There was “Miss Rottenmeier” in the Heidi saga. The “Miss from the office” who mediated on the phone. Or in the restaurant the “Frollein” who brought the bill. Unforgotten is how the actress Liselotte Pulver (now 92) danced on the table as “Miss Ingeborg” in Billy Wilder’s film “Eins, Zwei, Drei”.
According to the Duden, this form of address for unmarried women is now simply “outdated”. It sounds like a dance school and the 50s, like a strict teacher and an old maid. In post-war Germany there were more and more women who no longer wanted to be Misses. They found it discriminatory – there was no such thing as a “little gentleman”.
The Federal Ministry of the Interior – then under the FDP politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher – reacted. 50 years ago, on January 16, 1972, there was a circular: In official parlance, the salutation “Frau” should be used for every female adult.
The “Fräulein” became rare over the years, and that was also the case in the GDR. It disappeared from everyday usage and is perhaps still used ironically for little girls (“Well, you little Fräulein”) or as a hip café name.
If you look back, the language debate is hard to understand today: Can an “unmarried female person” simply call themselves “woman”? In a session of the Bundestag in 1954, the women’s rights activist Marie-Elisabeth Lüders stated: “The matter has been on the public agenda for about a hundred years.” The minutes noted “merriment and applause”.
It is a piece of language and emancipation history. The “Fräulein” used to stand for a woman who is not married, the term comes from the Middle High German “Vrouwelin”. In Goethe’s time, the “Fräulein” was reserved for even higher classes. In the German Empire and sometimes later, women teachers were not allowed to be married.
There was the so-called teacher celibacy. That’s why there was often a “Miss” in front of the blackboard. For women, marriage was often the end of their careers as a matter of course. After all, the so-called Equal Rights Act of 1958 had already granted the wife the right to gainful employment – but she was still responsible for the household alone. It was not until 1977 that a reform of marriage and family law eliminated the rule that women were only allowed to work “insofar as this is compatible with their duties in marriage and family”. From then on, the following applied: “The spouses regulate the household management by mutual agreement.”
As the linguist Luise F. Pusch remembers, the majority of German women agreed when the “Fräulein” disappeared. But some would have missed the word. “On the one hand, there were older women who still felt connected to the first women’s movement,” says the 77-year-old. “Many activists of the first women’s movement deliberately remained unmarried so as not to become dependent on a man.” They took the title “Miss” with pride, as it made this independence immediately visible to them. As a famous example, Pusch thinks of the writer Annette Kolb (1870-1967). Throughout her life – she was 97 years old – she insisted on being addressed as “Miss”.
Language is changing, the fight for equal rights is still not over today. There is heated debate about the necessity and the correct form for all genders.
When the “Fräulein” is no longer used, will gendering (as in “teachers”) become a matter of course at some point? “Quite possible if we see a victory for feminist language politics in the extinction of Fräulein,” says Pusch, who is a pioneer in this field. “Feminist and queer language politics advocates for the linguistic visibility of women and diversity achieved through gendering. Why shouldn’t the first step be followed by the second? In any case, the acceptance of gendering is growing all the time, especially among the younger generation. And the future belongs to them.”
Inquiry at the Ministry of Family Affairs. What connects the new Minister Anne Spiegel (41) with the term “Miss”? “We’re not living in the 1950s anymore. Thankfully, that term is a thing of the past. Today the word would just be disrespectful to women.”
With a view to the gender debate, the Green politician says: “Language should take all genders into account and include everyone equally and respectfully. At the same time, language is always a mirror of social developments. The more equality there is in our society, the more this is expressed in language. And vice versa: gender-appropriate language is an important step towards more equality.” However, it is also important: “The debate about equality encompasses much more than just language.”