Her name

            My junior year of high school, I took English from Mr. K, who was somewhere in the vicinity of totally mad.  He sometimes went over the edge and hurt students’ feelings, like the time he waved a fake gun at a kid whose father was being tried as an organized crime boss and told the kid he might need said item some day.  That was not so nice.  Nor was it kind of him to make me cry one day, although I will grant that making me cry was not particularly challenging in those days.

            Nonetheless, he was the best English teacher the school had to offer.  He might have had an alarming tendency to holler “BEEEEEEE! I’m ExPECting you!” at random moments, but at least he was not halfway to unconscious as was my freshman/senior year teacher.  Mr. K had experience in the theater, serious experience in the theater, but he was never given management of the drama club, probably because the administration was a little afraid of what he might do.  I don’t blame them, given that he spent much of the unit on Tennessee Williams telling us how he had seen A Streetcar Named Desire performed “at Café La Mama… In draaag.” 

           I guess I don’t need to tell you that he was gay, although knowing the town in which I grew up, I suspect it was a don’t-ask, don’t-tell-the-impressionable-young-minds kind of situation, which is ironic now that the school, like every other, has a LGBT club listed alongside the Chess team.  In the eighties in Massachusetts, however, it was better to pretend to be liberal than to actually be liberal.  Maybe Chris can shed some light on what happened to Mr. K, but I suspect the administration finally found some way to get rid of him that would not engender a lawsuit.

            That was not before, however, he had the chance to teach us The Scarlet Letter, a book with a structure and complexity he clearly revered.  We spent an awful lot of time on the carefully constructed scaffolding scenes, the character development and the (I now know) rather heavy handed symbolism.  In later years, when I would go on to teach the same book to children the same age I had been that year, my greatest goal was to show them I loved that book as much as Mr. K had.  I suspect, in fact, that is was his early influence that led me to believe, for a short time in graduate school, that I might want to specialize in Nathaniel Hawthorne, a delusion from which I was awakened when I met Henry James.

            What I did not like about the way Mr. K taught The Scarlet Letter was that he always referred to Hester Prynne by her first name.  The minister was Dimmesdale, the mysterious creepy man was Chillingworth, but the woman with the big A on her chest was Hester.  Like her daughter, she was reduced to her first name.

            This struck me as infantilizing at best and sexist at worst.  Men, who go out into the wider world, are referred to by their last names, but women are kept more private.  Women are domestic, and so are addressed by the name a family member would use, but men are worldly and so are addressed as Mr. plus their family name.  They are given the respect accorded to their professions.  Women are treated like children and so called by their first names.

            This, of course, was not entirely Mr. K’s fault.  After all, generations of scholars also have referred to Mistress Prynne as “Hester.”  They probably do this because Hawthorne refers to her this way.  Hawthorne was deeply steeped in his times, and the cult of domesticity was full-swing.  He was not exactly a feminist; although he was rather close to a very forceful and intellectual young woman, he chose to marry her sickly and domestic sister, instead.  He would never have thought to refer to a female character by her last name.  You can hardly blame an eleventh-grade English teacher for following suit.

            Nonetheless, when I handed in my (completely brilliant) paper on The Scarlet Letter, I was careful to refer to her only as “Prynne,” just as I referred to her pathetic excuse for a lover as “Dimmesdale.”  I was breaking new ground, blazing trails, and getting my grade knocked down in the process.  Yep.  When he handed that paper back, Mr. K had crossed off every single “Prynne” and written “Hester” next to it.

            In retrospect, he was right.  I should have referred to her as the author did, unless I stated a good reason otherwise.  But, Mr. K did not explain this.  He just corrected me, which pissed me off and made me wonder what kind of a woman-hating, foaming at the mouth kind of cretin he was.

            So, no matter for whom you intend to vote, I ask you to do me one little favor.  I ask you to join me in remembering that Senator Clinton is just that, a U.S. Senator.  She is not a private, domestic figure; she is a very public person.  Yes, I know she has branded herself as “Hillary,” probably so we don’t confuse her with the other Clinton.  I wish she had not done that, because it sets back feminism in subtle and powerful ways.  It sends the message that her gender makes her less worthy of common courtesy, of the respect we give people in the public realm.

The American electorate should treat its public servants with linguistic parity, referring to the men and the women in the same way.  (With the exception of those you truly wish to denigrate; it is your business if you want to refer to the President as “The Shrub”; personally, I think that until he is out of office, he deserves some linguistic dignity so as to treat the office with respect.)  So, either the candidates are “John, Barack, and Hillary,” or they are “McCain, Obama, and Clinton.”

Do we really need to mark one of them with a scarlet W?

38 responses to “Her name

  1. Oh no. Does this mean that I have to start referring either to Elizabeth as “Bennet” or to Darcy as “Fitzwilliam”? Because I really don’t think I can do that (much less call Mr. Rochester “Edward”).

    In all seriousness, I was struggling the other day to remember the word “Hillarack” and I couldn’t come up with it because I kept trying to mix “Hillary” with “Obama” and “Obamary” just didn’t sound right. Food for thought here, Emily!

  2. My daughter and I were having a discussion of the candidates and I was having the same problem, but I couldn’t label why until you wrote this. I couldn’t figure out why we call some people by first names and other’s by last, but, decided to be consistent and call them all by both of their names.

  3. That’s funny – my children and my friends and I all refer to her as “Clinton,” with the assumption that we know who we’re talking about (there’s only one running for president at the moment after all!). It wouldn’t occur to me to call her “Hillary” and more than it would occur to me to vote for her SIMPLY because she was a woman.

  4. Before I got to the end of this, I thought to myself, “I’m going to mention the Hillary thing.” But then you did it brilliantly for me.

    And now for something completely off topic, did you ever read Colin Toibin’s novel about Henry James called The Master? I loved that book even though I didn’t expect to.

  5. Amen. You’ll be happy to know that when I heard Howard Dean speak the other day, he always said “Hillary and Barack” or “Senator Obama and Senator Clinton.” He was always, always parallel. I thought it was a nice touch.

  6. Did I just call Mr. Toibin when I know his name is Colm? Urggh!

  7. Can I type a comment without an error? It’s Colm Toibin, not Colin Toibin. Oh, and yes, I guess I am anal.

  8. Interesting.

  9. i’m with you on this one– equalizing the way we treat men & women in any position & recognizing that language is important.

    however, when i look around at bumper stickers & signs, don’t barak obama’s have the OBAMA in big letters & hillary clinton’s say HILLARY in prominent letters? who made this choice? who approved it?

  10. Two comments wrapped into one entry here.

    Firstly on the Hillary thing. I try to always refer to her as Senator Clinton. She earned that title and deserves to have it used. That said, her campaign is all about the name Hillary. She has chosen specifically to be addressed and referred to as Hillary. I completely agree with what you are saying, but I do think that on some level we must defer to her wishes as well. She trades on her first name. This also serves to differentiate her from her husband, President Clinton. I wish she would differentiate herself on some issues too!

    On to Mr. K. He was quietly fired after we graduated. It was a shame because as maddening as he could undoubtedly be, he was a pretty good teacher. At the time he was hired there were 4 (IIRC) new teachers brought on board. Two of them were let go before they got tenure, Mr. K. was one of them.

    He and his wife were an improv and writing team for a little while (they wrote a made-for-tv movie or two in the early 80’s). I was surprised to see him on Comedy Central about ten years back doing stand up comedy. He wasn’t particularly funny. If I could remember his first name I’m sure I could find him.

  11. i kept wondering where you were going with this, but you make a lovely argument.

    i always prefer to be called by my first name, because it is the name that was given to me, not the name that I took on when I married my husband. I really dislike being called Mrs. ____ because I feel like I’ve completely lost the name that was mine for my whole life, and am only designated by who my husband is.

    but your argument about the presidential candidates? very well put.

  12. I had this discussion with… PunditMom no wait Magpie, no wait, UGH who was it… the other day and while I understand her desire to distinguish herself from her husband, who already assumed the moniker Clinton solely for his very public self, I though that explanation just made it worse for me.

    I am pesky and believe strongly that we either use all first names, all formal names and titles, or all last names.

    I prefer formal address, as is proper.

    They aren’t our buddies.

    Senator Obama and Senator Clinton are quite clear as names.

    The news media maddens me. It’s not all cas baby.

  13. I completely hadn’t noticed this but you’re right, it’s happening.

  14. I think the use of names will always be used in power plays. I can distinctly remember the times I would be offhandedly referred to as “Chani” or the more formal “Mrs. Scheuer”. When someone called me the latter, I always assumed it wasn’t to say “I love you”. 🙂

    Still cultural norms are cultural norms and on that basis, I’ll agree.

    In Thailand, everyone is referred to by a nickname or their first name. They use titles before the name such as “Khun Chani” or a family might use “Nong Chani”.

    In US culture though, I think it’s all about power play.. such as the time I went to a doctor. He immediately addressed me as “Chani” and referred to himself as “Dr. W.” I immediately retorted “I prefer Ms. Scheuer. Thank you.”

    You should have seen the look on his face. LOL

  15. Very interesting post.

  16. Sorry– had to add another thing since you really got me thinking about this all.

    I am also curious about Clinton’s use/non-use of ‘Rodham’ in her campaigning. Rodham seems totally dropped from the picture. I well remember the flap about her using her maiden name when B. Clinton was running for president & what a big deal folks made about that. Why can’t she be Hillary Rodham Clinton for president?

    Do folks think that she’s been forced to go with the traditional take-your-husband’s-name stance b/c people in the States don’t like/trust women who do not take their husband’s names or at least, include their maiden names as well? Does this suggest too much independence? What?

    This coming from a woman who has a different last name than her husband…

  17. Just an FYI. I got an email from Chris. He was thinking of a different Mr. K (sophomore year English). Junior year Mr. K had no wife because, as I mentioned, he was gay.

  18. fantastic story, and amen on the political astutedness. it’s going a bit too far.

  19. This is a really thought provoking – I hadn’t really thought about it that way but you are absolutely right.

  20. I couldn’t agree more.

    In my dentist’s office the other day I saw an Us magazine (or some such thing) with a teaser: “Hillary tells us about her worst outfits”.


  21. This bugs me, too. It should be last names, but preferably Senator Clinton. I love how you worked up to this. And I love your rebel spirit, using Prynne in your paper.

  22. Interesting. You cracked me up, writing about your (brilliant) paper.

    I can think of nothing other than that I am the only parent who prefers to be called “Mrs. A___” rather than “Miss De,” but I’m also the only parent who gets consigned to “Fiona’s Mom.”

  23. Ahhh, the ‘Hillary’ conundrum… wants to distinguish herself from her husband, the ‘other clinton’, but it does seem rather patronizing to be calling a presidential hopeful by her first name, unlike the other presidential hopefuls.

    I, otoh, prefer to be called by my first name, even though I kept my name. Friendlier, and all that, although I’ll answer to anything. 😉

  24. *applauds*

    And if people are going to be on a first name basis with the Senator, shouldn’t they at least know where she stands on the issues they find important?

  25. I am on board with this, Emily

  26. and what do you think of *the golden bowl*? i loved that book.

    so…i agree completely as far as Senator Clinton is concerned. however, i am incredibly angry at her staff tonight (and her, too, i guess, because the two do go hand in hand) for suggesting that obama has been plagiarizing his speeches.

    what idiocy. what meanspiritedness.

  27. Wow . . .I always love the connections you make!

    Again, its that whole sort of journey that you take the reader on . . .

    I so enjoy the ride!

    Great post!

  28. Sometimes, it all comes down to marketing and image presentation. If her PR and image consultants think Hillary suits her, then Hillary it will be. And if they think that is not presidential or will be detrimental to her image, I’m sure her consultants will do something to change that and have everyone refer to her as Senator Clinton instead. So, you’re right. It’s a brand thing and selling yourself to the public also requires branding.

  29. Well said. Equal respect and courtesy is not too much to ask.

  30. Funny you mention that! I try to be careful about that. If I refer to them both in a line, if I use a first name for one, I use it for the other. Same with last names or with Senator ____. Gotta keep ’em equal.

  31. What an interesting post…thanks for sharing.

  32. Thank you so much for this post. It drives me absolutely bananas that everyone calls Senator Clinton “Hillary” but I was starting to despair of anyone else ever noticing or caring. I’m also immensely impressed that you caught onto something so sublte in high school. It took me years to notice that we were never required to read a single book written by a women all through high school. (We were given the option the summer before Senior year AP English of reading either The Fountainhead or something by Chaim Potok…only two of us chose The Fountainhea…perhaps because it was twice as long as the other…) I also had a total nut-job for an 11th grade english teacher. He used to trow books and clipboards at students and had a way over-inflated view of his own dramatic skills.

  33. Excellent contribution to the discussion. Maybe you can take Maureen Dowd’s slot at the Times…please!

  34. That whole “Hillary” thing had been bugging me, too. But I think her campaign managers realize that “Clinton” is still too divisive a name in our country and won’t help her to sway undecided voters. Thanks for noting that we need to call the president, President Bush, no matter how we feel about him. It’s so important to respect someone’s office or degree, unless they ask you to call them by their first name. Even then, it bothers me. My son’s doctors want me to call them by their first names, and I just can’t do it. I am too Southern and slow to enter this world of informality.

    As for the women being called by their first names thing, I think it may just be part of the larger trend of informality. Didn’t women used to be called “Miss (last name)” or “Mrs. (last name)” pretty consistently? There are vestiges of that in Southern and African American culture. I know my father-in-law almost always calls other businessmen, even ones he is meeting for the first time, by their first names. Anything else would be considered to stiff and formal for the business world.

  35. I SO agree with you. for a long time I called her Senator Clinton, even though I knew she calls herself Hillary, because I couldn’t stand the implications.

    Also…what IS it about the best English teachers being insane??? Mine pulled me up to the front of the class and barked at me that he’d fail me unless I conceded that I agree with him that God didn’t exist. Then made the boys do push ups until I conceded. What in the world? But…a great teacher.

  36. I never considered the historical significance or the feminist aspect of titles and naming. But I have noticed it with friends and acquaintances about first or last name usage. It wasn’t uncommon for a male friend to be referred to by has his last name (no title of Mr in this instance), but I never heard a female referred to by her last name.

    I never regarded the Hilary/Obama/McCain name game as anything more than good marketing strategy. The public at large in my community referred to her more frequently as “Hillary” than “Senator Clinton”. If that were the case nationwide, it would make sense to capitalize on “brand recognition”.

    Your point is duly taken. For the sake of prudence, it is better to refer to the candidates equally, whether it be equally informal, or equally formal.

  37. Excellent point – but what I find more disturbing than the use of “Hillary” is the fact that she was forced to give up completely “Rodham”.

    The first may be infantilizing and demeaning, but the second is much more sinister – the complete erasure of identity. Now that is truly sexist and misogynistic.