Dr. Mathilde Weems. Except where indicated, images proved by Thilde.
[Editor’s note. For many months now, you’ve known our advice columnist as Miss T. Today, Ms. T explores the complicated territory of gender identity, as it applies to her role as Talker advice columnist. See all her advice at end.]
Recently, I notified the editor that “Miss T is now Ms. T.” He responded by typing “not until you contribute a piece about [pronouns] and why they matter.” Personal titles and pronouns are often used to address a specific person as a sign of respect for their individual self-sovereignty. Our traditional signatory titles are often mixed with one’s gender, profession or marital status (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., Prof.).
After many years, I find myself as a student in the classroom again and am asked at the beginning of each class to define my personal pronouns. At first, this notion was shocking to me, thinking to myself “how would I define myself any differently from how I’ve always defined myself?” But now I get it. Many people have rejected a traditional binary system of personal pronoun nomenclature and have adopted for a non-binary code of labels that reflect the fluidity across the spectrum of traditional masculine and feminine genders.
Gender identity and gender politics are inextricably linked to personal identity and how we regard ourselves and others. Last week, a colleague of mine sent me information about Julie Taymor’s new film, The Glorias (2020), a biopic of the life of Gloria Steinem, a story told through the lens of the various “Glorias” at different ages across her lifespan.
My classroom experience and watching the film forced me to reflect on my own gender identity and title. I had gone along with the editor’s choice of “Miss T,” but now in 2020, can I really refer to myself as “Miss?” I was now faced with a dilemma: Should Miss T be Ms.T ? I had not thought about this before, as in my adult life, I had always been referred to as “Dr.” a genderless title. While “Miss” is catchy, cute, and non confrontational, is it also exploitative and self diminishing? “Ms.” is professional, but is it too strident, severe, and alienating? As for “Mrs. T”, surely this would be undeniably preachy and lecture-y. Was I caving to political correctness in making a change to Ms.?¹
In The Glorias, Gloria is depicted as a young woman who became a journalist in New York City and became the face of the women’s movement and second-wave feminism of the 1970’s. Along with Marlo Thomas, she co-founded “Ms.” Magazine in 1971. The film is sequenced in a non-linear way, shifting between the ages of various “Glorias”. It may be a tad cheesy at times, but highlights the multiple perspectives one can have over the trajectory of one’s life about one’s place in the world.
I am reminded of being a kid in the late 70’s, shopping with my mother at a new clothing boutique in town called “Ms.”, inside was a magazine on a side table with the same name. There was a lot of denim, macramé décor, and hanging philodendrons in the store.
At some point, I asked my mother, “What’s ‘Ms.’ mean ?”
“An UN-married woman,” she would reply in hushed tones.
Growing up, I was never referred to as “Mathilde”, my legal name, my grandmother’s name. The origin of my name dates back to Medieval Europe, and is translated as “war maiden,” decidedly un-ladylike.
Famous Mathilde’s in history include William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde of Flanders and her grand daughter, Holy Roman Empress (and disputed queen of England) Mathilde (aka Matilda in German). Historically, Mathilde’s were unconventionally tough and tended to upset the apple cart on more than one occasion.²
I have always been called “Thilde” pronounced “Teal.” When I was a young girl, my mother called me “Miss T”. Somewhere further down the road, I was referred to as just “T”. There was some pressure to act traditionally feminine growing up in Texas, but fairly early on, my mother knew I just wasn’t having it. I loved clothes but as a toddler went for an androgynous look, sporting mod jumpsuits over frilly dresses and ruffles.
In 1977, at the age of nine, I struggled to understand what a “feminist” was, since that word wasn’t used much in my house. I wasn’t a “girly girl” but wasn’t really a “tomboy” either. I loved to draw princess dresses and play dress up, but preferred Dr. Seuss’s interactive books and Snoopy over dolls. I was obsessed with Snoopy. I remember thinking about the notion of “women’s rights” and thinking to myself, “why would women be any different?”
We had our differences, but my mother and I bonded over fashion. Over the course of our relationship, we shopped a lot for clothes. It was during those times that I felt the most feminine and close to her. Otherwise, I was a bit of a brat, rejecting many of the social expectations of the day, much to my mother’s exasperation. I shunned stereotypically female activities and opted to remain in the more neutral territory of music and science, where I felt most comfortable and many of my platonic friends were guys. As a teen, working at an independent record store, I found the “New Wave” fashion of the 80’s refreshingly androgynous.
Later in my professional life, my professional attire began with Ann Taylor sheath dresses that gave way to the long era of GAP black pants and turtlenecks. Even though I identify as a “cis-female”, I never fully identified with the traditional female stereotype and found some liberation privately referring to myself as “other.”
I define “Ms.” as “an adult independent professional female who acts by her own agency.” Historically speaking, an independent woman is a threat to the status quo. We usually have bad reputations for standing up to males in authority. I don’t see anything wrong with that per se, on an as needed basis. Because of the women who went before me, who did exactly that, I have an advanced degree, a right to vote and have my own credit card, which are all powerful things.
“Miss,” while authentic and charming in it’s own right, implies immature, which is not a quality one would prefer in an advice columnist. “Dr.,” while technically accurate, implies liability, which is beyond Talker’s budget. So, for now, it’s Ms., but I am also open to Mrs., should the right opportunity present itself down the road. My pronouns are she, her, hers.
For further discussion, support Talker and send me your letters ! Ms. T would like to thank David Kramer and Karin Heller for contributing to this essay.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
² “Too Female to Rule? Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior,” (Literary Review, 2020)