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