The beginning of the end for the mademoiselle?

Images of Marianne The symbol of French liberty - and "egalite" - is a young woman, Marianne

A town in Western France has banned the word "mademoiselle" - the French equivalent of "miss". The move comes as feminist groups campaign for the word to be consigned to the dustbin of history everywhere. Could its days be numbered?

There are no longer any "mademoiselles" in the town of Cesson-Sevigne.

The small Brittany community has banned the use of the term in all its official documents, arguing that women, like men, should not be defined by their marital status.

From now on, teenagers, greying grand-meres and 30-something career girls there will all be known as "madame", just as men of all ages become "monsieur" as soon as they grow out of shorts.

The Germans waved goodbye to their "Fraulein", as a term to addres adult women, in 1972. In the English-speaking world the use of "Miss" is in decline - and on occasions when an honorific is required, "Ms" provides a convenient way of avoiding being pigeon-holed as either "Miss" or "Mrs".

But in France - just as in Spain with their "senorita" and Italy with their "signorina" - things are a bit different. "Madame" or "mademoiselle" can even be used to address someone in the absence of a name - "Would Madame care to be shown round the church?" a verger asks Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Campaign badge It's a superfluous box, say feminist campaigners

These forms of address are not just about formality and respect, but also about flirtation and familiarity.

Doyennes of the stage and screen retain their "mademoiselle" status, regardless of how long in the tooth they are. Waiters can gently flatter a lady of a certain age by calling her "mademoiselle", and officials can patronise by refusing to call a woman "madame".

But for the mayor of Cesson-Sevigne, Michel Bihan, the key thing is eliminating "discrimination".

Elected in 2008 on a sexual equality platform, he and a group of like-minded councillors have been transforming the town of 16,000 to change anything deemed unequal.

The changes have been both practical and symbolic - there are now changing rooms for women at the town's stadium and council texts use both masculine and feminine wording when women might be among the number referred to.

His slogan at the last election was "une ville pour tous" ("a town for all") though he now says it should have been "une ville pour tous et toutes", using the feminine form of the word for "all" too.

"It just seemed like the natural step for us. It is symbolic - a signal, a gesture, but one among many," he said of the decision to ditch "mademoiselle".

Would Simone de Beauvoir approve?


What is more important for a French little girl today? To be addressed as Madame from the age of four, or to know that her mother is paid the same as a man doing equivalent work?

What is more important for a French woman today? Never to hear the word Mademoiselle again or to be reassured she can find a place at the creche for her three-month-old baby?

What matters more, banning a word that has only cultural significance, or that we get more women in parliament?

We should learn from our mothers who, in 1972, broached the issue of titles, and decided that, actually, there might be more substantial issues to campaign on.

French writer Agnes Poirier in The Independent

It's not the first time a French municipality has taken such a step. The city of Rennes, close to Cesson-Sevigne but far larger, officially dropped the word in 2007. But this time there is also a national campaign by feminist groups against "mademoiselle".

They want Madame to be de-coupled from the idea of a married woman or wife to become, like Monsieur, a general term of address.

Women can buy badges with the "mademoiselle" option crossed out and are encouraged to download a letter to their electricity provider or bank informing them why wish to be called "madame".

But why, others have argued, should we fret over the linguistic cosmetics of which box on a form gets ticked when key issues such as equal pay, availability of child-care and political representation remain bigger practical obstacles to a fully equal society?

Professor of applied linguistics Dr Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck University, says that a society's language - and how it chooses its terms of address - can reflect deeply ingrained attitudes.

"[Language] it is a sensitive indicator of the distinctions that a society makes - so if it is important to know if a woman is married or not, then it will be indicated in language," she explains.

"'Mademoiselle' was a courteous title and there was even a male equivalent - 'Mondamoiseau', though it was very rarely used," and later fell out of use completely. (The word "damoiseau" can be translated as "squire".)

Damsel and mistress

  • The word "Madame" comes from the French word for "woman" ("dame") but "mademoiselle" comes from the word for "damsel", "demoiselle"
  • In English, "Miss" and "Mrs" are both abbreviations of the same word, "mistress"

More equal societies tend to put less emphasis on regulating forms of address, Prof Gardner-Chloros says.

The fact that the words "Miss" and "Mrs" are used less frequently in English than in French suggests that British society has had less use for the distinction. In a similar way, English dropped the word "thou", a more familiar version of the pronoun "you", as time went by, while French has retained "vous" and "tu".

Language, she says, can sometimes drag its feet behind social norms. The adjustment with "Fraulein" came in Germany in the 1970s, and it may be that the same is beginning now in France.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    It's not really my business what women prefer to be called, being a man and all, but if we can't call people "miss" how do we address a lady we do not know? "Excuse me missus" would seem rude, "excuse me miss" is ok, perhaps "excuse me ma'am" is maybe ok also - but only for women of a certain age. Surely "excuse me muzz", is just plain wrong, and would smack of "political correctness gone mad".

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    Why not just Mr and Mrs? I can see why Ms sounds not an attractive alternative. It's an awkward and clumsy response to the issue. Mrs should cease to imply marital status, and those proud or not of their marital status should show it by other means. Just as men do. At least on a first encounter approach. The guessing is the problem. From then everyone should be able to express their preferred one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    We're not talking about official forms. We're talking about something as simple as ordering an item from a shop, or booking a table at a restaurant. When you do that, do they ask you whether you are married or not? No, they don't, but they ask us. You give away your misogyny when you accuse any woman complaining of double-standards as "looking like a man".

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    If women in this country went to poll and voted in favour of a more generic term for all, I wonder what it would be?

    Mrs and Miss are therefore out and I'm sure they's be happy to see the back of 'Ms'. Of course, you would still have your 'Ladies' , 'Dames' and 'Honourable's. So what title would fit most?

    Answers on a postcard please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    I have never had a problem with Mrs. or Miss....but then again, I wasn't looking for one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    All the women on here who think ms or mrs should be used for all as many keep stating on here that 'it's no-ones business what my martial status is' or 'that it's no-one business that I'm married' etc. etc. How lucky their husbands are to have saved so much money on not buying you an engagement ring or wedding ring so you can your marriage so secret..

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    "Yes Miss" because working women (teachers/nurses/secretaries) in the olden days were always unmarried...
    In my school, we didn't use Miss/Sir, we used Miss Thorne, Mrs Davis, Mr Smith, thus showing we knew who we were talking to and had respect for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    It is "tous" regardless. One hears "Bonsoir a toutes et a tous" on TV on the grounds of "ladies before gentlemen." It reminds me of the classic Syd James remark on English grammar: "The cows and the 'orses is (sic) in the field" for the same reason. Just plain silly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    What is this garbage about women being asked marital status , whilst men are not ? EVERY single form in officialdom I have ever seen , usually asks marital status and frequently even if children , the number , along with other NORMAL questions like sex etc. If you want to complain ,complain about "education questions" , which are surely for "biased purposes",maybe no one should be qualified - no ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    If there is one thing that is horrible, demeaning , without substance or style, sexless and generally offensive in every way it is the use of 'Ms' before my name..
    I seethe every time I see it.
    Mrs for me any day, and all the single girls/women I know heartily desire the use of Miss. Perhaps because we're northern women we've nothing to prove ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    I find it amazing such strong opinions are being expressed here by ppl who clearly have no clue of French culture.

    France never went through a period of female emancipation.Women still have to conform to an ideal of femininity that to UK eyes can seem flashback to the 50s.Symbolic & daft this change may seem to us but France is a country where symbolism matters.This change does make some sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    On a slight tangent, a policeman once told me one of the hardest skills to learn when dealing with (male) members of the publiic was deciding whether to call them 'Sir' or 'Mate'. Get it wrong and you risk causing offence, either through percieved sarcasm or over-familiarity. So there are issues with terms of address for both men and women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    @217 Tancredi "the discrimination lies in the asking: only women, not men, are asked about their private relations - are you Miss or Mrs?"

    I disagree. The Miss/Ms/Mrs question is not about private relations; the titles no longer give a clear indication of marital status. It is about a woman's preference.
    Denying women the right to be referred to as Miss, Mrs or Ms is just wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    325.Maria Halesowen
    "So old fashioned"

    just because something is old fashioned is not a reason to scrap it. Charity and good manners are old fashioned, should we get rid of those, of course not. the merits must be viewed for both for and against a subject if we wish to make the best (& informed) decission.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    I'm worried now. I did a German A-Level in 1987, including many trips to the country, and none of my teachers ever told me that 'Fraulein' had been abolished.

  • Comment number 332.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    What an absolute crock of .... this is !There are far worse things to be called than Miss or mademoiselle and some of those come from the very women involved ,it REALLY is time all this stupidity stopped - FULL STOP !Who cares what the PC brigade think, not I for one.I can well imagine most of those who would complain probably actually look more like men ,what is wrong with being a single female ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    I am married but have not taken my husbands surname, in the same way he hasn't taken mine. I have signed myself Ms since I was about 16 many years ago. It is patronising to discriminate using marital status as it is expecting women to change their names on marriage. We do not belong to our husbands and it's nobodys business whether we are married or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    The difficulty is that, if you get it wrong, you risk causing unintended offence. I respect a woman's right to use her preferred form of address regardless of her marital status. If is matters to you, tell me which you prefer. If you don't, please don't get upset if I guess incorrectly. I ask so as not to upset you, not because I want to know whether you are married.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    "What's the excuse today?"

    Does there need to be an excuse, or is the excuse to change it? I'm not trying to be flippent but trying to see the question from both sides. As for my post 314, it was only to offer a possible reason for a historical perspective so we may ask is there a reason to retain it before dismissing scrapping it.


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