Etiquette Q&A: Proper Titles for Women

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We began our etiquette series with several questions related to basic table manners and have since continued it with topics covering table settings and buffet-style entertaining. Today we switch gears to examine proper titles for women. We hope these words of instruction will be a helpful refresher on the everyday practices so important to a genteel life.

By Phyllis Hoffman DePiano

To this day, when I am speaking to groups throughout the country, I am often asked about the proper titles for ladies. It seems this subject has long been a point of confusion.

One Christmas, my sister, Janice Ritter, gave me The New Book of Etiquette—a 1924 edition she found at an antiques store. Tucked inside the book, along with a handwritten “practice” reply to an invitation, was a newspaper clipping of “Dear Abby” with questions and answers about the correct way to address women. The rules on this subject that I found in The New Book of Etiquette were quite surprising:

“Miss” is used for all professional women regardless of their marital status. A divorced woman signs herself Mary Smith, but her title is Mrs. Jones Smith (“Jones” being her maiden name). The woman who wins a divorce retains the legal and social rights to use her husband’s full name. However, if her name was Mildred Cary before her marriage to John Huntington she may, if she prefers, call herself “Mrs. Cary Huntington.” Under no circumstances does she call herself “Mrs. Mildred Cary.”

Of course, these rules have changed dramatically. The title “Miss” belongs only to a woman who has never married. Usually a lady uses “Miss” until she begins her professional career. At that point, she uses “Miss” if she is single, “Mrs.” if she is married, or “Ms.” if she prefers. It is also quite proper to use “Ms.” when the marital status of the woman is not known.

When a woman is married, she should be addressed socially as either “Mrs. John Howard” or simply “Sally Howard” not prefaced with a title. It is important to note that this rule applies even if she is widowed. Only a woman who is divorced is addressed as “Mrs. Sally Howard.”

Thus, you have the correct rules of etiquette—at least until they change again.

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A picture of a letter and letter seals