I've seen a surprising number of opinion pieces and quotes in the past few weeks* that refer to California's new Attorney General, Kamala Harris, as simply “Kamala.”
(*I wrote this entry on December 2, 2010, but for some reason never posted it.)
That would make sense if the writers and speakers in question were personal friends of Ms. Harris's, or if they referred to her opponent as “Steve.”
But most of them don't appear to know her personally, and I haven't seen anyone refer to Cooley by first name.
I read yet another piece just now that refers to “Kamala” and then later calls her “Ms. Harris.” But I thought to myself, okay, I haven't been keeping stats, I know this “women get called by their first name” thing is a pet peeve of mine so I'm more likely to notice it when it happens and ignore when it doesn't happen, and I'm probably overreacting.
And then I moved on to my next open tab, an article from the Los Angeles Wave, which was doing fine in this respect up until this:
Stephen Walker, director of legislative affairs for the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, a body that endorsed Cooley, declared himself a fan.
“I have to tell you that during our political interviews, we were extremely impressed by her and it was a split vote that unfortunately led us to endorse Mr. Cooley,” Walker said.
“But many of our board members were adamant that Kamala was going to win. So, I don’t think it’s a surprise, I think it’s probably indicative of the environment and society in California in the direction it’s headed.”
Don't get me wrong—I'm delighted that he's a fan! But why does her opponent get to be “Mr. Cooley”?
A lot of the references by first name that I've seen have been along these lines: positive, sometimes glowingly so, but oddly over-familiar.
So it's mostly not the dismissiveness or condescension that I associate with using public-figure women's first names; on the contrary, it feels to me more like an attempt at showing support.
But for me, these attempts backfire, because in our society, we traditionally show respect for public figures (in formal and semi-formal written communication) by referring to them by title and last name. So when men get the form of address that we consider formally respectful, and women don't, I think it sends the wrong message, albeit subtly and presumably unintentionally.