Growing up in France in the 2000s, I always loved being called Mademoiselle (Miss). It made me think of princesses because it comes from ‘ma demoiselle’ (my damsel) which seemed so romantic and poetic.
I loved that it sounded chivalrous and at the time it made me feel feminine and grown-up. Well, to 8-year-old me anyway. It was better than ‘kiddo’.
I never questioned it. I would be Mademoiselle till I married and became Madame. My husband, well he would go from Monsieur to… hm, Monsieur because… reasons?
The title of Madame was like a status symbol. Did I actually care about marriage or feel pressured to do it eventually? Probably not. Did I want to be called that one day because it felt even more grown-up? Because it was how a girl was recognised by others as a woman? More likely so.
But, in 2012, there was a change. I, along with every other unmarried French woman, suddenly went from being Mademoiselle to Madame in all official texts.
As I pondered the idea of being referred to as a woman, not just an unmarried one, I got to liking it. By that time, I was less into princesses and more into *super edgy* teen-aged defiance. And I started thinking, that all of a sudden I was… like a grown-up!
So I was actually OK with letting go of the Mademoiselle title I used to adore. Move over world! I’m an adult now! OK, I knew I wasn’t exactly there yet, but it felt that way.
I really don’t remember this change causing any huge discussion around me. It wasn’t technically a huge deal. People were, and are, free to say whatever they want in their private lives. It was just a change in official texts, which also extended to commercial, advertising and business areas shortly after.
On paper, a technicality. But it sparked something in me.
In a country where there isn’t really anything akin to a neutral ‘Ms’, it can get very awkward very quickly. You may have experienced it yourself. Sometimes it becomes about a woman’s age when there’s no need for it to be. It’s as if thinking that a woman seems older than her years is the worst insult you can ever inflict upon her.
There’s an implication that, if you aren’t married by a certain age, then you should be, or at least that you stand out from other women. I started thinking: do I take a man’s marital status into account when I’m figuring out how to address him? No!
So I decided to stop using Mademoiselle altogether. This turned out to be incredibly easy because I was living in a German-speaking country at the time, so no one was going to call me that, or Madame for that matter. But I managed to change my thinking and my habits.
When I returned to France, I noticed all my letters were addressed to Madame, but in everyday life there was a strange mix of the two which continues to this day.
I’ve never been offended either way, but I have become used to Madame so I prefer it. If someone specifically wants to be called Mademoiselle or refers to themselves that way then I’ll call them that, by my default is Madame.
I think the one practical difference that the 2012 change made was being able to call a woman Madame without knowing what she usually goes by, without fear of upsetting her. But I do also think it’s a small step towards more equality. The government realised it made little sense, so simply changed their way of communicating.
It’s also why I think that it won’t be too long before the practice of inclusive writing becomes standard in official texts, even if there have been setbacks lately.
I cannot speak for other women’s experience of this change. But I think the story of my teen self recognising the subtle sexism in language – no matter how insignificant it may seem to some – demonstrates that an official change is sometimes all that’s needed to give legitimacy to new ways of communicating. And helps a nation form new habits.
Featured image credit: edsavi30 – Pixabay