January 31, 2008

First Name Basis: Gender and Familiarity

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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 punditsimage 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.

So this is not just about men devaluing women, nor is it the work of the political talking heads alone. After all, her campaign placards and bumper stickers say Women For Hillary“Hillary” in big letters.

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.McCain Space

John Edwards 2008No 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?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference First Name Basis: Gender and Familiarity:


Thanks for posting about this! I have been really irked about the media nearly-consistently calling Senator Clinton "Hillary" while referring to the other male candidates by their last names. I just want consistency.

Very interesting! My work deals with last names-- in the context of family naming. I've also been curious as to why Hillary dropped the Rodham in such a nontraditional situation.

Thanks for sharing your insight.

If we were to call Hillary, there would be no differentiation between her and her husband. He is even out on the campaign trail for her. Perhaps another example, one drawn from one of your classes as you mention towards the end, actually works.

I wonder what the author or anybody else would make of the campaign material from the last election that simply said "W". I'm confident that Hillary and all her very highly paid pr people have thought this all out very carefully.

If this is true, then Hillary's strategy is curious to me. Michael Messner did some work about how television announcers are much more likely to refer to women athletes by their first name than they are to male athletes. According to Messner, this has the effect of "juvenilizing" the women. That is, last names and titles infer maturity and thoughtfulness, while first names infer immaturity and by extension general marginalization.

So if this is true in politics, then Hillary is shooting herself in the foot by reinforcing the first name because it makes her seem less qualified for the job. However, I think you could make the argument that one of the reasons that people don't want to vote for her is because she is not feminine enough. That is, most people are ok with a woman president, but they still believe that there are inherent differences between men and women. So when Hillary does not show the traits that we normally associate with women, then people think she's being dishonest. It's completely applicable to the whole "Hillary crying won her New Hampshire" argument.

Anyways, just something to think about. I'd like to hear other's thoughts on this as well.

Nice blog by the way. It's a great idea.

Hi everyone--So many great points! They really illustrate the complex and contested nature of gender.

My sister is two years older than me. My brother is 12 years younger than me. When my sister had a child my brother was very young. He was upset that he would be addressed as "Uncle" because he didn't want to be treated as an adult. But ever since, my sister has taken away my titles too, and I can't help but feel it is a reflection of her continuing disrespect for me which she encourages her children to have. I now should be addressed as "Great Uncle" or "Uncle", but it's too late and now I'm like a nuisance "friend" of my sister who they can ignore if my conversation is not interesting to them. I guess I could run for President and make posters that said: Great Uncle Doug for President, endorsed by Uncle Sam... I'm not even known as the "crazy Uncle" -- I think even infamy is better than anonymity (well, isn't that a window on neurosis in society)

In the piece entitled "Hillary's Bias Problems Have Deep Cultural Roots" found at
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3500 Hillary Clinton is repeatedly referred to by her first name! Interesting, given the focus of the essay on gender bias.

In TIME today:

"Continues to recap her record as mayor governor as she introduces herself to voters. An enthusiastic crowd interrupts her remarks to chant: 'Sarah, Sarah, Sarah'".

'Palin, Palin, Palin' sounds just as good. It's not like her last name is Shschosltnt. Then I'd opt for 'Sarah'. So why not 'Palin'?

Things for the gender inequality is always on. It will be women in somethings and men in some other things will be on high.
It is never possible for lion to do elephant thing or vice versa..
And about kids addressing with names is completely low on morale

While I agree there is an epidemic of rudeness in calling people (mostly women) by their first name, I do know that there is an issue in Senator Clinton's case. Associated Press style, which is used by most media outlets, refers to everyone by their full name on first reference and last name after that. Titles are only used in such styles as New York Times style.

So Senator Clinton had the issue that her husband is normally the first one associated with the name Clinton. He was in the public spotlight first as governor and then president. So journalists have an audience comprehension issue when they refer to her only by her last name. It perhaps would be easier to call her Rodham-Clinton in the media.

Great article some spot on comments, keep up the good work, i have bookmarked your website.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Real or Imagined: What are You Watching on TV? | Main | Organizational (In)consistency: Twelve Feet Make a Big Difference »