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When marital status matters

French women have won the right to less intrusive titles and it’s time Australians had that same privilege, writes Joely Mitchell.

With a large amount of progressive legislation already under its belt, France has made another move to target gender equality.

In a memo addressed to state administrators across the country in late February, former prime minister François Fillon ordered that ‘Mademoiselle’ be banished from official forms and registries.

In France, females have traditionally been referred to as Madame if married, or Mademoiselle if un-married. Men have always been referred to as Monsieur regardless of marital status.

Thanks to several months of campaigning by French feminist groups, Osez le Féminisme and Les Chiennes de Garde, the title given to females in France is no longer determined by whether or not they are married.

Mistress was originally the neutral term used by English speakers to address females. Eventually, Mistress was split into two terms so that marital status was distinguishable in females. Miss is used to identify un-married women and Mrs (the abbreviation for Missus) is used for women who are married.

Today, a lot of women have adopted the more politically correct title, Ms, as it is as neutral as Mister has always been for men. France does not have an equivalent for Ms; however, feminist groups say they do not want one – they just want Madame to be used for women of all ages, married or not.

“The far from flattering ‘Mademoiselle’ civility requires women to reveal their private life, as if marriage conferred additional value to women,” Osez le Féminisme said on their website. “Today marriage is a matter of choice and privacy, why even define women by their marital status?”

Ban Mademoiselle
Image: Osez Le Femisme

Spokeswoman for Osez le Féminisme, Magali de Haas, told The New York Times that the group is advocating for private organisations to also make ‘Mademoiselle’ redundant so that the term will eventually fall out of popular use. The group is also campaigning to reduce the pay gap between men and women, supporting the right to abortion and birth control, and limiting sexist advertising.

Robert Hickey, Deputy Director of The Protocol School of Washington’s Honour and Respect, said that when addressing someone formally, it is important to know their gender and which title is applicable to them.

“You would use Ms when the person’s marital status is not an issue but you want to specify an honorific,” he said. “In very formal situations or when you are involved as part of a couple, you would use ‘Mrs – then husband’s first name – then your surname’.

“Using Mrs is often the choice of women in the context of being a mum,” he said.

Van Badham, columnist for The Guardian, tells upstart that Australia needs to make similar changes in official correspondence.

“If you’re the one sending out the letters from the bank and want a formal address, there should be a default used for all men and women,” she says.

“Since when has marital status been important?” she asks.

“These are some of the ways the patriarchy perpetuates itself by creating a language about gender differences and gender roles.

“We are still trapped in these biologically determinant histories and narratives where men are this and women are this and there’s a need to differentiate them.”

Badham says that titles should be made redundant in official correspondence because they have no significance.

“Beyond professional qualifications, how is it relevant what somebody’s gender is when you’re addressing them?” she asks. “The only person my gender really matters to is my choice in sexual partner.

“When I write an article, I don’t write about Mr or Ms, I write about the person themselves,” she says. “If you’re speaking to me on an informal level, I’m just Van. Formally, I become Badham.”

Unfortunately, martial status still matters in Australia. Hopefully, with time, women will be less defined by nuptials and titles, and more by who they are.


Joely Mitchell

Joely Mitchell is in her final year of a Bachelor of Journalism degree at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @joelymitchell.

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