After browsing through “The F-Word” yesterday, I started thinking about this post.
All languages I’m more or less able to understand (at least partially) have three distinctive addresses, one for men and two for women, depending on their marital status. In English there’s Mr., Mrs. and Miss, in French there’s Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle. The same goes for Spanish and Italian, as far as I know. (And Japanese seems to have lots of different ways to address someone, anyway…)
In German, this theoretically still is true. We have Herr, Frau and Fräulein (better known to anybody from an English-speaking country as Fraulein, I guess). It’s the same distinction as with Mr., Mrs. and Miss or Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle (Fraulein being the equivalent of Miss or Mademoiselle). But ever since the seventies, the word has rarely been used. Every woman these days is referred to as ‘Frau’, no matter whether she’s married or not.
Separating the married from the unmarried women while not separating the married from the unmarried men is strange all by itself. It’s an old-fashioned concept with the underlying principle that a man will always be a man, no matter whether he’s married or not, while a woman will be different when she’s married. (This goes as far as Dr. P.J. Möbius claiming in his 1903 published treatise “Über den physiologischen Schwachsinn des Weibes” [About the physiological idiocy of women] that an unmarried, young woman – trying to attract a man – can be mentally brilliant, but will become a stupid, little wife once she has found a man and gotten married, because women are mentally inferior to men – among other things about women’s weak minds…)
In Germany, the social revolution of 1968 changed things. Women demanded to be addressed as ‘Frau’, no matter whether or not they were married. And it caught on, today, entering any place or receiving any letter from an official source, you will be addressed as ‘Frau’, no matter whether you’re married or not. This actually has made things a lot easier for government departments and companies. Instead of trying to discern whether or not a woman is married (and yes, I know in most other countries the word for unmarried, young women is used in such cases, as it was in Germany before 1968), they can address every women they deal with using the same word.
So the change wanted in France already is standard in Germany. In fact, the word ‘Fraulein’ is used so little it’s threatened by extinction. And I’m not so sure whether this is a good thing or not…