Of all the politically charged words we use to address each other in day-to-day communication, “Mr.” and “Ms.” might seem relatively inoffensive.
But “Mr.” and “Ms.” entered the campus gender wars this week, with the announcement that administrators, faculty, and staff members at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) will no longer use these gendered salutations in exchanges with students.
Under a new university policy, CUNY staffers are instructed to omit Mr. and Ms. from “all types of correspondence” with students and prospective students, according to a recent internal memo, including “address and salutation, mailing labels, bills or invoices, and any other forms or reports.”
The policy went into effect for the Spring 2015 semester at the Manhattan public university as part of an “ongoing effort to ensure a respectful, welcoming, and gender-inclusive learning environment.”
Apparently, the most basic form of politesse has been deemed so grossly insensitive at CUNY’s Graduate Center that the school has cited Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in government-funded education systems, as an explanation for its new speech code policy. (Tanya Domi, a school spokeswoman, told The Wall Street Journal that the university is “working within a regulatory framework to comply with Title IX legal principles.”)
“They may arguably have a right to implement this policy, but they cannot place the decision on Title IX,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting free speech and due process on American campuses.
“It’s important,” said Lukianoff, “to understand that this is part of a long series of situations in which universities use Title IX as an excuse to pass often unconstitutional codes that they simply want to pass.”
In 2003, university efforts to pass such codes prompted the Department of Education to write a letter to every university in the country stating that Title IX is designed “to protect students from invidious discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech.”
“If you want harassment law to be meaningful and robust, you can’t apply it any time someone is offended,” says Lukianoff. “It’s not going to survive very long that way. And it’s not going to be taken very seriously if it’s invoked so lightly.”
Gendered salutations—specifically “Ms.” and “Mrs.”—were the subject of national debate in the early ’70s, when women fought to be defined by something more than their marital status.
It is ironic that “Ms.” has become non-grata at CUNY, because the honorific itself was originally a feminist-endorsed one, selected by Gloria Steinem, one of the movement’s most prominent voices, as the name for a new, more political type of woman’s magazine because it defied tradition and was symbolic of women’s empowerment.
“Allowing students to use their preferred name and eliminating the use of pronouns and official correspondence is a necessary step toward protecting the rights, privacy, and safety of students,” said Dominique Nisperos, co-chair of the Doctoral Students’ Council at CUNY, adding that the DCS has been battling marginalization and working specifically to support gender nonconforming students for several years.
“This has taken the form of passing resolutions that have denounced biases in policing that assume that gender nonconforming people in New York are sex workers. We’ve also called upon our administration to construct gender-neutral bathrooms.”
Tinkering with honorifics, she says, will protect gender nonconformists from humiliation. “You can imagine from the perspective of a gender nonconforming student: You’re presenting a different gender than is associated usually with the sex that you were born into. And you live in that gender. So, for example, if I as a woman, existing in the world as a woman, receive a piece of mail that says “Mr.,” you can imagine what the ramifications of that could be if it’s received at my place of residence.”
Nisperos says this kind of scenario might be a “minor upset” for most people, “but if you’re someone who is gender nonconforming, that could have a profound impact.” And as doctoral students, she says, everyone at CUNY is ultimately working toward a gender-neutral salutation: “Dr.”
“The nature of that gender-neutrality may not be at the forefront of many students’ minds,” said Nisperos, “but as a woman entering the professional world, I understand that that salutation denotes that I earned a degree and may change the way I’m treated in the world.”
CUNY’s was a fortuitously timed edict, coming only a day before the Internet exploded in fury at New York magazine writer (and card-carrying liberal) Jonathan Chait for writing that a culture of political correctness is dividing liberalism—and making it appear frivolous.
As former Daily Beast writer David Frum quipped on Twitter, “CUNY reads @jonathanchait essay on political correctness as a set of guidelines, not a critique.”
In his article, Chait points to the crusade on campuses to do away with “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions,” “or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.” He could have been referring to the extremity of an initiative like CUNY’s, although when The Daily Beast reached out to Chait for comment he declined, saying he felt “overwhelmed,” presumably by all the attention his article has received.
One can observe that the landscape of today’s gender wars is vastly different than when Gloria Steinem struck a blow for feminism by re-appropriating the honorific Ms., and it is all to universities’ credit to be more inclusive of transgendered and gender-nonconforming students.
If the banishing of honorifics is the most important battle to be waged at CUNY, that says something significant about how far, and sensitively, identity politics have evolved since Steinem’s feminist enshrining of “Ms.” in 1971.
Depending on your own political views, the banishing of “Mr.” and ”Ms.” over 40 years later at CUNY is either a bracing new cultural milestone, or a symptom of political correctness gone ever wilder, and a mind-boggling waste of academics’ and students’ time and energy.