Hillary Clinton Weighs In on the Linguistic Glass Ceiling

Would Bill go by "first gentleman" or "first man"? Hillary has some thoughts on the matter.

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton await the arrival of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain on 23 February, 2000. Taken on the South Portico of the White House.  (National Journal)

One of the cleverer ways of asking Hillary Clinton if she's running for president has been to ask whether she'd go by "Madam President" or "Mrs. President." And would Bill Clinton be "first gentleman"?

Now Hillary's found a way to answer the question without answering what people really want to know. "Speaking hypothetically," Clinton said during a keynote speech in downtown Toronto, the husband of a female president could be called "first man" or even "first mate."

The comments, which came Monday as part of a promotional tour for her new memoir, Hard Choices, may be maddeningly coy. But they're significant in that they mark the beginning of a conversation that for too long has only been the province of women: what title to use.

Female lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long struggled with whether to go with the gender-ambiguous title of "congressman" or use the gender-specific title of "congresswoman." Does choosing a gendered title convey more pride in one's sex or is such specificity merely a distraction? Does the term "chairman" confer more gravitas than "chairwoman," and if so, isn't that problematic? What about just going by "chair"? (National Journal interviewed a dozen or so female lawmakers on the subject earlier this year.)

Like so many questions that should never have been "women's questions" to begin with, this one suits men very nicely. Hillary's suggestion of "first mate" stands in contrast to the more traditional "first gentleman," which is the title Marcus Bachmann, husband of former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, always suggested. It also sounds unbearably corny.

But hey, at least someone is finally asking the question.