Hillary Clinton Weighs In on the Linguistic Glass Ceiling

Would Bill go by “first gentleman” or “first man”? Hillary has some thoughts on the matter.

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton await the arrival of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain on 23 February, 2000. Taken on the South Portico of the White House. 
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Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
June 16, 2014, 11:49 a.m.

One of the cleverer ways of ask­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton if she’s run­ning for pres­id­ent has been to ask wheth­er she’d go by “Madam Pres­id­ent” or “Mrs. Pres­id­ent.” And would Bill Clin­ton be “first gen­tle­man”?

Now Hil­lary’s found a way to an­swer the ques­tion without an­swer­ing what people really want to know. “Speak­ing hy­po­thet­ic­ally,” Clin­ton said dur­ing a key­note speech in down­town Toronto, the hus­band of a fe­male pres­id­ent could be called “first man” or even “first mate.”

The com­ments, which came Monday as part of a pro­mo­tion­al tour for her new mem­oir, Hard Choices, may be mad­den­ingly coy. But they’re sig­ni­fic­ant in that they mark the be­gin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion that for too long has only been the province of wo­men: what title to use.

Fe­male law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill have long struggled with wheth­er to go with the gender-am­bigu­ous title of “con­gress­man” or use the gender-spe­cif­ic title of “con­gress­wo­man.” Does choos­ing a gendered title con­vey more pride in one’s sex or is such spe­cificity merely a dis­trac­tion? Does the term “chair­man” con­fer more grav­itas than “chair­wo­man,” and if so, isn’t that prob­lem­at­ic? What about just go­ing by “chair”? (Na­tion­al Journ­al in­ter­viewed a dozen or so fe­male law­makers on the sub­ject earli­er this year.)

Like so many ques­tions that should nev­er have been “wo­men’s ques­tions” to be­gin with, this one suits men very nicely. Hil­lary’s sug­ges­tion of “first mate” stands in con­trast to the more tra­di­tion­al “first gen­tle­man,” which is the title Mar­cus Bach­mann, hus­band of former Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Rep. Michele Bach­mann, al­ways sug­ges­ted. It also sounds un­bear­ably corny.

But hey, at least someone is fi­nally ask­ing the ques­tion.

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