Belfast Telegraph

Feminists are Miss-ing the point on ladies' choice

By Mary Kenny

France is facing an important presidential election, but the French Prime Minister has, nevertheless, found the time to declare a ban on the title 'Mademoiselle'.

Francois Fillon says it must go from all government and bureaucratic forms in the future, because it is nobody's business whether a woman is married or not.

If this is what women want - and Mr Fillon has carried out the linguistic reform under pressure from feminist lobbies - this is what they should get. If women think it is patronising to be called Mademoiselle, so be it.

Miss, the English-language equivalent of Mademoiselle, has receded in recent times, mostly replaced by the all-inclusive Ms.

Yet the choice still remains in many forms: on airline websites, you are given the option of being a Miss, Mrs or Ms.

Miss, or its equivalent, may eventually disappear from all European languages as part of advancing gender equality. But while its eradication might further equality, it reduces information.

The most useful aspect of Miss is that it provides helpful data. If I choose to be called Miss Kenny, then that discloses that it is my patronymic - my father's name. It is not my husband's name or my children's name.

In the annals of genealogy this can be informative in tracing family trees and linking kinfolk. But once you abolish Miss, you have no way of knowing - on superficial acquaintance - where a surname comes from.

It could be a husband's - with increasing divorce and remarriage it could be one of several previous husbands!

Feminists have a point in saying that the whole system of nomenclature is patriarchal. For centuries, most children have taken their father's surname and that is how ancestry is traced.

The only European society that has used a truly egalitarian form of naming is Iceland, where John's son is called Johnson and Mary's daughter is called Marysdottir.

This has worked out fine for the Icelanders, but there are only a quarter of a million of them.

For more populous societies, unpicking a patriarchal system of names will take rather more complex change than simply abolishing the title of Mademoiselle.

If a woman wants to keep her own name upon marriage, she may henceforth be Madame twice: as her patronymic, and if she is with a partner and children, under a different family name too.

Women who have chosen not to marry their partners, but to cohabit already face this problem when it comes to the children. What are their surnames to be?

Not for the first time, even Mr Fillon will discover that traditions often arise for a practical reason and replacing them isn't half as simple as it looks.

And perhaps some Frenchwomen will still choose to avail of the title of Mademoiselle, at least in some circumstances.

In the English-speaking world, the one solid area where Miss is still an honourable - even a hallowed - form of address is theatre and showbusiness.

Elizabeth Taylor remained 'Miss Taylor' after seven husbands and used the title proudly even after she became Dame Elizabeth.

So don't dictate - give women the choice of what they want to be called. And don't diss Miss when such grand dames embraced it.

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