I asked myself what style we women could have adopted that would have been unmarked, like the men’s. The answer was none. There is no unmarked woman.
There is no woman’s hair style that can be called standard, that says nothing about her. The range of women’s hair styles is staggering, but a woman whose hair has no particular style is perceived as not caring about how she looks, which can disqualify her for many positions, and will subtly diminish her as a person in the eyes of some.
Women must choose between attractive shoes and comfortable shoes. When our group made an unexpected trek, the woman who wore flat, laced shoes arrived first. Last to arrive was the woman in spike heels, shoes in hand and a handful of men around her.
If a woman’s clothing is tight or revealing (in other words, sexy), it sends a message — an intended one of wanting to be attractive, but also a possibly unintended one of availability. If her clothes are not sexy, that too sends a message, lent meaning by the knowledge that they could have been. There are thousands of cosmetic products from which women can choose and myriad ways of applying them. Yet no makeup at all is anything but unmarked. Some men see it as a hostile refusal to please them.
Women can’t even fill out a form without telling stories about themselves. Most forms give four titles to choose from. “Mr.” carries no meaning other than that the respondent is male. But a woman who checks “Mrs.” or “Miss” communicates not only whether she has been married but also whether she has conservative tastes in forms of address — and probably other conservative values as well. Checking “Ms.” declines to let on about marriage (checking “Mr.” declines nothing since nothing was asked), but it also marks her as either liberated or rebellious, depending on the observer’s attitudes and assumptions.
I sometimes try to duck these variously marked choices by giving my title as “Dr.” — and in so doing risk marking myself as either uppity (hence sarcastic responses like “Excuse me!”) or an overachiever (hence reactions of congratulatory surprise like “Good for you!”).
All married women’s surnames are marked. If a woman takes her husband’s name, she announces to the world that she is married and has traditional values. To some it will indicate that she is less herself, more identified by her husband’s identity. If she does not take her husband’s name, this too is marked, seen as worthy of comment: she has done something; she has “kept her own name.” A man is never said to have “kept his own name” because it never occurs to anyone that he might have given it up. For him using his own name is unmarked.
A married woman who wants to have her cake and eat it too may use her surname plus his, with or without a hyphen. But this too announces her marital status and often results in a tongue-tying string. In a list (Harvey O’Donovan, Jonathan Feldman, Stephanie Woodbury McGillicutty), the woman’s multiple name stands out. It is marked.