The highlight of my brief stint working for a bookstore was seeing Gloria Steinem approach my register. She exuded poise, beauty and strength and I missed an opportunity to express my admiration; I took the stack of magazines she handed me (no, Ms. was not one of them) and I rang her up. I didn’t even address her in any particular way, either than “Hello, thank you and you are welcome” but I wonder how she would have reacted had I called her “ma’am”.
The first time the moniker was lavished on yours truly was a few years ago: the boyfriend of my former sous-chef, a pleasant and well-mannered young man who, at the time, was in the Marines Corps, introduced himself, hand extended, with “It’s very nice to meet you ma’am”. I instinctively turned around to see who he was talking to but there were no other “ma’ams” standing there. “Please, call me Claudia”.
Whenever I have to check one of those boxes asking for a suffix, I always opt for the neutral Ms. as I am of the generation who refuses to be defined by our marital status. People who know my name but are not on familiar terms with me can address me with Ms or, as this is the States, and, furthermore, laid back California, Claudia will always do. But what of those daily encounters with people who don’t know me? How are they expected to call me? Ma’am fits the bill but ma’am also irks me. Terribly. And I know many women my age share this feeling.
But why is it? Am I refusing to go gently into the night and pointlessly raging on? In my mind, the only woman I could possibly address in such a manner is Queen Elizabeth.
My trusted Merriam Webster informs us that the first usage can be traced to 1668. The definition of “madam” tells us that it is “used without a name as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman” – from the Middle English, by way of the French “ma dame” or “my lady”.
Both the French Madame and the Italian Signora don’t faze me as much and both are addresses used for women who are, presumably, married or of a certain age. But in Italy, where women retain their maiden names on all documents, Signora doesn’t necessarily implies marriage – it’s polite to use with any woman over 40.
I suspect French works along those lines too.
There is something archaic and too old-fashioned about ma’am. It might be that “ma dame”, my lady: that implied possession and, by extension, a presumed marital status, of belonging to someone. Semantics, you might argue, that have little place in everyday conversation. But I have no other explanation for my, and many other women’s, aversion to the term. That I am not alone, it’s clear from just random examples:
Barbara Boxer to Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who addressed her as “ma’am.” She told the general that she preferred to be called “senator”: “I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it…
Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series Prime Suspect: “Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don’t like ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen, so take your pick.”
In both cases, the speaker, real or fictional, preferred a title related to her workplace. But what of the hapless barista, the shop assistant, the well-meaning librarian? Is it reasonable to expect they remember to address me as Ms.? Should I point it out?
I welcome your suggestions and, until I can be convinced otherwise, if you come across me, do me a favour and don’t call me ma’am.
To be filed under Just in Case – should you ever be introduced to Queen Elizabeth, you are supposed to address her as “Your Majesty” for the first time. From then on, you can downgrade to “ma’am”.