Sunday, January 07, 2007

Language, including names, is as important to feminism as it is to anything

As those who have read this blog for years know, I am continually irritated by listening to the Senate and House roll calls and being constantly reminded that the married female Senators and Congresswomen have chosen--I'm sure, for the sake of their C-Span profiles--to be called "Mrs. Senator" rather than "Ms. Senator." Even Barbara Boxer is called "Mrs. Boxer" when asked for a vote. The unmarried women are referred to as "Ms." which does absolutely nothing to make marital status irrelevant--it only changes the honorific of the unmarried from "Miss" to "Ms.", subverts the entire point of the "Ms." honorific, and slaps feminism in the face. The only married woman in the Senate who is referred to as "Ms." is Mary Landrieu, who--quick, get the smelling salts!--does not use her husband's name.

This may seem like an insignificant thing to many people, but I was one of the women who fought hard to eliminate marital status from a woman's honorific, and while there is nothing we can do about non-feminist women who still choose to announce their marital status to the world (many of them incorrectly, I might add: "Mrs. Mary Smith" has always been incorrect; only "Mrs. John Smith" is correct, repulsive though it might be), we have a right to be upset over so-called feminist women who believe they have to literally broadcast their marital status in order to please constituents. Sorry, but as far as I am concerned, no true feminist would sell out like that.

Then there is the matter of the disappearing name. Hillary Rodham became Hillary Rodham Clinton, which meant she would, of course, become Hillary Clinton. Teresa Heinz became Teresa Heinz Kerry (granted, Heinz was a husband's name, too, but it was the name she was using). Elizabeth Anania became Elizabeth Edwards after her son died and she retired from her legal practice. It is said, in fact, that Edwards used her "maiden name" (don't even get me started again on how offensive that term is) "professionally," which means that when she was not at work, she was Mrs. John Edwards, anyway.

Can anyone imagine Bill Clinton deciding to call himself "Bill Rodham" in order to further his wife's career? Or John Kerry calling himself "John Heinz" or "John Thierstein Simões-Ferreira" because his wife had political ambitions?


You're absolutely right in all of this, but I still have some sympathy for political women who make some compromises to get elected.

Politics, famously, is "the art of the possible". Every political decision is a tradeoff between desire and possibility - not even dictators get everything they want. These women are obviously making a calculation that not bucking tradition in the matter of names may make it easier - or possible - for them to buck tradition on more substantive matters. They're probably right in that.

And if they are right - if it is true that allowing yourself to be treated in a non-feminist way in the matter of names makes it more likely to achieve feminist goals in legislation - then saying "no true feminist would do that" is simply saying "no true feminist would trade a victory of principle in stating her name for a better practical outcome for all women under the law". I don't really see that as a necessary, or even a very reasonable, feminist position. At the very least I can respect women who see it the other way.

By Blogger Kevin T. Keith, at 3:13 PM  

While what you say is certainly sensible and articulate, your statement, Kevin, presumes an either/or situation, and I simply do not think that is the case.

In my opinion, women like Boxer do not allow themselves to be "treated in a non-feminist way" in order to be able to achieve greater feminist goals. They do it out of irrational fear. If they were to be true to themselves, they would be advancing feminism by their very numbers. Look at Landrieu--she is from a conservative state, does not use her husband's name (much "worse" than using "Ms." and her husband's name), and no one thinks anything of it.

"saying 'no true feminist would do that' is simply saying 'no true feminist would trade a victory of principle in stating her name for a better practical outcome for all women under the law'. I don't really see that as a necessary, or even a very reasonable, feminist position."

Again, I think the either/or condition is a fake one--that there would be no backlash at all if we heard "Ms. Boxer" or "Ms. Feinstein" in the roll call. But for the record...yes, I think the victories of principle are more important. If some of these women took personal stands about their own lives, I believe they would do much more for the rest of us than they have done.

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