Au Revoir à Mademoiselle

Three hundred and twenty-two years after its introduction, “mademoiselle” has taken its final curtsy. Just this week, Prime Minister François Fillon ordered that the “Miss” equivalent be removed from all official documents. Like English, French honorifics reveal a women’s marital status– “mademoiselle” for single women and “madame” for married women–while all men are referred to as “monsieur” regardless of age or “matrimonial situation,” in the words of the Prime Minister.

The change will be wide-reaching in bureaucratic French society. Women were previously required to check a box for “Mme.” or “Mlle.” on everything from credit card applications to voting registrations to train tickets. The new forms, which will be phased in as the old ones run out, will only give two options–“Monsieur” and “Madame.” Questions about women’s fathers’ and husbands’ names will also be eliminated.

Two feminist organizations that pushed for the changes, Les Chiennes de Garde (The (Female) Guard Dogs) and Osez le Féminisme! (Dare to be Feminist!), are thrilled with the government’s initiative and hope that private companies will follow. But not everyone is pleased. Some are mourning the forced extinction of the word as a linguistic loss. A flirtatious “mademoiselle,” they say, makes women feel younger and reminds her that she’s still “got it.” On the other hand, the president of Paroles de Femmes (Words of Women), another feminist organization, worries that abolishing the long-loathed word is nothing more than an easy move on the part of government to gain feminist approval without doing any real work. She points to staggering inequalities in pay and the absence of women in political and corporate leadership roles as real issues that aren’t being addressed.

Magali de Haas, a representative for Osez le Féminisme!, couldn’t disagree more. She sees the elimination of “mademoiselle” as a victory that can help pave the way for other changes. In the upcoming election year, her group hopes to see the government stand behind their decision and pass other pro-equality legislation that will reduce the wage gap, expand women’s healthcare, and limit sexism in advertising.

She believes that “mademoiselle”–and its rejection–is important because of the symbolic violence it’s wreaked on women throughout history. It’s true that it’s only a word, but (and I’m about to get all Sapir-Whorf all over you) we create our reality through our words. By requiring a woman to choose between “madame” and “mademoiselle,” we’re forcing her to identify herself in relation to a man. And, because same-sex marriage is still not legal in France, only a man, despite what her sexuality may be. As sassy as some might see “mademoiselle,” there’s no denying that it’s a relic of the days when women were passed from father to husband.

The change brings up further questions about honorifics and how they relate to our norms. The woman who said she was sad to see “mademoiselle” go because it made her feel young seems to highlight gendered expectations of sexuality and appearance. Traditionally, as men age in western society, they gain knowledge, money and power while women lose any power they had as their sex appeal–their only widely recognized social capital–begins to ebb. Adeline Sire, a columnist for PRI’s The World, makes a connection between “mademoiselle” and St. Catherine’s Day, an archaic holiday where French women over 25 prayed for husbands and wore bizarre hats to draw attention to their status as a bachelorette. Though the tradition has faded away, the fact that some women still cling to the mademoiselle/madame shows that marriage and sexual availability are still meaningful in parts of French culture. Perhaps a shift away from defining women in relation to a man is just what France needs to get the ball rolling.

Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 329 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. I’ve stopped using “Miss” on documents, preferring to use “Ms” because I’m being defined by me and not my marital status. However, I’ve noticed that other people (such as the nurse who processed by blood donor account) still input me as “Miss” because I’m young and presumably not married. As with “Mme”/”Mlle”, “Ms”/”Miss” seems to be divided along ageist lines. People assume that if a woman of a certain age isn’t married, it’s because she chose not to be for a variety of reasons. There’s still seems to be a myth that younger women are still young enough to be looking for a spouse, and will someday hope to become a “Mrs”…which isn’t necessarily the case. I wouldn’t be upset if “Miss” was eliminated from English documentation, but as French feminists have already said, there’s still a lot more that needs to be changed and this doesn’t necessarily symbolize a turning point.

    • That’s very presumptious of that nurse, I mean, I’m a teacher and I know many of my colleagues keep their own family name for professional settings after getting married. So not only was she disregarding your personal choice, but you may well have been married, and that could cause administrative problems down the line.

      • mI work at on campus at my uni and we hand out these discount forms for students to fill out. There are checked boxes for Mr, Mrs, Ms and Dr, and a box for other honorifics. The number of girls who write Miss in the box astounds me. I switched to using Ms exclusively when I graduated school, but even before then I would never have gone out of my way to use Miss.

        There’s a story about Florence Nightingale being very frustrated by the distinction between Miss and Mrs. At the time, there were some strict protocol differences between addressing an unmarried versus a married woman, and as she never married, she perceived found these distinctions so continually annoying that she began to use “Mrs” as her title.

        • I prefer “Miss” too, although it’s mostly because I think “Ms” sounds incredibly stupid and lazy when said out loud. And so far, I’ve not been able to convince anyone I should be refered to as “Supreme Overlord of Planet Earth”. One day.

          • I love “Miss.” I went to a woman’s college and rather than use “Mrs.” or “Ms.” we preferred to call each other Miss __. Our female professors were simply “Doctor X” or “Professor X.” I don’t know how that trend began on campus but now–six years later–the idea of being called anything other than “Miss” drives me crazy.

    • The main problem I see with Ms is that I was in my 20s before I realized that it was pronounced differently than Miss, but Ms is what I always use rather than make an assumption about some lady’s marital status.

  2. But I love “Mademoiselle”. (I’m a French Canadian)
    Why don’t they get rit of Madame? Miss/Sir and Mademoiselle/Monsieur. Don’t those pairs look and sound much more equal then Mistress/Mister wich simply reenforce the fact that the female honorific is a derivative of the male one?

  3. I was complaining a while ago to my very feminist, Argentinean roommate about how Spanish has no equivalent of “Ms.”, but she really didn’t understand what the issue was at all. I tried explaining to her why it was disturbing that women’s titles refer to their marital status, while men’s don’t, but she claimed that “señora” and “señorita” had more to do with a woman’s age (not true, I don’t think, but even so–isn’t that also upsetting?). Anyway, I’m happy to see French feminists taking on this issue.

    • Yeah I used to work at a restaurant and all the busboys and cooks would call me senorita all the time (which is whatever, i know they weren’t exactly thinking in feminist or anti feminist ways when they did it) but one time i asked one of them in spanish why there isn’t a “senorito” but only “senor”. he had no idea. i dont think many people stop and think about this, but as a lesbian who will always retain by last name and possibly always be a “miss” on legal docs for the rest of my life, i sure do!

    • I think it’s true that after a certain age, an unmarried woman who used to be ‘señorita’ will become ‘señora’ (one of the implications being that she is no longer desirable for marriage at her age)…and yes, still upsetting.

    • I know in Italy a woman goes from Senorina to Senora at a certain age, married or not. The implication is that calling an older woman, even if unmarried, Senorina is sort of insulting, like you’re pointing out that she never married, which is obviously a bad thing. However, I don’t know if that is a hard and fast rule, but either way, there is no equivalent for men. It seems to me that dividing women according to young or old is just as problematic because it emphasizes the idea that women have a ‘sell-by’ date, usually around 30. This is also roughly the age at which women go from being referred to as ‘ragazza’, girl to ‘donna’ or woman.

      • Ok now, people usually call you “signorina” in your twenties. But usually we don’t use it that much. I mean I’m 19 and if you ask me the last time someone referred to me as “signorina” I don’t remember it. In the hospital maybe? Usually we go by names only anyway. “signora” is used in letters and to refer to older people. “Signorina” may have a bad implication because it’s used to mock older people who act like they’re young. At the same time if you call a girl “signora” they will probably tell you “Hey I’m young”, not “hey I’m not married”. It’s a mere question of age. As for the sell by date, well people in Italy don’t marry until their late thirties on average, so you are called “signora” way before you are married. As for the men, I never heard of boys in their twenties called “signori”. I’ll pay more attention, but it sounds just as weird as calling a girl “signora”. As a form of respect we usually use the “lei” and name.

    • In my country señora is a symbol of respect to a lady, single or married, of a certain age, while señorita is used more among teenage women.

      A disturbing part of my culture is that single women referred as “señoras” as a derogative/joking statement can mean that those ladies are promiscuos and lost their virginity before marriage (weird argument, I know); and yes, this statement is usually made by men.

      This type of address is ambiguous here, depending the context, but what can I say, I live in a retrogade and sexist society.

  4. It’s fascinating that this even happened, because if anyone had told me that the French would make this change, I would have rolled my eyes, assuming that yet another feminist issue would go ignored. Great victory for French women!

    As a resolute “Ms,” I have to agree that the reasons why people resist getting rid of the honorific only serve to highlight archaeic gendered expectations.

  5. Isn’t an honourific title that is age-related also honouring aging? It’s just I had the notion of ‘respect your elders’ as a cultural norm growing up, so addressing people as ‘aunty’ or ‘grandfather’ etc is just (me) being respectful. But I suppose I would also normally stress someone’s professional title over their
    marital title as a matter of respect.

  6. A friend of mine recently nearly had her pay held up for a month because the secretary insisted on taking down her husband’s name even though she explained to her that she had not taken his name. Well, of course the secretary put the husband’s last name as her’s on all the paperwork meaning the names didn’t match up with what the bank had. So, victory for feminism and efficiency.

    There’s been a petition going around that I also find really interesting, if more unlikely to come to pass, to make the gender or the noun closest to the adjective determine the gender of the adjective. As it is, one masculine subject in a group makes everything masculine. This way you could say, for example “Les hommes et les femmes sont belles ce soir.”

    • the day i graduated and got to change my title to a professional non-gender-specific one and left all that miss/ms stuff behind was actually a big deal for me, like i never have to be defined so specifically ever again by other people’s perceptions of what is associated with those titles.

      an interesting side-note: in several commonwealth countries (therefore originally starting in the UK) including in australia, once medical doctors qualify as surgeons their title can revert from Dr back to Mr and apparently Ms/Mrs/Miss, however i am yet to come across any female surgeons who do that.

    • I’ve long thought that the ‘courtesy’ titles (Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss) are totally pointless. I come from a Quaker background, where titles are never used; the standard formal form of address is to use the person’s full name on its own. The genderedness of all of the available titles is frustrating. I am non-binary-gendered, so this matters especially to me, but I have also met people who identify as women—no men so far, but I’m sure there are some—who resent having their gender advertised in their title.

      It’s a bit different for academic and professional titles like Dr or Professor, but these are almost always gender-neutral in modern usage anyway. I intend to obtain a doctorate as soon as possible in order to deal with the problem in a way that doesn’t require a lot of arguing with bureaucratic jobsworths.

  7. In the US ‘Miss’ spelled out drives me CRAZY especially because in a school setting, girl students are ‘Miss’ and so are unmarried women teachers. So what is meant to be ‘respectful’ using last name/title instead of first name from student to teacher loses alllll meaning.

    Although I NEVER make kids pronounce ‘Ms.’ correctly. To the younger generation, it’s either Miss or Mrs, with no in between. Whoops. Looks like I need to start using professor for 6th graders lololol.

  8. Thanks so much for this!
    I’ve just started Language coursework and as usual have managed to make my piece about something queer/feminist/political without meaning to because it was what got me excited. I’m writing about Sapir-Whorf w/r/t reclaiming offensive terms. I.e. does stopping people use ’em stop people thinking that way.
    I love it when you talk linguistics to us Laura! and I prob will always love it. Especially if as I wish I go off to study it at university in September.
    But, anyway, now I’m wondering if gendered honorifics is a second piece of work calling for me…
    & also marvelling at how Autostraddle (and in this case the world) has something to say just when I’m interested in a topic.
    awesome!

  9. can we get a new word to replace feminism? i’m sorry, but a) not all women are soley feminine (and vice versa etc etc) and b)to people who sneer at what the word actually means can take refuge under the ingrained stereotype of feminism as a trait is weak, silly, etc. which is the opposite of what being a feminist is!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • ‘Feminism’ isn’t a direct derivative of ‘feminine’. They both derive from the Latin ‘femina’, which means ‘woman’. ‘Feminism’ literally just means woman-ism, i.e. a political movement concerned with the position of women in society, which I hope you’ll agree is quite apt. (‘Womanism’ is also a label adopted by some women, especially women of colour, who feel that feminism focuses too much on women in positions of privilege, but I digress.)

      I feel like the focus on the word ‘feminism’ is a distraction: antifeminists don’t oppose us because of what they feel the word implies, either literally or by stereotype; they oppose us, for the most part, because they feel deeply threatened by the idea of gender equality, a situation which isn’t going to be changed by a change of name.

  10. I’m surprised that Ms. isn’t the standard amongst posters here. When I was a high school, all my female teachers were Ms. It was a bit more progressive, however I am now a high school teacher, at a more “traditional” school, and all of our name tags say Ms., but you can specifically ask for it to be changed to Mrs. (I guess you could ask for Miss as well, I don’t think anyone has, though.)

    My students usually get it right, and pronounce it correctly. Once in a while they may say Mrs., but they also sometimes call me mom, so I don’t get that offended.

    Interesting. Anyone know why Ms. has taken off in some populations and not others?

    • I think Ms. has become more popular in the US in general. Interestingly, when I was growing up in the South our teachers were all “Mrs.” but we pronounced it “mizz”, so there wouldn’t really be a difference phonologically between a “Mrs.” and a “Ms.”. Or we’d use “ma’am” for any female teacher.

      In the Northern schools where I currently work, students call any female teacher “miss”, regardless of whether she uses “Mrs.” or “Ms.” (or “Miss”).

  11. As I’m going be be a teacher this is relevent. I would prefer mademoiselle because I do not want to feel old but even so Mademoiselle Caroline would be a mouthfull for the kindergarten kids I hope to teach so I would probably go by Madame Caroline just for the sake of the kids anyways.

  12. Oh dear. I feel awkward being addressed as Madame (usually in service situations) – I always associate it with women my *mother’s* age and I never feel old or distinguished enough to be a Madame! (or, with the Malaysian accent, “me-dem”). “Madmoiselle” had some whimsy.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.