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: