Gender & Writing, Humanistic Writing

Don’t feel free to call me Anne

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.

Just as students refuse to accept that Anne Bradstreet may be referred to as simply “Bradstreet,” they also refuse to accept that there are no portraits of her.  Inevitably, presentations about her poetry will be accompanied by a modest and dutiful looking Puritan woman whom they insist is Bradstreet herself.  This painting appears as the frontispiece of Luther Caldwell’s An Account of Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan Poetess, and Kindred Topics, published in 1898.

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.


professional writing

The Integrity of Professional Writing

Professional writing can sometimes lack the passion that we associate with creative or even academic writing.  If we produce reports or meeting minutes, our goal is to be clear and efficient.  That’s good for business. We are simply conveying information from one party to another, so that the next person in the line of communication can proceed with the task at hand.

We do not necessarily infuse professional writing with our own sensibilities or shape it with our own ethical principles. And yet we should.

It is true that in professional writing we must always keep the goals of the organization in mind.  Many of us, however, learned that writing was about self-expression.

When we teach college students to write academic papers, we encourage them push back against established ideas, to think critically. We hope they will forge their own paths and their own way of thinking. This is how we bring new ideas into the world.

But when we write in a professional setting, we are doing the opposite.  Mark Mabrito, who teaches business writing at Purdue University Northwest, notes that,

“Many writers in the workplace are attuned to hidden agendas for their documents. They create documents that meet the informational demands expected of them and that follow company format, but ones that also promote the goals of the organization as a whole or particular individuals within the organization.”*

When we write in a professional setting, we are always writing for someone else. As Mabrito says, we are promoting someone else’s goals. The experience can become empty and unfulfilling in some ways.  Occasionally, I find myself going through dry spells when it becomes an effort to piece together the mundane facts of a report or to describe the vision of another person.

And yet, that is precisely what I have been hired to do. I have been asked to act as an intermediary who can connect different sets of minds.  I help people communicate. When I take a step back and consider my role, it is creative and invigorating.

As professional writers, we must invest ourselves in the goals of the organization if we want to help them tell their stories.  But we can also keep our own purposes in mind. Why are we writing for this organization? What do we find valuable about it?

We can infuse our own sensibilities into the process by listening well, paying attention to the details, and writing as accurately and as compassionately as possible.

Professional writing has its own integrity.pen small

*Mark Mabrito, “From Workplace to Classroom: Teaching Professional Writing,” Business Communication Quarterly 62.3 (1999): 101-04.