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.
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.