A few years ago a student of mine was complaining about a grade I had given him, and in the course of the conversation he referred to me as Mademoiselle [Miss], which immediately made me wince. I live in France, where teachers at all levels are addressed as Madame [Mrs/Ms] or Monsieur [Mr] (but never Mademoiselle). As well as being linked to marital status, a woman’s age and hierarchical status in the exchange come into question. Therefore, I understood the student’s use of Mademoiselle as a challenge to my authority (that he saw me as young and incompetent), and sent him packing with the original grade I had given him. Later on that day I went to a café where the waiter smiled and said, “Merci, Mademoiselle” as I handed him payment for my coffee. I smiled back and sat down to drink my coffee congratulating myself on getting a Mademoiselle in my mid-30s, when I suddenly realised what a bad feminist I was. That morning, Mademoiselle had been an insult from my student, but a few hours later I was flattered.
A campaign had been launched a couple of years earlier by two French feminist groups in an effort to erase Mademoiselle from official forms (Chiennes de garde and Osez le féminisme 2011). The anti-Mademoiselle camp criticised it as sexist, and intrusive (Darrieussecq 2012). The pro- camp bemoaned the “murder” of Mademoiselle by feminists “because Mademoiselle is playfulness, youth, insouciance, crinoline and swings, promises and spring roses, flowery dresses […]. Madame is the apartment, the country house, coats, jewellery, repayments, lovers, Madame is tedium, it is quitting” (Morel 2012). Hmm…
France has been notoriously slow when it comes to adopting feminist linguistic reforms (Fleischman 1997; Dawes 2003). Mademoiselle is still widely used in France, whereas in Quebec it is only used for very young girls (1), and has not appeared on official forms since 1976. Switzerland removed it from official forms in 1973, East Germany removed the equivalent, Fräulein, in 1951, Austria in 1970, and West Germany in 1972 (Elmiger 2008, 321). Half a century later, the French government followed suit, and decided to remove Mademoiselle from official government forms. However, this decision did not go uncontested, and in a study I carried out on the frequency of use of Mademoiselle from 2010 to 2014 in two French newspapers, I found evidence of a backlash in one of the papers (Coady 2014). In fact, 13% of occurrences of Mademoiselle referred to female politicians in an effort to discredit them, to highlight their incompetence or unsuitability for a position of power. Mademoiselle may be “playfulness, youth, insouciance, crinoline and swings”, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but it is hard to be taken seriously sitting on a swing in a flowery crinoline dress, with spring roses in your hair.
Mademoiselle should be seen in the context of other non-sexist language initiatives, which include the use of feminine job titles to refer to women (2), and campaigns to reintroduce the rule of proximity (3). All of these initiatives have met with much more resistance in mainland France than other francophone countries. Having lived in France for 15 years, I don’t think it is any more sexist than the UK or other francophone countries I have visited. It seems that the French have a different relationship with their language. Fleischman points to the ‘depth of reverence felt in much of French society toward the standard language […] that has maintained the French language in a virtual straitjacket in France’ (Fleischman 1997, 840–1). The top-down nature of language policy in France, and the influence of the Académie française (but see Viennot et al. 2016 for a scathing attack on them) has tended to limit initiatives which don’t come from the top. Things are changing, but nowhere near as fast as in other Francophone and Anglophone countries.
Chiennes de garde, and Osez le féminisme. 2011. ‘Mademoiselle, la case en trop!’ http://chiennesdegarde.com/home/DP-MmeouMme.pdf.
Coady, Ann. 2014. ‘Mademoiselle va-t-il perdurer “malgré les oukases”?’ Edited by Sandra Tomç, Marine Totozani, Grâce Ranchon, and Mireille Baurens. Cahiers de Linguistique 40 (1): 43–58.
Darrieussecq, Marie. 2012. ‘Madame, Mademoiselle: In France These Are about Sex, Not Respect’. The Guardian, February 24. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/24/madame-mademoiselle-sex-french-women.
Dawes, Elizabeth. 2003. ‘La féminisation des titres et fonctions dans la Francophonie : de la morphologie à l’idéologie’. Ethnologies 25 (2): 195–213.
Elmiger, Daniel. 2008. La féminisation de la langue en français et en allemand. Querelle entre spécialistes et réception par le grand public. Paris: Honoré Champion.
Fleischman, Susanne. 1997. ‘The Battle of Feminism and Bon Usage : Instituting Nonsexist Usage in French’. The French Review 70 (6): 834–44.
Morel, François. 2012. ‘Mademoiselle se meurt’. Le Billet de François Morel. France Inter. http://www.franceinter.fr/emission-le-billet-de-francois-morel-saison-2011-2012-mademoiselle-se-meurt.
Viennot, Éliane, Maria Candea, Yannick Chevalier, Sylvia Duverger, and Anne-Marie Houdebine. 2016. L’Acdémie contre la langue française : le dossier ‘féminisation’. Donnemarie-Dontilly: Éditions iXe.
(1) Office Québecois de la langue française: http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=3634
(2) See the 2014 incident of a male parliamentarian who insisted on using the masculine président to refer to his female colleague, despite her repeated requests to use the feminine, and the media debate that ensued: http://www.french-news-online.com/wordpress/?p=38409#axzz4KPVH86J2