24 February 2012

Say "adieu" to the word "mademoiselle"

I noticed the story in the Guardian this week -
It was once the preferred form of address for the fashion designer Coco Chanel and a handful of Gallic screen stars. But, now considered an unnecessary and unjustified reference to women's marital status, the French government has decreed the honorific Mademoiselle should be phased out from official forms.

After a campaign by feminist groups, the French prime minister's office has issued a circular saying the Mademoiselle option should be removed from all administrative documents in the vast state bureaucracy...
 - but found a more detailed explanation in a prior report -
Here, referring to myself as madame immediately commands more respect, especially in my place of work and even more so when I introduce myself on the phone. People take me seriously, which isn't always the case when I use mademoiselle...

The honorific [mademoiselle], etymologically related to "damsel", certainly has a medieval ring to it. There is definitely something belittling about the term, as it originally implied the woman was a virgin and not yet the symbolic property of her husband, as madame implies...
- and also this -
During the pre-revolution ancien régime its use was clearly prescribed: a laywoman or commoner was always addressed as "mademoiselle" to denote her lowly status. Madame was reserved for women of high birth. Marriage had nothing to do with it. Today, "mademoiselle" is most commonly used to denote an unmarried woman who is young or young-looking. After a certain age, wed or not, you become madame. But what is that age? How youthful or fresh-faced do you have to be? Is the butcher who says "mademoiselle", to a woman who is neither, being flattering or facetious? And while frankly I don't care if Catherine Deneuve, 67, and Jeanne Moreau, 83, like to be called "mademoiselle", as is their quirky right as "actrices", it does seem ridiculous.
I don't have any personal comment to add; perhaps"mademoiselle titam" will offer one...


  1. Mademoiselle is totally useless in administrative forms. Indeed, mademoiselle is commonly used for non-married women in France, but it implies an inferiority (the two explanations you give are perfectly accurate). I'm quite happy they get rid of it.
    As for my nickname, I love it because it is oldfashioned, and refers directly to a time when actresses, ladies standing out were often called Mademoiselle. I would not want to be called mademoiselle on a daily basis.
    Funny thing: in Québec, where I live, Mademoiselle has disapeared a long time ago. I like it, it makes men and women very equal.

  2. In Spanish-speaking countries, all women whose marital status is unknown are "señorita", indicating that they are, I guess, young and lovely even if they're not. In Germany, gnädige Frau is the polite terminology, being more respectful than Fräulein. Or so it was years ago when I was teaching.

  3. In business especially, the German "Fräulein" has been replaced by "Frau" for the same reasons. The "lein" ending makes it the diminutive form, literally "little woman".

  4. And here I write in "Miss" whenever I can because I'm a single woman and proud of my success without "belonging to" or being "partnered with" a man. I am annoyed that all too often my only option is Ms.; I'd really prefer to have Miss or Rev. (if I have a choice, I use "Rev.") on every official form. Technically, I'm Rev. Miss, of course, but nobody gets THAT formal any more!

    1. I am a young, recently married woman, and it frustrates me too that the only option I am generally given is "Ms." I wanted to be "Miss" before, and now I want to be "Mrs." I appreciate the security I have as a female in today's [American] society. Most men in my generation don't even know that there's a difference between "Miss" and "Ms."; the original purpose of "Ms." is passé. I somehow feel that "taking back" these older honorifics and having more choices is a truer celebration of our progress than continuing to limit ourselves. I was completely secure in myself as a "Miss," just as I am as a "Mrs." Being called "Ms." by default seems like I'm being handed a courtesy screen to hide behind. The presumption that I should want or need such a thing doesn't suit me or these times.

  5. The analogous situation in the German language occurred in 1972 when the option for "Fräulein" was removed from forms by the Ministry of the Interior following the protests of the late 1960s.

    I think France is a bit behind the curve in this regard.

    Many young women in Germany consider it offensive now. Even the German style guide Duden indicates that women should only be addressed as Fräulein when they specifically request this form of address.

  6. It may have disappeared from administrative langages, it's not dead yet.
    Actually some feminist argue in the other way, saying that "mademoiselle" now claims a right of a woman to stand by herself.
    Others, including me, even joke about adding "Gentilhomme" or "damoiseau" for single men instead. XD

    Anyway, i believe this administrative detail is really really far from the main fight for equality. Free leads : the image of women in publicity and in early education.

    Mademoiselle will certainly stay in use anyway for young women. We don't say "Monsieur" to call an adolescent or young adult, we use "jeune homme" instead.

    In day-to-day use, I don't think mademoiselle still has any sexist connotation.
    There's also something about the seductive language included in this. How are we supposed to charm young women ? Or even just talk about them ? Madame sounds old, just like Monsieur. Not very flattering ! xD
    As said above, mademoiselle sounds much more old fashioned and "de bon goût". (Tasteful, I guess, not sure about the translation.)

    By the way, it is funny too in an other ridiculous way : the only alternative is Madame, which was used as well to designate a woman who owns a brothel ! :D
    If feminists realize this, i fear we will soon have no more words.

  7. I must draw a line in the sand. I will not sing "Madame From Armentieres" and I am sure that she would agree with me.


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