Alexander Buxton of The New Statesman discusses and excerpts Dr. Amy Erickson’s history of the title mistress in a September, 2014 article entitled Mistress, Miss, Mrs. or Ms: untangling the shifting of women’s titles. A fascinating and quick read, Buxton’s article manages to tease out the gist of Erickson’s work: that women were once mistresses of their own domain…until they weren’t.
The author gives a brief history of the term Mistress, Mrs. and Miss, citing Samuel Johnson, known writer and author of an early English language dictionary, who provides the following 18th Century definition of the term Mistress:
Neither “mistress” nor “Mrs” bore any marital connotation whatsoever for Dr Johnson. When in 1784 he wrote about having dinner with his friends “Mrs Carter, Miss Hannah More and Miss Fanny Burney”, all three women were unmarried. Elizabeth Carter, a distinguished scholar and lifelong friend of Johnson’s, was his own age and was invariably known as Mrs Carter; Hannah More and Fanny Burney were much younger and used the new style Miss.
Citing Erickson, Buxton writes that the title Mrs. and Miss contain the word Mistress and Mrs. was the female equivalent of Master, merely a term of address that delineated class or profession and not marital status. A woman of status or business profession was a Mrs. whereas a scullery maid was addressed by her first name or some man’s wife. How the term Mrs. became a distinction from Miss and the advent of Ms. are not covered in depth, but I suppose the more curious of us will have to peruse Dr. Erickson’s “Misresses and Marriage” in the autumn edition of the History Workshop Journal to find out.