Hillary, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mrs. Clinton, Clinton, Secretary Clinton—there are many ways to mention the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee. Upon first glance, it does not seem to matter which of the aforementioned names you may call her; people will usually know to whom you refer. Some may claim that it’s too persnickety to worry about the best name to call her, but they fail to recognize the rhetorical strategies her opponents employ by referring to her in different manners.
Although some may feel Clinton’s name gives her a net advantage because of her husband’s fame, it’s not that simple. When former President Bill Clinton ran for governor of Arkansas in the late seventies, opponents fiercely attacked Hillary for keeping her maiden name, Rodham. They claimed it was evidence of an unstable marriage, which for some reason was very relevant to Bill’s ability to govern. When Arkansas voters rejected President Clinton’s 1980 reelection bid, Hillary felt compelled to change her last name to Clinton.
After Hillary capitulated to demands to change her last name, she was caught in another trap. Opponents subsequently alleged that Hillary changed her last name solely for political gain after her husband’s gubernatorial loss, thus painting her as manipulative or power-hungry. Ironically, the same people likely would have continued their attacks on her maiden name had she not changed it.
Hillary was reportedly hesitant to marry Bill because she feared marriage would erase her individual identity and place her accomplishments in the shadows of her husband’s success. Similarly, she kept her maiden name to maintain their distinct professional lives and, as she told a friend, “[to] show that I was still me,” despite disapproval from both families.
She was right to believe the name “Clinton” would diminish her own personal accomplishments. Even though Hillary has served as both a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, many opponents still call her “Mrs. Clinton,” instead of her individually earned titles, Secretary Clinton or Senator Clinton.
While many people refer to current and former male government officials by last name without their respected titles, such as calling Senator John McCain, “McCain”, or [former] Governor Romney, “Romney”, Hillary’s situation differs in that some of her opponents act as if they are being respectful by using “Mrs.” before her name, even though she has earned other impressive titles more recently in her career. Few people refer to Mitt Romney as “Mr. Romney” to demonstrate respect; if an individual desires to act more respectfully while mentioning him, the person would say “Governor Romney.” Someone who addresses Hillary as Mrs. Clinton may only be feigning respect because people who actually respected her would acknowledge her significant accomplishment of becoming Secretary of State, even if they disagreed with her policies.
I am not claiming that calling her Mrs. Clinton is inherently sexist or that the name itself is degrading. It is not. I’m simply arguing that calling her Mrs. Clinton could be a rhetorical strategy for some to diminish her political experience, as women have not typically been political leaders. While it may not be intentional, referring to Hillary as “Mrs. Clinton” diminishes her accomplishments by specifically attaching her to Bill and subtly diverting attention to her famous husband and his administration. It erases and conceals her individual identity. It makes her appear as if she retired after serving as First Lady and retreated to Arkansas to stereotypically sip sweet tea on her front porch, instead of then becoming a Senator and Secretary of State.
My issue is not that being labeled a wife is insulting because it is not (though I know conservative groups will still claim I do not appreciate wives or I’m somehow destroying family values), but instead that Hillary receives unequal treatment and many fewer acknowledgements of her accomplishments. I do not request that political titles always precede politician’s names, but I do advocate equitable treatment and respect for all, regardless of gender. Some may claim that former government officials should technically be addressed with Mr. or Mrs., but this “rule” is widely ignored. Even if those calling Hillary “Mrs. Clinton” have been doing so to follow this rule, it appears many of them have selectively applied this rule only to her.
Next time you see someone call Hillary “Mrs. Clinton,” note if what the individual says is something positive or negative about her. I think you’ll find that most of the time the individual expresses negative thoughts about her.
Personally I would prefer to call her “Madam President.”