Titles, names, nouns: a feminist issue

I was at the coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge when a professor bumped into me en route to destination caffeination. “Excuse me, mademoiselle,” he muttered mechanically — then paused. “Sorry, I meant to say madame” he chuckled, looking around at our other colleagues. “Mademoiselle has been removed from the French language. Did you know that?”

“Sure,” I grinned back. It was a brief exchange, but his joke had attempted to unite those of us in the room in the esprit gaulois, that ribald spirit the French inherited from their Gallic ancestors which scoffs at political correctness.

In this case, the offending instance of political correctness was the French government’s 2011 ban on the use of “Mademoiselle” in all official paperwork. The order was issued after complaints that it was sexist and outdated to make women identify themselves by their marital status, while not requiring the same of men. (When filling out forms, for example, women had to choose between the civil titles “Madam” and ”Mademoiselle” while men simply had to declare themselves a “Monsieur.”)

If you’re thinking that such a ban is stupid and/or pointless, you’d have plenty of French men and women for company. The common response here was derisive annoyance or defensive anger. The government is destroying the Gallic spirit! … There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted Latin culture that celebrates differences between the sexes … Surely these kinds of policies only suit repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures, with their vulgar notions of gender equality and cantankerous feminists.

Nursing my cup of morning brew, I analyzed my reaction to the professor’s remarks. To be honest, even after all this time abroad, I still feel a bit glamorous being called “Mademoiselle.” Admittedly, I was also flattered to be assumed assimilated enough to not be one of those feminists.

However, the fact of the matter is: I am one.

Facing Notre Dame Cathedral

My opinions aren’t chic, but I’m not turning my back on them.

At least I’m a stickler for language.

Of course “Mademoiselle” hasn’t been purged from the common lexicon, and I don’t  think it should be (this blog’s very name is evidence). Rest assured, it’s still a popular way to address young women. Nonetheless, I think the government made the right move in treating men and women as par in terms of paperwork.

Words are important. Identifiers – titles, as well as names and nouns – are crucial.

And what may seem like a trivial, isolated issue is actually endemic to much of French language and culture.


His wife's last name

An optical illusion: you can see it as a stub from the morning paper AND as an instance of sexism!

Sometimes I forget to bring a book on my commute and grab the day’s edition of Direct Matin, the free and somewhat trashy paper distributed around metro stations. Usually I scan the minimal news content before tittering over celebrity gossip and reports of odd happenings.

But instead of being amused by this odd tidbit, I found it deeply problematic. To summarize (italics are mine, and comments in parentheses are my reading between the lines):

A 37 year old man in the Rhône region of France is the first married man to take the last name of his wife. This has only been legal since the end of 2011. He ran into a lot of difficulty during the process, since many city halls refused him, pointing to problems with existing I.T. systems. Though he finally succeeded, his quest didn’t have anything to do with feminism (whew! no worries guys). He only wanted to change his last name because his Armenian family had adopted a Turkish last name to escape persecution (so, any other fellows wanting to try this newfangled take-your-lady’s-last-name-thing better have a solid excuse!)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that a man can take his wife’s last name. It’s not so great that this act is only legal as of last year; one has to jump through ridiculous hoops to achieve it; and it’s being reported on as some amusing novelty demanding a particular justification (besides feminism, of course, which is apparently not appropriate motivation).

Bride on the Seine River

A devoted husband takes up his wife’s dress… but definitely not her name.


Given the sexism around the issue of names, it may not come as a surprise that there’s also sexism around the issue of nouns. After all, the word noms in French refers to both “names” and “nouns.”  They’re essentially the same thing: identifying words.

Unlike in English, nouns in French are gendered. This means… well, not much typically. Chairs are female while toasters are male. Mustaches are female. Nail polish is male. For the most part, genders for nouns are totally random and serve zero purpose besides frustrating foreigners trying to master the language.

Eclair and macaron

These pretty pink pastries – an eclair and a macaron – are male. My digestive system didn’t mind though.

Where the issue gets dicey is when a noun refers to a profession; then, the genders are correlated with the sex of the people who commonly perform the job.

The word for nurse (infirmière) is female.

The word for ambassador (ambassadeur) is male. A news editor (rédacteur) is also male. So are professor (professeur) and engineer (ingénieur).

As both men and women have been entering into professions not traditionally performed by their sex, there has been some adaptation of the language. For nouns describing female-dominated professions, masculine forms were quickly introduced. It’s now completely common to refer to a male nurse as an infirmier.

But – ladies, wait for the catch! – there’s resistance to creating feminine equivalents of male-dominated jobs. This is partly a problem of historical language; for example, an ambassadrice already refers to the wife of an ambassador instead of a female ambassador. The bigger issue though is that even women suspect adopting feminized job titles would decrease their job status. That’s what happened with the word rédactrice, which came to mean the editor of a women’s magazine instead of a general news editor who happens to be female.*

Language, it seems, is not a woman, despite langue being feminine in French.


I don’t necessarily have final words to offer, or solutions to propose.

I’m not looking for anyone to say “Pardon my French.”

I just believe it’s worthwhile to dissect and dismantle potentially harmful sociolinguistic frameworks.

These aren’t the kinds of things you learn in a French classroom, but I think they’re discussions worth having. Don’t you?


*Beeching, Kate. “Women and Language.” Women in Contemporary France. Ed. Abigail Gregory and Ursula Tidd. Oxford : Berg, 2000.


3 thoughts on “Titles, names, nouns: a feminist issue

  1. Great post! Personally I’m totally happy that mademoiselle is on its way out in legal documents. I’m 28, I have a full-time job, and I’m pacsed to my boyfriend—I don’t like having to point at that we’re not technically married! I miss the “Ms” of American administration and I think “Madame” works well as a “passe-partout” in French. However, very few websites seem to have put this in place—I still get stuck picking Madame or Mademoiselle according to my mood.

    As for the dude taking his wife’s name, he’s not the first guy to do it—I think it’s a case of lazy reporting. Regardless, I’m sure it’s really rare in France, just as it’s rarer in France than in the States for a woman to keep her name. My mom kept hers, but I’ve never heard of a French woman of her generation doing it. Sometimes I feel like women are way behind in France, as in the name-taking issue, but at other times, I think they’ve got things right. They don’t stress much about how much time to take off from work for the baby, etc.

    • Merci! The work-life balance in France can definitely be advantageous for women. French women also have a higher participation rate in the labor force than American women, so it seems they’re doing something right… On the other hand, employers here can ask you in an interview if you’re single, if/when you’re planning to have kids, etc., which can clearly be sexist and isn’t done in the States. I often wonder which country offers better or more progressive work environments overall (thinking ahead to my own career options!), and I still can’t decide.

  2. Pingback: The One Lie I Always Tell | Academoiselle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s