Fighting with the Sky

A First Name Basis

Posted on: August 12, 2009

Have you ever noticed that politically powerful women are usually referred to by their first name in the media where as most men are not? Well, I have.

Let me first say that I have been thinking about this for a while (which I will discuss in a little bit), but what really prompted this post and this moment in time was an email that I received from one of my best college buds who is now in D.C. This is what the email said:

I’m really curious as to if you’ve noticed or why you think that women in politics or really any well know women are known by their first name. Hillary, Sonia, Michelle to name a few. I recently read a subtitle in the Economist magazine which was “Judging Sonia” or the movie about Jane Austen “Becoming Jane”. Both great women both only referred to by their first name. I very much doubt that a male justice would get such a headline. Thoughts?

I’m so glad that someone else picked up on this (though I’m sure many have).

During the latter part of my college career I was a research assistant for a professor doing research on the role of gender and race in the 2008 election. As I was gathering articles I often noticed that Obama and McCain were referred to either by solely their last name or as Senator Obama or McCain. But for Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, the media almost always referred to her as Hillary, very rarely as Clinton or Senator Clinton.

I brought this up in the comments of a post on Small Strokes titled “Women and the Family Name” and got some thought-provoking responses. One such response suggested that the media referred to her as Hillary in order to differentiate her from her husband because for 8 years Clinton meant Bill Clinton. I think that the context of the article would make it pretty clear that the were talking about Hillary Clinton. Or they could have referred to her as Senator Clinton because Bill was never a Senator. I think there is more to it than just trying to differentiate Hillary and Bill Clinton.

As my friend pointed out, I have also seen this trend in discussing Judge Sonia Sotomayor. I have often read the “judging Sonia” phrase. I don’t, however, think this case was as “severe” as it was with Hillary. Or maybe I just didn’t notice it as much because it wasn’t put against the stark difference of the referrence to male candidates. But referring to Sotomayor solely as Sonia was pretty widespread throughout the media.

So why is this? Why are women referred to by their first name instead of their last? I see this as a sign of a lack of respect for women in politics; as a way to diminish the power they really have. Men are generally threatened by women with power and this is a way for them to diminish that power.

I also had a discussion with someone a while ago in which it was suggested that Clinton was referred to as Hillary in order to make her more relateable to the general public. If the public is on a “first name basis” with her, maybe it will make her seem more approachable and down to earth. I can kind of see this, but I don’t really buy it.

By referring to powerful women by their first name, the media and men in power are showing that these women are not on their level; these women aren’t good enough to be referred to by their last name or as Senator, Judge, etc. It also takes away some of the legitimacy that these women have. Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor are both incredibly smart women, but by referring to them by their first name, they might not be taken as seriously as their male counterparts who are referred to by their last name or title.

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5 Responses to "A First Name Basis"

Someone way more intelligent than I once said something like, "You're not a Hooters waitress, so introduce yourself using your first and last name!"I make it a point to do that, even in informal situations (where it can sound kinda strange, but oh well). I'm Marjorie Asturias, not just Marjorie. In professional settings it's even more important. I've never heard any of my (male) bosses introduce themselves with just, "Hi, I'm John," or "Hi, I'm Jim." So why should I?Great post!Cheers,Marjorie

I was living in France during the last French presidential election, and I noticed the same thing there, without any possible excuse about differentiating from the husband. The two main candidates were Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal; the first is a man, the second a woman. I don't remember any references to a Mr Royal active in politics. Still, they were often informally referenced to as "Ségo et Sarko", and as "Ségolène" and "Sarkozy" in the main stream media.

Well, I was going to say what you mentioned above, that Hillary Clinton was referred to as "Hillary" to not be confused with Bill (and the same could be said for Michelle Obama), but a) you're right that "Senator Clinton" would have cleared up any confusion and b) the other examples brought up discredit the "famous husband" theory.Last names are gender-neutral, so really the only reason to use the first name is to stress this is a woman; and using the first name does, as you say, lower the level of respect subconsciously given to the person…Thanks for posting this. I'll make an effort now to introduce myself by first AND last name, even in social situations, and to use tiles and last names especially when talking about women in the media.

it was suggested that Clinton was referred to as Hillary in order to make her more relateable to the general public. If the public is on a "first name basis" with her, maybe it will make her seem more approachable and down to earth. I can kind of see this, but I don't really buy it.I do buy it, but I think that the whole reason she wasn't seen as relatable was that she was a woman, and men are taught that women are some inscrutable alien species that no real human can relate to. And she was perceived as unapproachable because of all the sexist stereotyping of her as a ball-busting bitch. But to be honest, I do refer to her as Hillary (or even as something even more wildly casual like Hilz), because I relate to her and like her, and I want to pretend she's my buddy that I can call by a nickname.

I am always correcting people about Clinton, because I am Miss UnFun Feminist. It just seems enormously disrespectful to me, and too common to be an accident.

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