By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: The times they are a-changin' (with apologies to Dylan)

I am affiliated with Lowell House, one of the Harvard undergraduate houses where students live. Periodically, I go there for lunch, sit myself down with a group of undergraduates, and ask for permission to listen in and ask questions. (My own students are all older, at a grad student level.) Recently, I was listening in on a conversation between two female and one male student. One of the women mentioned in passing something about "a bunch of girls getting driving instruction," and her use of the word "girl" to describe classmates caught my ear. In recent years, I have started hearing female students at the Kennedy School also refer to themselves as "girls."

This time I followed up. "I'm just curious. Did you guys know that 20 years ago a female Harvard student would always call herself a woman, not a girl, and if a guy called her a girl, she would probably slap him?"

No, they didn't know that.

I then asked them if they preferred to use "Ms." or "Miss" as a title. The first response of one was, "What's the difference?" She then said she normally used "Ms.," but the other female student chimed in, "I sort of like the sound of 'Miss' better," whereupon the first student agreed.

"Are you aware that the word 'Ms.' didn't exist before the early 1970's, and was invented as a new phrase for women?"

No, neither of them was.

"Are you aware that a married woman my wife's age would often call herself 'Ms'?"

They were unaware of this, and found the idea bizarre. They had never thought "Ms." referred to anything but unmarried females.

All this made this boomer feel really old. I guess the positive spin on this is that women today don't need phraseological thought police to lay claim to equality.


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Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 11, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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