How I Helped Change The Way We Talk About Women

If you’re a feminist who’s also a journalist (as I am), merrily navigating the currents between advocacy and neutrality; if you’re so hooked on good grammar that you find yourself (as I do) muttering “home in” when someone says “hone in,” or correcting a complete stranger’s “none are” to “none is;” if you believe (as I always have) that words spark revolutions as smartly as muskets; then you’ll cheer (as I did) the 2016 Associated Press Stylebook. Specifically, the new entry defining how, precisely, to identify one of those individuals whose behavior lands them in the headlines of even the least scandal-seeking media.

Mistress: “a woman who has a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else.” Note all the criteria. If the guy isn’t paying the bills, or if he’s not legally wed, (both distinct possibilities in our liberated times), the definition deflates as quickly as a lover scorned. The AP goes on to suggest that even if the relationship measures up (or down) to the rules, other terms might be better: “companion, friend or lover.” But the editors’ preference — and here’s the real breakthrough — is that writers choose “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship.”

Wow. Recognition that it really does take two to tango; that this archaic and demeaning term — usually accompanied by equally antiquated and condescending titters — reveals more about gender bias than a person’s role. Quick: what’s the male equivalent to “mistress”? When did you last see a “kept man” mentioned in print?

“We want to be careful to say what we mean,” Stylebook product manager Colleen Newvine explains to me of the influential 600-page volume. Countless millions of writers in newsrooms and boardrooms and classrooms have relied on the Stylebook's guidance for more than half a century, and the modernization of “mistress” is just one of nearly 250 changes in the new edition.

I like to think I helped lead the way.

Back in 1971, when I was an AP reporter in New York, I guided the organization’s toe into the roiling waters of the growing women’s movement by writing a story on the strange new title being used by many feminists — “Ms.” — a monosyllable so curious, I had to provide a pronunciation guide. I also had to explain that its many proponents were offended by society’s need to identify a woman by her marital status (Miss, Mrs.) and that journalists were part of the problem. “They insist on Miss or Mrs. because their papers won’t print Ms.,” a member of the National Women's Party in Washington, D.C. and an early adopter of "Ms." told me at the time. “There’s a ridiculous social value on a wedding ring. Your stock goes up because you’ve caught a man.”

So long ago. So true.

My “Ms.” story was featured on front pages around the country, another sign of its novelty in a country still not completely comfortable with women’s equality. Ditto many news organizations, including The New York Times, which took another 15 years to allow the use of “Ms.” in its columns. Catching our sentences up to our social progress takes time, but hats off to AP for often getting there first. And best.

I couldn’t remember the upshot of my brave little article. I ask Newvine if she knows when AP added “Ms.” to the Stylebook. “We don’t use courtesy titles,” she tells me. “We refer to both women and men by their last name.” No matter what the relationship. Now that’s equality.