My first memory of being called “ma’am” was when I was a girl and a man with a thick Southern accent asked to speak to my mom.
“One second,” I told him.
“Thank you very much, ma’am,” he replied.
This first ma’am was oddly thrilling. To a child raised in the Northeast, being called ma’am felt like an intense compliment. Here was this person who was treating me like an adult, someone who trusted my competency in handing the phone over to my mother so completely that he felt it was appropriate, nay important, to thank me with the adult woman honorific.
I think about this whenever someone now calls me ma’am, how a term that once filled me with such joy now feels like a small shock. For so many years in my adult life I have been called “miss.” To have made the transition to ma’am should feel powerful, since it indicates that I am now seen as an adult woman, rather than a child. I want to celebrate this transition, but, if I am honest with myself, the word itself also captures a particular kind of loss.
There are innumerable articles, essays, and internet forums devoted to untangling the question of whether “ma’am” is actually polite since it seems that so many women find the term irksome. True, in some places, especially in the South and in the Midwest, ma’am is less fraught since the word is often used for women of any age. How you feel about the word is also deeply shaped by race, culture, and class. For many in the South, and African American communities in particular, being called ma’am is an important formal marker of respect. Likewise, in the culture of the military, ma’am is often seen as having no difference at all from the male honorific sir.
There are innumerable articles, essays, and internet forums devoted to untangling the question of whether “ma’am” is actually polite since it seems that so many women find the term irksome.
Still, perhaps because of ageism, one of the main reasons that ma’am feels particularly fraught for many women has to do with our culture’s lack of respect for older women in general. I posed the…