When California’s junior senator, Barbara Boxer, asked a brigadier general to call her “Senator” instead of “Ma’am” at a hearing yesterday, she may as well have signed up for the dunk tank at the local carnival.
“Do me a favor,” Boxer said to Brigadier General Michael Walsh. “Could you say Senator instead of Ma’am? It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it… yes, thank you.” (See YouTube video of Barbara Boxer and the General here.)
Hey, at least she said “thank you”
Although Barbara Boxer was as polite to the general as a socialite asking for a crumpet at a tea party, her scolding came off as regal and naïve. Military officers consider addressing someone as Ma’am a sign of respect. If the general were making a senatorial etiquette flub, the polite thing for Boxer to do would have been to inform him privately of her preference since well-mannered people do not deliberately embarrass others in public.
Ironically, people have referred to women senators with less deference than they have shown their male colleagues. For instance, during her political campaign to earn the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president this past election cycle, Hillary Clinton was often referred to as Mrs. Clinton or Hillary by commentators, while male candidates such as Barack Obama and John Edwards (a former senator) were typically called Senator so-and-so.
Worse, the Sacramento Bee once headlined a political column “Could We See Arnie vs. Barbie?” comparing Barbara Boxer to America’s favorite 11″ plastic sex object.
Does Barbara Boxer have a Napolean complex?
In the case of the Hapless General vs. Senator Boxer, however, addressing Barbara Boxer as “Ma’am” instead of “Senator” was not a slight–intentional or otherwise–and to make a big deal of it diminished Boxer’s stature rather than enlarged it. Many believe Boxer and her sibling senators should be grateful they still have jobs after figuratively smashing the nation’s piggy bank, a financial fiasco that has resulted in millions of Americans getting pink slips.
Boxer’s premise that language has power to create perceptions and shape images is valid. I remember suggesting to my father that he refer to the women in his office as “women” instead of “girls,” believing the former term would cause him to view these colleagues as more professional. Senator Boxer, however, missed the target when taking a pot shot at the general, confusing worship with respect.