- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

PARIS — “Bonjour, mademoiselle” — is that a sexist insult? A classic pickup line? Or just a friendly greeting for millions of Frenchwomen every day?

Whatever it is, it could become a thing of the past.

A group of French feminists wants to get rid of the word “mademoiselle,” or “miss,” saying the term turns a female into an inferior being defined by her marital status.

“When you get letters, the postman or anyone passing by your mailbox can see whether you are married or not. It’s nobody’s business,” said Mathilde, an unmarried 40-year-old, who has started a petition for the government to abolish the term.

Mathilde, who runs a small consulting firm and wants to stay anonymous because she fears reprisal from critical clients, said “mademoiselle” turned women into sex objects clearly marked as unmarried and thus available.

“The term ‘mademoiselle’ puts a diminutive view on our girls. It turns them into incomplete ‘little things,’ never really autonomous, who will not become real adults unless they find a husband or become mothers,” says her petition, which has been signed by about 4,200 people.

Mademoiselle derives from the medieval term damoiselle — depicting a young girl of nobility. The equivalent male term ‘damoisel’ has disappeared from the language.

Feminists say a term distinguishing an unmarried woman is outdated in a country where almost 50 percent of children were born to unmarried parents in 2005.

Mathilde said she decided enough was enough when a lawyer told her to sign a contract for an apartment as “mademoiselle.”

“I didn’t want to continue to have this label of a minor,” she said in her small Paris office.

Her petition — which has gained much press attention in France and is supported by some feminist groups — calls on authorities to force firms to scrap the term in all administrative or contractual documents. Mathilde aims to hand it over to the government before the summer.

Although French law is clear on the fact that the term cannot be imposed, practice is different. Women have to decide whether they are “mademoiselle” or “madame” at banks, insurance firms or when buying train tickets.

The feminists’ anger is even bigger because equivalent words have been scrapped or replaced elsewhere.

In English-speaking countries, the terms “Miss” or “Mrs.” for unmarried and married women have somewhat given way to the neutral “Ms.” In Germany, calling a young woman “Fraulein” is almost considered an insult, and the term “Frau” has become the rule.

In France, where politics is still a very male-dominated game, male politicians speak of their female colleagues in terms lawmakers in other countries would no longer dare utter in public.

The news that Socialist regional leader Segolene Royal might run for president next year prompted open scorn. One man asked who would look after her four children. Another reminded Mrs. Royal the election was “no beauty contest.”

“The criticism is focused on the woman not having a brain,” Mathilde complained. “People always talk about her body and the way she dresses. All that is very misogynous.”

Not all Parisian women agreed with Mathilde’s plans.

“I like being called ‘mademoiselle.’ It’s charming, and it makes me feel young,” said Laurene Lasne, 23. Unmarried Ayline Onger said being called “madame” made her feel like her mother.

“But when I talk to single moms, I call them ‘madame,’ ” said Miss Onger, a 25-year-old social worker. “I don’t want to rub in the fact that they are on their own.”

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