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
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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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