No More ‘Miss’ : Mademoiselle is Out

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?

30 Responses to “No More ‘Miss’ : Mademoiselle is Out”

  1. 1 Lisa | LLWorldTour February 22, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    So interesting what language can do to a whole culture.
    I think going through things like this in your non-native language, makes you think about it more directly.

    Although it’s not verbalized as much in the U.S., it did make me think about how, as women, we have to choose Mrs. (married), Miss (single), Ms. (non-descript) on forms. And like in French, there is still ONLY one choice for men: Mr. – no matter what their status. I’ve been fine with being a ‘Miss’ most of my life…but have to admit, I always felt a stigma with ‘Ms.’ – like it’s saying “none of your business” or “I’m too embarrassed that I’m still single, so that’s obviously why I’m using this pre-fix.”


    • 2 paris (im)perfect February 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm

      Great points, Lisa, and so well articulated. Yes, I’ve always used “Ms.” as it seems the best of the options, but I totally understand the feelings you describe.

      I’m going to be really interested to see how this plays out in daily interactions now. I’m glad there will just be the one option on the forms now. I can’t imagine that people will switch to that so quickly in conversation, though!


  2. 3 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) February 22, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    I think that women were writing these kinds of things in the US back in the 1960s and 1970s, lol — Welcome To France (WTF), indeed. It’s true that France has lagged behind other countries when it comes to how they handle women in official contexts, and yes, many of the issues you raise here about how it is in France are practically downright Medieval.

    As always, you expressed these things honestly and poignantly. 🙂

    This one part made me cringe with its angst/power/truth:

    Not single, she said authoritatively. Divorced.


    I felt as if I had the scarlet letter ‘D’ on my forehead all day after that.

    I have had those moments. For sure. I mean, I am a Double D and I am not referring to my bra size. I have to say it does sting that there is this kind of context for divorced people in the 21st century. Just like the words pronounced at marriages here in France regarding being fruitful and multiplying (a paraphrase. But words given even if you are an older couple obviously on a second or third marriage and have no intention of reproducing), while there is laïcité (separation of church and state), it is so obvious that there are Catholic roots. Sounds like you even had a little Catholic Guilt thrown at you, eh? Ha.

    Well, here’s to hoping that taking the official Mademoiselle out of things will help modernize France’s attitudes towards women. But here’s also to hoping that there will still be some wise and judicious outpourings of Mademoiselle in the de facto daily life, just to keep all of us feeling young and free.

    (I, personally, suppress the urge to giggle when I get called Mademoiselle, which happens rarely. When I have been addressed as such, part of me wants to say to the person, “What ARE you, blind or an idiot??” I don’t know if I could trust a guy calling me “Mademoiselle.” But then I’m a decade older than you are. Let me know how you feel about it in 10 more years. Meanwhile, ENJOY the well-placed Mademoiselles while you are getting them. :))


    • 4 paris (im)perfect February 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm

      First of all, I think Welcome to France/WTF should be branded. Genius!

      Secondly, I totally know what you mean. Like, really, that has to be my status? I don’t walk around every day thinking, I am divorced, I am divorced. But that woman (and others) definitely drive that feeling home sometimes. Um, how about I’m just living my life?

      For the record, I am called Madame more often than Mademoiselle, but I do get it enough to still make me feel youngish. As much as I wish French had the “Ms.” I can’t deny I like a good, flirty Mademoiselle at times. 🙂

      (Also, Catholic guilt could be a whole other post, I bet!)


      • 5 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) February 22, 2012 at 8:54 pm

        I can’t claim to have come up with the Welcome To France — the first person I ever read using it was David Lebovitz. I don’t think he has put a trademark on it, though! I use it a lot. Haha.

        You just keep on living your life, Mademoiselle Sion. 😉 That was written in the nice, flirty way, lol. I wish there were a Ms. option here, too.

        Catholic Guilt could be a whole other BLOG. 😀


  3. 6 Wendy Hollands February 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    I’ve never been married so I totally identify with being called Madamoiselle. Whenever someone calls me Madame, I feel like they’re presuming I’m married. Yes, most of my friends have kids now and I’m still shirking marriage. And it was a thrill to hear my partner’s much younger sister called Madame just after the guy had called me Madamoiselle!

    But at the end of the day, I’m relieved that there’s a little less judgement and objectifying to do with my age and family situation. Bring on the Madame from here on in!


  4. 8 Linda aka L.M. February 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    I’m old enough to remember the introduction of Ms. to the language and I personally remember how much animosity I faced when I chose to use it – right about the time I decided to switch to gender neutral initials and duck the preffix completely. Transitions, in my experience, are always a bit bumpy – sometimes, it’s a good sort of bumpy, like an exhilarating ride on a speedboat. And sometimes it’s a less pleasant bumpy.

    I always reflect on what language can tell us about a culture: what we have words for and what we struggle to name. In this case, while the self reflection can be uncomfortable for me, it can also be a gift. If men get ‘off the hook’ and never have to identify their marital status, they also lose the opportunity to experience their feelings about that status. Even when it’s uncomfortable, I’d rather be in touch with my feelings abut something – then I can actively choose what I want to do about it.

    Hah! I was just thinking – choice is almost always more uncomfortably comfortable for me. It’s these grey areas of life and language that teach me the most about myself.

    So, don’t worry about what you call yourself, or what ‘they’ call you. Decide who you are, breath to breath (we are always in a state of becoming, after all) and walk it. Seems to work for me.:-)


    • 9 paris (im)perfect February 22, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Wise words, Linda. I love this whole comment! Thank you. “Decide who you are, breath to breath to walk, and walk it.” Definitely what I’m trying to do!

      On another note, another reason I love my name is that people never know on paper whether I’m a man or a woman. Kind of like you using just your initial. I think it’s interesting challenging assumptions. And I also think it’s a gift to be able to explore the gray areas…even if it’s uncomfortable. (I, too, am pretty comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s where the growth and learning happens! ; )


  5. 10 Tanya in Transition February 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    First, the good stuff. Hooray I say ‘cuz I love my last name and it’s time they (the French) caught up with the idea that not all women care to change their names after getting married.

    That all said being called ‘mademoiselle’ sometimes left me feeling a little weird, like I wasn’t a grown up or something. Sure, there are times when it’s fun and flirty but I can’t say I completely or always enjoy it.

    The other thing is at what age do you drop the ‘mademoiselle’ for the ‘madame’? I mean, what’s the difference between a married 25-year old woman and a single one (besides the office marital status)? Why, if you divorce at 25 — maybe you married young — you’re still a ‘madame’ when your 25-year old twin sister who never married is still ‘mademoiselle’? It’s for this reason I’m glad they’re getting rid of the word.

    And I like what Linda wrote; decide who you are and go with that.


    • 11 paris (im)perfect February 22, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      Tanya, I totally feel you. In my inconsistent philosophy, I only like when certain people call me Mademoiselle. (Beautiful man, right tone, the perfect light hitting the rooftops….kidding, kidding). I’ve also been totally skeeved out when certain people call me Mademoiselle. All depends.

      So yeah, I think it might just be better for all involved to just go with the neutral Ms – and why that’s what I’ve always used in English. (So basically the French are going in the right direction, but they still haven’t invented Ms 🙂

      Also, I love my name, too and will always stand by it.

      Yep, yep. Decide who you are and go with it.


  6. 12 Mandi February 22, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Back in the US, I always used Ms. because I didn’t like the implication that goes along with Miss vs. Mrs. — that you have to be married in order to be considered an adult.

    Here in Germany, they got rid of ‘Fräulein’ — their version of Miss — back in the 70’s, and all women since then are addressed as ‘Frau’ regardless of marital status. I love this. The funny part though is: when I get mail or other documents that have been translated into English, I am always addressed as Mrs. XX. They have no concept of Ms. (at all) or Miss (anymore) and so of course, that shows in the German-English translation. Totally understandable, but it always makes me think: “No, you’ve got the wrong person — Mrs. XX is my mother!”

    Anyway, definitely an interesting topic of discussion!


    • 13 paris (im)perfect February 22, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      Ah-ha. Sounds like France is doing what Germany did back in the 70s. (Doesn’t surprise me that it’s taken a few decades to catch-up 🙂

      I agree about Mrs.! Even when I was married I never put Mrs. I have just always appreciated not having to use marital status as my main marker, so Ms. it always was.

      You’re right – an interesting topic of conversation and it’s so great getting all these comments. And it will be even more interesting to see how it plays out in French society!


  7. 14 FrenchTwistDC February 22, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    The first time I was called madame (when I was clearly still a little mademoiselle) I felt awesome, like I’m a grown up. Granted the person who called me madame was a little kid and I’m sure I looked really old to him. But now, yes, I’m like you, a well placed mademoiselle is so nice and other times it’s really annoying, almost condescending… maybe it is a better thing that they are going with it 😉


  8. 16 Suzanne Hurst February 23, 2012 at 5:39 am

    This article made me feel better. When I was in France, I was called Madame almost exclusively, even by an ex-pat friend. I’m single and always have been, so to me Madame didn’t sound right. I think my main problem with it was and is that it made me feel older, because people just assumed that since I was/am “d’un certain age” that I would be a Madame, or married woman. I hate stereotypes of any kind.


    • 17 paris (im)perfect February 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      Hi Suzanne. Glad the post made you feel better! Yes, I think the issue is the assumptions that are made. Will be good if this new path helps address that. From a commenter above, sounds like they did the same thing in Germany and it’s worked!


  9. 18 Amy Kortuem February 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    What a weird place to be in for you – kind of like a time of redefining who you are within a whole new wireframe. I haven’t heard much good about the French Administration, but maybe this decision and the resulting reflection it’s causing (I wonder how many French women are pondering this as they sit with their morning creme…) is therapeutic.

    And in the meantime, enjoy every flirtatious “Mademoiselle” that comes your way!

    (P.S. LOVE Karin’s WTF!!!!!)


  10. 22 Ann February 23, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I don’t use my husband’s name, so the Mme/Mlle has long been confusing for me. When I refer to myself as Madame Mah, I always feel like I am implying I’m married to my father. Weird, right? I feel relieved that “Madame” is available neutral term, though I will always, always, always prefer “Ms.” You can take the girl (woman?) out of the States, but…


    • 23 paris (im)perfect February 24, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      The Mme/Mlle has been a confusing issue, hasn’t it? I hope you can get used to Madame now without thinking of the other implication!

      I am Ms. all the way, too. I wish, actually, there *were* a Ms. in French, but I’m happy they’ve addressed the issue in some fashion at least.


  11. 24 Amy Kortuem February 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Sion – I think any women’s publication, stateside or in France, would find this topic interesting. Expanded a bit I think you’ve got a gem!


  12. 27 Amy Thomas (@GodILoveParis) February 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    This is such a loaded topic to me. I personally love the sound and implication of “Mademoiselle.” Whenever someone uses it, I feel, well, young, and I appreciate that. But of course I agree that equal rights means equal treatment – thus, there should just be one title for men, one for women. And that should be “Madame.” I can get used to it.

    In any case, i agree with Amy – you should write an essay about this!


    • 28 paris (im)perfect February 27, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      It is a loaded topic, huh? I like the sound of “Mademoiselle,” too. In fact, just the word itself is lovely. But it might be kind of nice not to randomly have an identity crises every time someone addresses me. (Just kidding 😉 )

      I wonder if this will seep down to spoken French.


  13. 29 Paris Paul P February 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    “I can’t deny I like a good, flirty Mademoiselle at times.”

    Uhm… ditto?


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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