Who's Ready for 'Hillary' and 'Elizabeth'?

Critics charge that it is disrespectful to address female politicians simply by their first name.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has caused an embarrassing feud 'n' filibuster situation this week among Democrats, pushing President Barack Obama to slam a senator with whom he is frequently allied. “She’s absolutely wrong,” Obama told Yahoo News of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s opposition to the trade deal. “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else.”

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, another Democrat who opposes Obama’s trade deal, cried foul on these remarks, protesting that the president doesn’t speak so casually about ‘everybody else.’ “I think the president was disrespectful to her,” Brown said Tuesday. “I think that the president has made this more personal than he needed to.” Asked precisely how, Brown intimated sexism. “I think referring to her as first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator, perhaps?”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest shooed off the criticism. “The president has a personal relationship with Senator Warren,” Earnest said Wednesday, on MSNBC. “I can give you all the references of the president referring to his former colleagues in the Senate by their first name.” (For one, a shout to “Sherrod” himself in a speech to an AFL-CIO convention three years ago. And three years before that, also in Columbus, Ohio, “Give Sherrod a big round of applause.”) Earnest said he was “confident” that Brown would “find a way to apologize.” Brown, asked if he wished to say sorry, sidestepped.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet, only daughter of Capulet, once famously asked. It can be difficult to gauge very much when a name is spoken; the relationship between the speaker and the person being spoken of (or to) may be hard to know, and bias might be unconscious. All the same, onlookers chimed in. Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said she believed that Obama’s remark was “sexist” and belittling, that Obama “was trying to build up his own trustworthiness on this issue by convincing us that Senator Warren's concerns are not to be taken seriously.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz—Brown’s wife—tweeted in praise of her husband’s take. But Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, called Brown’s remarks “silliness.” McCaskill said, on MSNBC, “The president and Elizabeth Warren are friends. I think if he would have called her Senator Warren, someone would have said, 'Oh he's giving her the cold shoulder.'” She added, “I would be freaked out if he didn’t call me by my first name.”

Joseph Uscinski and Lilly Goren have written together about the role of names in politics. Speaking by phone Wednesday, Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami, said he did not find Obama’s language toward Warren sexist. He said he has observed that Obama, and Vice President Joseph Biden, often use first names. “It’s to show familiarity. It’s a sign of endearment to the person.” It closes distance, he said. Uscinski pointed to a 2012 vice presidential debate in which Paul Ryan insinuated the Obama administration’s unfriendliness toward Israel. To which Biden replied, “With regard to Bibi, he's been my friend for 39 years!” This use of the Israeli prime minister’s nickname was a shorthand way of saying, Look, Bibi and I go way back. This kind of language, Uscinski said, “makes the disagreement look smaller.” He believes that this was Obama’s goal in calling Warren by her first name: to show how close they really are.

Goren, a professor at Carroll University in Wisconsin, has written a number of books on women and politics. For her, the issue isn’t really about exchanges between politicians. “When they are on the floor of the House or the Senate,” she said, “they have to abide by these rules—‘my esteemed colleague from South Carolina.’ Whereas in conversation, we know they don’t call each other that, they call each other by each other’s first names.”

The more important vector, Goren said, is what names the media use. Biden might call his vice-presidential debate opponent Paul, but, Goren said, “no one is running around calling Paul Ryan ‘Paul,’ from a media perspective. That’s a different position—it becomes a way in which the public is consuming that person, or being told to, essentially, consume that person.”

Four years ago, Uscinski and Goren published a paper in the Political Research Quarterly that homed in on the media coverage Hillary Clinton received in the 2008 primary. (Who could forget charming lines like “There's just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing, and scary” or “When she comes on TV, I involuntarily cross my legs”?) Their article particuarly focused on names. “Referencing a woman by first name may project an image of inferiority,” Uscinski and Goren said, comparing Clinton (“HRC”) with Obama (“BHO”). They cited the work of Erica Falk, author of Women for President:Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, in writing:

Historically, female presidential candidates have been referenced more casually and more often by first name than their male counterparts. For example, Victoria Clafin Woodhull (candidate in 1872), Belva Bennet Lockwood (1884), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), Shirley Chisholm (1972), Patricia Schroeder (1987), Elizabeth Dole (2000), and Carol Moseley Braun (2004) were referenced by first name an average of 5 percent of the time in newspaper articles. Their male competitors were referenced this way less than 1 percent of the time. More recently, a comparison between newspaper coverage of HRC's and BHO's announcements to run for president shows that HRC was referenced by first name 3 percent more and her title of Senator was omitted 15 percent more than it was for BHO. This is not surprising; previous studies show that female athletes, college students, professors, and lawyers are referenced by first name more than comparable males.

The article concluded that Clinton was “named by first name four times more than her main male rival, BHO. The other male senators in the nomination race were not referenced by first name at all.” The breakdown of who was doing what kind of naming was stark, too: “males referred to HRC by first name 11 per cent of the time; female newspeople did so less than 1 percent of the time. Males also dropped HRC's title of Senator more often than females.”

In terms of other prominent female politicians, Uscinski and Goren note in their study that, in 2008, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was referenced more informally, and with more demeaning language, than her male competitor, Biden. “Caribou Barbie,” anyone?

At this point in time, Clinton has seemed to embrace the first-name basis: “Like Hillary on Facebook,” her website suggests. “Follow Hillary,” “Subscribe to the Hillary 2016 Youtube channel.” It's “Hillary's Story.” Some of this may have to do with political currents. Arguably, Clinton, in this later-day moment—where feminism is more mainstream and comfortably corporatized—is more able than before to speak of herself as female and feminist, to be perceived as neutered grandmother, less as a shrill, uh, bitch.

Maybe there’s something to celebrate in the familiarity; every politician wants name recognition, of course. And yet, as Peggy Drexler noted of Clinton for CNN, “she’s not Beyoncé.” Drexler wrote, “Despite her decorated career in government, we've long called Clinton by her first name, and her first name only, in a way we don't do with men who have held similar, or even vaguely similar, positions of power.”

Even if some Americans first knew her as first lady, Clinton has done plenty to define herself beyond that role, to get elected and appointed. 

Goren considers former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina a notable example when it comes to nomenclature and the style guides of news organizations, because Fiorina is not coming out of an elected office. “She doesn’t have a title coming from that,” Goren said. “The media is going to call her ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’—which again is a gendered position, because men are ‘Mr.’ regardless of their marital status.” (And then there's the aspect that Fiorina—like Clinton, like Warren—is a taken, rather than maiden, name.)

Many will point out that there is already a world-famous Clinton. Sure. There was also a world-famous George Bush. The way Goren sees it, “She’s Secretary of State Clinton, or former Senator Clinton, and he’s former President Clinton. They do have distinct positions.”

“It’ll become different if she becomes president.” Goren said.