1987, all the female teachers were named Ms – whether they were married or not – so I fitted right in.
But later, when I moved to teach in Essex, it became more problematic. Only my mate Helen and I were Ms, and we were viewed by our more traditional colleagues as dangerously subversive. I’d like to say we were, but our radicalism didn’t go much further than dangly earrings and patterned leggings.
'Does your husband mind?'
The kids would ask, “Does it mean you’re divorced?” And when I married – without changing my name – students and some staff were puzzled.
“Does he mind?” they asked. Actually, he did, but I didn’t care, and my casual attitude to his feelings was one of the many reasons we divorced six years later.
It was then I fell out with “Ms”. The light of understanding would dawn in people’s eyes: “Oh! You’re divorced…”
I felt compelled to explain that, well, yes, I am, but that wasn’t why…But by then I’d lost my audience.
There’s a stubborn streak of unreconstructed 1980s feminist pedantry that runs through me like letters in a stick of rock. I never wanted to change my name and I don’t want my title to reveal my relationship history.
I have toyed with the idea of studying for a PhD, so I could be Dr Ledger. But avoiding a syllable’s worth of irritation is not a good enough reason to devote myself to a life of scholarship – or, indeed, holy orders – although I have to say I cut quite a dash in a wimple.
Like a Victorian cook
Then, once I was promoted to head of year, a peculiar thing happened. Just as the cook in a Victorian household was always addressed as “Mrs”, so it appeared that the same rule applied to senior female teachers.
Colleagues who’d called me “Ms Ledger” for years suddenly started calling me “Mrs Ledger”: introducing me in meetings, assemblies, staff briefings, parents' evenings as Mrs Ledger. Of course, I could always crack back “My mother’s not here,” but that wears thin after a while and is not always appropriate in front of the governors.
I have some male colleagues who’ve suggested I’m making a fuss over nothing, but change their tune when I start addressing them as “Mrs” in turn.
Oddly, the kids get it right. Well, to my face. There have been many occasions when I’ve turned a corner, on the hunt for miscreants, to hear the clatter of running feet and the cry of “Ledger!”
And I’ve sat through many meetings with parents who repeatedly call me Miss Sledge, while their child sits red-faced and squirming with mortification. It cheers me that my teenage nickname still survives when the kids are talking about me behind my back.
Queen of the Wild Frontier
I’ve got to the point where I don’t care whether it’s Ms or Miss – just not Mrs. I was never Mrs and I’ve always been Ledger.
In fact, in stout middle age, I’m quite comfortable with Miss. Let’s face it, if it was good enough for Jean Brodie, it’s good enough for me.
I’m not convinced by the argument that “Miss” diminishes women in comparison with “Sir”. I certainly don’t want to be known as “Ma’am”. Although I once jokingly sent a letter to typing signed “Queen of the Wild Frontier” – and they, assuming it was my latest half-baked notion, sent it out unchanged to 300 parents – I don’t aspire to royalty.
What I’d really like is the return of Mistress. Imagine that: Mistress Ledger.
Along with the fanciful nomenclature, I’d lobby for the return of the academic gown, wear my specs on a silver chain and sail through the corridors like a ship in full rig.
Until that glorious day, I’ll carry on tutting and rolling my eyes when anyone gets my name wrong, and be grateful no one’s worked out “Sledgehammer” yet.
Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 33 years