Words matter to equality

The BBC reports that Cesson-Sevigne, a town in France, has banned “Mademoiselle” as a form of addressing women. Noting that “men of all ages become ‘monsieur’ as soon as they grow out of shorts,” the town’s mayor, who ran on a platform of sexual equality, and feminists who support him say there should be one way to address women.

I’m sad to say I hadn’t really thought about the dichotomy here until I read the news story, although I have experienced it. We have our Miss, Mrs. and Ms. distinctions in U.S. English, too. I remember trying to guess what salutation to use when addressing—by hand!—an appointment reminder card or some other such thing to a female research participant. My research partner said “Ms.,” the neutral term, was my safest bet, in case the “Mrs.” status she had checked when she filled out the interest form several months earlier had since changed. I’ve cringed and insisted men who call me, “ma’am” address me by my first name or even as, “Ms. Williams,” instead.  Men have used the greeting/question, “And you are Mrs. …?” to conspicuously (because it really is obvious) and flirtatiously find out if I’m married. Last year, a sales clerk, a woman who was probably twice my age, approached me from behind with, “Excuse me, ma’am?” When I turned around, she said, “Oh, you’re not a ma’am. You’re a miss! I’m a ma’am.” And during my one-week stint as a telemarketer selling magazine subscriptions, I made one of my best sales by addressing the woman who answered the phone as “Mrs.” the day after she had just snagged an engagement ring. (Man, was she proud of that rock!)

In each experience the salutation applied to me or to the woman I was addressing reflected my or her age, our marital status and the level of respect I should receive or that I should give, and yet none of these things should matter to two strangers meeting. Granted, if your intentions are coquettish or more suggestive, marital status should matter. But in general, when people first meet, when there’s a sale to be made, or when a fleeting courtesy greeting is needed, marital status and age shouldn’t bear any weight on the interaction or on much else.

And yet they do, especially for women. Women of a certain age should be respected but should also be sad that they are no longer young. In certain career fields, they should worry about whether they can continue working while men of the same age in the same fields don’t have that concern. Unmarried women are made to wonder what’s wrong with them. Married women get offended when not addressed as Mrs. Meanwhile, a Mr. is a Mr. forever and no matter what, and a few letters before his name don’t make the first impression.

As Dr. Penelope Gardner-Chloros, professor of applied linguistics at Birkbeck University, said in the aforementioned piece, “[Language] is a sensitive indicator of the distinctions that a society makes—so if it is important to know if a woman is married or not, then it will be indicated in language.”

Yes, there are more pressing issues regarding gender equality to address than salutations, but I appreciate Cesson-Sevigne’s insight into how language reflects our culture. So, why are you saying what you’ll say today?

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