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French Feminists: Eliminate “Mademoiselle”

French Feminists: Eliminate “Mademoiselle”


This past Thursday, September 29, French writer Tristane Banon and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn were jointly questioned by Paris investigators who are seeking to determine whether to pursue a criminal case against the former chief of the International Monetary Fund. While the Manhattan District Attorney dropped charges of attempted sexual assault against Strauss-Kahn last month amid concerns about the credibility of alleged victim Nafissatou Diallo, Strauss-Kahn now faces Banon’s claims that he attempted to rape her during an interview in 2003; he has called her claims “imaginary and slanderous.” The French politician still faces a civil suit filed by Diallo but, on Monday, he claimed diplomatic immunity and requested that a New York court dismiss the suit.

Not only has the Strauss-Kahn scandal upset the upcoming presidential election in France — it was widely thought that he would be the Socialist Party’s candidate — but it has also led to France reexamining its sexist attitudes. French feminists are taking on an “entrenched” gender barrier to equality, the word “mademoiselle,” which is equivalent to the English “Miss.” “Madame” is equivalent to “Mrs.” and French women must choose one of the two when filling out a form. There is no equivalent to the English “Ms.” in French.

Marie-Noelle Bas, president of the feminist group Watchdog, says the word “mademoiselle” is no longer relevant.

“In old days, women went from the domination of their father to the domination of their husband. They were ‘mademoiselle’ when they were girls, and ‘madame’ when they were married. For the men, there is no two states, only ‘monsieur’ from the youth to the elder,” she says.

“Mademoiselle,” say feminists, separates women into two categories in a manner men aren’t subjected to. The corresponding title for males, “damoiseau,” which translates roughly into squire, disappeared from use nearly a century ago. Feminists say using the generic “madame,” like “monsieur,” will create the same rules for both genders. They also claim leaving out “mademoiselle” will cut down on opportunities for discrimination and harassment.

In contrast, Germany has dropped its word for “Miss,” “Fraulein” and Spain no longer has “seņorita” on forms; Sweden does not make distinctions between married and unmarried women.

The continued use of “mademoiselle” in France is all the more ironic as the country is the home of philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal feminist text The Second Sex. Despite her work, French women have, says Bas, “integrated the male domination of French society into their very souls” and indeed consider it “normal” — women remain the “second,” secondary sex in France.

Some see the call to eliminate “mademoiselle” as symbolic. But, Bas indicates, assumptions about women’s inferior status are wound tightly into the word. I’m someone who would find herself in a dilemma if I were presented only with the options of “Mrs.” and “Miss”: I kept my own last name after getting married and so am not “Mrs. Fisher” or “Miss Chew”; I’m glad that there is a “Ms.” option in the US (so I’m “Ms. Chew”).

De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex opens by proclaiming that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” Indeed it is high time that women in France cease having to choose either “madame” or “mademoiselle”; that they are not first and foremost identified by their marital status.

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Photo of Tristane Banon by By Felix Wang

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8:39AM PST on Nov 26, 2011


6:14PM PST on Nov 7, 2011

I hate sexist double standards. I also hate having to have any title at all whatsoever. There's clearly something wrong when we have (in America) three titles for women (marriage-based) and only one for men that is the same all their lives. I also can't stand being forced to categorize myself as "single", even when I am in a dedicated relationship, simply because I do not have a marriage contract.

7:28PM PDT on Oct 26, 2011

I say do away with marital status as an identifier everywhere. In modern society marrying and taking a husbands last name is becoming less common, besides why should it matter if someone chooses to marry or not. Only for a census form does it make sense to include marital status, which can be done with check boxes instead of titles.

12:19PM PDT on Oct 17, 2011

I really don't think this is such a big deal.

10:42AM PDT on Oct 6, 2011

I've thought this for a long time. Although not in French...

Men only have the one title, and don't have to declare their marital status in the same way. That's why I don't like 'miss' or missis'. Apparently, in the 18th century, everyone - apart from children and prostitutes - were called 'mistress'. (Well - the men weren't!) But I suppose that word, too, has become debased. What's the male equivalent of out contemporary meaning of 'mistress'?

11:04AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

but its such a cool word!

10:00AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

I try not to use any honorific.
In fact, I try to only use my initials.

Being gender invisible when filling out a job application,will get me 30% more pay.

7:09AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

I've never seen the point to these titles, though I do see the point these feminists are trying to make. I think mademoiselle sounds prettier, though. I say, change the meaning of mademoiselle and get rid of madame (it sounds so... old lady-ish). But seriously, these titles are so silly. It is sad that they reflect a patriarchal society. The whole Mrs., Ms. Miss is ridiculous as well. Why not just keep Ms. and problem solved? Maybe to be fair we should just resort to calling people "Lady" or "Sir" when we don't know their names. Or out of respect (whatever that is supposed to be, I've never understood why it's inappropriate to call someone by their names but sure). Bah, I give up. The important thing is to bring people to awareness of what these titles really are supposed to mean. Personally, what bugs me is all these women here in the US calling themselves Mrs. (insert husband's name) with such pride. Might as well say "Hubby owns me".

3:46AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

I never thought of it as a fault. The whole Mrs. or Ms. thing.

Admittedly, I see no point in it if men are Mr. throughout their whole lives.
Honestly such things seem unimportant. They're just adjectives to your name.

"Mr Smith" meaning "The Male Smith", "Ms Smith" meaning "The Unmarried Female Smith", "Mrs. Smith" meaning "The Married Female Smith" and "Dr Smith" being "The Smith with a doctoral degree/masters/PhD./whatever"

Taking it out wouldn't seem like a big deal to me, but if it means something to someone, then I'm all for it!

You still have to check your civil status in your form even without the honorific anyway!

5:52PM PDT on Oct 4, 2011

In the UK, a boy is known as Master till he,s around 16, then becomes mister. I am married have been for 27 years and HATE being called the Misses(Mrs) b---u--t don't like being called Ms, whenever I order something online I USE MY NAME, not a title/status perhaps others could do the same?

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