The French language uses only ‘monsieur’ to refer to a man, while a woman can be referred to as ‘madame’ or ‘mademoiselle’. The term ‘mademoiselle’ was historically used to describe an unmarried woman.
It is almost ten years since official and administrative documents changed to only refer to ‘madame’ following a memorandum from the then-prime minister François Fillon on February 21, 2012. It asked specifically for the removal of the ’mademoiselle’ reference, considering that the specifics of a woman’s marital status had no legal relevance.
The memorandum also stated the terms ‘nom d'épouse' (married name) and ‘nom de jeune fille’ (maiden name) should also be removed and replaced by ‘madame’ with a single surname.
Although the ‘mademoiselle’ term has (almost) disappeared from official documents, it is still employed in conversation despite a push from feminist organisations to put an end to the ‘outdated’ custom.
I spoke to members of three different generations of women in my French family and friends about their understanding of the historical and traditional relevance of the two terms and how they would feel if referred to as ‘mademoiselle.’
They all agreed on the necessity to put an end to the written ‘mademoiselle’ mention but they had various interpretations of the term and its underlying meanings when employed in conversation.
My grandmother said the term ‘mademoiselle’ was coined during her generation and her mother’s generation because society defined women by their marital status.
She said women now can define themselves independently, thanks to a societal push that gradually opened up access to voting rights (in 1945), ownership of a personal cheque book and financial independence for women.
My grandmother linked the use of ‘mademoiselle’ and ‘madame’ to the ‘Catherinette’, a term to characterise women above 25 who were still not married and celebrated on Saint Catherine’s Day on November 25.
She said ‘Catherinettes’ were looked at with a certain curiosity during her teenage years, with people often wondering why they were not married
As an unmarried woman, she said she still sometimes receives letters addressed to ‘mademoiselle…’, although the official documents contained inside always starts with ‘madame.’
She said she refers to women in their 20s as ‘mademoiselle’ and employs ‘madame’ when she is unsure of her age, taking a guess based on physique and face.
She said she was always referred to as ‘madame’ when in the company of my grandfather although they were never married, something which suggests that the term was used respectfully because of her advanced age.
She said my grandfather would employ ‘madame’ when ordering meals at a restaurant, saying to the waiter or waitress: “...et pour madame” ( …and for madam.)
She said she did not care when referred to as ‘mademoiselle’ although she admitted the term is ‘outdated.’
My mother said the decision of François Fillon was ‘common sense.’
She said she was flattered when men had used ‘mademoiselle’ around her late twenties to mid thirties because she thinks it meant she appeared younger than her age.
“Saying ‘mademoiselle’ meant ‘you have no children’’, she told me, adding she was unsure around what age ‘mademoiselle’ switched to ‘madame’.
She said she never took the term ‘mademoiselle’ as being ‘sexist’ or as a way to reaffirm patriarchal dominance over women.
My mother said she is more careful when referring to someone as ‘mademoiselle’, aware of societal change and the negative connotations which some women attach to the word.
She said she would greet a woman in her twenties by saying just ‘bonjour’ as opposed to ‘bonjour mademoiselle’ or ‘bonjour madame’ to avoid any misunderstanding, although she considered it “rude” and not in line with the manners she was taught growing up.
“It is like writing ‘Dear’ in a letter without any last name,” she said.
She said it would feel odd to refer to a 10-year-old boy as ‘monsieur’ or a 10-year-old girl as ‘madame.’
Friends from my generation
Two friends told me they were often referred to as ‘mademoiselle’ in professional settings during interviews with politicians or elected members and felt it was used to reaffirm a ‘power dynamic’ or to re-establish a social distance.
“It is a sexist term since men cannot use an alternative to ‘monsieur’ because it does not exist,” one friend said.
They felt the term was used to reaffirm a ‘power dynamic’ as it emphasised the ‘inexperience’ of younger women.
Another friend told me she was referred to as ‘mademoiselle’ when she spoke to her banker while every official document states ‘madame.’
“This is not a neutral term. Language is the translation of inequalities. Men still employing ‘mademoiselle’ in 2022 are the testimony of the persistence of inequality,” said a third friend.
Another friend said she did not feel offended when referred to as ‘mademoiselle’ although it depends on the tone of the voice, an indicator to gauge the person’s intention.
When I was 17, my French teacher used to give back test exams referring to women by adding ‘mademoiselle’ before their last name while men were only qualified by their last name.
I associated it to an old custom of more traditional school systems where teachers would often be more strict toward male students.
When asked by men if they should use ‘mademoiselle’ or ‘madame’, one friend responds using an analogy from French lawyer and popular feminist figure Gisèle Halimi.
When asked by former president Jacques Chirac whether he should refer to her using ‘mademoiselle’ or ‘madame’ Ms Halimi said:
“Appelez-moi Maître, Mr President,” indicating he should prefer her lawyer’s title (‘maître’, in French.)