The Bewitching Power of ‘Miss’

On age and who we call what

Arielle Bernstein
Gay Mag


Illustration by Christina Yoseph

MyMy 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…