Interview: Kerrie Gemmill speaks about our Mothers, and their titles…

On Mother’s Day, we are still reflecting on the many facets of the ‘Break the Bias’ conversations raised earlier this month, on International Women’s Day. 

Particularly today, we are thinking of titles in relation to our mothers, our memories of titles as we were growing up, and the world we wish to create for all gender identities in the future. 

We invited Kerrie Gemmill, Executive Director of Traverse, previously Director of National Operations of single parents charity Gingerbread, to speak about her experiences of marital status titles.

Discussing titles and motherhood we also touched upon how her school days brought the first of many unpleasant experiences of the judgement of women based on status…

Many interviews begin with a potted history of the GoTitleFree campaign, but Kerrie needed no introduction having followed our progress almost since it’s inception. It was unusual to start the conversation about how unhelpful the title of ‘Ms’ is, but it’s nevertheless where we started, with Kerrie speaking openly about her experiences of adopting it in those ‘mandatory field’ situations. 

“The title ‘Ms’ is so difficult in a number of ways, and I feel that we’re in danger of finding a label. Just because you don’t fit the ‘norm’. 

When my postman has to ring on the door to give me a package, he reads out my title as though it’s a bit of a joke. Over pronouncing it like it’s funny. – Mzzzzzzz!”

The inaccurate meanings and confusions attached to ‘Ms’ have long been discussed at GoTitleFree, especially as ‘Ms’ is often pitched as the solution to the marital status title ‘problem’, when it clearly isn’t by many who adopt it, and reject it. 

Kerrie agreed, saying: 

“I feel like ‘Ms’ has been taken from ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ to attempt to create something in the middle. And it’s tricky to say. Plus, there’s an overtone of ‘failure’ to it. 

Some people have said to me that to keep ‘Miss’, means, ‘missed out’. But you’re so often forced to choose something, and men don’t have to choose. So no, it isn’t a fair situation. 

My problem isn’t with the titles. It’s about the judgement they create – because for women, they’re all about whether you’re in a partnership. 

What kind of partnership a woman is in shouldn’t mean anything in day to day life. But unfortunately, titles make it mean something, and a judgement is made accordingly.”

Single mothers, (however and whenever they began raising a child alone), are an important group for the GoTitleFree campaign to fly our flag for. 

Do we live in a world which has progressed socially enough to pass no judgement whatsoever on a ‘Miss’ with children? 

Perhaps ‘judgement’ is thankfully now too strong a term, but ‘assumption’ seems to be the order of the day, with many unmarried mothers having talked to the GoTitleFree team over the last three years about experiences of being inaccurately titled ‘Mrs’, and being called by an incorrect surname, solely because of her situation with partner and children. 

Kerrie experienced an upsetting situation in her school days which continues to resonate with her to this day;

“…I went to a Catholic school, with Catholic staff, and when one of the teachers who’d been married, began to call herself ‘Ms’, and it turned out she was divorced, she lost her job because of it…”

Kerrie recalled that her mother, being divorced herself, reached out to the teacher in question feeling strongly that the action taken by the school had been cruel, and very unjust. 

Kerrie says sadly;

 “I’ll never forget it. Mainly because I liked the teacher, but also because the injustice stuck with me. 

I also remember, my mother recalling how during the ceremony for her second marriage, she could only walk down the aisle of the church to a certain point the little gate was then closed, and she wasn’t permitted to walk any further…”

Perhaps judgements like this by schools, churches and society are becoming a thing of the past in many countries. Discussing gendered language and how we notice it in conversation and society, we agreed that the world seems to be slowly going in the right direction, and that more and more organisations seem to be making meaningful commitments to inclusivity and to proactivity. 

There was a feeling in the air during this interview however that the new issues of tomorrow will continue to surface. That our children may not be dealing with the problems of our day, but equally, we won’t have to deal with theirs

As people and organisations accept more accountability, and as more responsibility for being proactive about our unconscious biases is encouraged, people are becoming more aware of their rights. -This will create the disruption women so desperately need in their quest for equity, but it will also give rise to new issues, and speed up the pressure for people and businesses to evolve and change. 

Kerrie works as Executive Director of Traverse, a social purpose consultancy which helps organisations across the world with complex and controversial issues engage and listen to what people think about their projects and proposals,  so she is well versed in evidence gathering and creating opinion and situation landscapes for the purposes of major business decisions. 

We lamented at how bigger women’s issues make the problem of titles seem so small. When there are gender pay gaps, pension pay gaps, when instances of violence against women are increasingly being reported in the news, whether or not a person attaches a title to our name or not seems like a very little problem. 

Nevertheless, the whole theme of International Women’s Day has been ‘Break the Bias’, and our campaign team has ever increasing evidence that biases based on titles are rife:

  • 85% of women who were divorced said they had faced a difficult decision about what to do with their title, because of perception. 
  • 65% said that they believed there was general confusion in society about the meaning of ‘Ms’.
  • 68% of unmarried mothers said they would prefer to give/ have no title, in order to reduce the potential for judgement.

Where there is confusion, and ambiguity, there is categorisation. Which leads to bias and judgment… or discrimination. 

So with these facts in mind, we asked Kerrie, who amongst many wonderful things, is a mother of two girls, about the world she wants to see for her children, and she answered;

“I want them to be independent, and I’ve tried to raise them to have confidence so they are able to navigate  a world of constant change. 

They should be who they want to be. Not who they’re told to be. Removing barriers makes navigating the world so much easier, don’t you think?

I feel that if I succeed, even if the win seems small, then I’ve paved a way for someone else to take the conversation further. Perhaps then somebody behind me won’t find it as difficult.”

Sometimes, a small statement encapsulates everything you’ve been trying to say for a long time, in many (many) thousands of words, and Kerrie Gemmill gave us the perfect example:

“Titles, at the end of the day, are about ownership and partnership. 

– They create binaries and boundaries, when in fact there’s a much more wonderful richness to society today.” 

Stella Sutcliffe

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