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?

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.

28 thoughts on “The dangerous meanings of mademoiselle”

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  1. Thanks, Alysa— what an interesting and timely article! And thanks also to all the other commenters.
    As a teacher, I can tell you one place where the American version of the Madame-Mademoiselle dilemma still reigns supreme: our public schools. I teach at several different elementary schools every year. I go by Ms. B. I use “Ms” because I am a never-married single mother (and “B.” because most people find my last name unpronounceable). There are some schools where all female teachers are referred to over the intercom or in publications as “Ms,” to the immense relief of those of us wearing our invisible scarlet letters, but unfortunately there are other schools where they try to define you as either a “Miss” or a “Mrs,” and all efforts to define yourself as a “Ms” fall on deaf ears. It is stressful and dehumanizing to have to fight to be addressed in a neutral way. Why should daily terms of address remind one of one’s lack of social status and broken engagement?
    I will never forget the rags-to-riches-to-rags-like trajectory of my 2nd grade teacher, Miss Booth. The lovely but unfortunate Miss Booth started the year clearly an unmarried Mademoiselle. Then she stunned us by marrying some unknown Monsieur not long into the school year. We all wrote kind notes to the happy couple and tried to get used to calling her Mrs. Chapman. Just around the time when we had trained oursdlves to call her Mrs. Chapman, the unthinkable happened: she and Mr. C. got divorced. We never knew why. All we knew is that we all had to go back to calling her Miss Booth again. My mom snickered at poor, foolish Miss Booth, who couldn’t even hold on to the same surname for an entire school year. I asked my parents again and again why Ms Booth’s name had to change, and then had to change back again, but never received a meaningful explanation. (My parents were conflicted members of the National Organization of Women, liking to wear the cool t-shirts and read me books such as “Girls Can Be Anything,” but less interested in true societal change.) It is interesting to note that my 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Workinger, could have married and divorced as frequently as he wished during the course of the school year, and no one would have been the wiser!
    As tricky as being a “Ms” in a primarily “Miss-or-Mrs” world can be, it’s nothing compared to my previous public school teaching job, in which I worked as a an unmarried French teacher… and eventually, as an unmarried-while-pregnant French teacher. I was merely unmarried when I started the job, but based on my age (in my 30s) and trends in French forms of address, I had the foresight to identify as a Madame, not a Mademoiselle, from the get go. Bullet nicely dodged!
    However, it was distinctly uncomfortable while teaching the module on when to use Mademoiselle versus Madame. I lived in dread of my middle schoolers questioning exactly why they needed to call me Madame when the textbook clearly identified unmarried women, with child or not, as Mademoiselles.
    As the school year revved up and my baby bump appeared, it became clear that my fiancé was not going to make an honest Madame of me any time soon. I bought myself a fake engagement ring to dampen student and co-worker curiosity. It worked. But it was uncomfortable, and depressing, to have to worry that I could be exposed as an imposter Madame. And it always galled me that men face no equivalent hurdles or shaming.
    Those who think it’s not a big deal probably already have appreciable social status. (If you are a married mom who assumes that we live in a thoroughly modern egalitarian society in which marital status does not affect our interactions, try introducing yourself as a never-married single mom in new situations for a month or two and let us know how that works out for you. If there is little reaction and people seem genuinely accepting, please let me know the location so I can consider moving there.)
    All I can say is, it’s about time for women to be addressed as autonomous legal adults (marital status irrelevant) rather than in light of their current or former relationship status… en français, et en anglais.
    Alors, vive la « Ms » ! Vive la « Madame » ! & Vive l’égalité !

  2. First, I am thoroughly enjoying reading about French customs through the eyes of a fellow American. I learned a lot about the nuances involved on this topic since it is clearly more complicated than following a standard definition. Looking forward to your next article!

  3. Merci, Alysa.

    Good information. I like it when people accept that there isn’t always a definite answer—or answers- to every real or perceived problem.

    I have been spending time amongst French-speaking people my whole life. I was fortunate to cross the Atlantic in 1968 à bord du «France» to begin what we used to call «my Junior Year in France», one of a then-limited variety of «Junior Years Abroad.»

    Much has changed, happily. Even the word «abroad», which some see as trivializing, has usually been replaced by some combination of «international» and «study.»

    I have never stopped observing the use of Mademoiselle.

    1. For a number of years after 1968, some unmarried women chose to use Madame rather than Mademoiselle, usually for reasons that today no longer obtain. Happily.

    2. «Jeune homme,» is frequently used when addressing a young male—I recall recently hearing in a shop a customer saying to the young man who was assisting her :

    «Dîtes-moi, jeune homme, vous êtes susceptible de recevoir ce modèle quand ?»

    But I can’t recall an equivalent being used for a female. I have heard «Ma fille,» but I associate that with real or assumed familiarity—the latter, for example by a religious cleric, or even by someone rendered sage by age.

    3. I tell friends that being addressed by a stranger—to ask for directions, for example—without an honorific, falls on French ears the way «Hey, you, how do I get to Broadway,» would on an American ears.

    4. I keep listening, and, for now, I do my best with Madame or Mademoiselle.

    5.Things seem to be equitable in wedding parties : «garçon d’honneur.»

    6. Pretty sure I’ve come upon the archaic masculin noun «demoiseau,» perhaps in a Robert Merle novel.

    Thanks to you and Benjamin for your insights.

    James Harmon

  4. When traveling with my adult daughter (22) in 2019 in France, our hotel registration and car rental paperwork used "Monsieur et Madame". I get it that "Mlle" may be presumptious in some cases, but to an English speaker "M+Mme" for a man and his daughter doesn’t seem right.

  5. Very interesting article– merci! To the legal comment/question above, “spinster” is NOT a current term in the legal world. A deed to a house to an unmarried woman will read “Grantee, Jane Smith, an unmarried woman.” Likewise, to a man, it will read “Grantee, John Doe, an unmarried man.” I’ve sometimes seen “single” instead of “unmarried”, but that’s about the extent of the varieties. If a house is sold to John Doe and Jane Smith, and they are unmarried, it will read “Grantees, John Doe, an unmarried man, and Jane Smith, an unmarried woman”. (The reason deeds are so focused on marital status has to do with inheritance rights of spouses that are built into our common law). I am an attorney, and a woman– we always go by Ms. Last name, but every now and again I see a Mrs. Last name, which seems so, so, so foreign, stodgy, and old-fashioned. I think Mrs. is slowly going away, accept in the Mr. and Mrs context, where is still in strong use. I fully support a non-marital based form of address for all!

  6. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s appropriate in a professional setting. Ever.
    But in english, I would never call a teenager or a young adult “Mrs.” and may also get corrected for calling an unmarried woman “Mrs.”; I don’t think a married woman is likely to be insulted if I call her “Miss” so-and-so unknowingly, and since “Miss” translates to “Mademoiselle”….

    On the street, with totally forgettable strangers? Take the cheap flattery if you like and press on with your day. It’s not a betrayal of the gender or anything.

  7. And to boot – only a blatant and arrogant American would go to another country, and try to start dictating cultural norms through their own perverted view.

    Why don’t you consider that the French can chose their own path, and that you should possibly observe, but otherwise have nothing to say about it.

  8. The article is openly authoritarian and also sexist, to assume that men are calling women ‘mademoiselle’ as a form of flirting.

    No, ladies, when men speak to you, they are not always wanting sex. Enough with your bigotry and BS.

    Mademoiselle is as inoffensive as the term ‘young lady’ or ‘young man’. It’s flexible, and female under the age of 30 could be reasonably called ‘mademoiselle’ .

    A tiny minority of angry, bitter and bigoted women want to see the world through the lens of gender hate, and are trying to control the language.

    Consider that it’s a rather objective term for ‘young lady’ – that’s about it, and nobody but you lot care.

    • Wow. You have NO idea of actual French culture. Perhaps you can speak from a North American or simply non-Gallic perspective, but I suspect you are actually an angry, cisgender, white male who cannot cope with the loss of the upper hand after millennia. Speaking of bitter…

  9. Frankly. I don’t know where in the French speaking world you would seriously be called mademoiselle. You look in your 30’s or 40’s. And mademoiselle isn’t really used seriously for adult women anyway, even if you did look young. Madame is not like being called ma’am in USA.

  10. While teaching in a French program at an elementary school, another teacher called herself Madame, but when introducing me, called me Mademoiselle. I personally felt that it undermined my authority as a teacher figure in the classroom. I would prefer, in professional contexts, to be called Madame, regardless of my age or marital status.

  11. Wow, that’s a super interesting article! Being French I actually always run into a dilemma each time someone calls me Madame or Mademoiselle. I’m still not decided. ahah

  12. The abbreviations for Madame (Mme) and Mademoiselle (Mlle) may take a period in English writing, but I’m pretty sure they *don’t* in French, since the abbreviation ends with the same letter as the full word. French Wiktionary identifies the versions with the periods as common spelling mistakes. (Sorry — I’m too lazy to dig up my Grévisse for a more authoritative citation.)

    I’m all for the change. I still recall a story from a French female friend back in the 70s, who told me about an employee at a government social-welfare office who took a perverse, moralistic pleasure in attempting to humiliate visibly pregnant unmarried women by loudly calling out for them as MADEMOISELLE So-and-So. Good riddance to that.

      • Salut Peter (and Benjamin) – I’ve never seen it without a period, especially when it comes before a last name. I’ve checked several sources as well, and all of them show it used with a period.
        I would also like to see some examples of this from Peter – maybe they come from other Francophone cultures, or very specific contexts?

        • All French abbreviations that end in the same letter as their full-word version (Madame – Mme; route – rte) require no punctuation, whereas those abbreviations terminating in a letter other than the final letter of the original, do require a period (Monsieur – M.; avenue – av.).

  13. I think feminists have far too much time on their hands. The very things that make women attractive to men is our differences, by removing everyone of them in the name of equality you’re driving us to homosexuality.

    Au revoir Mademoiselle.

    • I find it hard to speak about feminism as a movement because feminists seem so divided so I always prefer to think about it in term of individual problems.

      I personally think being called mademoiselle can be considered sexist and that women should be able to choose not to be called that way.

      This said, as a Frenchman growing up in France, I don’t remember ever using mademoiselle, not because I thought it was sexist but simply because I don’t find it natural to use title when addressing people.

    • Patrick, I appreciate your sharing your views. I obviously disagree with them (especially the idea that a vocabulary choice or equality for another group would suddenly make someone’s sexuality change – that’s something you’re born with) – but they offer a great deal of insight into why some people find this a troubling or non- issue.

      That being said, using the title “Madame” instead of “Mademoiselle” does still differentiate a person’s gender. I would hope that anyone wanting to flirt with an attractive woman would be creative enough not to need to rely on a title alone.

  14. Thanks for the informative article. I never knew that “mademoiselle” was so controversial. At least it’s better than the term “spinster” for unmarried women as used by the American legal system , though for all I know that may have changed in recent years. The part about the titles during the French revolution interested me because “Citizen Genet” who was the French Ambassador to the United States during the French Revolution but was later given asylum in the US is buried in my hometown.

  15. Actually, pretty much the same with the German “Fräulein”… when you are in Germany, you should not call young girls “Fräulein” any more…

    • I would actually be curious to know if Fräulein is still used at all. I spent 4 years in Germany and never heard it but I was in quite international cities (Berlin and Cologne.)

  16. A teenager is Mademoiselle and then — presto! becomes Madame. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether you’re talking to Mademoiselle Dixneufans or Madame Vingtans. And Mlle Seizeans may look like Mme Vingtsixans (or the other way round).
    I think by the way that everything you say about mademoiselle and madame also works in Italy for signorina and signora.
    And the US has its complications. When do boys and girls become men and women? I live in a college town, and the local paper carries reports of the local high school’s boys’ and girls’ soccer, lacrosse, tennis etc. teams and of the college’s men’s and women’s soccer, lacrosse, etc. teams.
    Of course college boys and girls are unlikely to refer to one another as college men and women (except when they’re trying to make a point).

    • I agree. It can be hard to know how to address people correctly. It’s kind of the same issue with “tu” and “vous”. Using “vous” sometimes implies that you think the person is older than he/she is.

  17. Always thought of Madame as a term of respect used for anyone over the age of eighteen. If the people in shops called me mademoiselle, I would feel insulted, even when very young:) Felt they were looking down on me when they called me mademoiselle, like maybe they thought I couldn’t afford to buy anything.
    As to being attractive, I think someone can call you madame in a very sexy way…

    • That’s interesting. As a Frenchman, I have always perceived “madame” to be more serious and “mademoiselle” more playful.


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