Many of my students have trouble referring to women by their last names. When we write English papers (or news articles and other reports), we typically refer to someone at first reference by first and last name, and for every reference thereafter, by last name only. It is efficient and professional to do so. But when it comes to referring to women, there is great resistance to this practice on the parts of both male and female students.
I first noticed this resistance when I began teaching freshman writing almost two decades ago, and nothing has changed, regardless of the class. For instance, when I teach early American literature, students have no problem referring to John Smith as “Smith” or William Bradford as “Bradford.” But for some reason, when we encounter Anne Bradstreet, she is forever “Anne” in the students’ hearts and minds (and papers). Nevermind that her famous poetry collection, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) did not even publish her name on its title page.
I do not believe that students hold onto the first names of women because they are withholding respect from them. They almost universally rate Bradstreet’s poetry and her perspective on the New World as extremely valuable to our understanding of early America. But they assume a level of familiarity with her that they do not deem appropriate for Smith and Bradford. They accept that significant male figures, whether they are civic leaders or writers, are detached beings set apart to do a particular job; hence, a last name reference feels correct and even deferential.
Female leaders or writers, on the other hand, dwell among us, in the minds of my students. They are accessible. Certainly, Bradstreet writes about motherhood, love, household concerns, and sickness—all topics that pertain to the home. But she also writes about God and Queen Elizabeth and the philosophy of art. She was highly educated, albeit informally, and was the first American poet to be published. She was ambitious and savvy about her identity as a poet.
When I teach writing, I am extremely clear about the protocol of using last names when referring to writers and critics. There is something gravely unequal about referring to a major American woman writer as “Anne” while her male counterparts are known by their surnames. Complicating this issue is the fact that “Bradstreet” is not even Anne Bradstreet’s given name. She was born Anne Dudley. So, one could argue that the first name reference is more of a nod to her true self, and not to the legacy of the family into which she married at the age of 16. But that is not what is happening.
When a woman has chosen a last name, it should become the professional moniker by which others refer to her. Our resistance to doing so may reflect the assumption of familiarity that feels generous to the one who assumes, while in reality it disregards the identity of the woman with no last name.