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.