Melina Mara—The Washington Post/Getty Images

How We Talk About Hillary Clinton Matters to Everyone

Aug. 23, 2016

She won't be the first 'lady' President

During this election, pundits have often tangled over just how much attention should be paid to Hillary Clinton’s gender, as she forges on in her pursuit of the Oval Office. We don’t, after all, go around referring to George Washington as the first man president or wondering how Obama’s maleness might play into china-pattern selections at the White House. But this is a first. There are moments that call for acknowledging the fact that she is a she, as no presidential nominee for a major party has been before. And just as interesting is the question of what words to use when those moments do arise.

At the Democratic Convention in July, Clinton was alternately referred to as a lady, a woman and a girl, all of which come with their own baggage and verve. As Robin Lakoff, a Berkeley linguistics professor who has been studying these terms for 40 years, says, “There really is no neutral term for a woman.” And the point of fascination is that the connotations of those terms are always changing.

Take woman: A hundred years ago, calling someone a woman “was seen as not polite, if not downright derogatory,” says Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan. Being a “woman” had the connotations of being a base, lower-class sexual object, compared to the genteel, respectable refinement of a “lady.” To be a lady was on some level to be a woman, even if it didn’t bear discussing, but the reverse was not necessarily true. And some of those overtones remain. When Curzan and her students are discussing that blurry division between girl and woman, Curzan says, it is common for early 20-somethings to insist they are girls, thinking the alternative sounds too old, too feminist, too sexually experienced.

There is roughly zero controversy about referring to Hillary Clinton as a former First Lady, not only because that is the title of the post she held but because in that context we’re absorbing those nice whispers of the word—the sense of propriety and social status. It seems fit for describing one who helps head the country as the very first ladies headed households. (The word lady, like its courtly counterpart lord, comes from the word loaf, because centuries ago those people were responsible for feeding the many toiling away underneath them.) “It starts with this idea of high rank,” says Katherine Martin, head U.S. editor for Oxford English Dictionaries. “Even after those class positions have become less common, it has this idea of exaltedness in it.”

And yet there are good reasons you’re not hearing people describe Clinton as the person who will potentially become America’s “first lady president.” Each month, the OED scrapes tens of millions of words from new articles and blogs and elsewhere around the web to see what language people are using and how. Analyzing that corpus for July, the month of the convention, Martin found this was the breakdown of three phrases that could be used to describe Clinton’s potential first:

female president
woman president
lady president

After World War II in America, there was an emphasis on reestablishing gender roles—on reverting the tough Rosies who had gone to work in factories, wearing the literal and figurative pants, back into perky little “ladies”—and even “girls,” says Stephanie Coontz, a history professor at The Evergreen State College. “‘Act like a lady’ was a tremendous refrain,” she says. “But they both worked down to the same thing: not taking on jobs or activities or aspirations that would be male.” And so it became very important for many women to be called women. “Referring to someone as a girl implies they are not full adults, and that has been the history of how women have been treated in the workforce,” Coontz says.

Second-wave feminists worked to reclaim woman, a word that was created by combining wife and man a thousand years ago. Coontz says the effort so permeated the movement in the ’60s that some women insisted on referring to all females—even ten-year-old girls—as women. “Women had been called gal, chick or girlie—or ‘not lady-like’—for so long,” she says. Berkeley’s Lakoff did seminal work on “woman’s language” in the 1970s, explaining that what might seem like trivial word choices express serious attitudes about those who feel trivialized. “Lady functioned as a euphemism for woman, it desexualized it. But at the time it had the effect of making whatever you were talking about frivolous, or at least not serious,” she says. In the OED corpus, Martin can also search for the strongest associations between subjects and verbs. Today, while women experience and tend and wear, ladies are much more likely to swoon and faint and promenade.

Yet, says Lakoff, words follow the culture and much has changed. While “lady president” still rings with the kind of sexist undertones of “lady doctor,” it has lost much of the sting it had 50 years ago, as women have taken more equal places in the home and workplace. Women have done active reclaiming of that word too, as they have with girl, which is hotter than it’s been in decades.

There is Lena Dunham’s show Girls, countless regular girls who have “girls’ nights out” with their girlfriends, maybe even discussing one of the hot “girl” novels written by women. The author of one of those, Girls on Fire, argues that the trend of applying this word to full-grown females is a way to recapture the sense of possibility and self-determination of an independent girlhood, feelings that might seem lost as one is refocused into family portraits as a wife and mother. “The word has become a weapon with which to fight back,” Robin Wasserman wrote in a recent essay. “To be called ‘just a girl’ may be diminishment, but to call yourself ‘still a girl,’ can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth.” In the OED corpus, when girl is the subject, the most closely associated verbs are dance and dream and scream.

The word girl originally referred to a child of either sex (back then, a female child might have been called a maiden-child or lass), and it has come to be so closely associated with youth that the reclamation does not extend to the likes of Hillary Clinton’s presidency. The only person to call her a girl during the convention was her husband Bill Clinton, who repeatedly used that descriptor in recounting their young lives together, how he fell in love with her, how impressed and enamored he was with 20-something Hillary Rodham. While many pundits said the language choice was smart—that it made her seem desired, relatable, vulnerable—it was still too much for others. MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow called it un-feminist, saying that “I think the beginning of the speech was a controversial way to start. Honestly, talking about the girl, a girl, leading with this long story about him being attracted to an unnamed girl.”

Words will always take their meaning from context—who is saying them to whom and why—and someone will likely be offended or pleased no matter the diction. While “female president” is more common, some women see female as a descriptor more fit for animals than human ladies; “woman president” is more balanced, they argue, with nouns being put together with equal weight. Other ladies object to using the word woman in “woman president” on the (dubious) grammatical grounds because it is a noun, and so prefer the adjective female. It can seem like an overwhelming, no-win, PC-run-amok, why-is-everything-so-sensitive situation.

“And there’s some truth to that,” says Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguistics professor and author of books like You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. “We don’t want to get too carried away. There’s an awful lot of things to worry about other than language. But we also don’t want to dismiss it. Because language counts. It matters. It makes a difference. Even if it’s hard to find the right balance, it’s worth trying.”