With Kamala Harris’ victory as our new Vice President Elect, many are left with a debate around her title. When it comes to Madam vs Madame Vice President, here’s why her title matters.
Last week, Kamala Harris became the 46th US Vice President Elect–the first woman to ever hold the title. Kamala will also be the first Black Vice President, the first South Asian descent Vice President, and the first Vice President-Elect to do a victory lap to “Work That” by Mary J. Blige, with many more firsts to follow. Kamala’s win symbolizes a groundbreaking achievement, many are left with a simple question: what do we call her?
If you’re like us, you’ve already had the “Madam vs Madame” debate with friends or family members– which one is correct? This is new territory for us in the history of the office of Vice President. The press, general public, and even Harris’ own sister have opted for Madam Vice President– but the debate continues between using ‘Madam’ and ‘Madame’. A quick Google search tells us it’s “Madam”, but we’ve been conditioned by history (and Hollywood) to think of “Madam” in far from desirable terms.
The History of Madam and Madame
Let’s take a step back first – why “Madam(e)” and not “Mrs”, “Ms”, or “Miss”? While Mrs. Vice President (or Ms, or Miss) would be counterpart to Mr. Vice President, Madame carries a different connotation altogether. Its ancestry belongs to the Latin “mea domina” – an honorable woman of rank, or “boss lady” to put it into our own terms. The corresponding male term, a “boss man” of sorts, is missing from our lexicon, leaving us with Mr or, sometimes, Sir. However, Madam outranks Mrs and Miss, and as Mrs and the more modern Ms have become normalized, Madam/Madame remains a title of honor– one which Kamala most certainly has earned.
When it comes to the ‘Madam’ vs ‘Madame’ debate, the words carry more weight than we may realize.
Grammatically, Madam is the correct term. In an English-speaking country, Madam is used in front of a title and denotes authority, while Madame (“ma dame”) is typically only used as the French equivalent of Mrs, and was (until recently) reliant on a woman’s marital status. Advocates for “Madame”, however, argue that the historical context of “Madam” should urge us to use Madame instead. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, while Madame remained for high society French women, Madam referred to a woman who owned a brothel. In more recent history, the French government stopped making women choose between “Madame” and “Mademoiselle” on official forms in 2012, and adopted “Madame” as the universal equivalent to “Monsieur.”
“Madame is much more refined, in my humble opinion,” says Armoire member Ruchika Tulshyan, Founder and CEO at Candour. “We know Kamala is already facing so much racism and sexism– so I would err on the side of caution”.
Madam Vice President vs Madame Vice President
Ultimately, which title to use becomes a question of how we reconcile proper grammar with a discriminatory history. Words matter, but given the importance and future implications of her win, it is even more important that we get this one right. Her title must reflect the strength, determination, and authority that Kamala carries with her into the role, the steps of the women who came before her, and the power of those who will come next. Kamala has faced many hurdles in her journey to Vice President-Elect, and will continue to face many more. Her title shouldn’t be one of them.
In accordance with Kamala’s speech, we should choose a term that carries us into the future instead of tying us to the past. If it’s Madam, let’s make the revival of the original “boss lady” definition stick! Just as Kamala has acknowledged the women who came before her, she paves the way for the victories of strong women to come. With the question of what to call the Vice President-Elect, we have the opportunity to play an active role in shaping the future for women to come, and recognizing the accomplishments of those who have made this moment possible. As Kamala herself said, “while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” Her accomplishment marks a massive crack in that glass ceiling for womankind.
Written by Anya Edelstein for Armoire.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore on Flickr.