The first time I was called a woman, it was by a middle-aged South East Asian man who’s knowledge of English was, likely, quite limited.
“Hey you! Beautiful woman!” He jeered at me, loudly, from across the crowded street, and I couldn’t help but feel a little flattered. He thinks I’m a woman!, I thought, like a transgendered male-to-female marking their first occasion of passing. Except I wasn’t a male, and I wasn’t transgendered, and I wasn’t really a woman, either. I was a sixteen-year old female, or teenager, or whatchamacallit, living in Thailand, being inundated by the Britney Spears lyrics, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”
It’s been almost ten years since then, and no longer am I in between the legal definition of girl and womanhood, according to culture and law. I am technically, legally, officially a woman. (Definitions vary according to state, country, and social affiliations, ranging from the occasion of a first menstrual period to a minimum of two emotionally significant pregnancy scares.) Yay, me, woman. Ambiguity over, no?
…No. With womanhood comes responsibilities. Responsibilities like getting a job, and business cards, and buying groceries. And muddled within those responsibilities are social interactions, many of which still laced with archaic finesse. The eighteen-year-old cashier hands me a receipt with a ‘thank you, ma’am,’ and I die a little inside.
The confusion, it seems, remains, because no one has any idea how to appropriate address a young woman. (And ‘young woman’ is itself a very troublesome term, because it’s often used by creepy older men to address prepubescent nymphets, and often by my mother and grandmother, in a stern tone, whenever I was getting in trouble.) I am now in my mid-twenties, does that make me a miss, or a ma’am? Am I a girl, or a lady? And why are all of the options available to me a little cringe-worthy and pejorative?
Female persons in general have got the overly-complicated end of the stick on a lot of things, social and otherwise. To a man’s automatic ‘Mr.,’ a woman must choose between ‘Ms.,’ ‘Mrs.,’ or ‘Miss,’ none of which are particularly flattering. Mrs. and Ms. don’t even exist in the English language, outside of their shortened form. They cannot be spelled…they aren’t real words. Many a time I have wished we could do away with the stupid formality, completely, and leave all the boxes unchecked, and live in a post-sexist, Utopian society where we all call each other by exclusively our first (and maybe last) names…but such pipe dreams are not to be.
Men can informally be ‘guys,’ but the female equivalent, ‘girls,’ is blatantly infantilising (and very offensive to angry middle-aged lesbians). They have a point…I wouldn‘t call a group of adult men ‘boys’ without an air of condescending snark (affectionate condescending snark, I’m sure).
The automatic male ‘sir,’ is supposed to be matched to a female ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am’…but ‘ma’am’ is matronly and implicit of age. It denotes respect, but of the type you assign to the elderly and otherwise wizened - generally not the sort of thing you want to hear before you turn thirty-five, at least.
‘Miss,’ I’ll take, but it’s hardly an equal match…it's condescending and lacking in anything resembling oomph or power. ‘Sir,’ would be an effective way to address a high-ranking executive or visiting president, but a ‘miss’ denotes little in way of reverence, and Miss Donegal is a 19th century school teacher at best.
‘Lady’ is…no. ‘Ladies’ may be the female companions of ‘gentlemen,’ but ‘lady’ is the double-x version of ‘dude,’ and neither is great social etiquette. ‘Dude’ is, at least, a term to be inserted readily into speech whenever one aspires to sound like a pothead, regardless of the sex of the listener; ‘lady,’ has no such virtues or unisex capabilities.
And the only solution is this - we employ the French, because everything sounds nicer en francais, and we start calling all women ‘madam,’ regardless of such things as marital status, age, and whether or not they’ve born their husband a healthy male offspring to carry on the family name. Yes, technically, the French have the same miss/ma’am issues between ‘Madam’ and ‘Mademoiselle,’ but…whatever. ‘Madam’ is a lot easier on my self esteem than ‘ma’am,’ and still capable of powerfully kicking the ass of a ‘miss,’ or even a ‘sir.’ Plus, 'mademoiselle' takes a long time to say.
And as for Mrs. versus Ms. versus Miss…ugh. There is no solution. I suggest that more intelligent female readers go back to school to get a medical license or PhD, and the rest of you look into whether or not it’s worth your time to become a Rabbi or a nun. Sister Donegal? Oui?