MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
As Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, activists are taking on what they see as one of the most entrenched barriers to gender equality in France, the word mademoiselle.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Marie Noelle Bas, president of the feminist group Watchdog, says the word Mademoiselle is no longer relevant.
MARIE: In old days, women went from the domination of their father to the domination of their husband. Then they were mademoiselle when they were girls and they were madame when they were married. For the men there is no two states. Only monsieur from the youth to the elder.
BEARDSLEY: Sitting at an outdoor cafe enjoying an espresso, Thalia Breton, from the organization Dare Feminism, says the climate is right to launch the assault on mademoiselle.
THALIA BRETON: (Through Translator) People have really woken up about inequalities and sexism since the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. And we think these issues will be a part of the presidential debate leading up to next May's election.
BEARDSLEY: Though a few sociologists, writers and philosophers have signed on to the cause, the issue isn't being widely discussed. Judging from first reactions on the street, the feminists have their work cut out for them. Forty-five-year-old Monique Wlazlo is coming out of a shop where she has just completed a form to get a new cell phone. She calls the campaign paranoid.
MONIQUE WLAZLO: (Through Translator) As long as no one calls me monsieur, I'm fine. Anyway, we naturally refer to an older, unmarried woman as madame. And if you're married but don't look your age, you might get called mademoiselle. It's flattering one way and less so the other, but that's life.
BEARDSLEY: Simon de Beauvoir's seminal feminist work, "The Second Sex," was published 60 years ago. Even so, says Marie-Noelle Bas, French women have integrated the masculine domination of French society into their very souls.
BAS: It seems normal to them that the men are more important than them.
BEARDSLEY: And aside from that, says Bas, mademoiselle isn't even a compliment.
BAS: Madame, for madame, oiselle. Oiselle in French is the feminine for oiseau. And in ancient French that means virgin, that means stupid. That means somebody who needs to be married.
BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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