The Queen of My Self

The Queen of My Self

Terms Of Endearment Or Disrespect? – Part 1

posted by Donna Henes

Continuing from yesterday, here are responses from readers to Natalie Angier’s article “Just Don’t Call Me …,” (New York Times, Week in Review, Aug. 29, 2010):

To the Editor:
I have to wonder how many women surveyed in your “completely unscientific poll” were from the Midwestern and Southern states (and no, the Virginia suburbs of Washington do not count).

I am an Ivy League graduate, a liberal and a feminist, but see nothing “desexualizing” or “classist” about the word “ma’am.” Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., I was taught that it was a term of respect: nothing more, nothing less. I gave the title to my mother, to cafeteria workers and even to my teenage babysitters.

The next time some poor unsuspecting waiter refers to Natalie Angier as a “ma’am,” I hope she does not coldly dismiss him. There’s a better than average chance that he’s a transplant from my neck of the woods. Where we come from, calling someone “ma’am” is a sincere attempt at courtesy. And goodness knows, our country needs more of that.

- Amy Watson, Birmingham, AL

To the Editor:
I had to smile upon reading the essay about manners. You may have just taken on every teacher south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the salutation is not only encouraged but, at least in the past, very much expected.

When we moved from Rhode Island to Georgia in 1977, our daughter was in the second grade. At our first teacher’s conference, I was told that she needed to show more respect to the teacher by only answering, “yes, ma’am or “no, ma’am.” I tried to explain that our Yankee background did not include this particular show of manners and that she was not being rude.
I’m not sure I got my point across, but I have never forgotten the admonition!

- Sandra Moore, Washington Township, NJ

To the Editor:
“Just Don’t Call Me . . .” doesn’t mention that “madam,” hence, “ma’am” is from the French “madame,” meaning “my lady.” Sounds, what? Courtly, romantic, classist?

But for me, at any age, better than the phone solicitor’s “Karen, I just want to tell you about … ” A little respectful formality and distance, please! And some humanity. What should I call that waitress with the hot plate when I need more water?

The younger woman who slices my bread at the market hands it to me and says, “Here you are, my lady,” and I think it’s delightful, as I did when a woman older than I picked up a paper I’d dropped on a Paris Métro platform and called out, “Ma chérie, you dropped this.” I always say to the woman at the market, “Thank you, my dear.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could call one another “my dear” and really mean it?

- Karen Goodman,Studio City, CA

To the Editor:
I have never been a great fan of being addressed as “ma’am,” and years ago came up with a simple way of letting others know what to say instead.

While out to dinner with my spouse one evening, our server asked, “Would you care for something to drink, ma’am?”

I shook my head, signaling disapproval, and motioned for her to come closer. “It’s not ‘ma’am,’ ” I said sotto voce. “It’s ‘goddess.’ “

She nodded, and then asked with a big smile on her face, “Can I take your order, Goddess?” which she, my spouse and I all agreed sounded much, much better.

Another time, after being similarly instructed, a server asked if instead of Goddess, she could address me as “diva.” “Care for a refill, Diva?” worked for me.

- Lesléa Newman, Holyoke, MA

Coming tomorrow, more reader responses.

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

The Politics of Polite – Part 2

posted by Donna Henes

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

The Politics of Polite – Part 1

posted by Donna Henes

The following article by Natalie Angier appeared in the New York Times last month. It certainly struck a chord in me. Or should I say, a sore point?

Just Don’t Call Me …
By Natalie Angier

Classes are now underway at Pennsylvania State University, and Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology, linguistics and women’s studies, will soon be greeting her undergraduate students with the usual brief spiel. “I get up and say, you can call me Dr. Kroll, or professor, or Judith if you like, but do not call me Mrs.,” she said. “I am not Mrs. Kroll. I kept my name when I got married and my husband kept his name.”

There is one other honorific that Dr. Kroll dislikes and that she dearly wishes she could bar from the classroom: ma’am. Whenever a student says, “Yes ma’am” or “Is that going to be on the test, ma’am?” Dr. Kroll says she cringes and feels weird. Yet because ma’am, unlike Mrs., isn’t factually incorrect, Dr. Kroll resists the urge to scold. “My first take has got to be, this person is just trying to be polite,” she sighed.

Another day, another ma’am-ogram: you may not want it; it may make you feel flattened, desexualized, overripe and nearly through; but trust me, ma’am, we’re doing it all for you.

There are weightier problems in the world. Still, if you’re a woman born any time before the Clinton administration, chances are you’ve been called ma’am on more than one occasion — by solicitous waiters asking whether you were “Done working on that, ma’am?” and hovering store clerks wondering if they can “help you find anything, ma’am,” and traffic cops telling you to “Move your car, ma’am, this isn’t a parking lot,” and the perky, hardworking fellows at the farmers’ market who see you week after week but will always cram so many ma’ams into every transaction that you realize there’s no turning back, you’ve been ma’amed for life.

Ma’am is, of course, a contraction of madam, and its usage varies by region. Southerners and Midwesterners will ma’am with greater frequency than do the residents on the East and West Coasts, said Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand” and a linguistics professor at Georgetown. “You’re more likely to hear ma’am when somebody is annoyed.”

In theory, ma’am is a courtesy term, meant to convey respect and graciousness lightly salted with deference. Yet much evidence suggests that when it comes to fomenting a sense of good will ma’am fails even more spectacularly than “Have a nice day.”

Certainly in popular culture, many female characters rebel against the ma’am tag. In the mordant, high-end medical soap, “Nurse Jackie,” when a policeman struggling to help subdue a disturbed patient made the mistake of referring to Edie Falco’s eponymous character as “ma’am,” Nurse Jackie shot back, “So help me God, do not call me ma’am — uncuff him!”

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series “Prime Suspect” told her male subordinate: “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.” To which came the inevitable answer, “Yes, ma’am, anything you say.”

In the premier episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway informed a young male ensign that “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain,” and when, a few moments later, the ensign called her ma’am, the captain retorted, “It’s not crunch time yet — I’ll let you know when.”

Coming tomorrow is Part 2.

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

Conversations with the Goddess

posted by Donna Henes

Another book that I read on my retreat on Mt. Desert Island in Maine was Conversations with the Goddess: Encounter at Petra, Place of Power by Dorothy Atalla.

I had been meaning to read it for some time, but you know how that goes. Finally, in the tiny rental cabin on the cove, I had the luxury of uninterrupted time to savor her fascinating travels through time and space to find the Feminine Divine.

Look below for information about today’s book give away.***

On a January day in the depths of mid-western winter, Dorothy Atalla, a woman in her middle years, expected more of the same: snow, ice and gray skies. But when she lay down on her living room carpet to relax with music, she had an experience, which changed her life. Inexplicably, a vision of a radiant and beneficent female presence appeared to her. This astonishing event was only the beginning of a journey she could never have imagined in her wildest dreams. That vision foreshadowed the dialogue with a deity, which is the essence of this book.

I suddenly saw with photographic clarity an image of a woman who radiated scintillating light. She was richly dressed and wore a diadem in the manner of East Indian royalty. She turned her head and smiled in my direction. I had never had such an experience, and didn’t know who she might be. At the time I didn’t know this vision was going to be a preface to the conversations, which would follow later on.

Conversations with the Goddess swiftly evolves from a personal story into a universal story in which a feminine Presence speaks about the role of the sacred Feminine in the future. She also speaks of the past, revealing a panoramic view of a time in which the Goddess was revered not only at Petra but also throughout the ancient world. Dorothy’s story is a multiplicity of strands which she deftly weaves together, creating  a tapestry that spans immense time frames in Earth’s evolution. As her tale progresses, people from the deep past step forward to tell about their lives and their relationship with the Goddess. And what a fascinating group of characters they are – from Zillah, slave woman, to Hayyan al-Shubri, high priest who serves the chief goddess of Petra.

It had been seven years since my family and I visited the site of Petra. It had made such an indelible impression upon me that I wrote a poem and a travel essay about it, which was published in the local newspaper. I had not felt motivated to write more about Petra, although its grandeur and antiquity had thrilled me. Why, then, was this place showing up in my meditation?

Woven into the dialogues are lively commentaries about Petra as a cosmic power point, women as agents for planetary evolution and restoration of ancient Goddess knowledge and women’s mysteries. Other threads in this weaving are also relevant to modern women:  woman’s innate spiritual power, Earth’s powers and the powers of woman, symbolism in female artifacts and the consciousness which created them, what the dark Feminine really is, correction of misperceptions about the nature of the Great Goddess, and a path toward balance of the divine Feminine and the divine Masculine.

What was empowering about the conversations was this: I came to understand that the disempowering story which our culture has given us about our lives as females can, and will be, transcended. When our misperceptions about ourselves as females are cleared away, we can begin to see the powers, which are uniquely ours.

***You, too, can join Dorothy on her journey to the Great Goddess. She will be giving away copies of her book to the first three women who request one. Just write today before midnight to ask for a book.

Note: If you have not already signed up for email updates from The Queen of My Self, make sure to do so. That way you will be notified of future book giveaways.

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

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