Yesterday a decree came from Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s office: “Mademoiselle” will be phased out of usage on all administrative documents from now on.
You probably already know: a man is always “Monsieur.” But a woman is either “Mademoiselle” or “Madame” based on marital status. The government and feminist groups have now successfully argued that this differentiation doesn’t make sense.
Is this the end of an era?
Being called “Madame” or “Mademoiselle” has definitely colored my experience. It’s one of those things upon first arriving that made me go, oh yeah! I am so in France!
In daily practice, what someone calls me seems to reach beyond simple civil status. And my own personal preference as to what I hope to hear shifts with the situation – and my mood.
On a good day, “Mademoiselle” makes me feel pretty. Flirted with. Fun.
Coming from certain people, though, it can sound dismissive.
On the other hand, “Madame” can make me feel as if I’m being taken seriously. In certain cases I most certainly want to be “Madame.”
Sometimes, though, the word resounds in my ears as a haughty rebuke. (Mais non, Madame! C’est pas possible!) Sometimes it just makes me feel frumpy.
All of this cultural decoding was interesting, but it didn’t use to take up a large portion of my thought. I can attest, however, that after my divorce my feelings about Madame vs Mademoiselle became much more fraught.
When I went to pick up my translated birth certificate as part of the documents needed by the lawyer (always having to have that dang certificate translated! Once is never enough!), she had mistakenly marked me as “Mademoiselle.” It didn’t bother me, but I knew officially it was incorrect and she quickly concurred that it was an error.
-But will I go back to being Mademoiselle after? I asked.
-Mais non, she said. Vous n’etes plus une jeune fille. (No, you’re no longer a young woman.)
-But I’ll be single, I countered, trying not to be bummed about my lost youth.
-Not single, she said authoritatively. Divorced.
I felt as if I had the scarlet letter ‘D’ on my forehead all day after that.
What I’ve found most disconcerting since my split is what the designation does announce to the world and what it can dredge up.
I think I take things in stride. I try to be reflective, but don’t name things regrets (it is life, after all; we make the path as we walk it). But sometimes I’ll be in situations where I’ll feel a sharp flash of embarrassment. The way it can strike so suddenly can leave me breathless, even if I’m able to shake off the shame.
When I was married and said “Madame,” that was fine. That was true.
But now it feels like it tells a story, often a wrong one, in just one word.
At my age, I’m assumed to be married when I mark “Madame.” Most of the time I don’t much mind what strangers think, but I’m not married. That is obviously an important (to me) fact of my life. But it’s not as if I feel like saying each time, actually, I’m alone. Who wants everyone to know your business from the start? (Well, usually not me, apart from this whole public blogging thing ; ).
It just feels like it brings to the fore personal details that wouldn’t even come into question were it not for the Madame/Mademoiselle distinction. Most of the time I just want a simple interaction where my status doesn’t come up as the first detail about me.
This is what the new law is about. In English, I have always gone with the neutral ‘Ms.’ which doesn’t exist in French.
What I particularly like is that the new decree also says that a spouse’s name needn’t be marked on documents if the woman has kept her own name.
Just a little heads-up: it’s very frustrating to keep your name in France. I was often made to feel like a freak for keeping mine; J’s family name usually had to be marked on everything. I wasn’t “allowed” to have a bank account in just my name, for example. (I had to fight to get them to even include the real name I use! I had another friend who opened a joint account with her husband and the bank counselor asked him if she was allowed to have a card to the account. Um, what century are we living in? But I digress.)
My guess is that we won’t hear the effects of this new decree in spoken French for awhile. And I cannot say I would want it to change overnight, either.
For the official stuff, I am grateful.
But on the level of charm?
The temperatures are beginning to rise, the sun coming out more and more. There is that thing called spring fever, the next season peeking out its head.
I cannot deny: my self-esteem gets a boost with a well-placed Mademoiselle. Is it so wrong? To sometimes want the lift. The beautiful reminder: I am alive and young and free.
What do you make of Mademoiselle/Madame?