I Must Be a Man, or How I Came to be Called “Ms.”

tumblr_kzyc9xkjEl1qzvozkAs so many people are discussing whether the workplace is different for women today, I have a story to share.

Once upon a time (okay, circa 1973) there existed a giant corporation with 15,000 people just in its Manhattan home office. Let’s call it One Madison Avenue. Of its roughly 100 or so communications, advertising and marketing department employees, probably 80 were writing novels about the company. It was simply too easy to find stories. Most were of the kind about which you’d say, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

This was especially true at the time because the outside world was banging on corporate doors throughout the country, demanding equal opportunity in the workplace. As the doors cracked open, the daylight that came through exposed ridiculous and demeaning roles for women and minorities. In fact, at One Madison Avenue, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had offices right inside the building to monitor progress at getting women/minorities hired and promoted fairly.

A lot of people thought this was a bad idea but I am not one of them. I was a direct recipient of a need to get some estrogen into a department that had held only testosterone for years. Was I the best candidate? You’d better believe it, but until EEOC hit the scene, I wouldn’t have had a chance to prove it or to start the wonderful career in video that I came to have.

Anyway, as part of the hiring paperwork, a blank had to be filled out with the name you would use for the company-wide phone listing that was updated every six months. As a recent divorcee who had kept my married name, I thought that Ms. was the perfect resolution. I was told, however, that I could not use that name; Ms. was not approved. Yes, there was a magazine by that name, but it was not commonly accepted language at the time. For further proof, they offered up the venerable New York Times, which refused to use it – and continued to refuse until 1986, some 13 years after this episode. Oh, yes, there were lots of excuses as to why Ms. would not work for an internal company phone book listing.

I looked to see what my co-workers were using and found them all to be titled with their first and second initials and their last names. So, I wrote in the box “J.H. Anderson” and all was well.

Six months later, the phone rang.

Me, answering call: Judy Anderson

Voice: Is Mr. Anderson there?

Me: No, there is no Mr. Anderson here.

Voice: The phone book says there is a Mr. Anderson at this number.

Me: No, the phone book says there is a J.H. Anderson. That’s me. I am Judith Helen Anderson, J.H. Anderson.

Voice: But you should be listed as Miss or Mrs. Only men can be listed with their initials.

Me: Oh, really. (Pause) Okay, then, I want to be listed as “Ms.”

Voice: Oh, we can’t do that. It’s against the rules.

Me: What rules? Do you have a written rule someplace you could send me?

Voice: No, there’s nothing written. It’s just the way we’ve always done it.

Me: Is there a policy in the employee handbook that explains it?

Voice: No, I don’t think so.

Me: Then, is there a company policy on the president’s desk that authorizes this?

Voice: I don’t know.

Me: Okay, let’s find out. You ask your supervisor, and your supervisor can ask his or her supervisor right up the line until we find the person who has a written copy of the rule that says only men can have initials and women must use titles, even ones they don’t want.

The “Voice” agreed, and we both hung up. I never did learn what the “Voice” had done, but clearly, something happened. By the time another six months had passed, the point was moot. Ms. and the initial option were both offered as a phone book choice for women; and the world did not come to an end. To those who insisted that the whole exercise was a case of making a mountain out of a mole hill, my friends and I rolled our eyes and went on to bash in the head of every danged mole we could find.

Years later, a friend who found her way into high places at One Madison Avenue, reported that the issue had gone all the way up to the president’s desk and had actually appeared on an executive office meeting agenda. Presumably, they unofficially and quietly changed “the rule,” recognizing that any public discussion would make them look foolish. For me, in spite of the years that have passed, I still shake my head and say: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Written by guest contributor Judy Anderson Judy is a corporate video pioneer, feminist, and proud card-carrying liberal now living in Corrales, NM.

Do you have a story like this to share? Did it happen in the 1970s or just last month?

Image via EqualityMyth.com

  • Oh, my heavens, as someone who entered the work force in the 1970s I can completely relate to this. It is amazing to me now how much people take for granted. Great story!

  • My mom was fortunate to have as her first name a male sounding name…Barrie. Of course she got a lot of letters addressed to Mr., but they way she got one of her jobs was that her interviewer didn’t tell his boss she was a woman. Knowing the boss would never hire a woman, they guy just described her qualifications, gave him my mom’s resume and highly recommended they hire her. Only after everyone agreed did he say she was a woman. No way the boss could then change his mind. (in the late 70s or early 80s)

  • I think any woman who entered the workforce in the 90’s and beyond really needs to pay homage to the women who paved the way before them. Wow. http://www.venusblogs.com

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