France retires “mademoiselle” from official usage


Though it is a familiar and staple word in France and French language classrooms alike, the word “mademoiselle” (the English equivalent of “miss”), has come under intense fire recently in France from 2 prominent French feminist organizations, who for months have been campaigning to have the word removed from official documents. Their complaint lies in the word’s implications: “mademoiselle” – in contrast with “madame” – indicates the marital status of the female in question, whereas the male form, “monsieur”, gives away no such information. A spokeswoman for one of the feminist groups, Magali de Haas, said that the term “harkens to notions of female subjugation”.

From the New York Times article:

In a memo addressed to state administrators across France, Prime Minister François Fillon ordered the honorific — akin to “damsel” and the equivalent of “miss” — banished from official forms and registries. The use of “mademoiselle,” he wrote, made reference “without justification nor necessity” to a woman’s “matrimonial situation,” whereas “monsieur” has long signified simply “sir.”

The choice of mademoiselle, madame or monsieur appears most everywhere one gives one’s name in France: opening a bank account, shopping on the Internet or paying taxes, for instance.

Mr. Fillon’s order, signed on Tuesday, came after an advocacy campaign of several months by two French feminist organizations, “Osez le féminisme!” (“Dare to be feminist!”) and Les Chiennes de Garde (The Watchdogs). The government minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, whose portfolio includes questions of “social cohesion,” pleaded the groups’ case with Mr. Fillon.

“You’ve never wondered why we don’t call a single man ‘mondamoiseau,’ or even ‘young male virgin?’ ” the feminist groups ask on a joint Web site. “Not surprising: this sort of distinction is reserved for women.”

The pressure has had the desired result: the term “mademoiselle” will no longer be seen on official documents and registries, for example when applying to open a bank account or for a driver’s license. Feminists hope that the striking of “mademoiselle” from official languge will encourage private organizations to adopt the same position, and thus allow the term to fall from popular usage entirely.

Not all women share the same opinion of the word – just as there is a difference between “miss” and “madam” in English, the difference between “mademoiselle” and “madame” is often used as one of politeness when appealing to a woman’s age – “mademoiselle” is used for younger women, and is often seen as a compliment for those who consider themselves in the middle ground of the two terms. Just as there was debate surrounding “Miss” and “Mrs” several decades ago in the English speaking word, resulting in the more neutral “Ms” honorific, there are people on both sides of the argument.