Galvanized by the deeply disturbing implications of the Strauss-Kahn/Diallo case for women worldwide, French feminists have rallied to put paid to a deeply entrenched form of sexism in their society: the legally mandated distinction between "Madame" and "Mademoiselle" on the basis of marital status.
Unlike Spain, which has formally retired "Senorita," and Germany, which recently parted ways with "Fraulein," France still delineates between married and unmarried women, requiring French women to indicate marital status on everything from job applications to parking tickets.
Marie-Noelle Bas, president of the feminist group Watchdog, argues that the distinction is problematic for precisely the same reasons that "Mrs/Miss" troubles Anglophone feminists; namely, that it defines women on the basis of their relationship to men. "In old days, women went from the domination of their father to the domination of their husband," she says. "They were 'mademoiselle' when they were girls, and 'madame' when they were married. For the men, there is no two states, only 'monsieur' from the youth to the elder."
It's been a while since I've read 1984, but Orwell's testimony on the overarching importance of language is as fresh in my mind as ever. Orwell addressed it in the characteristic negative - that the key to suppressing thought rests in the obliteration of one's access to the language that makes such thoughts possible - but so, too, is liberation born through the obliteration of the language that maintains oppressive structures. As a lover of language in all its forms, I can't emphasize enough my support for the movement.
Thalia Breton, of the organization Dare Feminism, argues that the ongoing Strauss-Kahn fiasco has made it crucial for feminists to act, and to act now.
"People have really woken up about inequalities and sexism since the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair," she says, "and we think these issues will be a part of the presidential debate leading up to next May's election."
I can only hope for the same.