Now that Hillary Clinton has become the *official presumptive nominee* for president of the Democratic party and first woman standard bearer for a major U.S. party, it’s worth revisiting a post I wrote a few months ago about women’s paths to political power in historical perspective. I also have some questions about the widespread tendency to call Clinton “Hillary” instead of following the political and journalistic convention of calling her by her surname.
As most of us know, Clinton’s rise to political prominence is singular in the U.S. not because of her kin connections (through a husband), but because of her sex:
Upon emergence of the liberal state around 1800, in which a select portion of citizens elect their political leaders to one degree or another, women’s opportunities to lead and rule were actually diminished, because democracies in this era restricted both voting rights and eligibility for public office to men only. It is an uncomfortable fact for we Americans, we evangelists of democracy, that populism is not liberationist. In fact, it ratifies contemporary prejudices and stereotypes–religious, racial, and of course, gender. In the past century, Western democracies enfranchised women, but women in elective office have remained a tiny or merely small minority compared to men in elective office.
. . . . .
Given 6,900 years of history (at least) when everyone on the planet saw political leadership and its close correlative, military power, as the prerogative of men, what has been women’s path to elective office? Not surprisingly, even in the United States political power has been passed to women (as it had usually been to men) through kinship lines. Most of the first American women in congress were the widows of congressmen who were asked to serve out the rest of their late husbands’ terms, and some of them then went on to run for an win their own terms. We have also seen daughters of congressmen and senators run for office, just as we have seen male political dynasties repeatedly ratified throughout the history of the republic: The Adamses, the Harrisons, and more recently, the Roosevelts and the Bushes are all families in which kinship and name recognition played significant roles.
Therefore, given the weight of 7,000 years of recorded history, we should not be surprised that the first serious woman contender for the presidency in both 2008 and 2016 would be someone with kinship ties to another president (through marriage, not blood). It’s been continually amazing and frustrating to me to hear even Democrats and leftists complain that they think Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency is illegitimate because of her kinship tie to Bill Clinton–that it smacks of entitlement, rather than merely history, which is how the political ambitions of sons and nephews and male cousins of U.S. presidents is coded and discussed.
We Americans like to think that we’re over aristocracy, but it’s clear that it’s been a powerful force in American politics since the early republic. We’re still lousy with younger Bushes, Kennedys, Browns, Tafts, (Tafts!) and even the occasional Roosevelt who may still harbor political ambition.
Keep this in mind as we hear the Clinton campaign itself as well as the national and local media refer to the presumptive Democratic nominee as “Hillary” rather than Clinton. I’ve assumed that the habit, which clearly comes from her campaign with all of those “Hillary” signs and “ready for Hillary” bumper stickers, etc., was about trying to create a little separation between herself and her husband. But I’ve been a little surprised to see and hear the national media and her Republican opponent pick up on this first-naming rather than choosing to call her by the (historically) more formal and more democratic surname.
This is all complicated of course by the fact that Hillary Rodham kept her birth name several years into her marriage, and only began to use her husband’s name in 1982 when he was trying to reclaim the governorship of Arkansas after being ousted after one term (1979-81). Of course, Bill Clinton himself carries the name “Clinton” not because of ancient lineage but because he was adopted by an abusive stepfather! So the name “Clinton” for both of the most prominent Clintons in the world is really a portmanteau identity, when you think about it. As the daughter of a man whose surname comes from his adopted parents, I like this–“blood ties” and lineage are a kind of genealogical fiction. (Don’t tell the producers of Who Do You Think You Are!)
The United States is making history in this election. Hillary I it is.
28 thoughts on “Hillary I?”
The dems have a history of the first name thing, don’t they? Jimmy Carter did it too (I think he’s the first). It’s how you are populist and approachable. Bernie v. Hillary though makes Hillary seem buttoned up.
I meant to make this point in the larger post–I wonder if she’ll also be called “HRC” in the manner of the other Democratic presidential tic like FDR, JFK. Remember Lyndon Johnson wanted people to refer to him as LBJ to partake of that mantle.
Clinton I and Obama couldn’t really roll like that. Bill Clinton was always just Bill Clinton, never WJC, and the only people ever to use Obama’s middle initial were right-wing xenophobic extremists (BHO). And BC/BO just don’t really scan the way that FDR, JFK, LBJ, and HRC scan.
My son had to write an essay last night on first ladies (not a subject I am crazy about). He got very confused when researching Michelle Obama, because articles would refer to her just as “Obama,” and it wasn’t always obvious which Obama they were talking about. I explained context, and if it’s about BHO, they’ll refer to him as POTUS somewhere in the article, etc etc. And he turned to me and said “but what happens if Michelle Obama gets elected president? How are we going to know which Obama is which?”
This just cheered me up to no end.
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“Hair” was the “Hamilton” of its day: LBJ, IRT, USA, LSD. FBI, CIA, LSD…. LBJ. Very “tribal” in a song lyric, but bureaucratically I think it originated in hand-initialing the thousands of pieces of paper that passed across the Oval Office desk every day. Now all that’s migrated to the web…
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Man Indyanna, I’m going to have that stuck in my head for the rest of the week.
(Wonder what HRC’s campaign music is gonna be… hm… maybe Fleetwood Mac will drive out Hair from my head, but what drives out Fleetwood Mac?)
She’s got her own theme song now–no more Fleetwood Mac, it’s Sarah Bareilles’s “Brave.” I’m sure they’ll roll out “Don’t Stop Belivin'” for Bill’s night at the convention.
Here’s “Brave.” I think it’s a good choice, and smart for her to choose newer music than the 1970s Fleetwood Mac stuff. Personally, I was rooting for Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” but that’s already 20 years old, and still too edgy for anyone in mainstream politics! Still, the “walking study in demonology” kind of resonates with HRC, I think.
What about Ike?
Don’t know for sure FOR SURE, but I think that was a campaign slogan more than an operational name for the president when he was in office. After all, Supreme Allied Commander is not a guy you call by his first name casually. (Then again, I think most of the Jimmy-ing was in the campaign, as in the “Jimmy Who?” campaign buttons. But your point & Susan’s points stand–maybe the casual first-naming is a pretty common campaign thing.)
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Carter signed bills, treaties, etc., w/ “Jimmy.” I remember that raising some eyebrows at the beginning of his administration.
(To Historiann’s comment). I don’t remember in the 1950s (but I was a small child then) or the early 60s anyone actually referring to him as “Ike.” It was always “Eisenhower.” But maybe that’s just indicative of growing up in Cambridge, Mass.?
I have been wondering, on and off, whether she’s ever wished she just stuck with Rodham, or whether she’s considered going back to it (or to Rodham Clinton). The latter would cause too much sound and fury, though, and charges of flip-flopping, and other such nonsense, so she’s probably smart to stick with the decisions she’s made.
I’ve also wondered whether the other major Democratic candidate in the primary race has ended up using his first name more than he would have otherwise out of parallelism.
And then of course the presumptive Republican nominee already had a history of being referred to by his first name plus “the” (a nearly unique form, as far as I can tell; we definitely have one-named celebrities, but I can’t think of any others with “the” at the beginning, except perhaps, for a while, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince).
In short, this election, which is unusual in many ways, is unusual in having two frontrunning candidates whose histories prior to the election invite/include nonstandard naming conventions. That makes it a bit harder to tease out the gender aspects of the whole thing.
I suspect it’s strategically wise for the Democratic campaign to stick with the first name through the general election, and I suspect they will do so. I’m also pretty sure that major news outlets will use their usual forms of address, and that, once elected (and I do think/hope she’ll be elected), she’ll be President Clinton. It’s not like we haven’t recently had two presidents with the same last name quite close together; at least she has a different first name (and I doubt she’ll choose to go by 45 in family circles, with Bill becoming 43, though there is precedent). The really interesting question is what name she/they will use if/when she runs for a second term.
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We’ll see if they start calling her “the Hillary.” (And per my point below about what the media call her, I’m just relieved to see her called “Hillary” or “Mrs. Clinton” compared to Shrillary or any of the other political invective used against her.)
It bothers me that national media persists in calling her Mrs. Clinton. Why hasn’t national media switched to Ms.?
(I get that they don’t want to use formal titles other than Mr. and Ms. because like Mr. Darcy, they’re above the peerage. But are we still in a land in which marital status needs to be signaled for women but not for men?)
I think it’s awkward to call her “Ms. Clinton” when it’s her husband’s last name (originally) and she only accessed it via marriage. I think it’s more standard to call women “Ms.” when they use their birth name rather than their husband’s last name. But you’re right: the whole signaling of marital status is stupid.
The only media I regularly hear or see calling her “Mrs. Clinton” are 1) the New York Times, which always uses honorifics & not just surnames, and 2) the BBC. Most radio & teevee I see call her either Hillary or Hillary Clinton. I don’t mind hearing her called Mrs. Clinton, and I think increasingly she’s going to see that as an asset in terms of American political dynasty building.
I think it’s funny and cool that the Clintons, with their tiny family of three, will likely stand with the large Adamses & Bushes, and the enormous Roosevelt clan, in terms of the numbers of presidents they have created.
After she became bankably publishable with her attack on Burke and especially the _Vindication of the Rights of Woman_, Mary Wollstonecraft was typically referred to by reviewers, with no seeming dismay on her part, as “Mrs. Wollstonecraft.” In English usage, it apparently connoted a single woman of respectable credentials not still perceived as likely to subsequently marry (which she did, of course, as it happened). On the other hand, if you try to verify where you first read this claim by googling: Janet Todd, “Mrs. Wollstonecraft,” prepare for the algorithm to auto-revise the whole search to a first name basis.
On party styling of presidential naming, the NY Times would never have used “Ike” except maybe in a quote. But in the “Era of Good Martinis” of the mid and late 1950s, a suburban guy of either party could come home from work and do so with impunity even before taking off the tie and flannel suit and slipping into a golf outfit. The Kennedy Bros. were Jack, Bobby, and Ted(dy) at work or on weekend duty. Nixon was presumably “Dick” only to close friends and snarky anarchist detractors. Only Mrs. Reagan could call the President “Ronnie.” Don Regan or Al Haig would have gone up the White House chimney the minute they even tried it.
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References to Harriet Jacobs provide a parallel example, which Jean Fagan Yellin explores well in her biography: Jacobs came to be known in antislavery/freedmen’s aid circles as “Mrs. Jacobs” as she began serving as an aid worker to refugees from slavery during the Civil War, despite the fact that her history as an never-married mother was very well known, thanks to her autobiography. That autobiography was, of course, published under the name “Linda Brent,” and, if I’m remembering correctly, contemporaries usually left off the last name when referring to Jacobs by that name. So “Linda” was the sexually exploited slave girl, and “Mrs. Jacobs” was the aid worker, and everybody knew they were the same person, but in some ways the two identities were separate, even though people became aware of the two stories within a few years’ time (since it took Jacobs quite a while to decide to write the story of her younger years, write it, and find a publisher).
Great points, Indyanna & Cassandra. Maybe we dix-huitiemistes should urge a return of the early modern sense of “Mrs.,” which was just an abbreviation for “Mistress,” and didn’t indicate marital status necessarily. There are loads of unmarried young women in 17th & 18th century records I’ve read who are called “Mrs.” as an honorific. That seems to be the sense in which Jacobs was called “Mrs.,” in recognition of her age and achievements.
Whatever we think, I’m sure the NYT and the Beeb will call the next President Clinton “Mrs. Clinton” after the first reference to her as president.
To this day in France, at a certain age you become “Madame”, regardless of marital status. Mademoiselle is a young woman. (There may be implications about marriagability, too.).
I’m old enough to remember (dimly) a campaign in which opposing slogans were “I Like Ike” and “Madly for Adlai.” But this is campaign informality, about as plausible as “Jack Adams” in 1824; formal usage (including the NYT) is another matter. The situation with the Bushes and (one hopes) the Clintons would be simpler if we went back to the old one-President-at-a-time principle and referred to Ambassador Bush and Governors Bush and Clinton.
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Re: 41 & 43 vs. 42 & 45: at least the Clintons have different FIRST names! Nobody ever called 41 “President George H.W. Bush” until President George W. Bush came along.
Lots of echoes here from the last 80 years of politics in my home state, which has had so many top level female politicians that all this seems a bit ho hum.
Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the House of Representatives in a special election in 1940 following the death of her husband earlier that year – who had already endorsed her for the fall election after he fell ill. She went on to serve four full terms in the House, and then 24 years, in the Senate, becoming the first woman to serve in both House of Congress. She also was the first woman to have her name put into nomination for president at a major party convention in 1964.
Olympia Snowe entered politics in 1973 – elected to the Maine House of Representatives to the same as her husband – who had been killed in an automobile accident. She served in the Maine House of Representatives until 1978, then the Maine Senate until 1979, then in the House of Representatives from 1979-1995, then as Senator from 1995-2013. In Maine, we simply called her “Olympia”. Her campaign materials said the same.
Susan Collins is the only one who bucks these trends. She has also sorely disappointed me over the last several months. Where is Margaret Chase Smith when you need her?
“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.
I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.
I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one party system.”
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Northern New England has become one place that is notable for its prominent political women–Maine and New Hampshire, mostly. (But Maine has never had a woman governor like NH.)
But they only look progressive on gender & representation because of how imbalanced the rest of the country is. Colorado has never had women U.S. senators or governors, for example. The highest office women in my state have attained is U.S. House of Reps. I don’t believe there’s ever been a woman elected to AG in CO, either. Bleh.
The current CO AG is Cynthia Coffman. She was elected in 2014. That’s pretty recent.
Sorry! You are correct. That happened when I was out of state in 2014. I’m still catching up and learning how much I missed.
And then of course there’s Lindy Boggs, also a widow who succeeded her husband, and mother of Cokie Roberts, who was helping to anchor NPR’s primary coverage last night. Louisiana seems in some ways like an unlikely place to produce a female politician, but maybe not — family ties are strong in the south, and Louisiana isn’t quite a regular part of the south.
One of my favorites among the female politicians of that generation was Millicent Fenwick (moderate Republican, NJ). I believe she was elected in her own right, though she came from a political family of origin.
Millicent Fenwick, the inspiration for Doonesbury’s Lacey Davenport! Although she may have had a touch of MCS in her too.
And agreed on Louisiana–it’s the French Catholic difference, as well as the Caribbean ties IMHO.
Let’s hope that we’ll have to parse out what the NYT will call our first woman President.
And then, of course, there was Lurleen Wallace.