On One Hand

April 18, 2007

Press refers to Women Candidates by their First Names

In the United States, the contest for the Democratic nomination for the 2008 Presidential election is Obama vs. Hillary. That is, Barack Obama, the hopeful (male) upstart and national political novice from Illinois, against Hillary Clinton, the powerful and connected (female) wife of a former President. Meanwhile, the current Bush cabinet features the likes of Gonzales, Gates and Condoleeza.

Across the Atlantic, the catch phrase for the 2007 election is “Sego or Sarko;” referring to the female Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, and the conservative male UMP candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.

What unites the prominent female figures from both sides of the ocean – who couldn’t be more politically distinct? It’s that they’re all commonly referred to by their first names, while their male peers are known almost exclusively by last name only.

The reasons for this might be more complicated than it seems. The name “Clinton” is still thought of as refering to Hillary Clinton’s husband and former president Bill, who reached higher office than Hillary so has a more prominent position in the public consciousness. To refer to Hillary Clinton by her last name still might cause confusion, depending on the context. Condoleeza Rice, meanwhile, has an extremely unusual and fun-sounding first name, while her last name is comparatively normal and boring. Segolene Royal’s first name is used for the alliteration between it and the last name of her opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, and European headline writers struggling to make catchy titles for boring political news will notice “Sego-Sarko” has a nice ring to it.

Also, the rarity of female high-office holders and the near ubiquity of male politicians ensures that each female candidate or legislator is the only one with that first name, while the male field is packed with names like “George” and “John” that make last-name references necessary.

But a feminist critique might also find that women are spoken of in personal and sheltered terms, while men are distanced respectfully under a last-name title. It’s rare, after all, to see a headline discussing the platform of “Barack” – though there are clearly no other “Baracks” in U.S. office. He’s always either “Obama” or “Barack Obama,” while his competing front-runner is “Hillary Clinton” or “Hillary.”

Will this prove to be an asset or a burden for female figures? Down-to-earth personality and humanness is thought of as an positive in politics, and by emphasizing such attributes through a more intimate reference, female candidates might be more endeared and harder to berate in attack ads. But it also sets them apart as women, and in a percieved “age of terror,” voters might want someone appearing strong, and, well, masculine. It’s no secret that femaleness has been a burden in winning elected office in the past (otherwise the “first female” of any public position wouldn’t be the huge deal that it is in the media), and anything that makes a candidate’s womanness more obvious could be an advantage to male opponents.

Gender as a Campaign Strategy?

One sharp difference between the American and French political races is that the French candidate is widely criticized for using her femaleness as a reason to vote for her. Royal frequently calls on “women voters” and has asked for votes for the purpose of breaking male-dominance of politics in the past. Whether or not this is a legitimate reason to vote for someone, the fact that Segolene Royal is a woman is already well-known and highly publicized in her country, and the consensus among political analysts is that such pleas are seriously damaging her popularity. Even Royal’s own Socialist party allies have expressed disappointment with the strategy of using gender as a campaigning tool.

Hillary Clinton has hinted at her femininity, but hasn’t made it such the deal Royal has – leaving such (obvious) observations for others to make. But even with the limited play Clinton has given her womanhood, American analysts have taken notice and advised caution against playing up the gender too much. Sexism is still a reality in American culture, and a female President would certainly help counter that. But many of those who intentionally try not to be sexist say that, though gender is no reason to vote against someone, it isn’t a reason to vote for someone, either. And those who will vote for a woman just because she’s a woman already know Hillary Clinton is female, whether or not she points it out. So far, Hillary Clinton hasn’t done that much. If Clinton wants to stand a chance at winning, she should keep it that way.

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1 Comment »

  1. Maybe another thing is, Clinton is Bill’s name that Hillary took when she married him, same with probably the majority of female politicians (and everyone else).

    I don’t disagree with you, though. It’s a very compelling observation.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 18, 2007 @ 11:13 pm | Reply


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