I was asked today about the intricacies of employing madame over mademoiselle. A friend had addressed a friend of the feminine persuasion as madame in an email. Her reply wondered at what age do we switch from madame to mademoiselle if a woman is unmarried. Is it when she is deemed an 'old maid'? Her words.
My friend was concerned at his apparent blunder and felt that he had offended the recipient of his email.
This is an ongoing dilemma and one which I recently discussed with French friends.
Traditionally Mademoiselle was used to address unmarried women. This does assume that women will get married and also that they will marry before a certain age. So Mademoiselle carries hints of youthfulness and light floatiness...at least it does for me. So, for a woman to be addressed as Madame, there is the idea of older, niched in the respectable confines of marriage, there is a somewhat serious feel to the title. Unless you are a madame of a brothel which is an entirely different story and yet still carries a similar weight, if not in a prim and proper social sense, in a commanding sense all the same.
There is something appealing in being referred to as mademoiselle, when one has possibly crossed the age border and the madame territory looms. There is a flirtatiousness to it perhaps, the idea being, of course that a mademoiselle is unattached and pursuable...desirable even.
But, as with the anglophone Miss, Mrs and Ms debacle, it is absolutely sexist. A man is always Monsieur, but a woman's title, and let's get down to the nitty gritty of it, has to do with her virginal state.
These days, in France, it's much more common to just use Madame. In fact, in 2012, Prime Minister François Fillon issued a circular to government staff that there was to be no distinction and that Madame was to be used as the equivalent of Monsieur.
People often hold on to old-fashioned ways without really thinking them through. They feel offended that you are making a comment on their age, when really they should be offended by a sexist distinction in titles.
You can't win with women, sadly. We do want it all.
That is perhaps unfair. I am speaking from the position of a woman who wants it all. I want respect and equal standing. I want to be taken seriously. I also want to be appreciated for my femininity. I want to be admired, wooed, adored. But for my mind. Maybe sometimes for my body. I want independence but also a strong arm around me.
It's a tightrope.
We want men to read our minds. We need you to be knights, poets, plumbers, electricians, talkers, listeners, manly, perceptive.