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What if ‘Hillary Rodham’ had been on the ballot? (And what’s become of the keep-your-own-name trend?)

Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at a primary night rally in Charleston, W.Va.
REUTERS/Jason Reed
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a primary night rally in Charleston, W.Va.

Perhaps if voters in Arkansas had been more tolerant of feminist practices in the 1970s, Hillary Rodham would be making a historic run for president.

Instead, the first woman to win a U.S. presidential primary, or to raise $74 million for a campaign, is variously referred to as Hillary Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mrs. Clinton – or just Hillary.

As pundits predict her historic campaign will end soon after the delegate milestone is reached, it might be interesting to see if anyone dissects whether her various names helped or hurt her.

First, a little herstory.

On her wedding day in 1975 to Bill Clinton, the Yale-trained lawyer was clear about her preference: She would keep her birth name. And so she did.

As feminism gained a foothold in the 1970s and 1980s, more women – particularly college-educated women who married men in the same profession – were keeping their birth names to build careers independent of their husbands’, says University of Minnesota Regents Professor Sara M. Evans, author of “Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America” (Free Press, 1989). In this case, Hillary and Bill were Yale Law grads pursuing careers – she in private practice, he in politics. 

But after Bill lost a 1980 re-election bid for governor of Arkansas, she became Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to “Living History,” the candidate’s memoir published in 2003 under Hillary Rodham Clinton. Polls indicated that some voters thought she was being a bit too uppity by not going by Hillary Clinton or Mrs. Bill Clinton. She explains in her autobiography that she had been trying to establish a private law career apart from her husband’s roles as Arkansas attorney general and governor. She also wanted to avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest, and she didn’t want any anti-Clinton antagonism getting in the way of fairly serving the law.

She carried HRC into the White House as first lady and into the U.S. Senate, where her office’s website still refers to her as U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But somewhere along the presidential campaign trail, she became Hillary Clinton, and often just Hillary. A recent Google search for Hillary Clinton turned up 36.6 million hits; Hillary Rodham Clinton, 6.66 million hits.

<strong>Historian Sara M. Evans</strong>
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
Historian Sara M. Evans

A dose of political reality
“I think she had to cave in to political reality then (in Arkansas) for his sake,” says Evans, who has used her birth name through two marriages (one to another writer). “I don’t think she has to now, but she has chosen not to revisit that decision. It’s a question of whether there’s a deliberate campaign strategy to not stir the waters and create another issue.”

(Full disclosure: I used to live next door to Evans, a very handy historian to have on speed-dial and to count as a friend. She’s just the expert to answer my questions: Her “Born for Liberty,” one of five books she has written, is a leading textbook in women’s studies programs across the nation.)

Media attempts to question Hillary’s handlers about dropping Rodham have been met with the suggestion that “asking about it was a waste of time,” wrote Joseph Williams of the Boston Globe in a 2007 article titled “Name changes define Clinton’s various career strategies.”

So, I asked Evans, what gives? Here it is the 21st century, and a ground-breaking feminist can’t run for president even under the compromise name of Hillary Rodham Clinton? What’s the payoff politically and personally? Is it possible women haven’t come such a long way, as the Virginia Slims ads used to brag? And how useful is it for her to be a Clinton?

Clinton brand helps and harms

“Clearly, her campaign has greatly benefited from the Clinton brand,” says Evans. “A lot of people say they want to vote for her because they like Bill Clinton. People remember those years as good times. … But at the same time it harms her because a different group of people say they don’t want dynasties in the presidency such as Bush I and Bush II or Clinton I and Clinton II.”

If Hillary Rodham had dug in her heels and kept her name through the decades, Evans says, “it might have made it easier for her to establish a very separate political identity to start with and to not be seen in the pattern of women who break through barriers very often as ‘wives-of.’ ”

Consider that some of the first women in Congress and the first female governors were widows of officeholders, she explains.

Now, Evans says of her campaign’s choice to use Hillary Clinton, “it’s harder to see her as functioning as a separate person, partly because of the large size of the Bill Clinton reputation. It reminds me of what I was afraid of – that there have been a lot of famous couples in which the woman is seen as the offshoot of the man and not in her own right.”

Thus, she says, we see a lot of references to just Hillary, an attempt to build a distinctive identity for her – “to keep her front and center” – and to appease feminists and traditionalists alike. Besides, it’s clearly easier to fit just Hillary, Obama or McCain on a campaign sign.
Where did Rodham go?
My interest in the candidate’s missing name started about a year ago while I was a contract copy editor for a couple of citizen journalism websites. I kept changing Hillary Clinton to Hillary Rodham Clinton in their blogs, which is the practice of the Associated Press (the style guru for mainstream media).

One day another copy editor and I were told via email that there was a backlash among the writers brewing over changing HC to HRC and that we must refer to her from here-on-out as Hillary Clinton. “Why?” I sputtered, recalling how long it took for the media to quit referring to women as Mrs. Bill Clinton, for example, or to honor their name preferences (Hillary Rodham Clinton).

Try wrapping your brain around this reason: The writers reportedly were being told by Democrats (long the party of feminists) that the use of HRC was a Republican conspiracy to paint Hillary as still uppity. Some of the writers had tried, unsuccessfully, to direct questions to the candidate herself: What name did she want to use?

“It appears somebody in her campaign has decided not to make her seem different, or they’re trying to avoid the ‘f-word,’ ” says Evans of the switch to Hillary Clinton.

F as in … feminist? “Yeah,” my chagrined friend concedes. “It’s a lose-lose proposition if we get into a debate about that — for the same reason some feel it’s like going after (Democratic frontrunner Barack) Obama’s middle name of Hussein.”
What happened to the trend?
Which brings me to something else I’ve been pondering. Whatever happened to the trend of women keeping their birth names after marrying?

I tried to keep my birth name at the altar, but ended up with a hyphenated abomination to appease our traditional parents, who did not subscribe to Ms. Magazine and who had not heard of the Lucy Stone League. Like Evans and others, I wanted to maintain my identity as a writer. When the marriage ended, I was only too happy to drop the hyphen-hisname off my paychecks and other paperwork.

While researching this story, I came across a 2004 study by Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin, who found that fewer married women were keeping their birth names in 2000, after a rise in the ’70s and ’80s was followed by a decline in the 1990s. From an analysis of Massachusetts birth records she estimates that in 1975, when Hillary Rodham married, between 2 and 4 percent of college-educated women kept their birth names. In 1990, 23 percent of them did. By 2000, just under 20 percent of college-educated women were keeping their names, according to Goldin’s analysis. (Goldin found that women who did not graduate from college have been far less likely than graduates to retain their birth names.) Among Harvard alumnae, whom she also studied, 44 percent of women in the class of 1980 kept their names after marriage; by 1990, though, the figure was down to 32 percent.

Twenty and 30 years ago, women who kept their names often did so to make a statement about their independence. By the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, younger women who benefited from the fruits of feminism aren’t feeling the same need. Instead, they appear to be looking for ways to bind their families. 

“There’s an inner urge to bond – and [there are] crazy glues that bond people together. Sharing a name is one of them,” Goldin told the Harvard Gazette.

So, what if, by chance, Hillary had wanted to run under Hillary Rodham for president? “Any time a woman makes a decision to change back to her birth name, it’s a big deal and clearly her campaign calculated it was too big a deal to do that,” says Evans, who recalls the fallout in the 1970s when she changed her surname back to Evans while still married. “It would have been seen as disloyal to Bill.”

Evans is looking forward to learning more in the years to come about Hillary’s precedent-setting campaign. “I’d be interested to know whether there was any conscious decision to suppress the Rodham part of her name to make her seem like a regular person,” she said.

For now, there’s one more angle she wants me to pursue. “I would urge you to speculate how different would it be if ‘Hillary Rodham’ were running for president. Just speculate, and ask a few people.”

So, readers, please speculate.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Nina Petersen-Perlman on 05/21/2008 - 11:49 am.

    I’m the feminist daughter of a feminist who made the decision to hyphenate when she married my father. He remains Jim Perlman, but my mother, my three siblings and I all have the last name Petersen-Perlman. My 16-character last name has posed all sorts of problems in my life– I often have to drop the Petersen to make my work email address spell-able over the phone– but it’s also part of my identity. The question is: what are my siblings and I supposed to do when we get married? We can’t very well compromise as my mother did and add a third name to the mix. And I don’t want to curse my children with a hyphenated name, so I won’t be able to share my name with my progeny. I’m pretty much stuck with either taking the mister’s name or being the lone PP of my clan. Le sigh.

  2. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 05/21/2008 - 12:23 pm.

    I am not using names to protect the guilty, but – I have 5 sisters, all of whom married and changed their names to their husband’s name. I did too, with my first husband. After the divorce I decided to pick a new name, rather than retain my ex’s name. I picked my mother’s maiden name, because I liked the sound of it with my first name. My maiden name, which I had not had for almost 29 years, was almost like a new name in my brain, and was also difficult for people to pronounce. It was not rejection in my mind, but embracing a different family name – matriarchally.

    My brother found a case of antique jars that had my maiden name on it. He gave each one of my married sisters one jar, and told each of them he was not giving me one, because I must not like my maiden name.

    What did I do? Went to antique shop and bought my own!!!!

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 05/21/2008 - 06:32 pm.

    Personally, I do not think it a big deal with respect to Sen. Clinton. Given that she is married to a former President, if she chose to change back to “Rodham,” it would make them no different than any of a gazillion Hollywood couples.

    Back in the 80’s we also had the episode of then-Governor Perpich insisting that he be referred to as “Rudolph” instead of “Rudy.” At the end of it all, he was still the same person and his opponents still referred to him as “Governor Goofy.”

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