Hillary, Sarah, And Kay: What's Wrong With Female Politicians' Last Names?

Sara K. Smith of Wonkette asks an interesting question about Kay Bailey Hutchison's new Kay for Governor campaign — how come female politicians so often campaign under their first names?

Smith also references "Hillary Clinton's massive "HILLARY" signs" and "Sarah Palin's SarahPAC," and asks "Are women's last names just too terrifying for Average Voters?" Maybe — at least in "Hillary's" case, using her first name was probably in part an attempt to make someone perceived as strident and cold seem friendly and relatable. Of course, Bill Clinton complicates the issue here — not only might "Clinton" signs have been confusing to some, but the campaign likely wanted to distance itself from associations with Bill's presidency, and from accusations that the Clintons were trying to build a dynasty.

But using first names isn't only a decision female politicians and their campaigns make — it's also one the media makes for them. Again, this makes a certain amount of practical sense in Clinton's case — her husband is still in the news enough that disambiguation is sometimes necessary. Still, Maureen Dowd (admittedly a noted first-name-user who has called President Clinton "Bill" often enough) recently wrote an entire column about "Sarah" and "Hillary" where she didn't use either of their last names once, except when quoting other people. However, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Dick Cheney all got two-name treatment, and John McCain was just "McCain."

Maybe Dowd was just being chatty (she does call Rahm Emanual "Rahmbo" in this Sarah-heavy column), but she's not the only one on the first-name bandwagon — and female candidates aren't the only ones shorn of their surnames. Take a look at this graphic of Page Six's stories for today:

Hillary, Sarah, And Kay: What's Wrong With Female Politicians' Last Names?

Male celebrities, a designer, and a criminal all get last names, but Jenny Sanford is just "Jenny." Again, you could say this is because she's become famous as the wife of a politician who shares her surname — but she's now a public figure in her own right, and the accompanying photo certainly would've made it clear which Sanford Page Six was referring to. For female politicians, marriage itself poses its own set of naming challenges. Josephine Hearn of CBS pointed out a few years ago that women risk losing name recognition if they take their husband's name, or if they revert back to a maiden name after divorce. At the time, Hearn reported that Mary Bono, who started using the name Bono when she began campaigning for her late husband Sonny Bono's congressional seat, would continue to use that surname after her marriage to Congressman Connie Mack IV. However, she now goes by both her married names, and is Mary Bono Mack.

Given all this complexity, perhaps it's no wonder that women and the journalists who cover them sometimes choose to lop off their last names. The rise of Sarah Palin notwithstanding, women are still more likely to be married to famous people than men are, and they are more likely to take their husband's names. But both these things (the latter perhaps to a lesser extent than the former) deserve to change, and one way to bring about this change would be to give female public figures the same respect we give men. Because calling someone by a surname is a mark of respect — a mark that this person is an adult, and that speaker cannot presume familiarity. By embracing their first names, Clinton, Palin, and Hutchison may be sending a message that they are friendly and non-threatening — but if Obama and McCain didn't have to do that, why should they?

In a somewhat depressing twist on all this, Politico's Ben Smith reported in 2007 that the popularity of the name "Hillary" had taken a huge nosedive since 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, bottoming out in 1998 but never regaining its position. "Barack," on the other hand, reportedly enjoyed a boost after the 2008 election. Wonder what will happen with "Sarah."

Kay Bailey Hutchison Officially Intends To Kick Rick Perry's Ass [Wonkette]
Women In Politics Face Decision Over Name [CBS]
Factoid Of The Day: Hillary's Name [Politico]
Sarah Grabs The Grievance Grab Bag From Hillary [NYT]