En français, the word femme has two distinct meanings, which can be used interchangeably:
For further down in this blog, you should know that the same can be said for the word fille, which means:
Now, as someone who’s native language is English, you can maybe perhaps see why I have a problem with this. The fact that there is one word to describe both a woman and a wife is simply enraging in it of itself. If I translate the word in English, it sounds very possessive and sexist. “Je vous présente ma femme.” means simply, “Let me introduce you to my wife,” or “Let me introduce you to my woman.” In my opinion, it holds the connotation that a woman is nothing unless she is a wife, or perhaps, that a female does not make the transition from girl to woman until she has a husband. Additionally, having one word mean two distinct things gives the assumption of ownership– the man owns his wife (his woman). Did I mention that the word for “man” is homme and French word for “husband” is mari? There are two distinct words for those two distinct identities for men, but not women.
Besides my assumptions, another thing I noticed while living in France was how these words were used to describe girls or women based on their age. In France I was told, “Tu es une jeune fille car tu n’as que vingt ans.” “You are a young girl because you’re only twenty years old.” Additionally, they described my friend Ryan’s sister, Sara, as “Une jeune femme,” (a young woman) because she was 29. When I first heard this comment, I was sort of insulted. I was being seen as someone who is naive, immature, and dumb, instead of someone who is sexy, sophisticated, independent, smart, and desired. I reacted, “I am not a girl. I am a young woman. A girl is someone who is a teenager, or younger. “Mais, non,” they said, “C’est une petite fille,” “Oh, no, that would be a little girl.” I think apart of this problem is simply translation, and word meaning in French and English, which is in no way the fault of the French. In another sense, it shows when womanhood exists in different cultures. When do you make that change from “girl” to “woman”? Is it perhaps when you get married, and become the femme of a man? Is it after college graduation and you have your first job? Is it when you start menstruating, or when you lose your virginity? Furthermore, is womanhood considered different among different generations? Do my parents or grandparents consider me to be a woman, or still a girl? Their adult child? Speaking for myself, I am not entirely sure when I started to consider myself “a woman.” I suppose for me, it would be a combination all of the things I listed above, but most specifically when I came to college. I mean, would a young girl be traveling the world by herself? I don’t think so. Regardless. I no longer consider myself a “girl.”
Some of you may be thinking that I’m over reacting, and that it’s just a word. Well, let me remind you that some people call the words “gay” and “retarded” just words. Words can be very powerful and can most often even change the way people are thinking. With a presidential election coming up in November, I am living in a country where candidates are currently debating on the rights of women, including our (my) right to contraception as well as our (my) right to choose what we (I) decide to do with our (my) body. Not to mention the ongoing issue of acknowledging marriage equality, and failing to separate church and state (but I’ll save that for another post). I’m not saying I have the right to change the French language, but I have the ability to change the words I use. For example, use the word femme
to mean woman, but instead of implying it to also mean wife, why not use the word épouse
(spouse). Je vous présente mon épouse
(Let me introduce you to my spouse/wife/husband.) The great thing about the word épouse
is that it is interchangeable. It can be used for both males and females, by both males and females. It can also be used by gay couples or straight couples. The same thing works in English, referring to your husband or wife as my spouse or my partner, especially seeing as there are still 43 states who do not allow marriage equality. Just like eliminating the word Mademoiselle
from official forms, or adding an equivalent “Ms.”, changing your word choice is one, easy, simple, FREE way to move towards a better life of equality towards women and the LGBTQ community.
Alors, qu’en pensez-vous? What do you think? Can you think of any words in English that we should change?