Time was, you could call a woman ma'am without her getting offended. Just because that time was 40 years ago and mostly in the South doesn't mean it didn't demonstrate a certain quality of upbringing. Then, it was charming. Now, it'll get you a dirty look.
Apparently, "ma'am" carries the connotation of age, and in the West, age is antithetical the ideal. Implying a woman is old, or even hinting that a woman has an age other than a nebulous hand-wave in the area of the mid-twenties is akin to calling her fat or pointing out her expanding crow's feet. If we ever get around to respecting our elders again, the first thing we'll be able to do is safely ask a woman's age, and get the truth. But that's a long row to hoe.
To some, there's the hint of sexual disenfranchisement, the defeminization of the addressee. She feels the throwback to the days of manly men and mousy women, when the only secretary she could ever aspire to be was at the local insurance office and equal pay for equal work was about as fair as Whites Only country clubs. Ma'am supposedly gives off the whiff of royalty and distance, simultaneously bestowing respect and standoffishness.
For Senator Barbara Boxer, "ma'am" implies the lack of career; last summer when US Army General Michael Walsh referred to her as such, she asked him to call her 'senator' instead. "It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it." I'm not sure she realized that in the military it's common practice to refer to equals and superiors as sir, ma'am, or madam.
If the stuffy Madam Senator from the bankrupt state of California gets annoyed at the erroneous eponym, what are the pleasant, well-meaning men from Brer Rabbit's part of the country to do?
Perhaps there's an unspoken objection to the word, namely, its phonetic relation to the missus' front-running mammaries. Every time some polite young gent sends her a ma'amogram, it's a subtle innuendo: Show me your boobs!
Honestly, I don't see any of it. Is the word, unarguably coming from a linguistic place of power and respect, so frightening that even its beleaguered beneficiaries shy away, opting for the far less respect-worthy "Miss" or the dis-engenderous "Ms"? Who exactly is being sexist here?
Even Hollywood agrees with me. In one episode of M*A*S*H Major Margaret Houlihan told Radar O'Reilly, "Men are sirs. Women are ma'ams. I am a woman: I am a ma'am." From God's liberal lips to our overly sensitive ears.
But you know what, in deference to the senators and secretaries of the world, I offer up some alternatives; these are ways you can address women that are flattering, respectful, and non-threatening:
Big Mama - this name refers to her bigness of heart and mind, her astounding mental girth, and combines with her natural child-rearing capabilities and her child's innate affinity for her in one beautiful expression of maternal awesomeness.
FeminiMs - Willowy children of the revolution should applaud this powerful address to a woman who knows no master, least of all linguistic enslavement to the male's subordinating claws. FeminiMs (pronounced Fem-en-em-Mizz) is proud and strong, either a single woman with a career in business or politics or a pro-gun girlie who knows the best way to earn respect is to take it without apologies.
Madam Gyneral - Only applies to women in the military, but can be any woman of the femme persuasion, from enlisted ms to the career officer to the President's Petraeus replacement.
I hope these will be useful for the new generation of men who will continue to be baffled by the winds and waves mentality of women in America.