Imagine a presidential debate between a Senator Mike Davis and Governor Betty Neilson. Throughout the entire debate, the Neilson refers to the senator as “Senator” or “Senator Davis.” In turn, Davis consistently refers to Neilson as “Betty.”

This would largely be considered a textbook example of sexism. Absent some greater context, I’d probably cringe at it myself. Even if I supported Davis.

I’ve commented before that in Deseret, my wife and other non-LDS female physicians were constantly referred to by their first name while male doctors of any religion (and female LDS ones) got the Doctor honorific. They did this in front of patients, which is a no-no. That LDS women got the “Doctor” treatment suggests it wasn’t entirely a matter of sexism but also of respect. But male gentiles got the respect regardless.

There’s nothing wrong with going by one’s first name, as a physician or anything. Clancy had intended to do so until she kept running into the problem of patients not taking her seriously, or slipping into calling her a nurse. So she goes by Dr Himmelreich largely to avoid that.

I had for the longest time avoided calling Hillary Clinton “Hillary.” This was an inconvenience in many respects because “Clinton” was typically a reference to Bill Clinton. It’s for the same reason that George W Bush was Dubya, W, or sometimes Shrub instead of just “Bush.” And Jeb is Jeb, of course. But even taking these things into account, I was very conscientious about it all. Then Hillary Clinton decided Hillary was okay and I stopped worrying about it. Even despite that, people have “called me out” for using her first name. As she gets closer to becoming president, I do refer to her as Clinton more and more, just as “Bush” gradually came to refer to the younger rather than the older.

To get back to Davis-Neilson, it’s noteworthy that while Hillary Clinton’s supporters are claiming sexism in the moderation of the last debate (because Clinton was interrupted more than once), less attention has been paid to the fact that he called her by her honorific while she referred to him as Donald. Trump really prefers to be called Mr Trump. She didn’t extend him that courtesy and likely declined to do so precisely for that reason. She wanted to get under his skin and make him do something stupid.

Nobody, of course, is going to call this sexism. Nor should they, even though it’s something Trump would have been called out for under different circumstances (that she accepts “Hillary” complicates things).

My point isn’t poor-old-Donald or anti-PC. But rather as an illustration that it’s complicated. Because the sexism being complained about absolutely exists. But it doesn’t exist in every manifestation. It’s not unlike how half of the lines of attacks against Bill Clinton (womanizer! Slick!) and George W Bush (dumb, unsophisticated, lazy) would suddenly take on a huge racial component when lodged against Obama in a very similar manner.

Which leaves the discussion in an awkward place. It’s easier to say “This wouldn’t happen if it was a white male” but that’s rarely accurate. It’s easier to say “This has nothing to do with race or gender” even though that’s probably wrong because race and gender can amplify or color particular arguments. The truth, that maybe this attack would be used anyway against a white guy but more likely under circumstances in which it is warranted and probably to lesser effect, doesn’t fit into a headline.


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About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

12 Responses to Senator Davis vs Betty

  1. Kolohe says:

    I believe Jeb is now Jeb Exclamation Point.

    Srsly tho, I noticed the same thing about half way through, but I wondered if I might have just missed each calling the other by a different name. (In my own professional life, I needed to work on establishing a consistent reference frame for appellations in extended conversation (and/or long meetings) (I’m also terrible with names to begin with.)

  2. fillyjonk says:

    Short answer: people are jerks who seek to strengthen group ties and to subtly exclude those not-of-the-group.

    Yes, sexism exists, but in my experience, the bigger thing is people are just jerks to one another. (I’ve also seen African-Americans referred to on a first name basis where whites got “Mr. Lastname”)

  3. fillyjonk says:

    I also had the experience of being referred to as “MISS Lastname” (even though he KNEW I had a doctorate and was a professor) by a faculty member from another department who did not, himself, have a Ph.D. but who insisted upon being called PROFESSOR Lastname.

    Normally being “MISS Lastname” doesn’t get my hackles up (‘cos who knows, someone might have the perfect single son out there) but in a professional setting where someone else is referring on the full honorific, it kind of does.

    People are jerks. (And that attitude is probably why I’m still MISS)

  4. I’d have to (gulp) rewatch the debate to verify this, but I seem to remember Trump sometimes saying “Hillary” and sometimes saying “Secretary Clinton.” If my memory is right, he switched back and forth. But maybe that’s just my memory.

    None of which obviates your broader point.

    • I’ve just done a control-F search of the transcript and found there were about 53 uses of “Secretary” (presumably “Secretary Clinton”) and only about 13 uses of “Hillary.” But I didn’t count who said which. I’ll assume that “Secretary” was probably uttered by Trump and Holt both, so I’ll divvy that 50/50, so Trump said “Secretary” about 27 times. “Hillary” was uttered pretty much only by Trump, so I’ll give him all 13.

      So….my memory was technically correct, but my brief research suggests that Trump did indeed use “Secretary” quite a lot, probably about 2 times more than he used “Hillary.” So Will’s point is mostly proven.

  5. Michael Drew says:

    Obama called McCain John, and I didn’t get that then, either. It seems like a new thing the Dems are doing, and I think it’s cheap, especially as they seem mostly I show the courtesy of saying titles outside of these debates.

    • One possible explanation in that case (maybe?) is that McCain and Obama were both senators and therefore presumably first-name-basis “colleagues”? (But that only works if McCain called Obama “Barack,” and I don’t recall that he did so, but I could be wrong.)

      • Michael Drew says:

        My feeling was that Obama was taking advantage of that -,the implicit offer to call him Barack – knowing that McCain didn’t have reciprocally warm feelings about him and wouldn’t be inclined to. An even less charitable reading would be that Obama’s people knew that McCain couldn’t call the first African-American nominee of a major party, and a Senstor but also a young man, by only his first name. It’s redolent of calling him a kid. So I think Obama was taking advantage of an asymmetry that was sort of masked by a nominal symmetry (their both being Senators). And I don’t think it was gentlemanly.

        But in his defense, it was subtle, unlike most of what we’re seeing now. It was also the case that the attacks on Obama’s lack of experience, while fair, were absolutely brutal and I thought at the time sometimes over the top, and at that level I don’t really blame them for taking full advantage of this asymmetry. But it doesn’t make it gentlemanly.

        • trumwill says:

          This seems about right. He could get away with it because they were senate colleagues. It also gave an implicit “We’re both senators therefore both qualified” vibe. And in a way that would have been hard for McCain to object to or, as you point out, reciprocate.

          (I did have some not-insignificant concerns about his experience and preparedness. This was an issue for me in 2008, though obviously by 2012 this had proven not to be an issue.)

        • Michael Drew says:

          More than fair for it to have been an issue. But the dismissiveness of him (not by you or simply voters with quiet concerns, but by big-media people eg. comparing his unfavorably to the experience or readiness of Sarah Palin) is kind of making me rethink my negative view of this gambit – I can see the, ‘All right then, you want to play that way’ type of space that mght have put him in. Again, that’s the kind of thing you overcome if you want to be gentlemanly, as this still wasn’t. But I kind of don’t blame him so much on second thought. And the response is sort of on-point: if you’re not going to at least give me (what I see as) my due owing to my office (plus a longer period of time in government), namely questioning my experience but not completely dismissing me as a know-nothing, then we’re just not going to exist in the space where we do that. Oh, and, by the way, I have cover because there’s a Senate custom that says I can call him “My good friend John.” And, oh, he can’t because I’m a young African-American man? Well, who decided to use my youth and inexperience against me in the first place? (Btw, the experience issue, past a certain point of as I say respectful questioning, was seen as deeply coded by Obama’s African-American supporters.) It was a fascinating moment, actually.

          I guess I don’t really blame Hillary that much either, since this is after all Donald Trump, all bets are kind of off, anything goes and she won’t be called on whatever she does to beat him, and he doesn’t really have any honorifics to speak of anyway. But I don’t really like if it’s becoming standard. Or as the kids say this election, “normalized.”

        • Michael Drew says:

          …I’ll also say that it’s possible, though I think unlikely, that Obama was simply using the Senate custom not in any effort to play a power game or a political game. Not likely, but at the time I thought it was a possibility. And in that narrow context, with two Senators where there is that custom, I’m okay with it. My issue is that it seems to be a trend.

          …Also notable (perhaps?): memorably (certainly) and with devastating effect, Obama addressed Romney by his title. Not sure if he was consistent about that through that election, but it does seem like that is something the president should do. Really whenever there is a gap between the prominence of each person’s highest title, it seems to me this formality should be preserved. At least at first.

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