Last year, after my fiancée Kara learned she was pregnant. We decided to wait until delivery to learn whether we were going to have a boy or a girl. While I was indifferent about whether I learned the sex of my child from a sonogram or a live birth, Kara was set on being surprised on the day of delivery. Since she felt more strongly about it than I did, I went along. So, we would not know we were going to have a daughter until the day our daughter was born.
Though we went through the pregnancy not knowing the sex of our baby, we suffered no agony debating names for our child. We had no list of possible names that we had to winnow down. We did not have separate lists depending on whether we had a boy or a girl. There was only one name we ever considered, and it was the name we settled on.
We named her Lincoln.
My father was born in Lincoln, RI, a town in which generations of his family had been reared. Kara knows I was close to my father, and that family history is important to me. One day, it occurred to her that “Lincoln” would be a good name for our child because it would honor my family’s history and my father’s memory. It also did not escape me that Lincoln is the surname of America’s greatest president. Indeed, the town of Lincoln was instituted in 1871 and was named after the sixteenth president. For me, it was an honor to name my daughter after a president whose grace, intelligence, humility, sense of humor, and patience helped steer the nation through the greatest crisis in its history, while also spearheading its greatest moral achievement up to that point in its history: The Emancipation Proclamation.
But history was not the only inspiration for the name. Kara considered Lincoln not only because of its overlap with historical themes, but because it was gender-neutral. Babycenter.com claims that “Lincoln” has been the 435th most popular girl’s name so far in 2017 (citing Baby Center user data, which seems to change regularly). But clicking on the boy version of the name, one learns that babycenter.com considers “Lincoln” to be gender-neutral. And while one is more likely to encounter a boy with the name Lincoln, it has not been unknown for celebrities to name their daughters Lincoln (see Kristen Bell). Nevertheless, in the four months that Lincoln has been alive, Kara and I have invariably encountered nurses, doctors, and many others who incorrectly assume that Lincoln is a boy when they first hear her name. It’s as if we gave our daughter a boy’s name.
Yet we don’t consider this an unwelcome development.
Kara was intent on raising our child to not be bound or confined by traditional gender roles. We have had some occasional disagreements about this. She would argue that if we had a son, he should be allowed to play with dolls if he so chooses, and if we had a daughter, she should be allowed to dress in blue. I was less amenable to these possibilities, but on the other hand, I agreed that my child should be allowed to grow up as the person he or she wants to be, and to not allow the pressures of social conformity to constrain his or her choices about the kind of person he or she wants to be.
Life teaches us that the pursuit of happiness and the development of an identity do not make for an easy journey. Life is full of challenges. We begin life endowed with a set of congenital abilities, environmental pressures, and an emerging personality that is shaped by the interplay between genes and environment. Among the basic characteristics with which we are endowed are sex and gender. For our daughter, sex is the biological fact of being female, which gives rise to realities such as menstruation, or not being as physically strong as men (on average). Gender is the cultural embodiment of being female, encompassing all the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions associated with femininity. A woman’s (like a man’s) identity is, among other things, a function of the complex interplay between sex and gender.
Given that most societies have been male-centered for much of human civilization, innumerable advantages have inevitably arisen from the simple fact of being a male, or in this case, having a male name. These advantages arise in part because of the many assumptions people are inclined to make about what roles are proper for a man and for a woman, given additional assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses associated with masculinity and femininity, these are among the challenges a woman has had to confront in her pursuit of happiness and development of a sense of personal identity.
Kara and I are interested in neutralizing those assumptions as best we can.
In theory, “Lincoln” is a name that neutralizes culturally-influenced assumptions one might be inclined to make about our child’s gender. It is true, however, that everyone who has heard the name thus far has assumed our child is a boy. There are several inferences one may draw from this about what it means for her in the long run. The so-called “Portia hypothesis” claims, at least based on one study, that “females with masculine monikers are more successful in legal careers.” This is the inference most attractive to Kara, who, from the beginning, has been enamored of the idea that our daughter will one day submit resumes to companies and not have to worry about her name counting against her because she is a woman, especially since a resume can be ditched from slush piles if it triggers even the faintest of subliminal biases in the person reviewing resumes.
This is not, of course, the only consideration. Several studies have drawn various conclusions about the effects of a person’s name on his or her overall outcomes in life. For example, data from one study suggest that “[c]ommon names were seen as least unique, best liked, and most likely to be hired.” Yet another study claims that people are more favorably disposed to names that are easier to pronounce. For our daughter, one could argue that Lincoln is an uncommon name, as well as a unique name for a girl, thus making her less likely to be hired. But one could also argue that Lincoln is an easy name to pronounce, making her more likeable and thus more likely to be hired. Given that different studies draw different conclusions about the positive or negative effects of a person’s name, it is safe to say that it is a complicated endeavor to know exactly how her name per se will affect her future.
Yet another study finds that “unpopular names are positively correlated with juvenile delinquency for both blacks and whites.” One may argue that Lincoln is a unique name for a girl, and perhaps it will be unpopular in a classroom of kids who are keen to pounce on any deviations from the norm. Does this mean I must worry about her acting up in school after one too many years of cyber bulling in which her name is the subject of ridicule? Well, it is my hope I can successfully teach my daughter to happily defy norms she does not believe are helpful to forming her own sense of identity. Among other things, I will have the aphorisms of notorious iconoclast Oscar Wilde on hand to share with her, such as the maxim “to be popular one must be a mediocrity.” I hope to convince her that she has no interest in being a mediocrity.
Self-confidence, however, is only one factor to consider.
The study that finds a correlation between unpopular names and juvenile delinquency does not necessarily find that unpopular names and juvenile delinquency are causally connected, or at least not in the way one might be inclined to think. It concludes: “unpopular names are likely not the cause of crime but correlated with factors that increase the tendency toward juvenile delinquency, such as a disadvantaged home environment and residence in a county with low socioeconomic status.” It would seem, then, that we have a case of reverse causation: that is, it is not the name that causally leads to juvenile delinquency, but rather, there may be a connection between disadvantaged environmental circumstances and the prevalence of unpopular names.
Whatever the case, it is safe to conclude that a child’s name is not the only determining factor in his or her life outcomes. Nonetheless, it is still one factor among many, and to the extent it does have an effect, Kara and I are amenable to the notion that a name which neutralizes assumptions about our daughter’s gender could be advantageous to how she is positioned in society when she becomes an adult (all else equal, of course; maybe by the time she is an adult, the subliminal discrimination that inspired the so-called Portia hypothesis will be a thing of the past, or perhaps reverse discrimination will be in effect, so that male names are suddenly subject to subliminal bias; but we highly doubt it.)
We are also fond of the idea that she will have a “unique’ name,” as we want her to think of herself as a unique individual who chooses and actualizes her own life per her own standards. Perhaps one might think, Lincoln is not so unique a name after all, or one can alternatively say that naming her after the former president binds her to the legacy of the former president. This is not a bad thing considering who that president was, but it is not necessarily consistent with allowing her to develop her own sense of identity. Yet one could probably say the same thing about any name, to greater or lesser degrees.
In closing, perhaps the most enduring legacy of her name will be that “Lincoln” is often assumed to be the name of a man. Kara likes the idea that the odds are thereby against the possibility that her resume is ditched from a slush pile by lingering biases of the patriarchy. But on the other hand, it may take some effort for her to resist the pressures of conformity from peers who would try to convince her that a male name is an unpopular name for a female, and that we bear some responsibility for exposing her to such taunts. But we consider the risk to be worth it. We don’t want her decisions and choices being unduly impacted by expectations she develops about how she should act given that she has a “feminine” name. That is not to put her in a state of denial, or that we are encouraging her to not be proud of being a woman. It is only a way to help neutralize cultural stereotypes and assumptions people may be inclined to make about her because she is a woman.
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