What’s In A Boy’s Name?

‘Even high-profile women who assume their husband’s name on marriage, like the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, are loudly criticised’

“Dear Sir,” “FAO Mr McCoy,” “Hello Frank.” Such email greetings ping into my inbox on a daily basis. It is rarely worth the effort of correcting the sender’s minor error: Frankie McCoy is actually a woman and “Frankie” is an abbreviation of  my full birth name, Francesca. It appears that a history of prominent male Frankies—Boyle, Valli, Howerd and the forgetful subject of Sister Sledge’s 1985 song—means that without a face to put to an abbreviation, people presume masculinity.

Why? Plenty of prominent female figures have also adopted male diminutives: Billie Holiday and Frankie Sandford, Stevie Nicks and Taylor Swift. As musicians, these women are immediately outed by their voice and appearance—indeed, fans will frequently be aware of their gender before their male name. Perhaps such a blatant expression of femininity renders a masculine name irrelevant, or even “cute”. It is the other way round in professions where faceless and voiceless words create first impressions. For centuries, female writers have adopted masculine names to preclude misogynistic presumptions.

In her 1929 feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf (an unambiguously feminine name if ever there was one) claimed: “It was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century. Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man.” Less chastity, more a desire for a quiet life influenced 1970s science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr—real name Alice B. Sheldon. For Sheldon, “a male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

Good camouflage indeed: fellow science fiction writer Robert Silverberg even prefaced “Tiptree Jr’s” 1975 Warm Worlds and Otherwise with an essay that described the idea of the book having a female author as “absurd”.

As Tiptree Jr, Sheldon forwent misogynistic preconceptions that a female writer’s books must be both intellectually inferior and designed solely for other women. Twenty years later, publishers Bloomsbury sympathised with Sheldon’s deception, entreating their new children’s author Joanne to disguise her femininity in order to appeal to young boys. Thus “J.K. Rowling” was born.

But surely in the 21st century, after the wave upon wave of feminist movements we’ve experienced since Woolf’s condemnation of that “victim of inner strife” Charlotte Brontë, a woman’s decision to adopt a man’s name is born from a desire not for self-effacement but for the suffrage of sex-effacement. Once upon a time, women adopted their husband’s name wholesale upon marriage to become “Mrs John Smith”: the man symbolically subsuming his wife’s individual identity. Now high-profile women who assume even their husband’s surname on marriage are loudly criticised, as demonstrated by the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin. Independent feminists like yours truly who go by a masculine name, one must therefore assume, are doing so for reasons of suffrage. “Frankie” is the equivalent of wearing trousers and smoking cigarettes: if a man can do it, why shouldn’t a woman? Within the equality of modern Western society, surely no one is judged primarily on whether they have a Y chromosome anyway?

But they are. And to be frank, I would rather be thought a “Frank” if it affords me an advantage that “Francesca” would not, even if it reinforces gender inequality. I would rather be thought a good male writer—thus contributing to the presumption that men are fundamentally superior writers—than to proudly declare myself female and, because of prejudice on the part of a publisher or editor, not be known as a writer at all. Because despite the efforts of Woolf and her 21st-century “fifth-wave feminist” descendants, gender discrimination persists.

Consider a study recently published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. Teachers were given two sets of maths exam papers: one set with the students’ names, one set anonymous. Girls got better results on the latter set, but on the named papers, boys—clearly identified as such by their forenames—came off better, implying that the teachers, consciously or not, believed males to be mathematically superior. Then there are the page one stories of the UK’s national newspapers, 78 per cent of which carry a male byline. My best friend Charlotte, a financial consultant at a Big Four bank, admits that signing her emails “Charlie” stems from a belief that “the ambiguity could be useful”: clients would be more likely to trust a Charles to look after their finances than a Charlotte. Neither of us is prepared to martyr ourselves professionally in the name of equality.

Only one hope remains for my abandoned birth name. Germany’s recent legislation requiring large companies to allocate 30 per cent of seats on non-executive boards to women will make conspicuous femininity an asset. Should the UK follow suit, we might see our nation’s Francescas and Charlottes shed their sobriquets—and perhaps a sudden proliferation of boys named Sue.

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