What’s in a name, or a label, for Hillary?

Mrs. Bad Astronomy has written a guest post on her husband’s blog (h/t Science After Sunclipse) concerning the media’s tendency to refer to Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as simply “Hillary”. The conclusion drawn is that this represents, either consciously or unconsciously, some sexism on the part of the media. Referring to a Presidential candidate by her first name, in this view, is an indirect way of minimizing her importance and her seriousness.

A number of commenters on the post more or less dismissed this opinion because Clinton herself uses the campaign slogan, “Hillary for President.” In the commenters’ view, Hillary wants… erm, Hillary Clinton wants to be referred to by her first name, and the media is simply going along with this.

I suspect there’s some truth to the latter view, but I also don’t doubt that there’s some sexism, albeit probably unintentional, going on. I have some anecdotal evidence from academia that supports this.

But first, is it reasonable to assume that because Hillary’s campaign slogan emphasizes her first name, that everyone is encouraged to (or, at least, should feel free to) use it as well? I don’t see why. In my life, I am addressed in many different ways, according to the relationships I have with the addressers. My friends call me by my first name, my girlfriend calls me “Sweetie”, at meetings I am formally introduced as “doctor”, while in class I am referred to as “doctor” or “professor”. Just because my girlfriend is allowed to call me “Sweetie” doesn’t give everyone blanket permission to do so. Likewise, just because Clinton’s campaign wants her supporters to refer to her as “Hillary” doesn’t mean that the official news media are expected, or encouraged, to do so.

Clinton is not the first Presidential candidate to use a slogan based on a first name or a nickname. Looking over a list of historical slogans, we have: “Give ’em hell, Harry!” (Harry Truman), “I like Ike!” (Dwight D. Eisenhower), “Ross for Boss!” (Ross Perot), “All the way with LBJ!” (Lyndon Johnson), and “Go clean for Gene!” (Eugene McCarthy). I doubt that Harry Truman intended, by his campaign slogan, for the press to refer to him as “Harry” in its coverage of him, especially when he became President (“President Harry”?).

Furthermore, even if the Clinton campaign is encouraging the news media to call her “Hillary”, does that mean that they should? Doesn’t such a response automatically make the media a willing part of her campaign, something they shouldn’t be? To take the argument to its absurd extreme, suppose a candidate requested to be called, or started calling himself, “The most honest man in America.” Should the media start referring to the candidate in such a way as well?

But let’s return to the sexism aspect. Of course, it isn’t completely certain that referring to Senator Clinton as “Hillary” is a subtle sexist rebuke, but similar situations occur in academia all the time. I have numerous friends who are female professors who are addressed regularly by their students as “Mrs.”, “Ms.”, or even by their first names! As a male professor, I never encounter such familiarity. In fact, I have quite the opposite problem: where female professors often struggle to get their students to treat them with an appropriately high level of formality, I spend a lot of time getting my students to be more relaxed in my presence (so that they’ll feel comfortable asking questions, coming to my office, etc.). There does seem to be a double standard in how professional men and women are treated in their careers, and I’ve seen it first hand in students in academia.

I should mention that I don’t think students are being intentionally or consciously sexist in their dealings with female professors. The problem seems to be that, as a culture, we still don’t give women the same respect and deference in their professions that we give men. Students are unconsciously following cultural ‘guidelines’ they’ve picked up from their parents and peers. I wish I could say that I’m above such things myself, but I’m sure I’ve slipped at times.

In any case, I’ll endeavor to call Senator Clinton by her full name. That amount of respect is the least I can do for an accomplished woman who has a real chance of holding the most powerful political office in the country.

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2 Responses to What’s in a name, or a label, for Hillary?

  1. You are such a great guy 🙂 Your views on sexism are one of the reasons I like you so much.

    I think there is a conundrum though with women in authority or that are successful in business. Society’s view of women first and foremost that we are sweet, soft, nice and motherly. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be tough, domineering, and “bossy”. Alot of this is also genetic unfortunately. When someone doesn’t fit that expectation it is uncomfortable for most people. People want to “like” women and “respect’ men. Using Hillary’s first name makes her more friendly and likeable and that may very well be a strategy on her PR departments part.

    But anyway, you’re damn right nobody else better try to call you “Sweetie”. Otherwise they’ll have to answer to me.

  2. Personal Demon says:

    Irony in Action: When I checked out the Bad Astronomy blog you mentioned there was a large contextual ad by Google (for http://www.soda-head.com) with the title “Hillary or Obama?”

    I hadn’t noticed this tendency, probably because my news sources are NPR (podcasts) and BBC (website), and both of those tend to be pretty formal. My first impression was that the moniker “Hillary” was just being used to differentiate her from her husband, who is still in the public eye and is generally referred to as “Clinton.” However we don’t see television reports referring to the current President as “W” (or “dubya”) to differentiate him from the former President Bush, so it’s probably justified to cry foul in this case.

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