It’s International Women’s Day so I thought I’d write a piece about my struggle, here in France, with all things feminine.
Well, not all things feminine. Nouns mostly. After twenty-seven years in this country, you’d think I’d have got the hang of this le/la, un/une business but pas du tout. I provide endless amusement for my French friends and colleagues because I still get it wrong.
I mean, some words just sound feminine to my worryingly gender-stereotyped (I’ve just realized) mind. Like nuage…soft and fluffy, it’s actually masculine. Or pétale, which is also masculine. And then there is victime and personne, which are feminine. So when the newsreader refers to a male murder victim as ‘elle’, I get terribly confused.
As for délice, amour and orgue, these masculine nouns become feminine in the plural. In fact, orgue can be either masculine or feminine in the plural depending on…oh, never mind…something to do with stops and bellows, no doubt.
Fortunately, my life has been made easier in recent years as the government attempts to feminise job titles whilst provoking apoplexy in that bastion of the French language, the Académie Française. For example, it is now acceptable to refer to la ministre, if the MP in question is a woman. I can also speak of une ingénieure, une auteure or une professeure and nobody laughs at me. But if I’m feeling particularly mischievous, I might mention a primary school teacher I know (une maîtresse) whose name is… Madame Lemaître. That keeps ‘em guessing.
Madame, of course, is the title given to a married woman. There is no equivalent of 'Ms' in French: you are either Madame or Mademoiselle. But this is about to change. In February, a ministerial circular declared that Mademoiselle should be removed from all administrative documents, along with the terms nom de jeune fille (maiden name) and nom d’époux (husband’s name).
While this is a good move, it didn’t stop me from being inordinately pleased the other day when the woman in the supermarket called me to her checkout.
“Mademoiselle…” she began.
I raised my head from the magazines I’d been looking at and smiled graciously. The anti-wrinkle cream must be paying off.
She clapped her hand to her mouth.
“Ooh, I’m terribly sorry,” she squealed for all to hear. “You’re so small, I thought you were a child.”
So much for sisterhood.
To be fair, I also struggle with all things masculine in France. But that’s quite another story and I still have such a lot to learn…
Joyeuse Journée Internationale de la Femme!