Skip to content

The female titles (‘honorifics’) Mrs, Miss, Ms: Paula Coston reclaims the best (but might surprise you with her choice)

Mrs Ms Miss

Not going to talk about Easter. For a woman childless not of her own volition, too many eggs about. Martine, the childless protagonist of my novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, says around Easter to Mohan, her young pen pal in Sri Lanka, ‘I don’t want to talk about eggs. Can I use our joke and say that I don’t find them interesting?’ She has dark reasons in her recent history, not dissimilar to mine.

I’m going to talk about women’s titles instead.

European nations seem particular culprits in cloaking men with the simple ‘Mister’/’Mr’ or its equivalent while women have to declare, on official forms and the like, whether they legally ‘belong to a spouse [cultural assumption: male]‘ or not. In the UK, the only alternative is to refuse to say by using ‘Ms’ rather than Miss or Mrs – an armtwisted ‘choice’ not even open in most other EU countries. Worse still, for a wedded woman the ‘correct’ form of address on an envelope or letterhead is ‘Mrs John Smith’: in marriage, we can even lose our first names, too. Now that we have gay marriage in the UK and the USA, and much as I welcome it, a new inequality has inadvertently appeared: gay married men can keep their status private under the title ‘Mr’ while married lesbians must both be ‘Mrs’ – or Ms – for all that form-filling from now on.

In non-European/western cultures, subtler and more numerous factors than marriage come into play in giving or using the appropriate honorific: gender, crucially, but also factors like age and status. This may be partly that in these cultures, pigeonholing people on paper is far less important than the ‘right’ form of verbal address.

Take India. In Thilugu, Chi.La.Sou precedes the name of a younger person. In Java, titles are more status- and relationship-weighted, for instance Ibu or Bu mean Madam, Ma’am, Ms, and Mrs, but, more literally, ‘Mother’, while Eyang Puteri(Eyang) means ‘Grand Lady’. In both Japan and Korea, language and grammar are riddled with references to your personal place in some hierarchy, in the vernacular as well as formal contexts. Occupations also feature prominently in some cultures, such as the Philippines, which, historically, has been influenced by American language and education (e.g. ‘Attorney X’.) Turkey has ‘Ms’ (Hanim), but also Hoca, meaning teacher or cleric, or Ogretmen, just teacher.

Back to Europe. Spain has a variety of substitutes for your actual name in speech: Senora (Madam, Mrs, Lady, Ma’am), Senorita (Miss, young lady), Licenciada if you have a Bachelor’s or professional degree, Maestra if you’re a teacher or professional mechanic, and Dona for a woman of rank or – in some Latin American countries – an older woman. But in France, strangely, although government offices have been instructed to call all women ‘Madame‘, outside that sphere there’s no insisted-on term for females who don’t want their status defined by whether they’re legally married or not.

In fact, France’s female nomenclature is rank with subtle sexism. In France men call a woman ‘Mademoiselle‘ for as long as possible as flattery, a way of saying she can still be flirted with and bedded. Although a 1986 law allows the country’s women to take whatever surname they choose after marriage, most state organisations still automatically change their surnames post-wedlock; documents and online shopping services include an intrusive ‘maiden name’ box; and as in the UK, the wed or once-wed are often referred to in print as e.g., ‘Mme Jean-Michel Duval’. Let’s not beat about the bush: when women are being treated this way, something of their sex lives is being uncovered, whether they like it or not.

This happens even in the French titles available and current. It’s more than telling that the medieval honorific ‘Mon Damoiseau‘, literally meaning ‘my little male bird’, has long since faded into disuse as the term for the unmarried young man. ‘Ma Demoiselle‘ (Mademoiselle), literally ‘my little hen’, with its mirror- image, female connotations of virginity, inexperience and condescension, persists to this day. No patriarchy, my arse.

So you’re guessing that I’m all in favour of the alternative of ‘Ms’, aren’t you? But, quite apart from the fact of men’s having to make no such equivalent choice, which is just plain unfair, in other ways for me it’s not as simple as that.

The suggestion of ‘Ms’ seems to have originated in 1901 in the US, made by an unnamed writer in a November edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts: ‘To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.’ The author gave advice on pronouncing her new term: ‘It might be rendered as “Mizz”, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.’

The proposal died away until the 1950s, when it resurfaced in various guides to business correspondence, but presented as something of a patch of a solution: ‘[It] saves debating between Miss and Mrs.,’ said Fraily and Schnell tentatively in their Practical Business Writing of 1952. But it wasn’t until the fierce, one-woman lobbying campaign of the twenty-two-year-old civil rights worker Sheila Michaels on New York radio at the end of the 1960s that ‘Ms’ became recognised as what Ben Zimmer has called ‘a calling card of the feminist movement’( The New York Times declared that it was embracing the honorific alongside Miss and Mrs in 1986. Now it’s even the title of an American feminist magazine.

But here’s one problem. Ms also stands for: a handwritten document; Montserrat, a Caribbean island; Mississippi; Mato Grosso do Sul, a state in Brazil; the Malay language; ‘Member State’; Majeerteen Sultanate, a kingdom in northern Somalia; Metal Storm, a heavy metal website based in Estonia; M.S. Subbulakshmi, an Indian Carnatic singer; Mike Shinoda, the Linkin Park singer songwriter; Misery Signals, an American progressive metalcore band; Morbid Saint, a US thrash metal band; Mobile Suit, fictional robots from the Gundam anime series; mass spectrometry, a method of determining the chemical composition of molecules; M-sigma relation of super-massive black holes; Mesylate, a chemical salt; molecular sieve, a material containing tiny pores of a precise and uniform size; Modified Siloxane; Microsoft; Memory Stick; Mobile Station, in GSM system architecture a station which can freely relocate without any restrictions (I don’t even know what I’m writing here); multiple sclerosis; Master of Surgery; milestone; motor ship; EgyptAir’s IATA code; Master Seaman; Mara Salvatrucha, large criminal gangs in Central America and the US…. I could go on.

In other words, it’s not even a word. It’s a bit of a word, a cobbling together, an abbreviation or an acronym. And when you pronounce it, you sound like you come from those so-called ‘bucolic regions’ the Springfield Republic spoke of: the American Deep South.

Another problem: it sounds too much like ‘Miss’ for my liking, and ‘Miss’ to me, like Mademoiselle, has diminutive connotations: connotations of condescension and patronage. (Think of that recently UK-X-Factor-Simon-Cowell-manufactured confection of a girl band, Little Miss. Need I say more?)

We all know that ‘Mrs’ derives from ‘Mistress’. These days, we associate the full-form word with a woman in an illicit sexual relationship, but its other meaning today, though less common, is a female expert: someone in full control of whatever she does. Odd how a word can mean such polar opposites. From medieval times to Samuel Johnson (1755), a mistress could be defined as:

- A woman who governs
- A woman skilled in anything
- A woman teacher
- A woman beloved and courted

… and yes, a term of contemptuous address; and a whore or concubine. But the one way that Johnson did not use the term was to denote legal marriage.

It was from the mid-eighteenth century that everything changed, with the extension of ‘Miss’ from an unmarried girl to an unmarried adult woman, at first to those of lower status, but gradually to women of the gentry. It turns out, this was because it was important to The Authorities less to signify married women’s subservient legal position than to clarify and define the rights of the unmarried female, who – described in documents as a virgin, spinster, or singlewoman – enjoyed all the legal rights of a man. The consequent change in usage of Mrs was gradual, at first still applying to never-married women who had social standing, who were addressed as ‘Madam’ and ‘Ma’am’ – and in fact still are in America, especially in the southern states. Even in the nineteenth century, single businesswomen were commonly called ‘Mrs’.

The reason for the change to ‘Mrs’ largely for married women was the desire to democratise titles beyond the gentry and businessfolk to the so-called lower classes. Curiously, one sphere in which ‘Mrs’ was retained for the unmarried was among upper female servants, who of course had to stay single. Presumably this was felt to be a useful sign of their seniority in a household. Interesting: so the advent of ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ to indicate marital status wasn’t all about sexual inequality and patriarchy: it was also about a welcome social change. (

D’you see where I’m going with this, folks? Why don’t we reclaim Mrs (Missus, Mistress) for all those of us, married and unmarried, who feel empowered? Shall we put back this particular linguistic clock, begin foxing the bureaucrats with their forms by filling in the ‘Mrs’ box whatever our marital status? Telling them only what we want them to know, namely that we’re women who govern; skilled women; women teachers; and women beloved and courted, as ‘mistresses’ were understood in Samuel Johnson’s day?

(In my novel, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, there’s one character I’ve deliberately dubbed with a unisex name: in some siutations, maybe we shouldn’t even have to disclose our gender unless we want to.)

This post is dedicated to Sharon Osbourne of The X-Factor, who, whenever she admires a female singer’s act, gushingly calls them ‘Mrs’, whatever their status and age.

The teaching profession: haven or halter for the single/childless woman?

Red Bird, Zitkala-sa, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876-1938. My symbol for the history of single women in education. For why, read on....

Red Bird, Zitkala-sa, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876-1938. My symbol for the history of women in education. For why, read on….

My own mother got me thinking about this topic – she and Martine, the main female (single) character in my upcoming novel, who seems to have taken on significances independent of me.

I had an intense sharing with my mother on UK Mothers’ Day, 30 March. With my novel’s publication imminent, I felt I had to come clean to her about the profound impact on me of childlessness and singlehood, the themes that have so infused my life and thus found their way into these last few years of novelwriting, providing me with a private, healing therapy.

When I’d talked to my mother she looked thoughtful for a while then said, ‘Of course, we’ve known quite a few women who, like you, were single, childless and went into teaching.’ (At one point, I went into teaching.) ‘Another way of being with the children they never had themselves, I suppose.’

My own godmother being one. Sadly she’s gone now; and regretfully, though no doubt she’d have been awkward and reserved, I never talked to her about it.

My mother I suspected was right about single, childless women in teaching – but about the women of her generation more than mine, I soon decided (she’s 83 herself). But I resolved to look into women’s history in this field.

Meanwhile in my book, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, Martine, my woman lead, hovers around the issue of settling down and having a family, ambivalent about both: some readers would say, for too long. Her prevarications and uncertainties about direct contact with children in her work in education (she’s in teacher training) seem to mirror this contrariness about her personal life.

When challenged, ‘Why teach teachers when you could teach kids?’ she responds, ‘Done that….And I still do it, kind of. Teach children by proxy.’ Then, when she gets contact with a flesh and blood child – even though only through letters – she contemplates more avoidance: ‘I don’t know children these days. The ones I see are filtered by classroom observation…. Anyway, in school they’re fish in a tank, while this boy’s free in the ocean, a real-life person, in the round.‘ Yet as her desire for a child grows stronger, so does her compulsion to return to teaching. This only occurs to me now.

I’ve looked into the modern historical background now, and here are some telling truths. As most people know, in the nineteenth century teaching was one of the few professions women could follow. They were paid less than men though, and their status was correspondingly lower. But it was after World War I that, at least in the UK, the prevalence of single women in teaching became noticeable. (Of course, according to the mores of the times, for many, singledom by definition meant that they were childless, too.)

It was apparently the economic downturn and the phenomenon of vast numbers of women War-widowed, War-unfianceed or War-unmothered and on the breadline that pushed the government and local authorities to take action. Councils introduced marriage bars, resulting in the sackings and resignations of teaching wives. Meanwhile nationally, educational cuts were made, lowering wages for all teachers – and of course with women, best savings could be found. So in education, single, childless women were first work-empowered at the expense of their married sisters and as a scrimp-saving to the state. It wasn’t till 1944 that the marriage bars were lifted, and even later – 1961 – that equal pay measures began.(

From medicine and psychoanalytic theory in the US comes a fascinating insight into the way that society began to perceive, even to stereotype, white unmarried female teachers as they started to feature large in the teaching population. According to these women were seen through four lenses, four main personality profiles, informed by Freudian psychoanalysis: those with a masculinity complex; the moral masochists; the surrendering, altruistic types; and the ‘tyrannical disciplinarians’! (Sheila L. Cavanagh, ‘Spinsters, Schoolmarms, and Queers: Female teacher gender and sexuality in medicine and psychoanalytic theory and history’ in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 27, issue 4, 2006.)

Perhaps it was partly such subliminal caricatures that influenced a hardening gender/class order in single women’s teaching roles and responsibilities from the 1870s to the baby boom after World War II. In Australia – and I believe in the UK, equally – with the advent of mass compulsory schooling they were increasingly seen as suited to rural and urban teaching in primary schools, more than secondary. In the education of older children, they were ‘cast as somewhat threatening to the gender order’; with the lower age range, society believed them to be more suited, perhaps less intellectually or physically challenged, safer, and to possess important ‘maternal’ and ‘nurturing’ qualities, whether mothers or not.

As the twentieth century dawned there were social anxieties about ‘single women’ in general, and a new term, ‘the new woman’, to express them. Gradually the worlds of nursery/kindergarten, primary and secondary schools grew further apart, colouring the perceived status of the women working within them, until between the two World Wars, with new meanings of singleness being developed by psychologists and sexologists, ‘spinster teachers’ became more stigmatised as women. (Kay Whitehead, 2007, ‘The spinster teacher in Australia from the 1870s to the 1960s’, in History of Education Review, vol. 36, issue 1:

In the US, timings were slightly different from the UK. By the turn of the twentieth century some 75% of teachers were already women, and from the 1910s to the 1930s, female teachers gained better and then equal pay, pensions and tenure. But as in the UK, although some became principals and superintendents of grammar schools, men retained a general grip on administration, notably fiercer with each higher echelon of authority; and male educators there too worried about ‘The Woman Peril’, fearing their emasculating effects in the classroom.(

The century progressed, and teaching imperceptibly switched from being seen as an inappropriate job for a mother to an ideal one on both sides of the Atlantic. The twenty-first century generation of teaching ‘spinsters’ has gradually seen a big ratio shift from them to teaching parents. And yet, and yet. Today in the UK, the average male secondary teacher of whatever parental status still earns around £2k a year more than their female counterpart, and male secondary heads some £4k more. The explanation given is standard across all industries, namely that women fall behind on pay when they take a year or more off to have children – which doesn’t justify the same gap for single women.

And also, and also. In the UK, a greater proportion of schools was led by women in 1927 than was in 2000. (I gulped when I first read this, recovering only slightly on discovering that these levels did right themselves, although it took till 2004. In 2011, the fraction with female leaders was 63%.)(

There are historical lists of outstanding women who have led in education: at; at; and at There’s also a Centre for the History of Women’s Education at the University of Winchester, which has a website. But thinking about women – especially single, childless women – and their potential roles in educational leadership, I scratch up against some thorny questions:

- Is leadership an essential, even the essential, ingredient in successful organisational progress and transformation? Why should I assume this to be true?
- Does ‘leadership’ mean the same thing to all people? Having been on a few courses, I gather that a model known as ‘distributed leadership’ is favoured by many women, as opposed to the ‘top-down’ model of leadership favoured by many men. So maybe promotion isn’t key, at least in women’s eyes. But I’m over-generalising here, and there’s not time or space to add detail in this post!
- By what means can more women, single, childless or otherwise, become ‘leaders’ – of whatever kind? Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations, published by the Leadership Foundation for HE, has some suggestions, also exploding a few myths. For instance, apparently mentoring is not necessarily as effective as it might seem: sponsorship could be a better route.

So why Red Bird, the pin-up for this post? Zitkala-sa was a talented, highly educated Native American who struggled and triumphed against contemporary prejudice to her culture. Studying music at the Boston Conservatory, she went on to teach at the Carlisle Indian School. She soon began publishing articles criticising the institution when she saw the extent of its founder’s exploitation of his students, and the brutality of his philosophy that education should aim to ‘kill the savage to save the man’. She was vilified for her stand by a public who felt that she should be grateful to the white man.

She seems an appropriate emblem of societal patronage of the single, ‘inferior’ woman, especially as she rejected her first offer of marriage on the grounds that she wanted more for her life than being a husband’s helpmeet and parent to his children. Yes, she accepted her second marriage offer, but her misgivings were borne out: she was forced to follow her husband wherever his work took him from then on. Her tangled tale exemplifies the mixture of fulfilment and exploitation that, as a single woman and a married one, she found in the profession of education.

Details of my novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, about another single woman struggling to ‘lead’ in education, can be found at this link:

It can be pre-ordered now, but will be out in June.

Paula Coston enjoys modern doll families

Proud family: LBGT couple made by Timo-Handmade at Etsy.

Proud family: LBGT couple made by Timo-Handmade, available at Etsy.

Mother, aunt, friend or grandmother: you probably know this woman. Woman doll whose personality you can imprint, and whose roles you can assign. By Timo-Handmade, also available from Etsy.

Mother, aunt, friend or grandmother: you probably know this woman. Woman doll whose personality you can imprint, and whose roles you can assign. By Timo-Handmade, also available from Etsy.

'Family' of 13 characters with a variety of roles and relationships you can assign. Timo-Handmade again, again from Etsy.

‘Family’ of 13 characters with a variety of roles and relationships you can assign. Timo-Handmade again, again from Etsy.

When I was young, my grandparents, whom I and my young siblings considered very jet-setting for their day, brought us back dolls as gifts, dressed in the national costume of whatever country they’d visited: Italy, Mallorca. But those were trophy dolls, and also meant to be educational. Meanwhile my sister and I played at home with individualist little people mass-manufactured in plastic and felt. I don’t remember forming doll families with them, but of course one relationship was taken as read: we were their mothers. The mother-child unit was unassailable, the hub of the family, an atom that couldn’t be split: inconceivable to us that that could change, however many decades passed.

But it has. And modern dolls offer some great takes on the modern family, and the place of woman within new social groups.

Timor makes quirky, contemporary-folksy dolls, singly and in sets, at She’ll custom-shape these groupings to your needs, even send her figures with blank faces for you to add your own.Yes, there are mothers and children, and male-female couples with 2-point-something children. But the illustrations here show that she also thinks outside the conformist family box. She labels the large ‘family’ above mothers, grandparents, fathers, children, but they could equally be some more organic, shifting tribe.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka warrior nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka warrior nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

The traditional matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls had associations of fertility and motherhood (‘matryoshka’ literally meaning ‘little mother’), their children contained inside them. But today, 1:5 women over the menopause in the UK, North America and Australasia are childless, including me, and conventional Russian dolls have always emanated a solely female power (no male children inside), so I love the way that the artist Alejandra Valencia, originally from Columbia, does something unique with these doll women.

Fukuruma dolls from Honshu, Japan’s main island, represented Buddhist monks and were used in rituals. Those symbolised the layers of the human soul; Valencia’s, too, have a haunting mystical quality, and – notably – are individual, no longer clones of each other, however large or tiny. What are these strangely potent assemblages of warriors and nuns, warrior-nuns? I don’t know, but somehow feel I’d like to belong to their gangs.

Go to and philosophise on the future of massed womanhoods for yourself.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. At Home: Laundromat.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. At Home: Laundromat.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. Holiday: Feast.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. Holiday: Feast.

If I love Timor and Valencia, I absolutely adore the work of Suzanne Heintz, featured here. (Heartfelt thanks to Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle, blogger on childlessness at for pointing me in Heintz’s direction.)

Heintz grew up in the Mormon Church, well-known for its idealisation of the family and its near-idolatry of the roles of women as mothers and homemakers. Her artistry combines photography and theatre, performance art; she has a background too in television – and it shows in the popular appeal, in the best sense, of her work. (She says that humour is her ‘most important medium’.)

She explains that she was totally p****d off with people asking her, ‘Why aren’t you married?’ (her italics – imagine a whiny American singsong), so set about insinuating herself among the hilarious stilted satire of idyllic and humdrum mannequin arrangements, representing her absent ‘family’ – thus pointing up not only the fact that, in the conformist, universally accepted sense, she doesn’t have one, but that – with family members’ constant ‘needs and demands’ (it’s no easy job lifting, moving, posing and transporting mannequins around) – a family, and the expectation you’ll have one, too, can be an inflexible encumbrance.

Sheer genius in each shot, her expression of fake enjoyment or routine housewifely boredom juxtaposed with ‘husband’ and ‘daughter”s grim, glazed faces.

Visit her work at, checking out her artist’s statement and biography. Watch her movie trailer PLAYING HOUSE at And if you like her work as much as me, send her a message at or And if you get to my level of keen, her upcoming book can be preordered through her website.

Here’s one of hers especially for Easter, a season when we childless women find we sometimes long to turn aside from all that imagery of eggs:

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed Series. Holiday: Blue Egg.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed Series. Holiday: Blue Egg.

Wouldn’t it be great if these three women’s artistic statements could play a small part in shifting assumptions that, for women, there’s one universal standard of family life? In changing social stereotypes about women and their ‘families’?

Admiring dues to Margaret Atwood for these snippets from her Five Poems for Dolls:

‘… did we make them
because we needed to love someone
and could not love each other?’

…’Or: these are the lost children,
those who have died or thickened
to full growth and gone away.

The dolls are their souls or cast skins,
which line the shelves of our bedrooms
and museums….’

Any ‘good’ books on singledom? Paula Coston wonders

One eye on others like us, one for our private selves. 'Woman reading', Pablo Picasso, 1960.

One eye on others like us, one for our private selves. ‘Woman reading’, Pablo Picasso, 1960.

Well, it depends what you mean by ‘good’, doesn’t it? After all, as we single gals know, there are as many varieties of single women as there are of women in partnerships and marriages. So one book, or one type of book, isn’t going to suit us all. Also, just because we’re single doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to read about singledom, does it? Any more than a cook, say, needs to read a book about ‘What it feels like to be a cook’. That’s just plain daft.

None the less, I take an idle interest in these tomes – as a giantess will be amused and curious about what a population of Lilliputianesses might put in print about her.

First there are the histories. Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl: 100 Years of Breaking the Rules – A Social History of Living Single is actually quite fun. We can all learn from what ‘we’ used to do in the olden days, but actually, the reviewers acclaim this not only as a ‘profoundly important synthesis’ and an ‘intriguing balance of cultural history and pointed detail’, but as ‘a must-read for feminists with a sense of humour’ about our past.

Then there’s Women Alone: Spinsters in Britain 1660-1850 by Bridget Hill, packed with fascinating insights into the degree of surveillance and control that most unmarried women in olden times were subjected to, and the means of escape they found from their restrictive lives: into religious institutions, by emigrating and by cross-dressing, to name but three.

As always, I’m left with the sense that women have often been abused or constrained ‘not because they are weak, but precisely because they are powerful’ – a point made so simply and eloquently by Malala Yousafzai at the Women of the World Festival on the Southbank, London, in front of 2,500 people including me, this very last weekend. I sometimes think we need to make such dramatic statements about ourselves as those bygone spinsters for society to take much note of us: what about a mass (day-long) modern spinsters’ emigration, or a flash cross-dress?!

Beside all these, there’s the declaratory, ‘Don’t let’s be ashamed of who we are’ literature, most of which makes me cringe with its reactionary stance – defensive often, too, however hard it tries. For this reason, I’d steer clear of The Modern Maiden’s Handbook: The Shameless Girl’s Guide to Blameless Living by Nina de la Mer. Even the coy defiance of its title means to head off the reader who looks at us askance.

An exception, admittedly only loosely, within this category, is Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. This is a slice of Irish social history, a searing indictment of a patriarchal and religion-dominated culture that, even today, can allow women few choices other than the expected: to get married early, have lots of children in wedlock and wear yourself into the ground. Nuala managed to steer clear of this path, but not without a lot of grief and the need, in her stifling family environment, to shape a different sense of self than that possessed by most of the women round her.

Next come the advisory handbooks – practical and/or cautionary to greater or lesser degrees. I really took against It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel, which I find bloody patronising. The aim behind Think $ingle: The Woman’s Guide to Financial Security at Every Stage of Life, the offering of Janet Bodnan (2003), strikes me as rather a good one, although it targets an American readership and is rather out of date. (How often have we singletons gritted our teeth at the sometime smugnesses and taking-for-granteds of our partnered female friends, oblivious that death, illness, midlife crisis, job loss, house repossession, a breakup, etc. etc. could in an instant snatch their cosy coupledoms away?)

Not so sure about With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of their Lives by Karen Gail Lewis (2004), a book advising women in the 30-60 age range who feel they may still be waiting for ‘the right man’ (what about ‘the right woman’? and is there even such a thing as ‘the right one’ in any case?) on what they can do to lead a fulfilling and full life. Having said that, it does offer some refreshing and unexpected insights roaming this ambivalent, uncertain No Woman’s Land, and tries to be genuinely practical.

Another virtual bookshelf is reserved for the titles that really do examine us forensically, like specimens, albeit sometimes arguing with an evangelical zeal that society needs to change. Carol M. Anderson, Susan Stewart and Sona Dimidjian’s Flying Solo: Single Women in Midlife was published in 1994, and is rather saddening because its revelations still ring true: single women stigmatised for staying unmarried, popular prejudices against single mothers, and more. The New Single Woman by Ellen Kay Trimberger doesn’t show much of the same empathy in its study of the rewarding lives of twenty-seven single women between 30 and 60. Despite its in-depth case study approach, the result is chillingly clinical. Dr Bella dePaulo is the expert at this stuff, combining passionate support with detailed, interesting study in her Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Singlism, she argues, is a social phenomenon we encounter everywhere, and must fight with all our might.

And so we move onto the ‘Voices’ shelf – where perhaps, on reflection, the fantastic Nuala O’Faolain at least half-belongs too. Single State of the Union: Single Women Speak Out on Life, Love and the Pursuit of Happiness by Diane Mapes (2007) is a laudable attempt to give single women their chances to speak for themselves rather than being prodded and poked and spoken about, and is really well written, but some of the ‘voices’ spoil it by being long, self-indulgent ramblings and rants: as one reviewer puts it, the result ‘reads more like excerpts from a support group meeting than a collection of professional work’.

In this category, it’s the wonderful Jill Reynolds (ex-Senior Lecturer at the Open University, sadly no longer with us) who has my admiration. (Her existence and interests were brought to my notice by an unknown woman called Hilary at a recent local writers’ group meeting: thanks so much, Hilary!) Reynolds’ The Single Woman: A Discursive Investigation (2008) is to me the perfect combination: the reverently recorded and collected voices of women aged 30-60 who live alone, and an effort to be more theoretical and analytical about why single women might feel, and see life, the way they do. She challenges the prevailing culture that still elevates the ‘success’ of finding and keeping a man (this is a heterosexually dominated society) and that devalues the notion of singleness. It’s clear from her book that singlehood is an important topic for feminism.

She discusses with telling insight Germaine Greer’s comments in a particular BBC interview (2007), namely that as women get more demanding, men get shy of commitment and more neurotic: that relationships can’t be easy when women are perceived as needy, their menfolk as ever more detached – hence the rise in singledom. At pains not to over-simplify and generalise herself, Reynolds none the less argues that most single women are bound to move between different ‘singleness attitudes’, depending on mood, time, events and more, in a world with conflicting attitudes to singleness itself; and that this inevitably leads to a sense of ‘troubled identity’ for many. She’s fantastic! Read her if you can.

Now we’re attracted towards the ‘Voices’ shelf, what else should we be looking for in personal accounts of singlehood? What will do us singles most good? Well, let’s not neglect fiction: stories of singlehood imagined, and/or re-created from life, maybe, written by women novelists and story writers who really understand singledom from the inside.

It’s been the way I found to understood my own singlehood and childlessness: working through it in fiction until it felt wonderful in its dreamy distance from me. So, humbly mentioning my own contribution for the first time, I mention my novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, due to come out in paperback and e-book in June. It’s about a single woman’s searches to embrace the variegated realities of her singledom and childlessness through the decades from the 1980s to now. And somehow it’s both about, and not about, me.

Final front cover design

Blue for a boy, pink for a girl? What are the genders’ colour preferences, really? asks Paula Coston

Pink woman. Courtesy of Marin/

Pink woman. Courtesy of Marin/

In December 2009 I went to a talk given by Germaine Greer entitled ‘Forty Years of Fun with Feminism’. At one point, reflecting on the little girls besotted with pink in her own family, she suggested, only half in jest, it seemed, that maybe their all-pink fashionable outfits were this new generation’s way of stating tribal allegiance: the latest expression, if you will, of Girl Power. I’m afraid I will not. There was an equally dubious frisson from the audience. The commonest interpretation of course, far removed from hers, is that all those over-pinked girls are victims of the consumerist machine.

Personally I never liked pink much as a child (although I sometimes wear it now). In fact, it’s a joke in my family – now comic because of its sheer tedious, reflexive repetition by one or other family member – that in spring I recoiled even at those lovely, prolific rainshades of cherryblossom. So, with hints of a rainbow spring burgeoning around me in the UK, my thoughts turn to their rosy tints again.

Even in babies, colour preferences are complicated. Dr Anna Franklin, latterly of the Surrey Baby Lab and now leading the equivalent set-up at the University of Sussex, is still investigating the thorny issue of gendered colour preferences. What she does already know is that these are not just about colour (‘hue’ is the technical term) but about its degree of saturation and lightness. Chloe Taylor, Karen Schloss, Stephen E. Palmer and Anna Franklin (Colour preferences in infants and adults are different, in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, February 2013) noted that ‘infants had a stronger “looking preference” [i.e. they looked for longer, more intently] for dark yellow, and a weaker preference for light blue than did adults’.

It seems that there are blue-yellow colour encoding channels in our eyes and red-green ‘cone opponents’ – and that infants look longest at reddish, and for least time at greenish, hues. Observing looking preferences in infants of both sexes, Dr Franklin backs this up. She’s discovered that they tend to look longest at blue, red, purple and orange and the shortest time at brown. Grey’s not popular, either.

Colour likes and dislikes seem to vary from baby to baby, though. And they don’t seem to be linked either to culture (e.g. Chinese children don’t automatically prefer red because in China it’s considered lucky) or to the learning of language (with children preferring colours whose names they can get their tongues round most easily).

Dr Nicola Pitchford of the Nottingham Toddler Lab has found that between three and five years old, children mention primary colours – red, blue, yellow, green – more often than secondary: pink, orange, purple. As for children’s dislike of browns and greys, she theorises that they may associate such shades, at least in white people, with sickly looking faces as opposed to healthy, rosy ones. (

Taylor et al report some evidence that young infants have a strong looking preference for red, but it’s not conclusive; however, there is evidence that babies definitely like highly saturated blues – while, as I say, they’re not nearly so keen on lighter shades, apparently. Maybe the most fascinating finding is this:

‘The primary similarity that we found between infant and adult preferential-looking behavior was that both looked longer at light red (pink) than would be expected by chance….’

They hypothesise that this ‘could… arise from the privileged status of desaturated reddish colors in human perception.’ All a bit technical, but what it boils down to, it appears, is that we white folks, at least, are chromatically wired, and our eyes structured, to search out the reddish colours of skin and lips. Taylor et al recognise that newborns search out eyes, but that after a few months, as they go on to suggest,’[Maybe] … it is evolutionarily advantageous for infants to be drawn to the color of lips, in that attention to the mouth is important for detecting emotional expressions and language learning.’

Might I add that surely nipples, also often rosy, must be another evolutionarily useful target?

Children’s colour preferences evidently evolve and shift with age. Research as long ago as 1968 seemed to show that of the younger children tested who favoured cooler or lighter hues, many went on to prefer more saturated versions of those colours after the age of nine (Irvin L. Child, Jens A. Hansen and Frederick W. Hornbeck, Age and Sex Differences in Children’s Color Preferences, in Child Development, vol. 39, no. 1).

Blue woman. Courtesy of Maple/

Blue woman. Courtesy of Maple/

In adulthood, things are somewhat clearer. A 2003 study polling people from twenty-two different countries found blue to be the favourite colour of both men (57%) and women (35%).( Interestingly, Hallock tells us that in his 1940s researches into eyes and sight, Eysenck maintained that blue for men ‘stands out far more’ than for women. Eysenck also points out that yellow is preferred to orange by women, and orange to yellow by men. So there are differences. Many women, apparently, really don’t rate orange.

Faber Birren’s 1952 book Your Color and Your Self: The significance of colour preferences in the study of human personality tells us that blue and red maintain a high preference throughout life for both sexes, while other colours drop down our favourites list and others come back up. So it’s a battle of the blues and reds, then – although I read here and there that some 8% of the male population has a red-green colour deficiency, so can’t see red at all.

Red woman. Courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Red woman. Courtesy of Stuart Miles/

In linguistic history, apparently ‘red’ is the first colour to have acquired its name after ‘black’ and ‘white’. According to, women seem to favour cool reds, leaning towards violet, and men to favour warm reds, tending towards orange.

In Japan, red is associated with female reproduction. It’s considered a life-giving colour; and as the researchers show above, babies seem to agree.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, I’m going to the Southbank in London to participate in the Women of the World Festival. As you all know by now I’m childless, so am looking forward to the various talks revolving around the issue: ‘Fertility Myths’ and more. A whole bunch of childless women were hoping to march this year and make a visual statement, all dressed in red; but there have been logistical complications, so it’ll happen next year instead. Meanwhile, I’m wearing my flamboyant red coat and jaunty crimson hat anyway.

After all, red is also the colour of choice for numerous revolutionary movements; and I hope that that’s the way that the childless movement is heading: at least, towards a revolution in social understanding.

For my quote to round off this post, I’d like to thank Beth Fantaskey, author of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side.

‘”I like pink.”
Lucius sniffed. “It’s just red’s, sorry, weak cousin.”‘

Tinker, tailor, mother, grandmother, lover, wife… Paula Coston looks at shadow lives

Any woman's shadow lives. Image courtesy of Vlado/

The shadow lives of many women. Image courtesy of Vlado/

I’m 59 now, over those close-on six decades having mapped out in my mind an entire web of paths untaken. Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. And for that reason, Chapter 7 of Jody Day’s book Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children chimes with me most. Entitled ‘Letting Go of your Burnt-out Dreams’, its first two sections are headed ‘The shadow of the life unlived’ and ‘The dark side of daydreams’.

In them, she shares her own experience with searing frankness:

‘I became acutely aware that for many years I’d been living two lives: one in which I was hoping for a baby and making the best of things till then, the other in which I had succeeded and had become a mother….

‘At no point in that time… did I fully and completely embrace the life I was actually living – that of a childless woman….

‘I think of the “shadow life” as the life you dreamt about while your “real” life was happening and to which you gave so much energy that it depleted the life you were actually living.’

We all have our path forks. Here’s a selection of the barred routes in my psyche:

- Somewhere in my childhood, I believed my family was encouraging me in the single, career-driven life, not a life of love and family. I absorbed the misguided idea that the two were in opposition, or at least, incompatible. In my head the possibility of a relationship and children began to recede from me.

- At university, my careers advisor looked helplessly at me and counselled that, given my degree subject, there were only three careers open to me: teaching, journalism and book publishing. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…: in my compliant brain, a million other doors slammed shut – but I can still see them, albeit greyed out.

- When a relationship with a man ruptured cataclysmically, I felt I couldn’t hang on to my Christian faith. Despite various attempts since then, my shadow-life-creating self sketches it somewhere distant, hovering always out of reach.

- Over the years a couple of men have proposed to me, both in jest, and friends laughed too when they heard about it. That and other factors prompted me to quarantine my self-image as wife.

- While in one important relationship, it became clear to me that my lover had serious issues about parenthood, so when the option came up for us, I knew I had to forgo it.

- I’ve already told the story here of how I failed to adopt five or six different children (Rita van Winkle and the Lost Boys – or, PC’s Dreams of Adoption). To me, those children are out there in the ether, frozen in age, still waiting for me.

- Neighbours and colleagues at work are grandmothers. But as time has slipped by, and not only children but grandchildren are no longer options for me, I’ve gravitated ever more closely towards friends who will also never be grandmothers, like me – and away from those who are, or who are going to be.

Now although of course they’ve caused me pain over the years, I don’t list these diversions-from-the-what-might-have-been to enlist your sympathy. These days, what fascinates me more is the way we persist in tracing and re-tracing these ghosts of roads untaken.

Day argues that that can hold us back. I wonder whether, once we surmount the pain, their rehearsal can bring us comfort.

Take the ‘science bit’: the theory of parallel universes.The so-called double-slit experiment shows that a quantum object, a tiny metal object known as a paddle capable of existing in one of two possible states, can suddenly jump into either one of those states at the instant it is being watched. In other words, any object seen in front of us may be capable of existing simultaneously in more than one universe.

In his book Grand Design, Stephen Hawking suggests that maybe there is ‘no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe’, but rather a ‘network’ of models, causing our notions of ‘reality’ to change and shift with every different mathematical proof. Some interpret this as his support for the position that every separate mathematical model designed to describe the nature of physics creates an alternative reality; some now argue that there an infinite number of such alternative realities.


These days, it doesn’t seem such a step for me from wacky, kooky, your-friends-will-avoid-you-if-you-voice-this-theory-dom to, ‘Why not trust that you’re living all your shadow lives somewhere else close by, if it helps?’

Maybe the psyche is instinctively drawn to the idea of alternative realities: even to luxuriating in them, fleshing them out. And if you’re a compulsive writer and reader like me, well, it’s unavoidable.

Everyone does it. Alternative realities are in the collective consciousness. In 1964, an iconic American TV soap called Another World started on NBC, set in the fictional town of Bay City and running for decades – till 1999, in fact. As the co-creator Irna Phillips explained, justifying the title and the premise, ‘We do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds.’ These, she explained, represented the difference between ‘the world of events we live in, and the world of feelings and dreams that we strive for’.

Then in English folk legend, there’s the twelfth-century story of the green children of Woolpit. This tells how two unusually tinted children appeared out of nowhere in this Suffolk village, speaking in an incomprehensible language and refusing to eat anything but beans. Soon after the children were baptised, one died. The surviving girl learned to speak English, eventually explaining that she and her brother had come from an underground world whose inhabitants were green.The story persists to this day.

Or in the US, there are the recurrent half-horrified, half-fascinated accounts of black-eyed children trying to gain entrance to people’s houses. ( Not to mention the obsession of some with visits to earth by alien creatures, and of alien abductions – a two-way traffic with other worlds.

Over in Japan, Dr Rachel Staum is studying the key features of otogizōshi, the country’s folktales, often illustrated, by unknown authors. She’s noticed that many are stories of women who originate from other worlds, and is trying to find out why. ( And Neil Gaiman has a memorable ‘Other Mother’, or Beldam, in his children’s novel – now film – Coraline, supposedly the source of the ‘Other World’ that exists side by side by the girl Coraline’s real world. In the book, she looks like a clone of Coraline’s own mother; in both book and film, she tries to tempt the child away.

So these days, I’m learning to live with my shadow lives, to let them be and wend their ways, sometimes even to enjoy them.

As for my lost life of motherhood in particular, while Jody Day suggests that we childless women call ourselves ‘NoMos’ (Not-Mothers), I think I’ll term myself an AMo: meaning ‘I love’ in Latin, it also represents me as a kind of Alternative Mother, somehow living both lives, the one I have and the one I didn’t, in harmony.

In this post I’d like to thank the singer Beth Orton. I love her lyric, ‘What are regrets?/ They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet’ (Sweet Decline.)

Shadow mother and boy. Image courtesy of Idea go/

Shadow mother and boy. Image courtesy of Idea go/

Here’s one for Mumsnet. Mums vs. the non-mums: why the growing divide?

Mums vs. non-mums: why the growing divide?

Mums vs. non-mums: why the growing divide?

Do you have relatives, friends or neighbours with no children? I do: an ever more noticeable number.

It seems a counter-intuitive phenomenon, since in the UK we’re going through a baby boom: between June 2011 and June 2012, more babies were born than in any other annual period for forty years (

But among older women, the situation’s different. Of those born in the 1960s, some 1:5 women in the UK, North America and Australasia didn’t give birth before they reached the menopause – a ratio that they say may rise for the 1970s generation; and figures appearing now suggest that for the majority, that hasn’t been by choice. And despite the recent baby explosion, according to an OECD report women in the UK leave it later than those in any other OECD country to have their first child, trying for the first time at the average age of 30 – with all the difficulties and disappointments that delayed plans for a family may bring ( If growing numbers of women are childless not by preference but ‘by circumstance’, as it’s coming to be called, that’s bound to fuel a sense of division from the parental sisterhood.

Not surprising then that there are more and more online communities intended to be supportive – like Mumsnet, but catering for the childless. Gateway Women is the most known in the UK, with newly arrived on the scene; in the States, there’s The Not Mom, Life Without Baby, Childless Mothers Connect…. I could go on. There, safely and confidentially, women can pour out their woes, get advice and information, even arrange to meet up.

Many mums still confide in me that as mothers, they feel undervalued. But that tends to be true of those who don’t go to work. In the workplace, some childless women claim, the tables are reversed. After all, working mothers can take up to one year’s paid maternity leave before returning – without discrimination – to their old jobs; 20 days’ paid leave if they’re full-time; and tax credits for childcare: a situation not true in the US. Yet the non-mums often feel that when they have urgent caring responsibilities at home – for an ageing relative, for instance – they’re not treated with the same sympathy as the mother with a sick child; or that their leave requirements have to play second fiddle to the holiday preferences of colleagues who are parents.

Polly Dunbar covered this in the Daily Mail recently ( But what struck me was the vitriol in some of the online feedback she received: ‘I love the “you-chose-to-have-children-why-am-I-being-penalised-for-it?” gang. If you’re not willing to do what you were put here to do and reproduce, that’s your choice… And yes, raising a child probably IS more important than your plans.’ …. ‘She should take it up with her employer rather than use her bad experience to make working mothers feel they are over-privileged.’ ‘Frankly I think [working mothers] should be penalised a lot more just for looking – and sounding – like sly, smug, deceitful idiots.’

Apart from the ignorance about women who didn’t choose to remain childless that some of these comments expose, I’m saddened by the rift that they can only widen.

Aren’t women supposed to be especially good at working together – in order to solve their problems and differences, beside anything else? Witness the movement towards women’s suffrage; witness so many other women’s organisations: against knife crime, and towards peace in Northern Ireland, to quote just two from the last few decades in the UK. And as various learned tomes and articles point out, society is still gendered, i.e. shaped more by and for men than women – many workplaces, for instance (See Women Working Together: Understanding Women’s Relationships at Work, briefing note no. 33, published by the Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons School of Management, Boston). So shouldn’t we be acting, as a united sisterhood, to change that?

Looking even deeper, the history of women’s movements in itself throws up some interesting reasons for our tendency to divide. Women Working Together, a fantastic Australian website on the story of our collaborations, points out that there are three different traditions among women’s organisations.

• First, there have always been groups committed to the status quo, which of course includes the family, and often the family in its conventional nuclear sense: i.e. a conservative strand. Inevitably whatever your politics, once you have children, you tend to join that stream.
• Second, there have always been more radical groups, whose interests lie in questioning the status quo, in advocating ‘other’ ways to live; and with an equal inevitability, childless women, whatever their politics, on childlessness issues will tend to follow this path.
• If that wasn’t enough to prise us apart, the third category is reactionary: it dislikes the idea that the image of woman, and woman’s roles, may change, and does much to destroy any form of women’s movement.

So staying united isn’t as easy as all that.

To coin a phrase though, we must overcome. On 8 March, it’s International Women’s Day, a chance for us to stand shoulder to shoulder, mothers and childless as one, during the Women of the World Parade on London’s South Bank. Maybe we should also do some reading. Try Women against Women, an article in the Journal of Women’s History, vol. 13, no. 2, summer 2001; or for a lighter self-help read, When Women Work Together: Using our Strengths to Overcome Our Challenges by Carolyn S. Duff with Barbara Cohen.

And now the obvious, if you read my blog normally, but a confession to new readers at Mumsnet: I’m 59, and childless by circumstance. I blog about this, my longing for a boy child and more at

My novel about a woman gradually coming to terms with her childlessness through ‘social infertility’ (i.e. not for biological reasons) comes out in early May, entitled On the Far Side, There’s a Boy.

And yet I’m a Mumsnet blogger! Because I believe in healing rifts from the inside.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers