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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