Feminist language in France

// 25 January 2010

The use of Ms as an honorific free of implications about women’s marital status is pretty well established. But Francophone women don’t have an equivalent.

Over at Comment is Free today, Jessica Reed looks at the options, and concludes there’s little prospect of a new honorific entering the language – but considers the use of Madame to apply to all women.

Having lived in London since my early 20s, I had never not referred to myself as mademoiselle – a habit I never thought to question. And so I asked her: why was she using the term when in her mid-20s and unmarried? She was so young! Surely mademoiselle was a better choice, when madame was usually reserved for women in their 30s and beyond? Aurélie rolled her eyes, unimpressed with my remark. “It might be easy for you, with your choice of Miss, Mrs and Ms over the Channel. 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. Madame it is for me, thank you very much!”

I forgot about our conversation until last week, when I received a request by a French person who began her email with “chère mademoiselle”. I found myself surprisingly displeased with the form of address, as madame must be used when the sender does not know whether the addressed woman is married or not (this person had no way to tell whether I was someone’s wife, but did know I am young). I said it out loud, pondering its meaning. The honorific, 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. No wonder such a patriatchal legacy makes French women feel patronised.

Photo by nova.zembla, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. Shows an advert in Paris for Gillette’s Venus razors, which has been stickered by feminists, click through to Flickr for translation

Comments From You

Helen // Posted 25 January 2010 at 4:47 pm

In Germany, “Fräulein” (literally “little woman”) is now almost universally phased out in favour of a universal “Frau”, which I like. The disconcerting consequence, though, is that Germans often address me as “Mrs”, a title that I’ve never chosen nor, strictly speaking, am entitled to (as I am a civil partner, rather than a heterosexually married woman).

For me, “Ms”, “Mme” or “Frau” are good solutions, as they are entirely unrelated to my marital status, whereas it feels profoundly odd to be addressed as “Mrs” in a professional context – somehow disrespectful, which is of course the opposite of what the unsuspecting writer intends.

In the UK, though, I find that companies are very fond of recording me as “Miss”, a title I have never, ever used (I’ve been Ms since I was twelve.) This drives me crazy, because not only do utility companies and the like often refuse to register and use my proper title over the phone or in drop-down menus, but my title is completely irrelevant to the service they provide to me. A bill addressed simply to “Helen Lastname” will arrive and be paid just fine without a title being used anywhere along the way, so why annoy female customers by insisting on using the wrong one?

Butterflywings // Posted 25 January 2010 at 5:03 pm

Helen – a couple of years ago I had German housemates, and wondered why they got post addressed to ‘Mrs’. I thought they were married until they explained :-)

I hear you about companies…sigh.

Josy // Posted 25 January 2010 at 5:52 pm

As usual, the comments at CiF are headache-inducing. Alors!

Alas, ‘Ms’ is far from a default. I’ve had several companies ‘Missing’ me, in spite of the fact that I have never even told them my marital status in the first place.

In addition to marital status, why is it necessary to distinguish gender in this way? Indeed, as Helen points out, why have titles at all? Yet, registration forms for all sorts of things have it as a required field.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 25 January 2010 at 5:58 pm

perhaps if we only had one option, id feel better, though honestly, id love an umbrella term covering male and female.

Rachel // Posted 25 January 2010 at 6:07 pm

Helen – I have exactly the same issue with companies insisting on using Miss. There are some, such as Tesco, who don’t even give you a ‘Ms’ option when registering detail with them (I’m thinking in particular of their online shopping service. The worst I’ve encountered yet was being told by my employer’s HR department that I couldn’t use Ms on my CRB form as it would cause problems in processing it. Why they thought that I can’t imagine, I’ve been known as Ms for most of my life!

earwicga // Posted 25 January 2010 at 7:22 pm

Agreed with the two comments above – I hate the use of titles anyways. When there is a choice I choose Prof. or Doc. or suchlike. My sister signed me up to a book list with the title Lady once which amused me greatly, as I say to my children “I’m no lady, I’m all woman!”

Sarah // Posted 25 January 2010 at 7:23 pm


Good point. Recently I was given a CRB check for my work. I was contacted by someone in the office who wanted to check my previous surnames because I’d put my title as Ms.

I have never been married, but the default position for Ms is assuming that I am. I was not impressed, especially since there was a section detailing previous surnames. And why the assumption that if I were married I would have changed my name?

Philippa Willitts // Posted 25 January 2010 at 10:36 pm

When I lived in France there was massive debate going on about female government ministers. According to the institutions, they had to be called Madame le Ministre (ie. Female title, then male ‘le’ to go with minister). It was in the news for weeks. Eventually the female ministers were allowed to be called Madame la Ministre.

Language there is very protected from change, which can result in even more of an issue with sexist language than elsewhere.

Evamaria // Posted 26 January 2010 at 2:27 pm

As Helen said, in German-speaking areas (I’m in Switzerland) “Frau” has been pretty much universally accepted. I don’t think I’ve ever been “Fräulein” to anyone, except to some of the old ladies at the retirement home I jobbed in during university. (Some of them also *insisted* on being addressed as “Fräulein”.)

In my experience in English, though, Ms. is not yet the ‘default setting’ – although a lot of people seem to get around it, even in a business setting, by simply using first names. (Which for a German-speaker feels overly familiar – even after more than a year, my boss still calls me “Frau …”.)

Jessica Burton // Posted 26 January 2010 at 6:17 pm

CRB forms are bizarre in that they automatically assume that if your title is ‘Ms’ this must mean you were previously married.

The way to fill in a CRB form with no hassle is to put your surname (yes, the SAME surname) into the Previous surnames box – that tells them that you’re just a Ms without a dodgy secret other-name past and they’ll leave you be.

Rachel H-G // Posted 28 January 2010 at 12:36 pm

In quite a lot of countries, a single umbrella title for adult women is the norm. It has many advantages, the biggest being that you always know how to address a woman without causing offence.

I don’t understand the resistance to Ms in the English-speaking world, as its universal adoption would make things so much easier. If a country as patriarchal as Turkey can manage with “Bayan”, then Ms is hardly going to derail marriage and hasten the death of chivalry (yawn!) here.

Cycleboy // Posted 28 January 2010 at 1:11 pm

As someone who hates the fact that so many women change their surname on marriage, I was somewhat puzzled by a comment I heard by one woman in her 20s. She received an official letter addressed to ‘Ms Lastname’ and she went ballistic. “But, I’m a Miss.” she insisted.

I was not quick enough on my feet to point out that the sender probably didn’t know that, but I’m still puzzled why she was so offended.

Hannah // Posted 1 February 2010 at 4:07 pm

Helen – I share your frustration at companies who assume you are happy to be called ‘miss’! A secretary at my old doctors’ surgery changed the ‘ms’ I had put on my registration form to ‘miss’ when I spoke to her over the phone, both assuming that I wasn’t a ‘mrs’ because I am a student and refusing to allow me to keep my marital status a secret! I am sorry to say that I was too surprised at the time by what she said (as well as not wishing to sound confrontational) to tell her not to.]

I love the Japanese title system, where both men and women are addressed as ‘san’. In my dreams I would like a parallel system in English-speaking countries, perhaps with ‘mr’ (though until people got used to ‘mr’ being gender-neutral then it might be problematic that the male term was universalised, as with ‘he’).

Why do we need titles anyway?

Helen // Posted 1 February 2010 at 4:16 pm

Hannah – I love the idea of trying out Mr. on forms for a bit, to see if it makes a blind bit of difference! Is there actually any law or regulation governing the use of gender-specific titles?

And like yourself, while I like the idea of a universal title, I worry about making the male version the norm. Time we started addressing our male colleagues and clients and service users as Ms.

saranga // Posted 1 February 2010 at 5:10 pm

@ Hannah: Japanese uses a wide range of titles and honorifics which are pretty difficult to translate into english. san is one, but off the top of my hand there is also sensei, chan, senpai, kun, sama, koahi etc etc.

To infer that Japan doesn’t have a gender disparity in it’s honorifics is incorrect. But, it is true that the honorifics are linked to gender, status, age, job, familiarity and more.

Personally, I use Ms.

Elmo // Posted 1 February 2010 at 5:25 pm

I was filling out a form online, and even though I ticked “Miss”, I came up as “Mr.” when I completed the form. Obviously no one had checked/cared what I’d called myself, so why bother in the first place?

Liking the Japances system, btw.

Horry // Posted 2 February 2010 at 2:03 am

Someone I work with once told me she’d never use “Ms” in the office “because people might think you’re a feminist”. To which I said “well I do because I am”, while all the while feeling a creeping paranoia that this is partly why she’s got a better job than me, since when it comes down to it I’m not exactly brilliant enough not to have to play the game, too (I do have a PhD so I can also use “Dr” but this irritates people on all sorts of other levels…).

I think the one useful thing about sexist titles and assumptions is that whenever I answer the phone and someone asks if I’m Mrs Mypartner’sname, I know straight away it’s cold calling and nothing important. But as benefits go, I’d have to say it’s pretty marginal.

Incidentally, a lot of Conservative party promotional material which we’ve received wherever we’ve lived over the years addresses me as Mrs in a way which always feels very pointed (I think back when Michael Howard was leader, one letter even made a point of saying “we’ve chosen Mrs but do apologise if you are a Miss”). I guess they’re assuming if you’re the kind of woman who gets offended by this you’re not the kind who’d vote for them anyhow, and they’d be right (but I still used their pre-paid envelope and comments box to write, rather pointlessly, to complain).

Butterflywings // Posted 2 February 2010 at 3:06 pm

Yes, why do so many people *deliberately* choose to use Miss/ Mrs even when you’ve already said you’re Ms, to make a point?

It’s just plain rude actually not to address someone as they wish to be addressed.

My office knows I am a feminist, I don’t see why I should hide it.

I was complaining to my boss at the time that a work communication had used Miss and she said she prefers Ms too, but ‘wasn’t that bothered’, trans: ‘I’m not one of those ANGRY FEMINISTS’. (Aka ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ *proceeds to make feminist argument*). Hmmm, wonder whether it’s a coincidence that she was the boss.

So, I hear you Horry.

nick // Posted 2 February 2010 at 4:49 pm

Helen …

no thankyou …. I am Mr , not a Ms …

I’m not sure how to come up with a nuetral naming convention …..

maybe as others noted , not to have any ……..but that is up to the individuals ……….

My wife does not have a problem with

Mrs ……and I dont have a problem with Mr.

Mark E. Smith // Posted 25 May 2010 at 4:30 am

According to wiki with regard to honorifics in French, “The common ones are “Monsieur” (written M. for short) for a man, “Madame” (Mme) for a married woman and “Mademoiselle” (Mlle) for an unmaried woman. That’s what I was accustomed to seeing, but recently I’ve been noticing “Me.” used for both males and females. I couldn’t find any more information by googling, so this might just be the French version of the Spanish companer@s I’m accustomed to on the egalitarian socialist revolutionary websites I frequent.

Personally, I’ve always felt that the best solution in English would be to use “Mr.” for everyone, without regard to sex or marital status. Some seem to feel that this would make women invisible, but I believe that the obsession with exposing females in our pornographic society makes it very unlikely that any female can remain invisible. Other than in cases of unisex names like Chris or Pat, the sex of the person would be obvious anyway.

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