Mistress, a Powerful Word to Waste


Credit: http://art247.com.au/

Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times would like to see the word “mistress” retired as a term past its prime, outdated and sexist (Is ‘Mistress” a Word That Has Seen Its Best Days?). Cued by her readers’ comments, she specifically takes issue with using the term in news stories about women having extra marital affairs, i.e., the Patreus affair. 

She complains the term denotes a woman’s long-term sexual affair with a married man, and, as some readers pointed out, which also suggests financial keeping or maintenance. Sullivan believes the term should be replaced with something less gender exclusive particularly since there is no male equivalent to the term. She also notes her male editor’s response is something akin to “Yeah, it’s outdated and sexist but oh well, what else can we come up with?”

I, however, hesitate to retire a word with such a rich history and multi-faceted application.  

The Oxford English Dictionary has this to settle for the word:


Syllabification: mis·tress
Pronunciation: /ˈmistris/ 
Definition of mistress in English:

1A woman in a position of authority or control:
she is always mistress of the situation, coolly self-possessed
figurative work is an unforgiving, implacable mistress
1.1A woman who is skilled in a particular subject or activity:
a mistress of the sound bite, she is famed for the acidity of her tongue
1.2The female owner of a dog, cat, or other domesticated animal.
1.3 [WITH MODIFIER] chiefly British A female schoolteacher who teaches a particular subject:
a Geography mistress
1.4 archaic A female head of a household:
he asked for the mistress of the house
1.5(Especially formerly) a female employer of domestic staff.
2A woman having an extramarital sexual relationship, especially with a married man:
Elsie knew her husband had a mistress tucked away somewhere
2.1 archaic or literary A woman loved and courted by a man.
3 (Mistress) archaic or dialect Used as a title prefixed to the name of a married woman; Mrs.

Middle English: from Old French maistresse, from maistre ‘master’.

So what could be wrong with a term whose first definition from a much-cited, respectable source is “a woman in authority or control”? Sullivan rebukes the term as old fashioned; a term with implied mercenary kept status should not be attributed to a modern day woman who chooses her own lifestyle and sexuality. However, the word’s true essence conflicts with what she derides, and it is her error in the term’s misconstruction. 

A mistress is self-possessed–going against the grain with her choice of sexual partner. She defies social norms, and in doing so, she carries that culturally instilled burden of shame and conscience subverted for love, power and/or sex. She is all about tough choices that expose her to herself and others, an exposure that continually challenges her control.

In addition, the wellspring of control and ownership from which the term emerges, its earliest significance being head of household, empowers the word. As queen of her castle, the mistress does have a counterpart, the master. In this equivalence, the terms both suggest not only ownership but mastery, the knowledge and competence to operate and own all of the details of a home, including the administration of her staff in running it. 

The predecessor of the modern corporate CEO, the mistress was the operations manager of the home, which may have included serving and cleaning staff in addition to family members. And for anyone running a household, even without staff, that is no menial task. 

As one who has historically taken on the role of mistress of the house, I can assuage any fears of sexism or demeaning intent in that term. Running a household of teenagers, ailing parents with caretakers, dogs and cats, is no mean feat. To keep everything running without a hitch–flawlessly–from paying bills; coordinating transportation to sports, school and other activities; financing the upkeep of the house and the people and pets in it, all while juggling work–paid or volunteer–outside and inside the home, takes the talents of an organized multi-tasker extraordinaire. It takes control.

I used to be better at it, the juggling, when my mind was sharper and my energy level higher, but even then I had to rely on spreadsheets to track everyone’s movements and whereabouts. Running a household draws on a variety of skills inborn or acquired. Though not a long-term planner, my mind is wired to work from three steps ahead backward–necessary to captain the ship. 

When the kids were pre-schoolers, I knew at the outset of any day trip that one of my daughters was going to need a series of five, three and one minute warnings of departure as she was not good with transitions. And just the mathematics involved in planning for the outing, the gear required to anticipate any probable need ordinary or extraordinary (accidents), plus the time factor to shove kids in and out of carseats in time to meet the next appointed destination on the agenda, kept my mind in continual twists and turns of addition and subtraction:  add a few minutes for Jordyn’s resistance or chase before we leave plus a few more minutes for changing Remie’s diaper, which will inevitably be an emergency by the time I round up Jordyn and get her in the car–an exercise in figuring out the smallest movements needed to achieve the greatest effect, something like understanding quantum mechanics. 

The abilities to run, round up–kids and numbers–calculate, estimate, zoom, balance, gather, recoup, resist, stay alert, maintain composure and sanity, all while wondering where pride and sleep went is spectacularly challenging and a tremendous show of competency when done without tearing hair out, my own or anyone else’s. Not a very sexy proposition but one declaring mastery of intellectual, emotional and physical strength beyond compare–power.

Power. Mastery. Sex. To Sullivan’s point about sex, sexism and subservience, I must agree with her editors that the definition nowhere includes financial maintenance, and so the term is not as sexist as she protests. In fact, the illumination cast upon the term from its etymology, derived from the French word maitresse, master, and its name for a teacher, one of the oldest, most widely recognized longstanding, respectable working roles for women (not to be confused with the oldest profession), is the domain of mastering knowledge and communication. What could be more empowering than forming the minds of a population? 

Women are distinct, singular each, work in different ways from each other and from men. Words that carry history as performances past that umbrella performances present should not be discarded lightly, especially in the case of a word that I believe furthers the cause of empowering women–for the informed and language sensitive, that is. I take issue with divorcing ourselves from our past. It is a mistake. We need the reminder, nuanced influence and acknowledgement of who we are, where we come from and where we are heading. 

Keep the mistress as master-ess of her domain.

2 Replies to “Mistress, a Powerful Word to Waste”

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