The Queen of My Self

Continued from yesterday,

Just Don’t Call Me …
By Natalie Angier

If ma’am is meant as a verbal genuflection to power, the message is lost on many real-life powerful women, like Senator Barbara Boxer, who told a brigadier general to refer to her as “senator” rather than “ma’am” at a hearing last year. “I worked so hard to get that title,” she said, “so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”

I put together a completely unscientific poll of my own, courtesy of the online service, SurveyMonkey, and asked some three-dozen professional women how they felt about the word “ma’am.” The group included lawyers, writers, scientists, policymakers, business executives and artists, who ranged in age from 20 to 65. Of the 27 women who responded, only 2 said they liked being called ma’am, applauding the word as “polite” and “because it amuses me”; 10 were neutral; and the remaining 15 disliked it to varying pH levels of causticity. As Jill Soloway, a Los Angeles-based writer who worked on the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” explained: “It makes me think I’m fat and old, like an elderly aunt.”

There are other reasons to dislike the term ma’am — for its whiff of class distinctions, for being dismissive, stiff and drab. “If someone calls me ma’am, it’s superficially a sign of respect, but it’s also creating distance,” Dr. Kroll said. “It’s saying, I’m not going to have a serious conversation with you; I’m not going to engage with you.”

Katha Pollitt, the columnist and poet, said, “It’s part of those routine word packages that are forever flying by.”

Behind the link between “ma’am” and “old” is the familiar feminist observation that, whereas a man remains “mister” and “sir” from nursery to nursing home, a woman’s honorifics change depending on her marital status and, barring that, her age. A young miss walks a few miles, and, wedding ring or no, wham, she’s a ma’am. For many women, then, the insertion of the word “ma’am” into an otherwise pleasant social exchange can feel like a tiny jab, an unnecessary station-break to comment on one’s appearance: Hello, middle-aged- to elderly-looking woman, how may I help you this evening? Thanks, prematurely balding man with the weak chin, I’ll take that table over there, in the corner.

Defenders of ma’am consider it a dignified term. Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column, is one of them. She pointed out that in England ma’am is used to address royalty of whatever age, and she attributed women’s ma’am-aphobia to the “prudishness” of modern society. “Everyone is in denial about age,” she said. “Why would you want to do away with showing respect for age? What do you gain by saying don’t treat me with respect just because I’m older? What sort of devil’s bargain is that?”

Maybe we just need a jazzier term. “How about madame?” suggested Ms. Pollitt, with that final E lending the second syllable a theatrical drawl. “Madame sounds glamorous and powerful, like you’re a serious and effective person in the world.” Bonnie Bassler, a Princeton biologist said she was perfectly happy to be called “Your Highness.”

Or how about nothing? Does nothing work for you? In my survey I posed a series of hypotheticals. For example: You’re at a restaurant with friends, and the waitress wants to warn you that your plate is hot. Would you prefer she say, “Careful, ma’am, that plate is very hot,” or, “Careful, miss,” or, “Careful, dear.” More than 80 percent of the respondents chose option number four: “Careful, that plate is very hot.” For one moment, a ma’am you’re not.

Just call me Mama!

Coming tomorrow is Part 2.

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to

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