The dangerous meanings of mademoiselle

In France, Mademoiselle is a complicated word!

Most of us learn three basic titles in French: Monsieur (abbreviated M.), Madame (abbreviated Mme.), and Mademoiselle (abbreviated Mlle.).  The latter is used, we’re taught, for very young and/or unmarried women.  Pretty straightforward, right?

Well, due to the conflicting dynamics of social changes and a certain aspect of traditional French culture, when it comes to mademoiselle, it’s not simple at all!

What does mademoiselle mean?

Mademoiselle is the French equivalent of “Miss.” It has traditionally been used to address unmarried women but its use is now considered problematic so make sure you use it carefully.

The history of mademoiselle

You may recognize that mademoiselle contains two words: ma (my) and demoiselle (an old-fashioned French word for “lady”, as in a noblewoman).  Knowing that, it’s probably not surprising that this title came about in the Middle Ages, when courtly gentlemen and peasants alike used it to address young, unmarried women of the nobility.

Over time, the word became a title for any young, unmarried woman, regardless of her social class.

It was not only a title of courtesy; it also gave important information about things like age and marital status.  These were important things to know in past centuries, when women were basically considered property to be married off in order to benefit their families in some way.

As time went on, and feminism came to France, women (and some awesome men) began to question this. They were fighting for equality, so why not have one title that didn’t indicate their marital status or age, like men do?  

This may seem like a modern concept, but the first notable attempt at a single title for French women appeared during and shortly after the 1789 French Revolution, when men were no longer called Monsieur, but Citoyen (Citizen) and all women, regardless of age or marital status, took the title Citoyenne (a female form of “citizen”).  

I can’t say I agree with all of the ideas of the French Revolution (the beheadings got kind of out of hand, for one thing), but, personally, I’m pretty on board with that one.

When the Revolutionary excitement died down, though, the old titles came back, and it would take decades before a significant number of women began to question them again.

Nearly 200 years later, in the early 1970’s, French feminists began to push, either for women to be able to choose to be called Madame or Mademoiselle, or, simply, to stop using mademoiselle altogether. 

It would take nearly half a century for this to happen…and as we’ll see, it hasn’t completely happened at all.

What’s wrong with mademoiselle?

A woman hand wearing a diamond ring

You might be wondering what the fuss is all about, anyway.  Mademoiselle isn’t an insult – it’s a form of respect, right? And it serves a purpose, as any word should, giving information and helping to express an idea or concept.

The problem is that this concept – the idea of broadcasting to anyone a woman meets that she is unmarried – is unfair and obsolete.  

Mademoiselle indicates that a woman isn’t married

Men in France are only called Monsieur, whether they’re a newborn or a many-times-married old man – or whether they’ve never married at all.

A woman, on the other hand, is defined by her martial status. In a laic country that is supposed to treat men and women equally, where women can work and are perfectly permitted and capable of living on their own if they should so choose, this seems quite pointless.  

On top of that, while some traditions, like using the word mademoiselle, have remained, others, like the idea of marriage as sacred or socially encouraged, have not. Essentially, the title Mademoiselle forced women to broadcast their age and/or marital status, something Frenchmen did not have to do – and in modern-day France, this status wasn’t always even exactly correct.

For decades, in addition to marriage, it’s been perfectly socially acceptable in France for a man or woman to be in a non-defined relationship, in concubinage (living together but not married or PACS’ed), PACS’ed (a legal agreement that’s the rough equivalent of a common law marriage), divorced, widowed, or simply single.  And yet, for a long time, unless they were married, a woman could not officially use the title Madame.

This was something I experienced for many years here, and I always found it strange.  On any official or professional document, I was “Mademoiselle Alysa Salzberg”, even though I was PACS’ed and thus not single at all. 

Mademoiselle implies that a woman is considered desirable

The other issue that many women (myself included) took (and still take) with mademoiselle is that when someone addresses you by this title, it implies that they think you look young and/or desirable.

Many French people – very much including women – LOVE this.  When the question of excluding mademoiselle from government documents came up in 2012, a number of the French women I knew thought that it was a stupid fight (after all, they argued, don’t feminists have more important things to try to change?) or that it would take away a bit of pleasure in their everyday life. 

Because, when you come down to it, once you’re over a certain age, being called mademoiselle is like a compliment, and usually a form of flirting. 

You might wonder how often this would happen, but French culture is known for its forms of politeness.  If you see a passerby drop something, for example, you wouldn’t just say “Excuse me!  You dropped one of your gloves!”; you would use a title: Madame!/Monsieur/Mademoiselle!  Vous avez laissé tomber un de vos gants!

Check out this glasses commercial from 2009 that plays on a still-popular French expression Madame ou mademoiselle? 

The question isn’t about what a woman prefers to be called – rather, it’s a cheeky way to ask if she’s single.  Notice how, in the commercial (which dates to just a few years before the title Mademoiselle was abolished from official French documents) you have this attractive, independent-seeming woman who just revels in telling everyone she meets that she’s a mademoiselle.  This doesn’t just go for someone she might be actively pursuing in a romantic way; even having a little ten-year-old boy or a waiter she barely gives a glance to, address her this way seems very important to her.

As an American and a feminist, the commercial is shocking to me.  Still, if I’m being honest, I will admit that on the ever-more rare occasions that I’m called mademoiselle, I do get a little thrill, a little pick-me-up feeling. I may have parenting-induced bags under my eyes, my skin may be a mess because of the change of seasons, I probably have a stain somewhere on my clothes (a fact of life when you have a toddler), but wow – someone thinks I look young and desirable!

But then, there is the flip side.  What about all those times when I’m called madame?  I feel undesirable and old.  And that’s not cool – after all, men never have to deal with that.  

By having a difference in titles, even in a modern society where it shouldn’t matter, women are still constantly being judged. Can we ever really be seen as equal to men if, every time a man encounters us in daily life, he automatically has to make a judgment like that?  It not only means that women are being judged; it means men are being forced to do so – as are our fellow females.

The day mademoiselle disappeared (sort of)

French driving licence
Official documents like this driving licence no longer have the option to write mademoiselle.

After decades of pressure from feminists (but not necessarily from every French woman), the government finally made some changes.   As of December 2012, the title Mademoiselle was no longer an option to check on government documents (well, the newly published ones – the old forms were still used until they ran out). Today, whether it’s on your ID (including immigration documents), tax return, or anything else from the state, if you’re a woman, you can only be called Madame.

When this mini-revolution happened, I was ecstatic. When I got my titre de séjour (rough equivalent of a green card) for that year and saw “Madame Alysa Salzberg,” I felt a thrill of progress. 

I did wish the French had invented a new title, an equivalent of Ms. – a modern creation with no previous association of marital status or age. Now, six years later, I actually think the option of Madame may be better in France. It harkens back to the days of Citoyen and Citoyenne.  Plus, most of the French people I’ve told about Ms. think that making up a new title is utter nonsense.

Madame in the sheets (of paper), mademoiselle on the streets

Of course, social change usually doesn’t happen overnight.  I’m writing this in 2018, six years after the government reform. My ID may still say Madame, and I’m addressed this way in professional contexts, as well.  But in everyday life, it’s a different story.

Walk down the streets of any French city, town, or village, or duck into a shop, or sit on a park bench – basically, just exist outside your home – and if someone finds you attractive and/or thinks you’re young, you will still be called mademoiselle.  The word is still used to flirt or, as you get older, sometimes maybe even to be ingratiating so that you’ll buy something.

Many French women still seem to enjoy being addressed this way (and, as I’ve admitted, even my foreign, feminist self does self-loathingly feel complimented by it). 

Still, complete change may come one day.  One example that’s often used is that when the title Fraulein, the German equivalent of Mademoiselle, was banished from government documents in the 1970’s, society followed suit. Today, among most Germans, the term seems outdated or even pejorative.

I’m not sure this will be the case in France, though.  Flirtatiousness and a certain societal pressure for women to be appealing to men are cornerstones of the culture.  So, whether you like it or not, if you’re a woman in France, you may find yourself being called mademoiselle at some point.

Is mademoiselle used in other French-speaking countries?

In most European French-speaking countries and regions, as well as in Quebec, mademoiselle is not used in official or professional contexts, and it seems that it’s not appreciated the way it is in France.  It’s been abolished from government documents in Switzerland and Canada since the 1970’s, and although it’s taken time, Belgium and Luxembourg followed suit in the 2010’s.

Depending on the country, other French-speakers may use different titles altogether, so it’s important to learn more about that before you travel to a specific place.

When should you call someone mademoiselle?

Bride With Bridesmaids Outdoors At Wedding
Married or not, bridesmaids are called demoiselles d’honneur.

If you’re not French – or even if you are – here is how you should use the term mademoiselle in France.

It’s okay to call a woman mademoiselle:

  1. If she is clearly a child or teenager.
  2. If she asks you to.
  3. If she goes by the title.  Some actresses (even elderly, married ones) do this, as well as certain media personalities, like fashion icon and celebrity Mademoiselle Agnès.
  4. If you are referring to a bridesmaid.  Married or not, bridesmaids are called demoiselles d’honneur. Of course, this is how you should refer to them collectively or when describing their role in the wedding.  If you address them directly, call them by their first name.
  5. If you are performing a play or doing a reading of a literary work where the word is used.

Otherwise, if you’re in a professional setting, use madame (or whatever title is appropriate – Dr., etc.). 

It does get more complicated, of course, if you actually want to flirt with someone, or if you’re afraid that calling them madame will offend them.

In this case, I would say, first and foremost, why are you even using a title?  If you can, just drop it – and better yet, if you know the person’s first name and it seems appropriate, use that.  Flirting isn’t just about a single word, after all; it’s about body language, wit, warmth….  Not to mention the fact that many of us would prefer to hear our names from the lips of a guy we’re interested in, rather than a formal title!  

In social settings, younger generations would probably tend to do drop titles, anyway (as well as many letters.)  I’ve never been at a party with young people where someone called me anything but “Alysa” or asked me my name if they didn’t know it.  So, if you’re planning to hang around teens, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, and even most forty-somethings in a social setting, I’d say this issue may not even come up.

This also goes for business settings, where it’s often more common for colleagues to address each other by first names, than by last names and titles.

So basically, you can and probably should avoid using mademoiselle, unless a woman asks you to.

Should I take the title Mademoiselle?

If you’re a woman (or if you choose to be identified as such), you have the right to use the title Mademoiselle when in France, even if official documents won’t address you that way.

But remember that the term is loaded, and can come off showy, old-fashioned, single and ready to mingle, naïve….  

If you’re in France for professional reasons, aren’t looking for l’amour, or want to establish yourself in a particular field, it’s better to use Madame.

How do you feel about the word mademoiselle?  Would you or have you ever used it?  If you’re a woman, how would you feel about being called mademoiselle, or even using it as your title?

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.