First Name Basis: Gender and Familiarity
If you are a person of a certain age, you might remember a time when first names were reserved for those closest to us.
When I was growing up, all adults were to be addressed as Mr., Miss, Mrs. (this was before Ms. became common), or Dr. We did call some of my parents’ closest friends by their first names, but for the most part every adult had a title. Even my friends’ mothers would sometimes call my mom “Mrs. Sternheimer” if they didn’t know her well.
This has changed quite a bit in recent years, as formality has given way to more egalitarian communication (particularly here in laid-back southern California). In-laws are seldom “mom” or “dad” but addressed by their first names. Some kids are encouraged to call their teachers by their first names. Most of my friends’ kids call me Karen (although one acquaintance insists that her daughter call me Ms. Karen), and many of my students do too.
I am on the fence about this; on the one hand it challenges the hierarchies of status and age; I want people to feel comfortable communicating with me. It is possible to maintain respect for someone in a position of authority when everyone is on a first-name basis. At several companies I have worked for it really helped foster communication when the president and vice presidents insisted on being called by their first names.
But there is a definite gender factor at work here. Women sometimes have to try harder to establish their authority, especially if they are young and/or small in stature. There is a fine line between familiarity and disrespect; it’s not always clear when it is crossed.
I have noticed this especially on political talk shows recently. Hillary Clinton is nearly always referred to as “Hillary”, while her male counterparts are mostly identified by their last names. I watch a lot of Sunday morning talk shows, and this seems to be a reliable pattern each week—regardless of whether the pundits are male or female. They speak of a war of words between “Hillary and Obama,” not “Hillary and Barack.” While they may mention the other candidates’ first names, it is nearly always followed by their last name.
There is of course another unusual factor at work here: distinguishing herself from her husband and his presidency in her campaign. She could have called herself “Rodham Clinton,” but curiously dropped her original last name. Perhaps this is an attempt to appeal to more traditional voters (ironically in a very non-traditional situation).
Her campaign might have chosen the “Hillary” logo to try and overcome the aloofness that critics chide her for. Calling her by her first name is an invitation to familiarity.
But this still strikes me as deeply intertwined with gender. Think back to other presidential candidates. Did we see big, bold “George” “John” “Bill” or “Al” bumper stickers? Maybe it’s that male names are so common in national politics that we need their last names for clarification. After all, there are lots of Johns running for office (interesting double entendre, no?) but any woman’s name really stands out.
No matter how much we might like to think otherwise, gender is central to the way people view presidential elections in particular and authority more generally. Part of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s challenge is to somehow seem to adhere to our gendered expectations while defying them at the same time.
First names can be a slippery slope—I notice that occasionally students’ papers will cite female authors by their first names only, but will not do the same for males. Or, even worse, some students will cite female authors’ ideas and last names but refer to them as “he.”
Gender constantly weaves its way into our relationships, even (or especially) when we are not thinking about it. So let’s think about it…what does using first names mean to you?