New York Times science writer Natalie Angier talked to some women annoyed at being called “ma'am” for the Sunday Week in Review (“Just Don't Call Me...Ma'am”) and worked in a typical jab at the male of the species.
Classes are now underway at Pennsylvania State University, and Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology, linguistics and women’s studies, will soon be greeting her undergraduate students with the usual brief spiel. “I get up and say, you can call me Dr. Kroll, or professor, or Judith if you like, but do not call me Mrs.,” she said. “I am not Mrs. Kroll. I kept my name when I got married and my husband kept his name.”
There is one other honorific that Dr. Kroll dislikes and that she dearly wishes she could bar from the classroom: ma’am. Whenever a student says, “Yes ma’am” or “Is that going to be on the test, ma’am?” Dr. Kroll says she cringes and feels weird. Yet because ma’am, unlike Mrs., isn’t factually incorrect, Dr. Kroll resists the urge to scold. “My first take has got to be, this person is just trying to be polite,” she sighed.
Another day, another ma’am-ogram: you may not want it; it may make you feel flattened, desexualized, overripe and nearly through; but trust me, ma’am, we’re doing it all for you.
There are weightier problems in the world. Still, if you’re a woman born any time before the Clinton administration, chances are you’ve been called ma’am on more than one occasion -- by solicitous waiters asking whether you were “Done working on that, ma’am?” and hovering store clerks wondering if they can “help you find anything, ma’am,” and traffic cops telling you to “Move your car, ma’am, this isn’t a parking lot,” and the perky, hardworking fellows at the farmers’ market who see you week after week but will always cram so many ma’ams into every transaction that you realize there’s no turning back, you’ve been ma’amed for life.
Angier defended liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer's notoriously graceless tantrum over being called ma'am by a military man trying to show respect:
If ma’am is meant as a verbal genuflection to power, the message is lost on many real-life powerful women, like Senator Barbara Boxer, who told a brigadier general to refer to her as “senator” rather than “ma’am” at a hearing last year. “I worked so hard to get that title,” she said, “so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”
Angier worked aggrieved feminism into the mix, throwing in a gratuitous insult of men:
Behind the link between “ma’am” and “old” is the familiar feminist observation that, whereas a man remains “mister” and “sir” from nursery to nursing home, a woman’s honorifics change depending on her marital status and, barring that, her age. A young miss walks a few miles, and, wedding ring or no, wham, she’s a ma’am. For many women, then, the insertion of the word “ma’am” into an otherwise pleasant social exchange can feel like a tiny jab, an unnecessary station-break to comment on one’s appearance: Hello, middle-aged- to elderly-looking woman, how may I help you this evening? Thanks, prematurely balding man with the weak chin, I’ll take that table over there, in the corner.
Angier has a long history of applying anti-male anecdotes to the natural world as well. Harry Stein's 2000 book, “How I Accidentally Joined the Right-Wing Conspiracy,” flags a couple of them. He also calls Angier's writing “at once gallingly cutesy-poo and politically aggressive.”
An October 28, 1997 piece on sea horses featured this complaint: “Many working mothers will attest to this: When a woman does the laundry and cooking, she gets clean clothes and food on the table. When a man does the housework, he gets a standing ovation. A good mother is natural, a good father divine. And so it is that the male sea horse has long been viewed with awe, as a kind of submarine saint.”
A May 17, 1994 piece featured the says-it-all headline “The Male of the Species: Why Is He Needed?” “Women may not find this surprising, but one of the most persistent and frustrating problems in evolutionary biology is the male. Specifically, where did he come from, and why doesn't he just go away?”
One can hardly imagine a male Times science writer like John Tierney getting away with similar mockery of females, however mild.