Two weeks ago I was at a bar with a pair of other American graduate students. A fake british pub or something. The kind of parisian establishment that gets away with serving bad food by cloaking it in an “anglo-saxon” theme. The kind of place with cheap low couches and cramped tables and a superficial shine and a tin charm. Periodically a noise rang out as an overworked server let a glass slip and crash behind the bar.
At some point a ways into the conversation, one of my friends wanted to tell us something about gender in academia. It was a mixed gender conversation, I hasten to add: a woman to my left and a man to my right. (I pick these gender category terms out of resignation, feeling that all available lexical options disappoint, wanting to signal social types without endorsing them, not wanting the essentialism of “woman” and “man,” not wanting the diminutives of “boy” and “girl,” not wanting to hint at biology with “female” and “male,” wanting the informality of “guy” and “gal” but “gal” is too contrived.) Anyway, my friend said she’d noticed that, when academics talk about other academics, they are likely to use the first and last name when referring to a woman academic, while men academics often get mentioned by last name only. This to her was entirely part of everyday life, undesirable but obvious.
But I was taken somewhat aback by this claim, and I think the other guy there was too. I realized afterwards, to my shame, that our common reaction was one of doubt. We wanted to think of counterexamples. Exceptions that would disprove the rule. Isn’t Judith Butler pretty reliably called Judith Butler? we were asked. But isn’t Butler a pretty common name? Well, but there aren’t any other famous academics called Butler, now are there? Or take Simone de Beauvoir. Pretty much always Simone de Beauvoir, isn’t she? Well, yes. Who could deny that? While on the other hand Sartre, it came to my mind, is indeed pretty much always just Sartre. Or take Hannah Arendt. Is Hannah Arendt always Hannah Arendt? Well, yes, pretty often, though I think maybe at the philosophy department in Paris-8 she may occasionally become just Arendt. But other mid-century German male philosophers seem to go by their last names far more often. Marcuse is just Marcuse. And “Adorno” also seems to travel pretty well by itself, as a practically self-contained sign of pessimistic dialectical prose convolution. Or take Eve Sedgwick. She’s pretty often called Eve Sedgwick, no? But not really Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that’s a mouthful. We didn’t reach agreement about that.
It came to mind that this sort of disparity in naming is pretty well known in American politics, where last year Hillary was often Hillary but Barack Obama pretty quickly became plain old Obama. But I hadn’t ever thought about it in an academic context. I wanted to know, is this the same in writing? No, said my friend, you hear it more in spoken contexts, while in writing there are slightly more formal protocols about when you mention the first name. What about in personal contexts? Like with first-naming your advisors? Yes, she conceded, things change when it’s someone you know. If you were going to do a research project about this, how would it go? We weren’t sure about that.
It was a conversation that was partly inconclusive, a conversation torn by the din of other conversations elsewhere in the bar, a conversation as full of social and emotional static as of audible interference. But at any rate, our doubt, our skepticism, our resistance to the claim at hand, I mean mine and the other male’s resistance, as I concluded later after we’d all gone home, was not laudable. Our doubt, I felt, was only accidentally about expressing scholarly skepticism about an unfamiliar claim. A lot of our defensive response seemed in hindsight to have been saying tacitly: what, who me? Me, possibly uneven in my treatment of others? Me, uneven according to an unconscious and institutionalized principle according to which academic males would be allowed to claim the privilege of impersonality, according to which men could be coded objective and scholarly by being tacitly depersonalized through the everyday effacement of their first names, while women would remain the marked category, marked as having gender, marked as women, through a logic of association whereby first names would invoke a more personalized relationship to strangers who are thus marked feminine? What, me, maybe casually sexist? Who, me?
Continue reading the gender of the academic name