Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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FEBRUARY 22, 2012 9:50AM

No more "Mademoiselle"

Rate: 36 Flag

There had been whispers about it for decades, usually among feminists, occasionally echoed by female politicians.  This fall, the issue came into the spotlight again, touted by women’s rights organizations Les Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches) and Osez le féminisme (Dare Feminism), and by Minister of Solidarity Roselyne Bachelot:  the removal of the term “mademoiselle” from government forms.  Despite public controversy, on February 21, 2012, the law passed.  In matters of state, a woman will now only be “Madame”, regardless of her age or marital status.

The idea isn’t completely new: During and shortly after the French Revolution, “Monsieur” was replaced by “Citoyen” (Citizen) and “Madame” and “Mademoiselle” were replaced by “Citoyenne”, the word’s feminine form.  When I think of the way people I’ve spoken to here have reacted to eliminating marital status from a woman’s title, I realize just how truly revolutionary those Revolutionaries were!


A Revolutionary-era envelope made of a folded sheet of paper, addressed to La Citoyenne Briton[?] 


The issue may not seem like a very big deal to us native English speakers.  After all, the title “Ms.” has been in wide use in many Anglophone countries since the 1970's.  But for the French, this subject is fraught with controversy – in some very surprising ways.

The title “Ms.” is one of the most complicated things for me to explain to my French friends and English as a Foreign Language students, and not just because they have a tough time pronouncing it.  It seems like such a radical concept to them – even to the females of my generation.  Part of it may simply be linguistic preference.  Why would anyone need to make up a word, some might think, when two perfectly good ones – Mrs. and Miss – are already in place?  Whenever I try to explain the origin of “Ms.”, and the ideas of equality and the right to privacy behind it, my students just shrug their shoulders. 

I’ve personally often been bothered by the fact that there’s no equivalent of “Ms.” in French. For one thing, I hate the notion that in this day and age, in a Western, secular country where women officially have the same rights as men, the former are still publically and obligatorily categorized as married or unmarried. 

On top of that, the issue seems even more ridiculous to me because there are many different civil statuses you can have in France, but no way for those to be signified.  For example, the boyfriend and I are PACS’ed. The PACS is a legal contract that’s somewhat similar to a civil marriage (in French, he isn’t my boyfriend, but my conjoint on government documents, my compagnon in everyday life.  Since we don’t really have a title that works for this in English, “boyfriend” is the best I could come up with).  We share health insurance, a home, bills, a tax return.   However, on my visa and any other official documents, I’m identified as “Mademoiselle Alysa Salzberg”.  There are also women who are recognized as legal concubines (another rough equivalent to a civil marriage, but with less rights and privileges), as well as women who are divorced, widowed, or separated -- all are also officially called “mademoiselle”.

In this day and age, what the hell should it matter what a woman’s marital status is 99% of the time?  And certainly why should it matter in a country with so many options? 

But that’s not the only problem. “Mademoiselle” can be a major obstacle to respect for some women stuck with the title.  It’s a term laden with connotations.  Try having a woman at the head of a company who is officially a “Mademoiselle”. For all its good points, French culture can be extremely macho.  "Mademoiselle" sounds weak and young – and available for marriage.  Many women in CEO and other high-ranking positions will nonetheless go by “Madame”, and their employees will call them that, but whenever they receive a bill or have to show government-issued ID, they're still “Mademoiselle”.

When the issue of eliminating this term from official documents and identification cards came up last fall, I was overjoyed.  The news was even featured in an English-language article on Britain’s Daily Mail online.  I printed it out and brought it with me to a few of my classes.  The reactions I got to it went from apathetic, to angry. 

The first reason for the anger was something most of us can understand: Some of my female and male students wondered why French feminist groups are wasting time on an issue like this, when there are so many more important problems facing women today? 

One of my youngest students, a girl in her late twenties, revealed a very surprising reason for being upset: As a devout Catholic, to her, being called “Madame” is a privilege reserved for married women.  If everyone could have that title, or if another title were created that made all women nominally equal, she argued, there would be one less incentive for women to get married.  Rather a stupid idea, I thought, but then again, some of my reasons for wanting to have one uniform title for women are just as ideals-based.

Another reason the article made some of my students angry was far more complex: Many of the women I teach like being called “mademoiselle”. 

In France, the word “mademoiselle” plays a special role in a woman’s everyday life.  When you go to a shop, or talk on the phone to someone you don’t know, you are usually at some point referred to as either “madame” or “mademoiselle”. The choice is typically made from an attraction and/or ageist point of view.  Young and/or attractive women get called “mademoiselle”, while older and/or undesirable women are called “Madame.”  Sadly, there is, I admit, a thrill in being called “mademoiselle” by a chicly dressed shop owner, or a guy hoping you’re as single as you are (apparently) attractive.  Especially when you’re having a bad day and you’ve recently turned thirty. And being called “madame” can feel like a rejection sometimes…especially when you’re having a bad day and you’ve recently turned thirty.

But why should it be this way?  Men may not get implicit compliments from their title, but then again, a person can certainly pick up on the fact that someone thinks they're attractive.  And on the other hand, if you’re called “Monsieur”, you don’t have to take it as a message that you’re not young-looking and/or desirable.  Why should women have to be judged by something so seemingly benign, every time we leave the house?

Regardless of my opinion on this part of the debate, I reminded my students that a law eliminating “mademoiselle” from government forms and proceedings would only cover that realm: the question “Madame ou mademoiselle?” -- so classic that it’s even been used in commercials -- would continue to flourish on the streets and in daily life here. 



I wonder what the woman in this 2009 commercial for Krys Opticians would think? 

Still, most of them didn’t really seem to take to the idea.   At best, they found it ridiculous.  But someone in the government didn’t. According to this article, which appeared on Le Monde's website and Yahoo! France yesterday, the law has been passed, and now the “Mademoiselle” option on French government documents is no more.   

The French won’t make up a new word, and thus they won't give boxes to check that include said new option (which probably would have been the best choice of all).  Instead, there will be only one box to tick for all women: "Madame". 

My students and French friends may not understand it, but the news makes me smile.  It all comes down to the importance of words.  Hearing a woman classified and, in a way, judged, by her title day in, day out, is bad for women – and also for the men who want to have fulfilling relationships with us. Times have changed, and this law reflects that.  I can’t wait to get my new visa this year and see “Madame Alysa Salzberg” written on it.  One more step forward for true equality between the sexes. …Though there’s still a long way to go.



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Wow, I learned so much from this piece - thank you!
What a fantastic piece, Alysa! So informative and thought-provoking. All your points are excellent. It's interesting how language--and the connotations associated with particular words--codifies experiences, sometimes even making us feel things that, intellectually, we may not want to feel. I find the reaction of young French women very interesting and find myself wondering how older women feel about it. Language also expresses culture and traditions, and I can imagine, in a country that values those cultures and traditions, it's hard to let go of words, even when they cultivate an ethos that feels anachronistic. Thanks so much for this wonderful piece!
This saddens me as there is nothing like the enunciation of the word mademoiselle en francais.
I want to be able to make my choices not have someone tell me what to do.
So damned interesting! Never thought about this topic AT ALL, except that I hate being called Ma'am. Amazing to realize that something interesting/possibly significant has eluded your conscience for so long.
Fine article, Alysa. You really put the work in.
The same thing happens here in the U.S. People are so worried about offending women, that they rarely call any of us (no matter our age) "ma'am" anymore. I'm old enough to be your mother, and I still get called "miss," which rings inauthentic and annoying. "Just call me ma'am," I feel like telling youngsters who are trying hard not to piss women off. Then again, do you blame them? I once saw a younger woman in her 20s "go off" on a guy working the deli counter because he had asked, "Can I help you, ma'am?"
This is a positive step, Alysa. Funny how much controversy it seems to be stirring. To me, "madame" also conjures the image of the head of a brothel (not that there's anything wrong with that). I do hate it when young men call me "ma'am" even though it's a sign of politeness. Rated.
Bravo, Madame Alysa! We were just talking about this in our staff meeting this morning. Well, that and the DSK arrest. Sometimes it takes government action to move culture towards change. Still a long way to go, but two steps forward for France on the road to gender equality.
I will miss mademoiselle, the prettiest French word.
First, thank you for an interesting read, Alysa.

I've always been of the belief that this is a subject of "much ado about nothing", because I understand how a title or a way of address affects (especially) women. In my culture there are only two words: Bay and Bayan one uses before a man's or woman's name to address. Neither age nor marital status is a consideration in adressing me as Bayan Fusun Atalay (throughout my life's stages of being single, being married, being divorced, etc) just as it wasn't when I was a young girl of let's say 12.

I never thought Ms, Mrs, or Miss as part of my identity, so it never bothered me to be addressed by any one of those. When I read such news in Western societies, I'm amazed at how far ahead Turkey has been for years in comparison. Another example - when we lived in Switzerland, women still had no right to vote in elections. That was 1961! Turkish women had that right since 1923.

Mes meilleurs voeux à vous, Madame Alysa Salzberg! :o)
Oh, mercy! Has M. Chariot weighed in on this yet? Speaking of whom, haven't seen the monsieur around in a while. Anybody?
I've lived in Germany since the mid 70's. In the 70's, you would hear the word Fraulein used quite often, when someone referred to or addressed a young unmarried girl or woman. I could not say exactly when this title began to slid out of use, although now most girls and women are addressed as Frau, especially in the work place.
As for any personal preference, I feel it should be left up to the individual -- as in the video -- to decide which title they wish to be addressed by. But then, I'm a man, so what do I know about it!
Interesting post. I saw a lot of the same reactions when "Ms" was introduced as an option here. I expected it to really take hold, but a lot of women objected to it or found it silly. Still do, it seems--as I don't find it used as much as you would expect after all these years. It was a big issue for me years back, but I'm not sure it is to my daughters, who don't seem to feel the same gender gap that I did. I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. They certainly grew up feeling that they had more options. I hope it hasn't made them complacent.
Well, that was a long time coming! How times change... (r)
Fascinating. But the use of "mademoiselle" in social usage will continue as before, right?
It really does seem complicated even, to a lesser degree, in the US, but I support the idea that gave birth to "MS". Very interesting post, Alysa.
Thanks for reading and for your comments, everyone.

For those of you who talked about being called "Ma'am", yes, it's definitely like the "madame"/"mademoiselle" situation. Why do we women still let that be done to us? I mean, it would take FOREVER to eradicate it from our social habits, but ugh.

To those who said they'll miss the term "mademoiselle", I agree, it is a beautiful word. But it's got a dangerous beauty, because its use helps perpetuate outdated ideas about women. No worries, though: it is still very much used in social situations/everyday life, as I described.

Steve Klingaman - Thanks for reading, and I hope the above sentence answers your question.

Linda - I agree that it's not cool to have someone tell you what to choose. I really wish the French had created a new word, a true equivalent to "Ms.", and then allowed women to pick how they wanted to be referred to on forms, etc. For me, just using "Madame" is a compromise; the French aren't generally very verbally adventurous, alas.....

Fusun - I had no idea about the gender titles in Turkish - how cool! You are rightfully proud of your native culture!

Matt - I've missed dear Monsieur C. also...I hope he'll come by - and even more so, I hope he publishes another post soon!

Out on a limb - The Daily Mail article I linked to mentioned that fraulein had gone out of official usage in Germany in the '70's. It's so cool that you were there to witness the transition - though as you point out, it may not have been as significant to you, since you've always been a "Herr"!

jlsathre - "They certainly grew up feeling that they had more options. I hope it hasn't made them complacent." So eloquently put. I sometimes worry about that with my generations and the ones after it, too.
In Canada you can choose to keep or loose your maiden name. Same goes for the children. I think they can decide which family name to take. Yes They were revolutionary .
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Peace and ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥Have a Fine Day ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ツ)
This is a very well written, very professional piece. Did you submit this to any publications or news agencies?
Algis - I love when that is allowed and accepted. I personally would never change my name - it barely survived the Holocaust - but my sister did change hers when she got married. The best thing, as Linda pointed out, is when women can choose.

Interestingly, the new law abolishing "mademoiselle" from government forms and procedures will also abolish terms like "maiden name" and "married name". The latter because many women aren't married, but keep a previous spouse's name, take a partner's name, etc.
Fascinating. I am always amazed at how intricate and nuanced languages and honorifics can be. When I first moved to Georgia, I was not comfortable with young children calling me Miss Lezlie as opposed to Ms. Bishop. I soon learned the Southern custom was indeed meant with the highest respect and am now accustomed to it. In fact, "just call me Lezlie" is usually what I say to people. Who cares if I'm young, old, attractive, unattractive, married, shacking up or alone? If they care that much, they'll just have to get to know me.
DH - You are so kind! I haven't submitted it anywhere else, but if that changes I'll let you know. Thank you for your support.
Wonderful post. I like having the choice of Ms and always check that box when it is offered. Madame is so formal. Language evolves. Never easy.
Lezlie - Oh yes, the Southern customs can be surprising! When I moved down from NJ, I was so surprised that kids regularly called their teachers "ma'am" instead of Ms./Miss/Mrs. so-and-so, like we did in the north. The Miss [First Name] thing is also surprising. I think you're right to accept it -but I very much like your style of just asking people to call you by your first name. That's what I usually do, too (it makes me laugh when my adult students call me "Mademoiselle" - or "Madame" - Salzberg - I just prefer "Alysa").
zanelle -Thanks, and I so agree about the "Ms." box! I was so in favor of that idea that even when I was a young teen, friends and family who'd send me birthday cards and such always wrote "Ms. Alysa Salzberg", never "Miss".
I, too, learned much here. Thanks! r.
Very interesting post. Every time I read something of yours it makes me want to visit France!
I'm either a Miss Belinda, Mrs. T., or B. The "ma'am" connotes the southern belle scenario, which I find a bit old fashioned and respectful, especially when used by men.
This is a good piece.

First I finally feel like I understand the PACS arrangement from your brief description.

It seems like titles for girls and women can be confusing everywhere. Here in Sacramento, all the children I know refer to their female teachers as "Mrs. Mcblahblahstienski, rather than Ms or Miss. I have no idea why.

In 1992 I met with a group at a huge French insurance corporation. The chief exec was a woman with a feminized title that should have been "Directeur", IMHO. The feminized title was "Directrix" or "Directrice" (I can't remember which). Hard to pronounce for a Midwesterner.
Interesting. Language does mean something ideally. That is why people get passionate about it.
Interesting post, Alysa. In hindsight, I miss my old name, and wish I hadn't changed it. When I was younger, before I started working, I thought the Ms. thing was silly (and I had an old-fashioned, conservative mom who was very proud to be a Mrs.). However, I've come to appreciate it now--it's no one's business in a public setting whether I'm married or not.

Thanks for writing--change is hard. I'd love an update in, say, about a year to see how French society is dealing with this change.
You may call yourself Madame, but you'll always be Ma Cherie to me. I've been a Ms for so long, now they call me Mrs at the bank and I look at them with a ???? and of course, Dr when the occasion suits. If I marry my sweetheart, I may take his name and be a Mrs from time to time, but in my day to day life, my married status is utterly irrelevant. I clicked on this thinking you were engaged, what a tease you are, Madame....
pas "mademoiselle." maintenant "comrade." L'égalité pour tous.
Here in America, where anything goes, especially verbally, and especially when I am the charming verbalizer, “mademoiselle” is said with a silly kind of respect and of course benign flirting, like saying, “you are quite the dish”. I am always torn when to use “miss” or “ma’am’’. The marriage thing is the block for me. It’s funny about “ms” : you cant really SAY it unless you prounced it “mizzzzzzzzzzzzzz”, with a bit of fun in drawing out the z’s.

It’s all about how u say it. I am getting older and more pompous & brave when I go out, and sometimes say, “Thank you , my dear.” This may sound kinda yucky-paternalistic, but then again, shopladies say, “Can I help you, honey?” I am called “honey” a lot. I take it as a supreme complement.

Oh but when they call me “sir’ is amazing. I gotta live up to it. Not do anything goofy/childlike as is my usual wont. I deepen my voice on these occasions. Say “Ah , thank YOU, sir(or ma’am)” back at them.

It’s all a game. Sometimes it is just a distracted utterance . othertimes, there is a bit of happiness exchanged . I sure as shit wouldn’t want to be told by the attractive gal in the CVS, “here you are ,Citizen, have a good day”

This post only proves our synchronicity. I was out &about today, having to pretend to be adult , with my hat on of course, and I was getting “sirs’ left and right. I did the whole humble jokey thank you miss thing. It didn’t feel right, and I pondered on it….

This was a thought inciting post. Titles. In America now, doctors wanna know yer first name & call u that.
My mom used to get angry at this. “They should call me MRS. “
Imagine a 35 yr old kid doctor calling an elegant new England lady “Eleanor.”
But it had such a lovely sound.
Interesting. I have noticed (as a late 40s woman who generally "passes" for mid to late 30s) that strangers (store clerks and such) will call me "Ma'am" if they perceive themselves younger than I am and "Miss" if they perceive themselves older. That was even true when I was married to Iggy and wore an obvious "wedding set" (diamond engagement ring and gold wedding band).
Lady Lucia and I wear silver "engagement/commitment" rings - with very small diamonds - on our "ring fingers." We will add matching bands during our Commitment Ceremony in a couple of months. No change in reactions, so far).
Is it common to wear obvious rings in France? Do you and your boyfriend wear PACS rings? You've gotten my Inner Sociologist curious now.
Anyway...thanks, Madame Salzberg, for a fascinating post!
Alysa ~ thanks for the interesting post with information I was not aware of! Here's to the dapper Monsieur Chariot stopping by to comment, too!

On another angle, perhaps Mademoiselle magazine might have been affected by this had they not ceased publishing in 2001.
As usual, stunning... and a little sad. I love the way you are punctuating with fact and opinion, alternately. Gorgeous!
Thanks for your comments and thoughts, everyone.

Frank – Thanks! I hope you’ll get here some day – it would be so cool to meet you.

Belinda – You’re right, “ma’am” does have a very different connotation in the South.

steve – Thanks, and I’m glad this clears things up about the PACS. It’s really a great idea, in my opinion, especially because same-sex couples can also get PACS’ed. As for the “directrice”, yes, that can definitely be hard to say! I find the feminization of titles somehow less offensive, though, than the ones whose gender can’t be changed. For example, “écrivain”, the word for writer, can only be masculine. Luckily, that’s changing, too: just about every profession whose name didn’t have a gender difference, can now be used with a feminine article in front of it, too.

froggy – Doing an update could be an interesting idea. I’m not very optimistic, though – I think that the only thing that will change will be in terms of government stuff, because the French are so fond of saying and hearing “mademoiselle” in everyday life. But the fact that the government recognizes that a woman is more than who’s she’s married to (or not) to me shows so much progress. Maybe there will be changes on a larger scale, through people seeing ID’s and such with “Madame”, not “Mademoiselle”, all the time – but I feel like the change might be felt further down the road, maybe in a decade or two.

Oryoki – Awww, merci! I like what you wrote about the different titles you have/could take. It shows the best part of Anglophone society – that a woman not only has an option like “Ms.”, but that she can also choose to be a “Mrs.” or a “Miss” if she prefers. I really think the best solution would have been if the French had created a word for “Ms.” and then left the option open to all women, but it’s just not in their linguistically-conservative, concision-loving nature, unfortunately.

Stim – Oui!

James – It’s interesting to read how a man reacts to being called “Sir”. I never thought about it, I guess unless it’s like, one of my brothers being called it for the first time when they were teens. Thanks for sharing that – and also another case of synchronicity!

minis – No worries, as you can see, it’s just a government change; it would be more or less impossible to impose such a change on people in their everyday lives. The word “Mademoiselle” will still ring out in the streets of Paris and all of France.

Eva – Some people who are PACS’ed celebrate the ceremony like a wedding, and do wear rings, especially same-sex couples; same-sex marriage isn’t yet legal in France, unfortunately, but the PACS, more or less the same thing, but with no religious context, is. The boyfriend and I don’t wear rings and we didn’t have a big celebration, because our PACS was something we did out of necessity –for me to stay here in France, and so that we would have legal rights and protection regarding joint taxes, health insurance, etc. Even the day we call our anniversary isn’t the date of our PACS, but the day we first said we were in love with each other. But some people do see the PACS very differently. I like that each of us can make of it what we want.

designanator – You bring up an interesting point about “Mademoiselle” magazine. I bet they would have covered this issue. But I don’t think much would have changed, since “mademoiselle” will still very much be used in everyday life. Would have been interesting to read their approach to this, though….

Brazen Princess – Thank you!
Excellent write-up, Alysa. On an aside, I remember my grams' saying, "you can call me anything, but don't call me late for supper!" ;)
I wonder if something similar will happen in Mexico and other countries with spanish-speaking peoples. Senora, senorita...
I like the idea!! Thanks for your presentation of it here, very thorough!