Hillary Clinton and First Names

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Comment policy: In addition to my usual comment policy, I’m going to add this one for this post: DO NOT comment here on the election itself, or the merits and terriblenessess of the candidates. Please keep comments narrowly focused on the topic at hand. Thanks.

Tl;dr: If you’re saying “Hillary,” please also say “Bernie,” “Donald,” and “Barack.” If you’re saying “Sanders,” “Trump,” and “Obama,” say “Clinton.” Don’t call Hillary Clinton by her first name and other candidates or political figures by their last.

It’s fairly common — in many arenas, not just the political one — to call women by their first names and men by their last. And yes, this is a problem. First names imply casualness, friendliness, some degree of intimacy. Last names imply professionalism, respect, some degree of distance. Traditionally (in much U.S. culture, anyway), adults call children by their first names, while children call adults by their last.

So when people use first names for women and last names for men, it positions women as less professional. It reinforces the stereotype of women as the friendliness-makers, the doers of emotional labor, whose job it is to be nice to everyone. It treats women as less deserving of respect. To the extent that it treats women as children or childish, it’s patronizing. All of this sucks in any situation — but it especially sucks in the political world. In the political world, all of this sends the message: Women are less capable, and less fit for office.

Some might argue that “Clinton” is too confusing, since it could mean either Hillary Clinton or her husband, the former president. But when we’re talking about the 2016 election, it’s clear from context that we’re not talking about Bill Clinton. When George W. Bush was running for president, he was routinely called “Bush”: unless the context demanded it, people didn’t see a need to distinguish him from his former-president father. And in any case, there are ways around that problem: in the Republican primary, the former governor of Florida was commonly referred to as “Jeb Bush.”

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It’s true that both Clinton and Sanders often use their first names, and first names only, on their bumper stickers and in other campaign materials. It’s not uncommon for political candidates to make themselves seem likeable and approachable by using their first names. So I’m not arguing that it’s always sexist to call Clinton by her first name. What I’m asking people to do is to be consistent. In any given piece of writing (including posts on social media), use either first names or last names for everyone. If you’re going to mix it up, mix it up for everyone.

It’s not the worst form of sexism in the world. But it’s a problem, and it’s one that’s easy to fix. Be part of the solution. Thanks.

Hillary Clinton and First Names

14 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton and First Names

  1. 1

    I try…

    People think these sort of language things are meaningless, but what they are is a sign of thoughtlessness. The words you use are often a sign of what you’re thinking, even if it subconscious. I try to be as thoughtful as I’m able to, because I know I’m chock full of unconscious biases.

  2. f.

    You’re right, it’s not the worst, but it’s something I avoid intentionally and I’m glad to see someone else bring it up! Thank you 🙂

  3. 3

    Yup. This happened a lot when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister of Australia. It also manifests as female politicians being referred to as “Firstname Lastname”, while in the same article/TV news story their male counterparts are referred to as “Mr. Lastname”. Sometimes sloppy unconsciously-biased journalism, sometimes fairly blatant dog-whistling misogyny.

  4. 4

    I am being consistent. I call people, political candidates or not, by the name they use for themselves, by the name they ask me to call them by. If people want to go by their last name, I refer to them by their last name. If they go by their first name, I refer to them by that. If they go by their middle name, ditto. And if they prefer to go by a nickname or other name they’ve adopted for themselves, even if it’s not on any legal document anywhere, then that’s how I refer to them.

  5. 5

    I was going to say that I tend to switch it up for all of the candidates, but I just realized, I don’t think I’ve ever called Donald Trump just Donald before. Weird.

  6. 6

    It’s my impression, FWIW, that Clinton is going with the “just don’t spell my name wrong” truism of politics here: If people are going to call her Hillary, she’ll call herself Hillary and exploit the name recognition. Probably the correct move from the point of view of winning the election, but it creeps me out a bit to hear people talk about the race between “Hillary and Trump.” (And not just because the Donald is a fascist.)

  7. 7

    Sorry! Just realized the last line violated the comment policy. Could you remove it if you approve the rest of the comment?

  8. 8

    Karellen @ #4: The problem with that argument is that people almost never want to be called the same thing in all situations. Example: There are some situations where I’m happy to be called Greta: others where I want to be called Ms. Christina or simply Christina. If I’m chatting at dinner with a colleague I know well, I’m happy for them to call me Greta. But if they cite my writing in a book, I want them to use my last name. And if they’re citing me in something less formal like a blog post, I might be okay with first name depending on the topic — but not if other colleagues are being cited by last name.

    The fact that Clinton prefers her first name to be used in bumper stickers and T shirts doesn’t indicate that she wants to be named that way in all situations. (I doubt highly that she was referred to by first name at State events when she was Secretary of State.) In a gray area format like blogs or social media, where either might be acceptable, I don’t see the problem with being consistent across genders.

  9. 9

    I only noticed this trend when we got a woman president (a first in my country). First I found it strange how she was the first president I can remember that people regularly referred to by their first name. She’s far from the first one to be disliked and deliberately disrespected in everyday talk, but nevertheless the first one to be showed disrespect in that particular way.

    After that, I started noticing that this was happening with most women politicians. A male colleague is LastName, but a woman is FirstName.

  10. 10

    Mike McElroy wrote:

    I was going to say that I tend to switch it up for all of the candidates, but I just realized, I don’t think I’ve ever called Donald Trump just Donald before. Weird.

    I think Mr. Trump prefers “The Donald” if you’re using his first name.

  11. 11

    Hi, I am Italian and, yes, mine is still a sexist country. But there is one thing I don’t understand of the USA (and Germany and other countries) and it’s this: why married women give their last name up. In Italy a “Hillary Clinton” would have been “Hillary Rodham” and she would have organized her presidential campaign with that name. Nowadays, no woman in Italy loses her last name with marriage. It seems a very patriarchal thing to me (something like “I marry you so now you are mine and I mark you with my name”).
    Don’t you agree?

  12. 12

    Yeah, my thing is that women still simply own their first names in a way that they don’t *own* their last names. My last name has changed twice in my lifetime, but I’m always Mimi regardless of marital status.

  13. 13

    I’ve been trying to be conscientious about this one for awhile when talking about the Democratic primary, but when I switch to the general election, I, too, have been resorting to “Trump” almost exclusively. It’s a case of ironically successful self-branding. I despise the name and everything it stands for, but I still use it unthinkingly, in large part because that’s how he labels all of his endeavors.

  14. 14

    Thinking back at least a quarter of a century (stone me, how did I get so old?) there was an interesting twist on this phenomenon in the UK, where Margaret Thatcher was often “Mrs. Thatcher”, or less often (IIRC) “Margaret Thatcher” in contexts where male politicians would be referred to simply by their last name. Mostly, it was those who admired her who added the “Mrs.”, while those of us who loathed her omitted it. I never recall her being called simply “Margaret”, except by close colleagues – but I think the same was true of male politicians (I don’t mean just that they were seldom called “Margaret” :-p).

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