The Sunday Times

February 26th, 2012

The Mademoiselle killers have Missed the point

So farewell, then, Mademoiselle! The French government has banned the word, according to headlines in Britain last week, because it is discriminatory, sexist and suggests virginity and availability. The phrase “maiden name”, in French nom de jeune fille, is out as well, since it too suggests virginity, availability and patriarchal injustice to boot. In future all French women must be known as Madame, as a sign of equality with men, who are all called Monsieur, whether they are married, unmarried or virgins (available or otherwise).

Actually the facts are not quite so silly. What happened last week was that, under great feminist pressure, François Fillon, the French prime minister, invited ministers, in flowing abstract prose, to instruct France’s bureaucrats to drop from their forms and correspondence all terms such as Mademoiselle, maiden name, nom patronymique and husband’s name. Henceforth the term Madame should be used for all women, and maiden names should be termed either family names or names of usage. However, the old, discriminatory terms may still be used on bureaucratic forms and letters, until stocks run out. What thrift! La nouvelle austérité, perhaps.

Overwhelmed by France’s grave economic problems, Fillon might have found better uses for his time than doing battle with the word Mademoiselle. It really isn’t much of a problem. Nobody has to use it, and some women prefer to. Any experienced form-filler can write what she chooses on bureaucratic bumf, and in any case there are far more serious battles to fight on behalf of women who are truly oppressed. The only good thing to be said about this is that at least the French have had the good taste to avoid anything like the ugly English Ms. Ms isn’t even a word; it is an affront to our language and few people feel sure how to pronounce it.

Madame, by contrast, is a good title, and French people use it, all the time, of anyone who isn’t a teenager. Mrs for all women would not be bad here — it is just an abbreviation of Mistress (as is Miss). When, in the 1970s, English-speaking feminists were trying to impose Ms on us all, I tried to argue for Mistress for all women. It sounds much better and it has a long history behind it: for centuries it was widely used to refer to any grown-up woman, regardless of her marital status. At least Fillon’s office and the feminists behind him mean to use a good word that already exists and is exactly parallel to Monsieur.

However, in my view there is nothing at all demeaning about being called Mademoiselle or Miss. It may indeed suggest that one is unmarried, though masses of very married women have positively chosen to be called Miss for generations, such as Miss Monroe and Miss Taylor, and even me: I prefer Miss, too. But what could a feminist object to in the suggestion that a woman might be unmarried? Why should that be demeaning or discriminatory? Old-fashioned girls who fear being left on the shelf may dislike it, but progressive feminists reject the very idea of such a shelf, or so it seemed.

All the same, there is a sense in which I sympathise with Fillon’s faintly comic “invitation”. I’ve always felt there is something unpleasantly patriarchal about expecting a woman to drop her birth surname on marriage and take on her husband’s. There is no point in it; merely an unacceptable historical reason. Historically, in many cultures, a woman on marriage abandoned her birth family — was given away, in Christian churches — and became part of her husband’s family. If she had any money of her own it became his, even in England, until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Until then a woman’s identity, property and children became subordinate to her husband and his family.

Losing one’s surname at marriage (admittedly, one’s father’s) is unmistakably a hangover from this patriarchal thinking, and one does not have to be a campaigning feminist to see that and to object to it. What astonished me long ago, when I tried to keep my own surname on getting married, was the fierce resistance I met from men and women. Almost my only active support came from my delinquent mother-in-law, who told me that while at first she had been angry about my silly behaviour, she had then reflected that I might write any old rubbish in the papers, with her name on it, and that at least she would be spared that. When I pointed out that the name was her husband’s, not hers, she became cross again.

Before my wedding, my mother sent me to her elderly solicitor to discuss the legalities involved in keeping my own name, which in fact was and is easy. He found the question hard to understand. For hundreds of years, he told me, women had been taking their husband’s names upon marriage, and he could see no reason not to. Soon despairing of explaining, I asked whether he knew anything much about women’s lib, as it was then still called. He failed to see the relevance and remained mystified, until suddenly a cunning smile crept across his face. “I think I have it! I think I have it!” he exclaimed. “What did you say your future husband’s name was? Hiscock, was it?” Attitudes have changed since then.

However, attitudes in France, one can only say, are still lagging far behind. Fillon and his allies may feel proud that they have struck a blow against sexist terms, but it seems to have escaped their notice that the entire French language is institutionally sexist. It really is odd, in a supposedly anti-sexist culture, to divide words into masculine and feminine. Worse still, lots of feminine words in French are constructed in a horribly masculinist way, by taking a masculine word and adding a feminine ending! Yes, girls, a feminine ending!

For example, one of the campaigning feminist groups putting pressure on Fillon is called les Chiennes de Garde, which literally means not the Guard Dogs, but Guard Bitches. Chienne is what you get when you add a feminine ending to chien, going from dog to bitch. C’est extrêmement sexiste, especially from a regiment of feminists.

Those of us who are native English speakers must be unendingly grateful that English adjectives and verbs are gender-neutral: ours is not a sexist tongue. But feminists in France should lose no time in forcing the prime minister to restructure the language, rather than quibble about the charming and harmless word Mademoiselle. Or Miss, for that matter.