A Ma’am is Not What I am

Tosha - Alameda, California
Entered on September 17, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

The other day I got stopped by a 20ish guy with long dreds rustling up Greenpeace donations.

”Ma’am…” he ventured, “Care to help save the oceans?”

I shot him a stern NO and kept going.

Then I went back.

“Hey, if you wanna get donations around here you’ll need something else to call us women. You might as well say ‘excuse me, decrepit one’ and then ask for the dough.”

“Wow,” he said, genuinely interested. “I don’t mean that! But it’s true. Only the guys are giving to me. I’ve already had 3 other women say not to call them that!”

“What? And you’re still persisting?

“I don’t know any other word for “older” women. What should I say?”

“Well, I’d rather be called ‘hey you’ than that. Even a good all-purpose “miss” would be fine.”

And I hand him a dollar to save an ocean.


I’ve been puzzling over “ma’am” for a while. I don’t exactly try to look young because to be honest, I just look like me. I’m decidedly over 40 yet I’ve always had a personal aesthetic: a little rock and roll, some Asian-influenced femmey glamor. I’m as much a bohemian, artsy type as I was at seventeen. It’s what drew me here to San Francisco in 1991 in the first place.

I’ve got spiky hennaed hair. I’m usually in skinny jeans and t-shirts. Yes, I have some crow’s feet and laugh lines, but an intense yoga practice has (some of) me in better shape than when I was 20, chain-smoking and downing margaritas. I’ve got rings on each finger, two tattoos.

So how is someone like me supposed to be feel like a “ma’am”?

Every woman I know hates this priggish term. We’re happy with the wisdom and knowledge that time has brought, but not the idea that our vibrant spirits or attractiveness have “expired.”

Men have an all-purpose “sir” which covers everyone. But with women, it’s all age-based. “Miss” applies until some vague borderline, 30? 35? After that you’re pitched into the etymological junkyard of “Ma’am”. When people say they mean this word as a term of “respect” I sometimes think, “Would guys over 35 enjoy hearing “Greetings, geezer!” as THEY walk down the street?”

Somehow I don’t mind the different titles for women when I leave the States. In India and France a few years ago, I found “Madame” elegant and charming. I could even roll with “senora” in Mexico.

So what’s with “ma’am’? Is it awful just because it sounds like “spam”? Or “damn”? Or “mammogram”? Visions of dentures and large-print Reader’s Digests waltz in my head.

Is it because I grew up worshipping at the altar of Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner and Joan Jett? Good god, could THEY ever be “ma’ams”? Could Ellen?

Unbelievable that a culture where women can age so well still pins this word on us like a dead corsage.

So wouldn’t it be great to have a form of address that didn’t turn all us women over 40 into some weird mix of Margaret Thatcher and Granny Clampett?

Couldn’t we just extend “miss” to a woman’s whole life, like men with ‘sir”?

Or something new and untainted like “mir”? It sounds like a fizzy drink but people sneered when Ms. entered the language.

Look what happened.