On March 29, the White House Coronavirus Task Force led a press conference about the state of the disease across the United States. Trump offered Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a chance at the podium. He was followed by coronavirus response coordinator, physician and diplomat, Dr. Deborah Birx.
The surprising difference? Trump referred to Dr. Fauci by his title and last name—and Dr. Birx simply by her first name.
Later, while attending a virtual town hall for Fox News, Trump did it again, saying he “will be guided very much by Dr. Fauci and Deborah.”
Both individuals are world-renowned in their perspective fields and have earned medical degrees. So why does Fauci get the surname and Birx the first name treatment?
In the midst of the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, Trump calling people names is still a reality, but Trump’s trend of calling women by their first name is a small part of a larger national occurrence: Men in positions of power often use language to subordinate women, sometimes unknowingly.
You can see it clearly in the sports world: According to sociologist Michael Messner, women sports players are referred to by their first name more than 53 percent of the time—compared to men who only experience it 8 percent of the time.
And in politics—from Hillary, Kamala and Tulsi to Biden, Sanders and Obama—this trend of the first-name basis is especially common.
In fact, a 2018 study showed that pundits on the radio—from NPR’s Terry Gross to Rush Limbaugh—are also more than twice as likely to refer to well-known men, as opposed to women, by their last names alone.
In response to the argument that the nickname “Hillary” is a practical choice—not a sexist one—Chicago Tribune editor Jane Fritsch argued in 2007:
“The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names ….The argument that we call her Hillary to avoid confusion is a weak one. There are easy alternatives …. Certainly the problem created by the existence of two presidents named George Bush has been a difficult one, but we found ways to solve it without diminishing George W. Bush.”
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart noted that Hillary Clinton herself popularized “Hillary.” But it’s one thing for followers and supporters to call her “Hillary” in an informal setting: There is a difference between informal chat about a candidate and using appropriate titles in professional settings—especially journalism.
At a press conference, presidential debate or in a journalistic piece, the reference to a woman in power’s first name is a stark reminder of her subordinate status.
Women, like Secretary Clinton or Dr. Birx, don’t choose to be called by their first names in professional settings. It happens because of a gender bias problem.
In that same 2018 research study, conducted by Cornell University psychologists, participants revealed they were also more than two times more likely to call men by their last name compared to women.
And the study connected usage of surnames to career advancements and acknowledgement: When men were referred to only by their last name, they were perceived as more important and distinguished than the women. On the other hand, women in domains such as science, literature and politics were more often referred to by their first and last names. Most horrifyingly, study participants rated professionals with just a surname as 14 percent more deserving of a career award.
For Dr. Birx, without the dignity of her title and her last name, she is stripped of the place she deserves in history: Dr. Deborah Birx, the woman who saved lives during multiple national pandemics.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.
During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.
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