The fact that an official dictate on the appropriate honorific for French women remains newsworthy reminds us that in many places around the world designations for women are still in stark contrast to the almost ubiquitous use of 'Mr' or an equivalent term for men of all ages, married or not. But it also highlights how strong - and radically different - meanings can evolve across different cultures
Bravo to France's Solidarity Minister for declaring that it will no longer only be married women who can aspire to the gravitas that many perceive the term 'madame' to convey. The French are following a long-established move by the Germans, who in West Germany eliminated the term 'Fräulein' from official usage in 1972 (although its use remained common in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989). In fact, as far back as 1955 it became legal for an unmarried woman to call herself 'Frau' if she so desired. Although it slipped under the radar compared to the recent French announcement (most likely because it pre-dated the internet) it was the German women's movement of the '70s that declared the use of the word Fräulein as sexist, hence its usage slowly died out.
In Spain, 'señorita' persists for unmarried women, but this word has also begun to take on negative connotations and is now seen as slightly patronising, in much the same way that 'mademoiselle' was becoming perceived in France. Could this word be one of the next words to disappear from common parlance?
Ironically, looking further afield, Japan, a culture not known for its gender equality, appears to use the term 'san' for both men and women. And elsewhere, while China has terms for Miss, Ms and Mrs, there is also a refreshing use of titles based on criteria other than marital status e.g. 'engineer Wang' or 'teacher Li'.
Yet in the UK, if a similar initiative were to become official, how many unmarried British women would rush to be known as 'Mrs'? Within British culture, being designated 'the missus' carries significantly less glamorous and dignified connotations than 'Madame'. The anodyne and slightly self-conscious 'Ms' is hardly more appealing, although it does at least attempt to define women independent of their marital status.
Instead, Britons might be more likely to see a defence of 'Miss', with its values of youthful optimism and carefree femininity. British women have almost single-handedly reclaimed and rehabilitated joyful girliness over the last decade - fuelling the success of brands such as Alice Temperley and Cath Kidston, and re-framing cookery and crafts as hip activities rather than symbols of domestic enslavement.
On a smaller scale, this has already happened in Germany. Freed from its obsolete official meaning, Fräulein has been voluntarily reclaimed by young women, and now carries a new set of more positive values. 'The word can be found adorning initiatives such as the Fräulein Wild bakery in Berlin's Mitte district and numerous German bloggers assume it as part of their online moniker. For some, it seems this is a light-hearted way of asserting their femininity - with the added bonus of giving a nod to the 'Ostalgie' trend for the cultural icons of the communist years.
Yet for British women the crux of the matter remains almost as old as gender politics themselves. If 'miss' represents a light-hearted, less serious approach to femininity, by embracing it would they risk appearing - as is so often the case - significantly less soignée than their Gallic counterparts now known as 'Madame'?
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