September 16, 2015
Some years ago, I attended a panel presentation featuring a few prominent academic feminists. It really was a while ago, and I don’t recall very much about the content or their names, but an element of that event has remained with me.
One of the women began her set of remarks and addressed a point made by another, using the other woman’s first name. But while doing so, she made a parenthetical statement to this effect: “I have known X for many years and we are old friends, which is why I allow myself to use her first name.”
The point was clear: My female colleague is a professional and we are in a professional setting and as such I ought to always address her by her last name, unless I can explain why I assume this degree of familiarity.
That moment was a revelation for me. It wasn’t that I’d never understood the importance of respecting women when referring to them but that this public moment where a feminist subtly, calmly, but forcefully engaged in feminist practice and made sure that such a practice was recognised as such was, dare I say, inspiring.
It’s many years later, but women in every profession still have to contend with not being taken seriously. At times the disrespect flares up in the most virulent ways, as with Donald Trump’s comment about Carly Fiorina when he said that no one would vote for “that face.”
The press was quick to pick up on Trump’s comments, but while such extreme examples are easy to spot and rightly criticise, there are other, more subtle ways in which even the ostensibly lefty/progressive press has been less than respectful to Fiorina and Clinton.
Take, for instance, the September 15 episode of NPR’s “Here and Now” program, which included a segment on Carly Fiorina’s business record. The guest was Arik Hesseldahl, senior editor of Re/code, who has written a piece on the topic. Hesseldahl refers to Fiorina by her last name in his published work but couldn’t bring himself to do the same on the radio, where he persistently, except for one instance, used her first name. To his credit, host Peter O’Dowd kept referring to her as Fiorina and I don’t think I simply imagined, in the tenor of his voice and the deliberate way he did so, that he was desperately trying to make Hesseldahl see that he should do the same. But Hesseldahl blithely continued to keep referring to Fiorina as “Carly.” I doubt that he would have ever referred to Bill Gates as Bill in a segment on Microsoft, or Steve Jobs as Steve.
I see no evidence that Hesseldahl is or was married to Fiorina. Or that he is related to her. Or that he once slept with her.
Mind you, the last would still not give him an excuse to refer to any woman by her first name while reporting on her.
I’m not a supporter of either Fiorina or Hillary Clinton, but both of them should be accorded the same minimum respect given to the (many) male candidates.
This may seem like a small and even silly point. After all, we’re in a culture where being on a “first name basis” is supposed to be preferable, is supposed to mean that we’re all pals.
But we have to take power and gender into account and the fact, for instance, that very rarely have any of the Bush men — George, George, or Jeb — been referred to by their first names by the press. There’s an impenetrability that comes with being powerful white men or, really, with just being men, that seems to dissuade the press corps from establishing informal relationship with them. The same is true of Bill Clinton, despite his folksy ways. Even Bernie Sanders, who appears to have dropped the “Bernard” a long time ago and seems more like the schleppy professor guy you see in your local diner every morning, is generally referred to as Sanders. I cringe when anyone in the press refers to Obama as “Barack,” because it’s not hard to miss the racialised liberty taken with a Black man.
Which is to say: Naming is power, and how the press names and refers to candidates has everything to do with what values it assigns to them.
I have no doubt that irate (and, I suspect, mostly male) readers will respond to this with numerous examples of times when white male political candidates have been referred to by their first names, but the key word here is “rare.” It’s also customary for political candidates in the midst of baby-and-public-ass-kissing, to insist that everyone refer to them by their first name: I’d like to be the man who holds in my thumb the power to obliterate distant countries with one push, but, hey, call me Joe.
When the press refers to either of the only two female candidates by her first name, it is essentially putting her in her place: Oh, look, aren’t you adorable, wanting to be President and all? Both Clinton and Fiorina might well go around asking people to call them by their first names, but that is beside the point. When it comes to reporting on them, the press needs to use their last names.
This is 2015. Women still only make 78 cents for every dollar made by men. Workplace sexual harassment affects one in four women. The list of issues women have to deal with is endless. We might, at the very least, allow a woman the dignity of her full or last name when referring to her in the context of her work.