What's in a Name, Woman?!

2nd June 2021

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On 4 May 2021, The Canberra Times ran an article What’s in a name? The glaring double standard in politics. It dwelled upon how the use of personal names for women—as opposed to formally referring to men by their full or family name—was delegitimising women and further entrenching gendered power imbalances. The author, Dr. Blair Williams, Research Fellow, ANU, noted that in her investigation of the subject, she “consistently found that the mainstream press makes a habit of referring to prominent women by their first name, while their male counterparts are referred to more formally by their last names.”

Most recently, the Prime Minister of Australia referred to former political staffer Brittany Higgins as “Brittany” as if he were personally familiar with her, while Australia Post COE Christine Holgate became “Christine” in the dressing down of her he delivered in Parliament. The media echoed the PM by producing the headline “Cartier Christine goes postal: …” No doubt the journalist considered the line catchy and the use of her first name in tune with public sentiment…

Just two days after The Canberra Times feature was published, a local Canberra newspaper published an article on toxic smoke citing two ANU academics, one male, one female. The male’s words were proceeded by “the professor says”. Those of the woman were cited by using her first name, with no mention that she also held the title of professor. Few readers would have noticed the sexist undertones of the article. The piece would have simply confirmed to them that men are professors, and women just simple folk where the first name is appropriate.

I happened to notice the discrimination because I am the woman whose words were cited in the article.

Toxically Subconscious

Last year, I had congratulated a young journalist on her article on Canberra’s medical facilities being insufficient to cope with illness caused by smoke like we experienced in January 2020. I suggested that measures to prevent toxic smoke that causes ill health in the first place, also required discussion. The journalist was interested in this idea, and with the help of two friends, we briefed her on the subject. The stumbling block to publication, however, was that she felt the need to include a photo and name of one of us to personalise the article. None of us wanted the publicity, and we refused.

But eventually, I was convinced that drawing attention to the subject of toxic smoke was more important than my personal concerns and agreed to be featured in the article. And on accepting an appointment as ANU honorary professor, I had committed myself to mentioning my ANU affiliation on making public statements, so I made this a condition for the article. When the piece appeared some weeks later, my affiliation with ANU found no mention. The male scholar was given his correct title, but I was referred to as “concerned local” or “Beatrice, an inner-south resident”, though to be fair, the caption under the photo described me as “historian.”

In a note to the journalist with a copy to her editor, I asked that the omission of my affiliation be briefly mentioned in the next issue, as is the general practice when omissions or incorrect statements appear in a newspaper. I also suggested to the editor that he remind his journalists that such sexist undertones were no longer acceptable, but there was no response or correction in the next issue.

Since the message of the article, namely that the prevention of toxic fires and smoke is important, was presented in clear terms, does it matter that I was not referred to by my correct title? Is it appropriate to make an issue of it? The author had apologised saying she “forgot”, something that could easily happen in the life of a busy journalist. Should that not be the end of the story? After all, what’s in a name, woman?

It does matter. Our minds forget what is not considered important: here, the designation of a woman. Together with the “forgetting” of the woman’s title, the difference in the way the words of the male and that of the female academic are cited in the article shows how deeply ingrained gender bias is in our society. So deeply that even a young female journalist does not notice when her writing reflects this sexist attitude.

Can one compare the two incidents? The Canberra Times article called out the Prime Minister for using the first name of a woman on criticizing her actions in the public forum of Parliament, where men are generally referred to by their full or last name. A Prime Minister’s words, broadcast repeatedly by the media, set the tone for the whole nation. Especially with “respect” being the slogan in a new government advertising campaign to counter domestic violence, the Prime Minister’s demonstration of lack of respect for a woman by using her first name in public stood out as a glaring example of how little the leader of our nation understands the term “respect.” Compared to this incident, one woman referring to another woman by her first name--something totally acceptable in conversation--in an article of a local publication is surely not of great significance.

History, Culture and Change

The significance lies in the way culture shapes our thinking without being aware of the process. Culture is the mode of operation that groups of people have adopted to survive in their environment from the beginning of humanity. Men, as generally the physically stronger, were best suited to hunt wild animals to provide the necessary protein for the group and defend it against enemies, while women, often spending their whole short span of adulthood being pregnant and nurturing the newborn, were given the task of caring at home for the well being of all.

For thousands of years, labour that required the strength of men shaped the advancement of society, be it the building of the pyramids, fortifications, cathedrals, roads, canals and aqueducts or clearing the land of forests on the introduction of agriculture. The pattern became so enshrined in the depth of the human conscience that women attempting to show that there were areas that required not physical strength but mental ingenuity—such as science, medicine, music, painting and writing or even the tactics of warfare—often found it necessary to adopt a male name and persona to succeed.

But then, in the second half of the 18th century began the Industrial Revolution, and machinery came to do the heavy lifting formerly performed by men. The process of machines replacing physical human strength is continuing with rapid pace even as I write this today and, as a result, women are no longer “the weaker sex” subordinate to men. But the fact that they are equal in all tasks has still not been understood by all nor totally permeated our culture.

Only when individuals stand up to protest can we hope to change or at least improve the now in-appropriate culture of gender discrimination. Protest is rarely appreciated, and when it comes from a woman, it’s often termed futile or interpreted as arrogant and self-serving. Protest is also time-consuming. But it is necessary, especially when gender bias is propagated by the media, which technical innovation has furnished with enormous powers to shape our culture.

For this reason, I wrote to the journalist and her editor, hoping it will have an impact on her future output. In addition, I agreed to write this article for CHL to encourage women to stand up against discrimination which—as matters stand now—many are likely to experience at some time.

B.M. Bodart-Bailey, Honorary Professor, CHL, ANU CAP Professor emerita, Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster