[Enter Default] President

The New York Times’ newest public editor explains the anomaly:

They don’t come in swarms but they land at a steady clip, these reader letters probing why The Times refers to some women as “Ms.” and others as “Mrs.” This week, readers were circling the convention coverage, suspicious as to why Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, was labeled “Ms.” Trump while the president’s wife, Michelle Obama, was deemed a “Mrs.” One person writing in suggested that whoever made this decision must have intended to disparage the Trump marriage.

The Times disparage Trump? Pshaw.  But with Hillary Clinton a mere heartbeat away from the presidency, a position that has been subject to the title “Mr. President” ever since George Washington decided “your awesomeness” wasn’t appropriate, what to do?

It’s the women who get to choose their courtesy titles at this modern institution. According to The Times’s internal rules, women will be referred to as “Ms.” unless they’ve elected to be a “Mrs.” Michelle Obama chose Mrs. back when her husband was seeking the White House. As for Melania Trump, she has yet to express a preference (thus the default “Ms.,” although reporters have been asked to determine her preference).

There was once a time when the “courtesy titles” weren’t entirely courtesy, but informative.  A woman who used “Mrs.” was married, while a woman who used “Miss” was single. Of course, all men were given “Mr.” regardless of their marital status, because patriarchy (and this time, it’s true).

But what does the choice of courtesy title imply? What message does it send? What message is it supposed to send?

Such decisions don’t always hold to stereotype. Hillary Clinton, one might think, would chose the more progressive title “Ms.” But she prefers “Mrs.” Sarah Palin, on the other hand, surprised Times editors when she chose to be a “Ms.” during her vice-presidential campaign days rather than the more traditional “Mrs.”

And yet, it’s one thing to pick a courtesy title for yourself as an individual. But should Hillary be elected president, will her title be merely a personal preference, or will it constitute a precedent for all women elected president in the future?

The tradition for cabinet secretaries (a curious word that has yet to be given the scrutiny it deserves) is to address a woman as “Madam Secretary.”  Of course, the male flavor is still “Mr.,” rather than Sir, which it should be, ceteris paribus.  Whether this reflects a traditionalist bent on the part of women in the president’s cabinet or something else is hard to say. Maybe it was just Frances Perkins’ call, and she really didn’t give a damn what anyone called her.

Should Hillary Clinton be elected President of the United States, will she be “Madam President,” “Mrs. President” or “Ms. President”? Does it matter? But you know this will eventually dawn on the media and there will be a flurry of discussion, alongside her hair styles and hem lengths.

15 thoughts on “[Enter Default] President

  1. Lurker

    How about: “Her excellency, Lady President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties”? 🙂

  2. Richard

    If the person preferred, would they use the traditional “Mistress”? The resulting silliness might be more entertaining than the simple Mrs./Ms. stupidity.

  3. losingtrader

    What about when she’s introduced with her husband at state dinners? Madam President and Mr. President Clinton?
    Mrs President Clinton and Mr President Clinton?

    1. Amy

      Traditional rules of address are that former presidents go back to their old titles. So, Bill Clinton would be Mr. Clinton. Retired military could go back to their military titles if they so choose (see, e.g., Gen. Washington). It’s only in fairly recent years that we’ve kept referring to people as President after they no longer hold the office of the presidency.

  4. B. McLeod

    There is something fundamentally unwise in looking to the media for guidance on how to write and speak. That is how we ended up with the genderfluid pronoun stupidity. When you need help with a language or usage issue, it is best not to go to people who only know about “political correctness.”

  5. Keith

    What do you do professionally? Do you check with individual judges to see what they prefer or go with Honorable Madam… so and so?

    1. SHG Post author

      I address the salutation in letters to Honorable Sir/Madam, as you can never go wrong, but that’s pretty old school.

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