Madame and mademoiselle

There is currently a linguistic debate in France around the use of the word mademoiselle; a petition has been started demanding that administrative documents should no longer have the choice between mademoiselle and madame; they should only offer madame. I was listening to my favourite RTL programme, On refait le monde, and the journalists (3 men, 1 woman) were talking about the issue. The men felt very strongly that this debate was a waste of time, as the use or not of a word is completely unimportant compared to issues such as the continued discrimination of women in the workplace. I listened with great interest to their arguments. The men couldn’t understand why some women have such a problem with the word mademoiselle. A man in France is always monsieur, whether he is five years or fifty years old. For women, there is a distinction. Strictly speaking, mademoiselle is used to address an unmarried woman. A married woman is called madame.
Far from being a petty debate, the use of a particular word to talk about a person is a matter of great importance. Language is the way we construct the reality around us, an everyday tool which, as such, has a huge impact on our lives. Language, and words, can also be used in a very effective and insidious manner to influence perceptions and opinions. As a woman, every time I’m offered the mademoiselle option in administrative documents, I feel like I’m reverting to an age when I had no responsibilities, no job, no real life of my own. Being called mademoiselle feels completely incongruous to me – as if someone is treating me like a child. Because this is what the word means: an oiselle is a "silly young girl". Calling a woman mademoiselle is a very effective way to diminish her confidence and authority, and I’m not surprised that the instigator of the petition is a company owner who no doubt feels that being called mademoiselle undermines her worth as a businesswoman.
The other part of the debate around mademoiselle is that it carries with it a certain view of women: a mademoiselle is an unfinished product, an incomplete person, who will only be viewed as reaching adulthood through marriage. As such it can be argued that mademoiselle is a patriarchal word which belongs to a world in which women are not defined as individual beings but as belonging to a man: mademoiselles belong to their fathers until the day they’re given away to their husbands and become madames. I’m sure most readers will agree that this is an archaic view of the world. So why not follow the times and change language accordingly?
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that to me, language isn’t a sacred thing which must be frozen and protected at all cost. I think this is another example of how it needs to evolve to be relevant to our times, all the better to shape them. After all, our (often more pragmatic) Anglo-Saxon friends did it a long time ago when they created the now ubiquitous Ms.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:27+00:00 May 8th, 2006|Words|17 Comments

About the Author:

Celine

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

17 Comments

  1. Marieke May 9, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Yes, they came up with Ms. in England. However, they should have simply gotten rid of Miss instead and just left them with Mrs. Because using the title Ms. now gives people this impression:
    – She is a lesbian
    or
    – She is a radical feminist who claims that defining yourself by your marriage status is old fashioned and therefore she wants to leave her marital status undefined.
    or
    – She is hiding something in her past (Divorce??)
    I feel that using Ms. actually has a lot more stigma attached to it than Miss or Mrs. Miss means you are not married. Mrs. means you are. Ms. means a whole lot more and carries a kind of social charge.

  2. céline May 9, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    Interesting, is that really the way you feel about Ms.? To me, it is a neutral word which I use without ever wondering how it is going to reflect on me. It might have been different when Ms. first started being used, but I think that now, it has become part of language/society and doesn’t cause women to be seen with suspicion. Of course, I suppose it depends on the environment where you use it, and I must remember that I live in ultra-liberal Brighton and that as such, my experience isn’t particularly representative of the whole of the UK. May I assume you live in a small town/rural area (meaning, a place slightly more reticent about change)?

  3. Marieke May 9, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    It is not so much how I feel about Ms. But using Ms. is a deliberate choice. Peopl emust CHOOSE to be addressed with this neutral word. Therefore, there must be a reason for this choice. What is this reason? You don’t want people to know your marital status. Or you consider yourself not single (lesbians for example, or women who live with their partner) and therefore you don’t want to use Miss. Or you feel nobody should judge you on your title.
    So there is always a REASON for not going with the automatic Miss/Mrs. This means that the woman has thought about the status/meaning of Miss/Mrs/Ms. This indicates to me a certain awareness of her status in the world and how people judge women, based on their title.
    but then again, this might just be my thinking.
    If I may ask, why do YOU use the title Ms?

  4. céline May 10, 2006 at 7:35 am

    Ideally I wouldn’t use a title at all. What use is a title? But in situations where I have to pick one, I always choose Ms. because of the cultural implications of Miss and Mrs (see in my entry the bit about belonging to your father or your husband), which contradict my view of myself as a (relatively) free and independent individual.

  5. Marieke May 10, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Indeed. I am just wondering about the perception people have of women who take the effort of thinking about those things. As you mentioned in your post, men (and a large number of women) don’t understand why women would be bothered about Miss or Mrs. There are more important things to worry about, they say.
    So that means that they might perceive women who are ‘bothered’ about such things to be women of a certain type: women who like to assert their independence etc.
    That is what I wanted to say. I also use Ms. Also as a deliberate choice. Because I too have carefully thought about the meaning of Miss and Mrs. So, instead of Ms. being a neutral choice, it carries just as much meaning and assumptions as Miss and Mrs.
    Miss: Incomplete woman who never found husband or young woman
    Mrs: Married woman
    Ms: Woman who has strong feelings about independence of women and their right not to be defined by their marital status.
    But that is just my opinion.

  6. Jean May 10, 2006 at 4:08 pm

    Good to see that this debate is happening in France! As the years go by, and now, in late middle age, I still on occasion get called Mademoiselle, I cringe in ever acuter discomfort. Much more uncomfortable than the twinge of annoyance that, yes, does accompany having to ‘make a point’ of saying Ms and knowing that it may be seen as making a point.

  7. céline May 11, 2006 at 9:00 am

    I was surprised by Marieke and Jean’s comments, so I asked my English-speaking friends what they thought about the issue. They agree with my readers, and gave me two striking examples of how “Ms.” is seen with suspicion by a lot of people. A friend of ours went for a job in a primary school, and didn’t get it; she was told it was because she was a “Ms.” (nevermind the fact that far from being a dangerous extremist, she holds a perfectly “respectable” and traditional role in society, as a wife and a mother). Another friend, when taking up a post in a school, indicated that her title was “Ms.” and was told: “Yeah, we’ve got another one of those”. I am stunned. And very naive.
    Maybe the petition is right to ask that Mlle should disappear altogether and that Mme should be used for for all women instead of creating a third “class”. It would prevent that kind of situation from happening.

  8. Jean May 11, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    Sounds like your friend was well out of a work place where such assumptions are current. I think for a married woman and mother to choose to call herself Ms is seen by such folk as the most wilfully ‘subversive’ and ‘radical’ of all -so good for your friend!

  9. Margaret May 12, 2006 at 8:31 am

    The comments are interesting. I live in Germany so it’s always ‘Frau’, except on a couple of very odd occasions. But recently I received two letters from Britain addressing me as ‘Miss’, which I hate. I wondered why they had done it. One was the old pupils’ association at my old school, and the other was some cousins I have only met recently. I thought ‘They can’t be intending to be rude – they must think I’m so old that I prefer it’. But now I see what Marieke means, and that explains it. I will have to use ‘Dr’ after all! – As I’ve been out of England so long, I had no idea what a bad press feminism has.

  10. céline May 12, 2006 at 9:14 am

    *gasp* Margaret, I can’t believe you used the “F” word on my blog! Dirty, dirty word.

  11. Marieke May 12, 2006 at 9:41 am

    When I write a business letter to a woman whose marital status I do not know, I always use Ms. That way I avoid being rude (and wrong).
    I am pleased (or should I say sad?) that my perception of the word Ms. was correct. I was starting to think I was the one judging women on their title, not The Others….
    How can your friend be refused a job on the basis of her calling herself Ms. Surely that is blatant discrimination?
    I reckon everyone over a certain age (18, 21, when reaching Adulthood?) should be Madame, Frau or Mrs, regardless of their marital status.
    We had this distinction in Dutch but over the years, it has eroded and now, very few women would call themselves Mademoiselle (Mejuffrouw or just Juffrouw). Just about all women are Madame (Mevrouw).
    Interesting tidbit worth investigating by the way is that the word for a female teacher in Dutch is Juffrouw. Clearly this derives from the fact that, in the olden days, most teachers were female and single.

  12. Margaret May 13, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    Yes, that was a bit blatant, but it was not a dirty word when I last lived there!
    Btw I also hate the way airlines call everyone Mrs. Of course if it were to change its meaning that wouldn’t matter.

  13. Michele June 13, 2006 at 10:11 am

    A question, really. What about an unmarried (never-married) woman in France who is over 40 and has two teenaged children? Wouldn’t she be “Madame?” I know someone in this situation who insists on using “Mademoiselle” to indicate her single status which seems odd to me. Any thoughts?

  14. céline June 13, 2006 at 10:19 am

    Well, everyone has their reasons to prefer one or the other, and it looks like the person you mention is keen to make her single status clear, possibly because people might be tempted to assume that because she has 2 big children, she is married/in a relationship. I’m only guessing!

  15. Hélène June 15, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Il paraîtrait qu’une femme même si par mariée, s’appelle Madame administrativement à partir du moment où elle a un enfant.
    J’ai 26 ans, pas mariée, pas célibataire non plus, pas d’enfant, je me sens adulte, mais spontanément on m’appelle “mademoiselle”, même si je suis avec mon compagnon. Je me suis toujours demandée si on change de tête quand on devient mère ou après le mariage.. les gens ne regardent pas d’abord si vous avez ou pas une alliance…
    Mademoiselle, ça permet de rester “jeune”, (jusqu’à un certain âge, bîen sûr) et plus “libre” ; Madame donne plus un statut social…
    Ceci dit, ma mère est dénommée Mademoiselle X (pas mariée) et ça ne me choque pas, car Madame X, j’ai toujours considéré que ce n’était que mon arrière-grand-mère.. Tout est une question de fond familial et culturel également, ainsi que de l’environnement étudié (travail, loisirs, famille…). Finalement, c’est très personnel comme appréciation.
    Bonne journée !

  16. Michel Barcellos June 16, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    Hello,
    I was looking for a translation of the words madame and mademoiselle, so I can use to joke with my friends, here where I work, in the greetings. People here in Brazil don’t speak French, but these words were used in Portuguese last century, so people know them.
    Then I found this article talking about the difference of the importance of the words in French. Here in Brazil we have one word for madame – “senhora” – and one for medemoiselle – “senhorita”. The first is used for married women and the second for unmarried ones, but “senhorita” is the diminutive of “senhora”.
    The difference here, is that people here don’t care so much for the language, and uses the word for “married women” to talk to “adult women”. I think people here are more informal than people of the northern hemisphere.

  17. céline June 16, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Michel, or maybe you haven’t thought about the issue because you have no real need to, which leads you to assume that people in the southern hemisphere are more “informal”… or maybe women aren’t used to question the use of language used to talk about them in your country…

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