French feminists declare war on "Mademoiselle"
By Clare Byrne Sep 28, 2011, 10:16 GMT
Paris - Madame ou Mademoiselle? It's a loaded question in France, where it is used both by men trying to establish a woman's 'availability' and by government departments, banks, and private companies who still force women to categorize themselves as Mrs or Miss.
While some men consider it gallant, the Mademoiselle/Madame question drives many women to distraction.
'Did you ever ask whether a young man was a Mr or a Squire?,' asks Juliet Muret, spokeswoman for the feminist organization Osez le feminisme (Dare to be feminist), who sees the distinction imposed on women as discriminatory.
In France, a man is a Mr all his life, but women are either Mademoiselles or Madames for official and business purposes, depending on their marital situation.
It's a distinction that no longer exists in a number of Western countries. Germany in 1972 banned Fraulein from official use. English-speaking countries give women the option of the neutral Ms.
Muret and Bas, who want all women and girls to be called Madame, says France's lasting love affair with Mademoiselle is symbolic of a deep-rooted sexism.
Entitled 'Mademoiselle a tickbox too far', Osez le Feminisme and another feminist group Chiennes de Garde (Watch Bitches) on Tuesday launched a campaign aimed at banishing the term.
'It's about everyday, trivialized sexism,' Marie-Noelle Bas, president of Chiennes de Garde said, adding: 'The more we act on the little things, the more the big things will follow.'
The word mademoiselle comes from demoiselle, which used to be a title of nobility in pre-revolutionary France and only became linked with marital status during the Napoleonic era.
Since then, it has survived three government memos since 1967, all of which declared Mademoiselle to have no legal standing.
And yet unmarried women, who request to be labelled Madame because they consider it more respectful, are often made to understand they 'do not tick that box', even if like Laurence, a journalist mother of three, they have three children.
'Look, they still insist on calling me Mademoiselle,' she says, displaying her cheque book, where her name is preceded with a contracted 'Melle'.
Muret and Bas are calling for people to download letters off their campaign website www.madameoumadame.fr asking the government and companies to scrap the offending term.
They're also demanding that the terms 'nom marital' (married name) and 'nom de jeune fille' (maiden name) be axed.
Under a law dating to 1794, women keep their birth name all their life. They may take their husband's name after getting married, but that name is considered an assumed name, the feminists point out.
Navigating the Madame/Mademoiselle divide is part of everyday life in France.
Where a woman's marital situation is unknown, most people opt for Madame if she appears to be over 30.
And yet some women in their 30s and beyond admit to feeling pleased when a stranger call them 'Mademoiselle', saying it makes them feel younger.
For Laurence Waki, author of a 2006 pamphlet Madame ou mademoiselle?, 'French women have been so often told that their self-image depends on how they're seen by others that Mademoiselle and Madame have become part of their make-up.'
Sexism, French-style, came under the spotlight earlier this year, following the arrest of former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape.
A number of senior public figures downplayed the allegations against Strauss-Kahn. One former government minister declared: 'No-one died.'
Their remarks angered many women and lit a fire under the flagging feminist movement.
'The tolerance threshold for sexist remarks has fallen,' Muret reflected. 'There has been a sort of awakening.'