It’s time to stop ridiculous sexist practices in writing. · 3 min read
You’ll never get an argument from any writing authority that ‘President of the United States’ — whether attached to a person’s name or not — should be capitalized. Just like Prime Minister, Senator, or any other title denoting leadership, the title is capitalized when referring to a specific person, even if their name isn’t used (e.g. “Hello, Mr. President.”)
If the title is used in a general fashion without a specific person’s name stated or implied (for example the school principal, the bank president, the chairwoman), then the title doesn’t have to be capitalized. Unless you’re talking about the POTUS (see, even the acronym is cap’d).
Then, there’s the sad case of the First Lady. The White House Museum (which has been granted its authority by tradition) states that it is “acceptable” to capitalize First Lady — which it describes as an honorific — when the title is attached to the name of a specific presidential wife; for example, First Lady Michelle Obama. Without such specificity, the WHM says ‘first lady’ should be lowercase, i.e. the President and first lady.
Likewise, the AP (Associated Press) Style Guide says to capitalize formal titles when they immediately precede an individual’s name. Unfortunately, the AP guide has a lot of additional, rather arcane, rules that modify that mandate:
*When a title stands alone or is offset from a name by commas, it should be lowercase.
The president was playing golf.
The vice president, Peter Pan, stepped in while the president was playing golf.
*If an individual does not presently or permanently hold a title, still capitalize it when including it before the person’s name. However, do not capitalize adjectives describing the status of the title.
former President Jimmy Carter
interim Speaker Newt Gingrich
*If a title is unique to one person within an organization, use a comma construction along with the word the before the title.
Pepper Potts, chief executive officer of Stark Industries, is Tony Stark’s second-in-command.
*Titles of nobility sometimes serve as alternate names for individuals. In such cases, capitalize the full title.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales
The upshot of all of this is that ‘first lady’ is considered an honorific by some prominent writing style sources. An honorific is a title that is granted as a courtesy, not one that has been elected, appointed, or otherwise earned.
And there’s the rub. To say that a woman hasn’t earned her due respect at her husband’s side is disingenuous at best, blatantly sexist at worst. Continuing to support this kind of misogynist slight not only keeps women a “step down”, but also sends a clear message that a woman’s work is worth less than a man’s. That her social standing and the level of regard she holds with the public should never be as high as the man she’s attached to.
It’s past time to stop this nonsense. The First Lady deserves her due.