A Hillary Clinton Presidency Would Crack the Linguistic Glass Ceiling

Would she go by “madam president” or “Mrs. president”? And would Bill Clinton be “first gentleman”?

National Journal
Lucia Graves
April 10, 2014, 10:08 a.m.

The ques­tion may have come from a 6-year-old, but she was on to something.

At a speak­er series in Port­land, Ore. on Tues­day, Hil­lary Clin­ton, who’s of­fi­cially “think­ing” about run­ning for pres­id­ent, spoke on a wide range of is­sues — from wo­men’s rights to cli­mate change as a se­cur­ity is­sue. But it was a ques­tion from a kid that made news. “In 2016, would you prefer to be called ‘madam pres­id­ent’ or ‘Mrs. pres­id­ent?’ ” a mod­er­at­or read­ing the ques­tions asked Clin­ton. Clin­ton laughed and, as the audi­ence gave her a stand­ing ova­tion, re­spon­ded with a re­sound­ing shrug.

Re­port­ers have come up with 101 ways to ask Hil­lary Clin­ton if she plans on run­ning for the highest of­fice in the land (and she’s de­veloped just as many ways of charm­ingly shirk­ing the ques­tion), but this pre­co­cious ele­ment­ary-school­er’s ques­tion got at something else too: the polit­ics of title.

For Hil­lary, the ques­tions read like a joke. Does the lady prefer “madam pres­id­ent” or “Mrs. pres­id­ent”? Would Bill Clin­ton be “first man” or “first gen­tle­man”?

But wo­men on Cap­it­ol Hill have long struggled with the ques­tion of ap­pel­la­tion. And where­as such ques­tions are es­sen­tially nonex­ist­ent for men, in a so­ci­ety that uses hon­or­if­ics to di­vide mar­ried and un­mar­ried wo­men, fe­males in power are forced to give some thought to what la­bel to choose for them­selves and why.

Is it more fem­in­ist to go with the gender-am­bigu­ous title of “con­gress­man”? Or does us­ing “con­gress­wo­man” show more pride in one’s sex? Does the term “chair­man” con­vey more grav­itas than “chair­wo­man,” and if so, isn’t that prob­lem­at­ic?

Janet Yel­len, the new head of the Fed­er­al Re­serve, re­marked re­cently that she would go by “chair,” not “chair­wo­man.” Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, a Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an, also prefers the more mas­cu­line form of her title (in Black­burn’s case, “con­gress­man”).

Ac­cord­ing to Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s style guide, “chair­man,” “chair­wo­man,” and “chair” are all are ac­cept­able, al­though “chair­man” or “chair­wo­man” is pre­ferred. The guide stip­u­lates not to use the term “con­gress­men” when re­fer­ring to all mem­bers of Con­gress, and it’s OK to use “con­gress­man” or “con­gress­wo­man” when re­fer­ring to an in­di­vidu­al mem­ber of the House, al­though the title “Rep.” is pre­ferred.

The AP Stylebook, widely con­sidered the ul­ti­mate ar­bit­er on such is­sues, also leaves room for law­makers’ per­son­al pref­er­ence. While “Rep.” and “U.S. Rep.” are pre­ferred on first ref­er­ence, “the words con­gress­man or con­gress­wo­man, in lower­case, may be used in sub­sequent ref­er­ences that do not use an in­di­vidu­al’s name,” ac­cord­ing to the 2013 stylebook.

At a blog­ger roundtable with Demo­crat­ic House mem­bers held earli­er this year, Na­tion­al Journ­al asked a half dozen fe­male rep­res­ent­at­ives to weigh in on the is­sue.

“Most people do say ‘con­gress­wo­man,’ while oth­ers re­spect­fully ask what you want to be called,” said Robin Kelly of Illinois. “But old habits die hard, so I don’t feel in­sul­ted if someone says ‘con­gress­man.’ A lot of times, if people say ‘con­gress­man,’ they’ll come right back and say, ‘No, we should call you ‘con­gress­wo­man.’ “

“When people call me ‘con­gress­man’ I don’t re­coil at all,” Wis­con­sin’s Gwen Moore said at the time. “I’m very proud to be a wo­man but I don’t re­coil. It doesn’t both­er me.”

When Na­tion­al Journ­al prod­ded her as to wheth­er she prefers “con­gress­wo­man,” Moore quipped: “Yeah. Or Rep­res­ent­at­ive Moore works for every­body. Giv­en the repu­ta­tion of Con­gress, it prob­ably just takes a little bit of the taint off of you to be called Rep­res­ent­at­ive.”

Oth­er wo­men, in­clud­ing Cali­for­nia’s Bar­bara Lee, said they don’t have much time to think about it. “If there are con­gress­men then there should be con­gress­wo­men. I like ‘con­gress­wo­man,’ ” she said. Cali­for­nia’s Kar­en Bass in­dic­ated a mild pref­er­ence for the term “Con­gress mem­ber.” And Con­necti­c­ut’s Rosa De­Lauro said she didn’t have a pref­er­ence. “Be­lieve me,” she con­fided to Na­tion­al Journ­al, “it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence. It’s about what I say or do.”

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi shrugged the ques­tion off as the least of her con­cerns. “You know what I think about?” she said, “I think about how one in five chil­dren in Amer­ica lives in poverty. That’s what I think about in the morn­ing and at night. People can call them­selves whatever they want. That’s up to them. I don’t care.”

Cali­for­nia’s Linda Sánchez was a bit more opin­ion­ated on the is­sue. “I can’t be­lieve we’re still hav­ing this de­bate in the 21st cen­tury be­cause I think it’s ri­dicu­lous,” she said. “Con­gress­wo­men are con­gress­wo­men — you are, sorry. And for wo­men who want to be con­gress­men, there’s a screw loose in their head. I’m proud of be­ing a wo­man. I think ‘con­gress­wo­man’ is the ap­pro­pri­ate term and ‘ma­dame chair’ is just fine with me.”

A num­ber of fem­in­ist ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing Latifa Lyles, of the Na­tion­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Wo­men, seem to agree with Sánchez about the power and im­port­ance of em­bra­cing a dis­tinctly fem­in­ine title. “Whenev­er we blend with the male ap­pel­la­tion, we are di­min­ish­ing the sig­ni­fic­ance of the ac­com­plish­ment,” Keller­man once told Politico.

“I think that is sig­ni­fic­ant,” she ad­ded. “We don’t have to pre­tend we’re not wo­men in or­der to be lead­ers in this coun­try.”

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