PARIS, France – Shall I call you “mademoiselle?” Or “madame?”
In France, it’s a seemingly innocent question that can quietly scorch the recipient.
The former translates roughly as “Miss,” and is used for young or unmarried women. The latter technically applies to married women, the way Mrs does in English. But “madame” can apply more broadly — to women of a certain age or status, or to women who have passed the peak of youth and fertility, whether or not they are wedded.
The terms, in other words, are short on clarity and long on sexist social freight.
Still, decades after the Miss-Mrs distinction became anachronistic in English, most French speakers carry on with their own version unchanged.
Now that may all be coming to an end, especially if feminists have their way. Women are rising up to change what they see as France’s sexist culture in the aftermath of l’affaire DSK — the scandal surrounding French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of a maid in New York earlier this year.
Newly invigorated feminists are targeting the “mademoiselle” designation they have fought for decades, saying it is demeaning to women and should be banished from official forms.
“It is discriminatory and sexist and it sends us back to another era,” said Marie Noelle Bas, the founder of the feminist association “Chiennes de Garde” (which translates roughly as Women Watch Dogs, with an aggressive connotation). “No one needs to know if a woman is married or not.”
She adds that nowadays, one in two women who have children are unmarried, and, despite the fact that they are mothers, they are still supposed to label themselves as “mademoiselle.”
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“It is illegitimate and irrational in the face of women’s social status today,” said Bas of the title.
Worse, it’s “degrading” says Julie Muret of the women’s advocacy group “Osez le Feminism” (Dare to be a Feminist) who launched a campaign earlier this year to get the designation removed from official documents.
“This amounts to categorizing women, as if marriage conferred an added value on them,” she said. “Mademoiselle means “girl to be married,” which refers back to the status of women when they were eternal minors and had no rights, when they were subordinates to their husbands.”
In the 19th century, mademoiselle was a noble and honorific title, associated with the marital status of the woman. That said, at the time women didn’t have much standing in society. The Napoleonic Code, initiated in 1804, ruled that women could never reach majority, or legal adulthood. They became permanent minors, first under the guardianship of their father, then under that of their husband.
When the Napoleonic code was dropped in 1938, women were to be called “madame” when they reached adulthood. But “mademoiselle” is still widely used to designate unmarried women in France, unlike in most other European countries where the practice has been abandoned as discriminatory, said Muret.
Muret added that in their professional lives, women who have a high level of responsibility are often called “madame” while subordinates are called “mademoiselle.”
“It is used in a condescending manner,” she said.
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Sulamith, who, teaches at a university, wrote on Osez le Feminism’s blog that she noticed that although the directory of professors lists all men as “monsieur,” women are divided in two groups: those who are full-time employees are designated as “madame” while those who are not permanent are labeled “mademoiselle.”
Osez le Feminism’s offers a “Get Rid of Mademoiselle” kit on its website. It includes a selection of pre-written letters asking for the removal of the designation ready to be sent to bureaucrats. The kit's effect was immediate. So many women badgered their elected representatives that only a few weeks after its launch, the issue was addressed in the National Assembly.
A spokesperson for Solidarity Minister Roselyne Bachelot–Narquin, who supports the campaign, confirmed that a letter had been sent to the prime minister’s office offering to put together an inter-ministerial circular advising government workers to remove the mademoiselle option in all administrative documents, and to replace “maiden name” with “birth name.”
Although two such circulars were already drafted in 1967 and again in 1973, they were never implemented.
Muret says getting rid of the “mademoiselle” box on official documents is just a first step toward fighting ingrained sexism. “We thought that if we started with official documents, it would create a movement to stop using “mademoiselle” altogether.”
Not all women agree with the campaign. Isabelle Nagelon, who owns her own communication agency, says the fuss is “a false problem.”
“Changing the way we label woman won’t necessarily change people’s mindsets,” she said. “One should not confuse [this initiative] with …something that will solve women’s problems, [promote] their equality or their freedom, because it will not.”
A freighted distinction
For now, the choice of what to call a woman can pack a significant emotional punch.
Alice Douillard, 32, an unmarried mother of two, says she prefers being addressed as “mademoiselle.” Douillard says she disliked being called “madame” when at age 22, she became a mother.
“I have been called ‘madame’ for a long time already, ever since I had my eldest daughter,” she said. “Without her around, I am often called ‘mademoiselle.’ I find it is more pleasing, that people look at me as younger.”
Jean-Marie Andreu, who has worked in the fashion industry and owns a well-known chain of salons, points out, “Some women are on the defensive if we call them ‘madame’ because they feel that we are ageing them,” he said.
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He remembers characters such as fashion icon Coco Chanel who insisted on being called "mademoiselle."
“Back then, women would call for an appointment and ask for Mademoiselle Sophie … and Sophie was actually married with children, but it was a way of saying that she was an artist and that artists don’t age, that they stay eternally young,” he explained. “Today, I still have women who correct me if I call them ‘madame’ wrongly. But the opposite has never happened.”
Still, others say would rather not have to have their married status thrown back into their face routinely, especially if there are uncomfortable with it.
Vanessa Manche, 31, and single with no children, dreads the possibility that in 15 years she might be still be called “mademoiselle.”
“If this happened it would mean that “I never got married nor had children and that my whole life is a failure,” she said. “I understand that we should get rid of ‘mademoiselle,’ it stops short any comments on your status. With only one choice, the problem would be gone.”