Women of letters

A feminist academic I know is having an argument with the publisher of a book she’s currently editing. The issue is the bibliography: she wants to include authors’ full names, but the publisher wants her to follow the APA style guide, which says that authors must be listed by their last name and initials only.

If you’re not an academic (and maybe even if you are), you’re probably wondering why anyone would bother arguing about something so insignificant. Who cares if the author of Cheesemaking in Early Modern Europe is listed as ‘Joan Smith’ or ‘J. Smith’? The answer is that feminists care: this is a long-running debate, and it continues to divide opinion.

If I publish an academic book, the cover will generally identify me by my full name, ‘Deborah Cameron’. But if I publish an article in an academic journal, the journal’s style rules may dictate that I’m ‘D. Cameron’. References to my work in the text of a book or article will use my last name only (Cameron 2021), and bibliographies most commonly give a last name and then initials (Cameron, D). So, in most academic contexts where my name appears in writing, it appears in a de-gendered form. Which means that unless the reader already knows I’m a woman, they’ll be likely to apply the ‘default male’ principle, assuming people are male unless there’s evidence to the contrary.

I see this tendency in student essays, where it’s not uncommon for female researchers to be referred to as ‘he’. Occasionally what’s behind this is a gender-ambiguous name: the feminist linguist Robin Lakoff, for instance, is very often assumed to be a man because in Britain ‘Robin’ is a man’s name. But most English given-names are not ambiguous: they’re a very reliable guide to someone’s gender. That’s why feminists have argued they should appear in bibliographies, to make women’s contributions visible and stop their work being credited to men.   

Barbara Czerniawska came up against this issue when she was translating an English book into Polish. Polish makes extensive use of grammatical gender-marking, so to translate an English sentence like ‘Smith, a leading expert on this topic, disagrees’, you need to know if the reference is to John Smith or Joan Smith. Czerniawska turned to the bibliography for help, but that only gave her Smith’s initials. She was obliged to look up all the researchers mentioned in the book to find out which of them were men and which were women.

In the process she became aware of another problem. As well as concealing the contribution women have made to the research an author actually mentions, the use of initials may also conceal the author’s failure to reference women’s work. In the book Czerniawska was translating, less than a quarter of the scholars cited were women—which was not, she tells us, a faithful reflection of who was publishing on the subject at the time. We know from many studies that male citation bias is common, but until Czerniawska put names to the initials she couldn’t see it, and she certainly couldn’t measure the extent of it. If it were obvious to anyone who looked at a list of references, would that encourage more active efforts to avoid it?

But not all feminists would be in favour of a shift from initials to full names. The other side of this argument holds that using initials is good for women because it enables them to dodge the effects of sexism. If you want people to approach your work without any preconceptions, you’re better off being ‘D. Cameron’ than ‘Deborah’.  

This argument has gained traction not only in academia, but also among creative writers. A quick trawl through some of the online forums where writers of fiction and poetry exchange tips on getting published revealed that women are often advised to use initials. Some people who recommend this cite commercial considerations: if your name identifies you as a woman, you won’t attract male readers (which is, famously, why the creator of Harry Potter became ‘J.K. Rowling’ rather than ‘Joanne’). Others argue that the use of initials deflects the prejudices that make it harder for women to get their work taken seriously.

These advice-givers may have a point. Long-time readers of this blog might recall an experiment conducted by aspiring novelist Catherine Nichols, who sent the same manuscript out to literary agents under two different names—her own and that of an invented alter-ego called ‘George’. The results were depressing: not only did George’s work attract more interest than Catherine’s (he was, she reported, ‘eight and a half times more successful than me at writing the same book’), the agents’ comments on the manuscript were full of obvious gender stereotypes (like calling George’s prose ‘well-constructed’ while Catherine’s was described as ‘lyrical’).

Nichols didn’t test the effect of using initials. Would literary agents reading the work of ‘C. Nichols’ have defaulted to the male, and responded the way they did to George? Or would the non-committal ‘C’ have done what the people in the writing forums suggested, and taken the writer’s identity out of the equation? I say ‘identity’ because names are not just indicators of a person’s gender: they may also offer clues about their age, class, ethnicity or religion. Replacing them with initials removes that information: you might think it’s the next best thing to anonymity. But in fact it’s a bit more complicated than that, because initials have social meanings of their own.   

I was educated at the tail-end of an era when British academics, the great majority of them male, very often chose to publish under their initials. As a student I read the work of literary critics with names like F.R. Leavis, A.C. Bradley and C.S. Lewis (who didn’t just write books about Narnia)—and of writers like D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Philosophers read A.J. Ayer and J. L. Austin; historians discussed the work of E.P Thompson and A.J.P. Taylor. Clearly these men were not using their initials to conceal their gender: their maleness went without saying. So, what other motivations might they have had?

Their choices reflected both personal and social considerations. C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis, for example, is known to have hated the name ‘Clive’: people who knew him personally called him ‘Jack’. But in his time people didn’t generally use their private nicknames for public purposes, so initials were the obvious alternative. And it’s no surprise that T.S. [Thomas Stearns] Eliot, whose contemporaries frequently remarked on his extraordinarily formal manner and his obsession with what was ‘correct’, preferred initials not only to the name his intimates used, ‘Tom’, but also to the full version, ‘Thomas’. Substituting initials adds an extra layer of formality, impersonality, and seriousness or gravitas.

In England in the 20th century initials also had a class-related meaning: they, and the qualities they signified, were part of the persona of the upper-class ‘gentleman’. The blogger Mark Goggins recalls that as a boy he believed you couldn’t play cricket for England unless you had at least three initials. However, plenty of initial-users, including many of the writers and scholars named above, did not match the upper-class English prototype; rather they exploited the social meaning of initials to construct a ‘gentlemanly’ identity.

For women this was largely irrelevant, since there were few contexts in which it was either necessary or ‘correct’ to use an upper-class lady’s initials. Etiquette dictated that a married woman (if she didn’t have an aristocratic title) was formally referred to using ‘Mrs’ and her husband’s name—including his first name or initials. Nancy Mitford, for instance, who was both titled and married, was ‘The Hon. Mrs Peter Rodd’. But there were certainly women academics who used their initials in their published work, and I don’t think that was always intended to conceal or downplay their sex. It seems unlikely, for example, that the literary scholar Q.D. [Queenie Dorothy] Leavis, wife of the more famous F.R. Leavis, was hoping to keep her identity a secret. More likely her motivations were similar to her husband’s: the association of initials with status, formality and gravitas served a purpose for some women, just as it did for some men.

In the US, a more common practice than using only initials was to insert a middle initial between your first and last names, as in ‘John F. Kennedy’. The meanings this communicated were similar to the ones I’ve already mentioned: it added status, formality, gravitas. But while in principle the middle initial could be used by or in reference to anyone, research investigating its use in the US media found that in practice it was rarely given to women. Feminists analysed this as a subtle form of sexism, a manifestation of the same ‘gender respect gap’ that leads to male academics being ‘Professor A’ and ‘Dr B’ while women are ‘Kate’ or ‘Ms Smith’. I know female academics in the US who make a point of using middle initials for that reason. I was never tempted to join them, but perhaps I was missing a trick: according to a study conducted in 2014, ‘the display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements’.

But today the middle initial is in decline. Bruce Feiler, writing in the New York Times, noted its waning popularity among members of the US Congress: in 1900 84 percent of them used middle initials, and as late as 1970 the figure was still 76 percent; but by 2014 it had dropped to 38 percent. Comparing recent generational cohorts reveals a similar pattern. According to an expert Feiler consulted, boomers use middle initials more than Gen Xers, and millennials use them even less (with many reportedly eschewing them for ideological reasons, because they’re ‘classist’).

This expert also noted, however, that one group is bucking the trend: initials have remained popular among ‘women who aspire to power positions’. He went on to clarify that these women are more likely to use all initials (‘A.B. Roberts’) than first-name-plus-middle-initial (‘Anne B. Roberts’)–a choice he put down, as usual, to women’s desire to conceal their gender. Could the use of initials, once associated mainly with high-status men, become associated instead with high-status women?

Personally I doubt it. Initials are in decline because we no longer live in a culture that values formality and distance. That’s not just about egalitarianism: to my mind it has at least as much to do with the relentless personalisation of the public sphere, and the associated valorisation of qualities like openness, sincerity and ‘authenticity’. As Bruce Feiler put it in his Times piece: ‘These days, fewer people want to be an enigma. Everybody wants to be your friend’.

But it doesn’t surprise me that it’s women, in particular (and especially those who ‘aspire to power positions’), who are swimming against this cultural tide. For women the demand for informality and authenticity can feel like a trap, a double-bind: women have always been told not to give themselves airs, and judged more positively for being ‘approachable’ than for being clever, ambitious or decisive. Maybe those who use initials are not simply trying to conceal their gender; maybe what they’re after, not unlike the 20th century men discussed above, is a more formal, more distant and less approachable public persona.

This may all seem a long way from the question I began with–whether women academics should be referred to in published sources using full names or initials. I don’t have a definitive answer: I suppose I think names are personal, and it should ultimately be a personal choice. I realise that’s not very helpful, though, because it goes against the norm of consistency, one rule for all, that publishers generally insist on. (I have never cared about consistency: if it’s so important, why is there more than one ‘authoritative’ style guide?)

But what I mostly want to say about this long-running debate goes back to one of the perennial themes of this blog: that in language all choices are meaningful, but their meanings may be more complex than we think. The choice between full names and initials, for women, is most often presented as a choice between visibility and concealment. But while it is that, it’s also more than that: names and initials carry other kinds of baggage, and communicate other kinds of meaning.

The illustration shows F.R. and Q.D. Leavis