Maybe We Can Relax About Using Women’s First Names (399 words)
“On December 4, the new documentary on Billie Holiday, Billie, came out on VOD and in select theaters. While I look forward to the day when movies and books stop using the first names of women artists as their titles, it looks like this film compiles some really special footage and interviews.” - Hyperallergic, 12/5/2020
Thirty years ago, my freshman English professor at Rice University, Helena Mitchie, was the first person who made me aware of the objection to referring to famous women by their first names. Dr. Mitchie’s example—the classic one—was “Emily” for Emily Dickinson. I was surprised to have the obvious pointed out to me: you would never talk about “Nathaniel” or “Edgar” or “Ralph,” but you would refer to “Jane” or “Emily” —or “Louisa,” as Greta Gerwig, the director of Little Women, did last year during the Oscar pre-show.
So: the received wisdom is that it’s disrespectful to refer to accomplished women by their first names. But what if it’s not?
Perhaps we refer to women writers by their first names because we imagine a bond and intimacy with them that we don’t with their male counterparts. Is that necessarily a bad thing? If Gerwig felt a kinship with Alcott that made the author “Louisa” in her mind, that’s fine—so long as we’re prepared to let go of centuries of Western cultural tradition in this matter.
Reams have been written on this subject and studies made about last-name-only being linked to more perceived power and therefore more societal perks, primarily higher pay. The struggle for gender equality is everywhere: politics, medicine, science... Yes, obviously, these are real problems.
But imagine if it were a sign of respect to use someone’s first, more individual and familiar name, rather than the name of the family that traditionally comes through the father’s line. To feel a human connection with a long-dead writer or artist is something special. I think even a tenderfooted cynic like Dorothy Parker would rather her work resonated intimately with people than not.
Perhaps rather than seek to be treated as men have been treated, women should champion the feminine as a more humane way of interacting with the world.
The culture is changing, no doubt about it. What if a more personal and intimate way of dealing with other human beings becomes the norm? Perhaps we shouldn’t notice—or mind—when Dickinson is Emily.