Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mademoiselle, Madame, Ms...and Women of a "Certain Age"...

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort: Catherine Deneuve & Francoise Dorleac, 1967

I was sitting with a few girlfriends, or should that be “women friends”, the other day chatting over a few nice Margaret River sauvignon blanc wines.   We were discussing an article which had appeared in a weekend newspaper about the French title “Mademoiselle” and how the French feminist movement was defending a woman’s right, irrespective of age or marital/partnership context to use the rather elegant title historically reserved for a young, beautiful girl.
Catherine Deneuve (date unknown)

It would mean that we women usually referred to as “Madame”who are married/partnered, divorced, never married, or no longer blooming with youth could join Catherine Deneuve, and the late Coco Chanel in being referred to as Madamoiselle.  As the writer advised, in the absence of a neutral gender, the “Ms” that we have had in Australia since the 1970s as dictated by the feminist movement of the day, the Parisienne femolinguistic agitators want more feminine versions of forms of address.  They would like, for example,  a woman writer to be referred to as an ecrivaine, a female author as auteure rather than always referred to as ecrivains or auteurs.

Coco Chanel (date unknown)

The battle is also, apparently, taking in the French grammar which imposes that the masculine gender should always have superiority over the feminine when both are at work in a sentence. It has been in place since the 17th century when the Academie Francaise was appointed as the official guardian of the language of Moliere codified along sexist lines.

As only the French can do, apparently the argument has raised a number of “oh, la, la’s!” among the various elements of the Feminist movement.  The battle lines have been drawn and now a militant faction of feminists want the word “Mademoiselle” expunged from official records and banned in daily conversation!

...and what about the Perfume.?

The novelist and Elle magazine columnist Sophie Fontanel commented: “Not only does it (the use of mademoiselle) not shock me:  Jádore!”   “I don’t understand the polemic. (Mademoiselle) is a sign of liberty.  It reminds us that we have never been married, that we have remained free.  Catherine Deneuve is furious when she is called madame”.

The lawyer and academic Marcela Iacub suggests “Mademoiselle better encompasses (women) who transform themselves, who experiment with new ways of being in the world, (and) who do not know what they will become.  Madame makes us think that our fate is already discovered, traced out and almost lived, that we are politically dead, so dead that the only thing that remains for us is to be like cadavers or silences to be respected.”

The French certainly know how to throw it out there! 

So, how do we in Australia respond to ageism, marital/partnership staus, use of the “maiden” name (that of one’s family, usually father), in the 21st century?Well, I am actually a good case in point. I have been, as my life progresses, a “Miss” + father’s name when born;  a “Mrs” + husband’s first and family name when married  (correctly, with regard to the etiquette of the 1980’s when a woman took the form of Mrs + own first name + husband’s family name  she was widowed!!) and now“Ms” + first name + father’s name as a divorced mother of two children.

“Ms” has in many countries become a form of address readily accepted when uncertain of the correct form for a woman, particularly in business.  But there are hundreds of thousands of women who have spent a lot of time, effort and money in getting “Mrs” in front of their name who are insulted by being referred to as “Ms”.

I was asked recently by a talk back radio caller if he was being old fashioned by insisting that his professional wife-to-be  renounce her own name (under which she has worked for a decade) to take his family name? My resounding, but polite, answer was “yes”!!

His argument was that it would be complicated for their children when their mother had a different family name.  I explained to him that this was extremely common, not only in Australia now, but in many other countries around the world. In fact in many countries the woman always, without question as a matter of culture, retains her father’s family name.

So, here in my country I am very comfortable when referred to as “Ms” … when I next return to France I will be absolutely delighted if someone has the good grace to address me as “Mademoiselle”. I will accept the term with pride as a woman who remains very much young at heart!

P.S.  22 February 2012.  The term Mademoiselle is no longer required as a marital status on French official documentation. Mademoiselle no Longer


  1. Sorry Louise, but I'm afraid that, just this once, I don't agree with you. I hate it when someone addresses me as 'Mademoiselle', which makes me feel like an spinster (une vieille fille). After my husband's death in 1983 (I was only 26 at the time) I took on my own family name again, but never returned to the status of 'Miss' or 'Mademoiselle'. In fact, I consider it as denigrating when people (especially men) address me as 'Mademoiselle'. There is one exception though. When people (men or women) use the casual expression 'Ca va, Miss?!' which is considered a sign of affection :). Martine

  2. Martine, how wonderful that you don't agree!...certainly my comment that I would enjoy being addressed as Mademoiselle is coming from a perspective of someone for whom this is not the culture...I am, as I mentioned, a Ms...I am proudly now single in my 50s, yes, young at heart, but dignified in my status...Thank you for your insight. I always appreciate your comments enormously