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The Age of Ma’am

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Women enter “The Age of Ma’am” at different times because The Age is not tied to a specific birthday. Instead, The Ma’am Age is similar to The Ice Age, in that it describes both an era and an environment.

Although the arrival times vary, the beginning of the trip doesn’t. Well-meaning people send us to The Age of Ma’am when we look decidedly too old for “Miss” status. And we are sent there repeatedly before we look that old. Or so we thought. Eventually, we are transported to The Age so often we no longer try to leave. We reluctantly accept that we will never again look anything close to as young as we feel.

Women who live in The Age of Ma’am are seen in an unflattering light or not seen at all. People rarely attribute positive qualities to older females and society sees us as worth little. Since value largely determines visibility, women of a certain age seemingly disappear. It happens in service industries, product design, marketing, you name it. Sometimes it happens when you least expect it.Middle-aged woman

Last month as I walked to the grocery store entrance, the automatic doors began closing. I kept my brisk pace, knowing they would re-open. But they didn’t. How odd, I thought. I backed up and walked forward again. No response. Perhaps the electronic sensor is finicky. I tried approaching from different angles. Nothing. Hmmm, was I attempting to go in the “out” door? No, that wasn’t it either. Just then, a man sauntered up behind me and the doors flung open wide, as if welcoming home a long-lost son. I kid you not.

Being ignored by electronic equipment suggests a whole new layer of disrespect for older women. What’s next? Cell phones disconnect our “girlfriends” chats because they sense nobody is talking? GPS navigation systems cannot find our current location because nobody is there?

Occasionally, someone surprises us by demonstrating that we are both visible and appreciated. Like yesterday, when I handed my receipt to a handsome young man in the parking ramp booth. He smiled and looked into my eyes as he gave me change, “Thanks – you have a good day, Miss.” Miss???  It had been so long since anyone called me “Miss” that I was startled speechless. My face turned as red as a baboon’s bottom.

I’d have ridiculously over-tipped that sweet, inappropriate fellow, but ma’ams must preserve their dignity. I suppose it wouldn’t have been proper to spank him either.

Photo credit: jo-h in Flickr under Creative Commons license

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About Rebecca Law

  • Among some families, and in certain regions of our country, children are taught to use Ma’am and Sir as signs of respect to their elders, whether those “elders” are 25 or 75. Yet when those same children grow into adults and continue to use Ma’am and Sir, they become suspect as sexists or ageists or whatever other politically incorrect misdemeanor is currently fashionable. I believe middle-aged women whose vanity is offended by being called Ma’am instead of Miss are reflecting their own misgivings about aging. Mature adults of either sex should take Ma’am or Sir as signs of respect, not as putdowns about how old we look.

  • Hi Alan – Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Growing up in a Southern military family, I am one of those children who was taught to use Sir and Ma’am when speaking to someone older. In fact, I remember being 7 and calling my 17 year old babysitter “Ma’am” at my parents’ insistence. I thoroughly understand that it’s a term of respect.

    So I was surprised to discover in middle-age that the word aroused conflicting feelings in me. I agree that my reaction reflected misgivings about aging, as you put it.

    However, not once did I suggest that people who use the word “ma’am” are sexist or ageist. I described them only as well-meaning. Nor did I say I was offended by the term. Perhaps your interpretation of my article reflects your own sensitivities and assumptions.

  • I’ve been called Ma’am before, but it’s considered good manners in the South. The situation can be taken into consideration, though.

  • Hi Nancy-
    As a transplanted Southerner who has lived in the Midwest for most of my adult life, I have been ma’am-ed in both regions. I’ve never doubted that it was intended as respectful by those who said it.

  • John Lake

    These commenters may have missed your point, ma am. It might be hard for a women to age beyond youthful grace. But older women too have their charms, truly more complex and encompassing. The young girls think they know the answers, the matrons (forgive me) really do.
    Older men have some difficulty too, you know. What was the old song? “Beautiful girls, walk a little slower, when you walk by me..”
    In the longer run, we shouldn’t be sad but grateful for the time we had. It was a beautiful time. I wouldn’t have missed it, for the world.

  • Hi John-
    Thank you for your compassionate remarks. How very nice to know some men do recognize that seasoned women can have their own set of charms. And you are right – gratitude is the best response to having lived long enough to be seen as “old.”