The French government has done away with “Mademoiselle,” the term of address for unmarried women, becoming the second country I know of to have officially done so. The other country is my current residence, Germany, though most foreigners are unaware that “Fräulein” was tossed out in 1972 and sounds quite sexist today. I have explained to my husband that many Americans use it because most of their knowledge of German comes from The Sound of Music, but he says any use by an American immediately evokes the image of U.S. Army soldiers cat-calling, “Hey, Fräulein…” Every woman in Germany is addressed as “Frau” (literally, “woman”) and now every woman in France is “Madame” (“my lady”). No more attention is given to their marital status than is given to the men’s. It’s simple and I like it, especially in contrast to the Anglophone attempts at a solution, which have been anything but simple.
In English, the non-sexist term is the neologism “Ms.” It’s pronounced “mizz,” possibly in a subconscious attempt to be as unphonetic in its spelling as “Mrs.” Neologisms can be tremendously helpful because they can be devoid of connotation. Take, for example, the word “cis.” It has been invented for the purposes of referring to anyone who is not transsexual. It avoids any insinuations of “normal” or “natural,” an all-too-frequent problem when discussing biological traits that deviate from the average and those that don’t.
But neologisms are not always free of connotation. I have met numerous women who buck the term “Ms.” based on its association with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, while others embrace it based on the same association, and so all three terms continue to be used. In order to avoid offense in Anglophone culture, it is necessary to know both the woman’s marital status and her political leanings. Non-native speakers of English frequently find themselves tongue-tied and brain-cramped trying to differentiate between “Ms.” and “Miss.” (“Which one’s sexist again? And how do you pronounce it?”) Swedes find this particularly silly, having done away with honorific titles altogether in a refusal to draw any attention to marital status, gender, age, or class.
Growing up with a mother who did not take my father’s surname, I argued that “Ms. Sullivan” was the only appropriate title for her because “Miss Sullivan” would imply she wasn’t married and “Mrs. Sullivan” would imply it was my father’s name. But is the latter really true? Every day I have lived in Germany, both before and after my wedding, I have been addressed as “Frau Sanford.” If, before my marriage, anyone were ever to call me “Fräulein Sanford,” it would sound as ridiculous as calling my husband “Master Lehr.” Treating women and men equally is often not just the fairest way of doing things, but the easiest.