Terms of endearment

Clémence Poésy is part of a new generation of French women to bid adieu to 'Mademoiselle'.

Clémence Poésy is part of a new generation of French women to bid adieu to 'Mademoiselle'.

Ask a French person what they love most about their country and you’re likely to be reminded of the women who “don’t get fat”, the children who “don’t throw food”, the cuisine, the couture and, well – the sheer unadulterated Frenchness that flows through everyone’s veins.

Basically, it’s a land of the cartoonishly cultured. And one can go on before either party brings up the faulty export of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

But alongside the enviable culture and architecturally impressive desserts, French feminists have been busy making history of a different kind. While English speaking countries have long been offering the option of ‘Ms’ as a formal address, French women have had to choose between ‘Madame’ (Mrs) and ‘Mademoiselle’ (Miss) on official forms and registries. In other words, every time a French woman applies for a loan, opens a bank account or pays taxes, she is effectively being asked to disclose her marital status – an invasion of privacy that doesn’t affect the male population.

Now as a move towards gender equality, Prime Minister Francois Fillon has announced the abolishment of the term ‘mademoiselle’ on all official paperwork. The government has also banned the phrase ‘nom de jeune fille’ or ‘maiden name’, because it has ‘connotations of virginity’.

The nationwide change followed months of campaigning by French feminist groups Osez le feminisme! (Dare to be feminist!) and Les Chiennes de Garde (The watchdogs). According to New York Times, the groups ask on a joint website, “You’ve never wondered why we don’t call a single man ‘mondamoiseau’ or even ‘young male virgin? Not surprising: this sort of distinction is reserved for women.”

While some have welcomed the change, others argue there are more important battles for feminists to fight. Plus, isn’t it a shame to abandons such an endearing term when it can just as easily be interpreted as flattery – an honorific that makes women feel younger and – ultimately, more desirable?

In a recent Guardian article, writer Kim Willsher argued there’s a case for the right semantics. This is because historically, female subjugation is reflected not only in pay gaps and job opportunities but also etched deeply into our everyday language.  “Ms was perhaps a small step for a woman, but it was a giant stride for feminism,” writes Wilsher, “It changed not only the way others thought about us but also how we thought about ourselves.”

But before we crack open the champagne for French feminists, what about the ‘unofficial’ documents? And, say, in conversations?

The reality is, gendered monikers creep in even when we have politically correct boxes to tick on our serious forms. How many times a day do women get called ‘babe’, ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ by the people who make our coffees, sell us clothes or pass us by on the streets?

Like Mademoiselle, those terms of endearment are essentially ‘harmless’. But, as Wilsher points out, it’s often hard to tell “exactly where and when ... [the] flirtatious fun stops and the sexual harassment begins”. What’s more, what does it say about our society when men get called ‘mate’, ‘buddy’ and ‘bro’ while nicknames for women often make references to a person’s attractiveness or carry sexual overtones?

In the words of celebrated feminist Simone de Beauvoir, “To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man.” And that’s exactly why epithets, when used by strangers, can carry traces of condescension. While no one is going to correct an old lady who says “Thank you doll” after accepting your bus seat, is it the same if a male stranger starts addressing us with uncomfortable familiarity?  

And this is exactly where feminism comes in. At the heart of feminist thinking is a willingness to question our everyday reality. Do the words like ‘darling’ have both the power to foster intimacy and appear patronising? Absolutely. Having an awareness of the distinction doesn’t mean shunning social niceties entirely. But it does mean reserving the right to speak up when certain terms of endearment become offensive.

If nothing else, the official abolishment of Mademoiselle reminds us that words – however antiquated – have power. Sure, the road to gender equality may be paved with mixed messages, but as anyone who remembers Pamela Anderson’s 1996 chef d'oeuvre, Barb Wire, will no doubt agree, the most progressive statements can sometimes be made in a most ordinary way.

20 comments

  • One problem with all this.... I am married, but I did not take my husband's name. I am not Mrs Bxxxx (my name). And I think Ms is the most "miserable" sounding title. So what is my correct title ? And why should I use a title at all ?

    Commenter
    Godiva
    Location
    NSW
    Date and time
    March 06, 2012, 10:22AM
    • I love the term Ms. As an unmarried woman, I found that as I neared 30, ticking the 'Miss' box was beginning to make me feel very uncomfortable so I was soooo glad that feminists and women before me had addressed this very outdated concept of 'titles'.
      You're right Godiva, the entire concept of titles for both men and women probably needs to be re-examined, but for me, thank God for the Ms box.

      Commenter
      ACF
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 06, 2012, 10:55AM
  • What's wrong with Ms?!? Instead of titles, why not just a box for gender? When I filled in the online forms for internet with Vodaphone they asked whether I was married, divorced, widowed(!), etc - it was completely ridiculous. I wanted a USB that plugs into my computer, not sure why you need to know my marital history.

    Commenter
    gg
    Date and time
    March 06, 2012, 11:20AM
    • Which begs the question... why do we even need a box for gender? Does my telco really need to know my sex?

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 06, 2012, 3:38PM
  • Mr is an abbreviation of Master
    Mrs is an abbreviation of Mistress
    So there is no reason not to use Mrs X if you are married but kept your own name - you are mistress of your own affairs after all. It seems today Mrs is simply a marker of a married female - not the identifier of her husband - and should be compared and contrasted to Miss (a young unmarried female) and Ms, an unmarried adult female

    Commenter
    Doc
    Location
    Blue Mountains
    Date and time
    March 06, 2012, 11:22AM
    • Precisely the reason why we don't need it. What is to be gained by knowing if a woman is married or not?

      Commenter
      Yve
      Date and time
      March 06, 2012, 1:40PM
    • Mr is anabbreviationn of Mister!

      Commenter
      Zed
      Location
      Melbs
      Date and time
      March 06, 2012, 8:56PM
  • 'Ms' is great. It does not need to change throughout life, no matter you're with someone or not. Strangers do not need to know. That is what a title is for, strangers who do not call you by first name.

    Commenter
    Ms for more than 20 years
    Date and time
    March 06, 2012, 11:22AM
    • In Germany they dropped Fräulein yonks ago. You're either Frau or Herr so and so. The problem comes, however, when you buy, say, a plane ticket online. Frau gets automatically translated to Mrs, which is then tagged to the end of your name on the boarding pass. I cringe every time it happens.

      Commenter
      Unmarried female
      Location
      Munich
      Date and time
      March 06, 2012, 12:15PM
      • I heard it proposed many years ago to simply title girls (i.e.females under 18 years of age) Miss, and women (i.e. females over 18 years of age) Mrs, irrespective of whether they are married or not, in the same way Master and Mr are used for males younger and older than 18 years respectively.

        Commenter
        Peter
        Location
        Kew
        Date and time
        March 06, 2012, 12:32PM

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