by Jessica Critcher
Feminists in the French town of Cesson-Sevigne have abolished the use of the word “Mademoiselle” on official forms. Women will be addressed as Madame from now on, regardless of age or marital status. This is nothing new to American, Canadian and British women, many of whom opt to be called Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs.
The idea is that women do not want to be defined by their marital status, a freedom which men have always enjoyed and sometimes take for granted. While this might seem like a minor change, it is actually an important step toward dismantling institutionalized sexism.
As the Los Angeles Times points out:
Before the French Revolution, the use of “Mademoiselle” had little to do with whether a woman was married; a laywoman or commoner was always called “Mademoiselle” to indicate she was of lowly status. Only women of high birth were addressed as “Madame.” “Damoiseau,” meaning “squire” and serving as the male equivalent of “Mademoiselle,” was dumped in France decades ago.
This speaks volumes to the idea that women are treated as second class citizens. Arbitrary differences such as this, based on nothing but gender, constitute discrimination. Identifying women based on their marital status or age when men are identified by neither is just one piece of the massive gender double standard.
Although Ms. is now common, and other languages are following suit, there is still much work to be done. For example, even though it is considered respectful to refer to women by their professional titles, or Ms. if she doesn’t have one (or you don’t know it), Mrs. still seems to be the default for married (or older) women. I was a teaching assistant under a woman with a PhD whose students would often address her as Mrs. instead of Dr. without even bothering to ask if she was married. She wasn’t. I am married, but prefer to be called Ms. because stating that I am married is hardly ever relevant to any professional aspect of my life. The decision usually requires tedious explaining.
Women with known professional titles are still often referred to by their marital status. Michelle Bachmann, who I disagree with politically but respect as a woman in politics, is referred to by her marital status here in The New York Times. Just to show one of several examples:
Mrs. Bachmann said on Wednesday morning that she would not continue her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Last night, the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice, and so I have decided to stand aside,” Mrs. Bachmann said at a news conference in West Des Moines.
Male representatives are not identified as being married or not in their titles. Would it have been too difficult to refer to her simply as “Bachmann” or “Representative Bachmann”? Apparently.
Even the word “Madame” or its less formal contraction, “Ma’am,” smacks of patriarchal authority. It literally translates to “my lady.” Yes, it sounds very dignified in historical dramas, but it is an unapologetic claim to ownership. I know people don’t commonly use or mean it that way, but that unflattering connotation comes to mind every single time someone calls me “Ma’am.” Monsieur and Mr. are derivatives of “Master” while titles of respect for women are still conflated with a sense of ownership.
I don’t have a solution to this problem (besides encouraging all women bothered by it to get PhD’s and insist that they be addressed by their proper titles, which is expensive and time consuming). But a more suitable title must exist somewhere. If someone can think of one, please let me know. You can address it to Ms. Critcher, if that’s alright.