According to the widely accepted stereotype, young adults in the United States tend to disregard traditional gender roles and minimize distinctions between male and female. But when it comes to naming their babies—one of the bigger decisions any couple is likely to make—official reports show that today's child-bearing generation affirms age-old distinctions between boys and girls in a way their grandparents would have understood and, most likely, applauded.
The top ten male names in 2010 (the last year with complete figures) emphasize tradition, consistency and a connection to the past. Half of the favored designations, including the top three, are Biblical (Jacob, Ethan, Michael, Noah, Daniel). Another leading selection (Anthony) honors a revered Catholic saint. Two more evoke two of history’s most fierce, famous rulers-- Alexander (the Great) and William (the Conqueror). Only two choices on the list for little boys (Jayden and Aiden) seem to reflect today’s celebrity culture of novelty and quirkiness.
The list of fashionable names for baby girls, on the other hand, clearly emphasizes trendiness and stylish exoticism. Only one of the top ten (Abigail) comes from the Bible. The others (Isabella, Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Ava, Emily, Madison, Chloe and Michelle) would have struck our more conservative grandparents as sounding vaguely foreign, even odd. Few Isabellas, Sophias, Olivias or Chloes have played major roles in American history. Jacobs, Williams and Daniels, on the other hand, appear prominently in the chronicles of our past, going all the way back to colonial days.
A generation ago, male names displayed a similar traditionalist flavor, with the most popular choices of the 1980s (Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, David, James, Daniel, Robert, John and Joseph) even more solid, stolid and predictable than favorite boys’ names today. On the feminine side of the ledger, however, not one of the leading names of the ‘80s has survived as a top-ten contender today, with the thirty-year old list featuring such passing fancies as Ashley, Melissa, Nicole and Heather.
Ever-changing fashion in female names as opposed to dull consistency in the way we identify little boys reflects a similar contrast in attitudes toward grooming. Despite strenuous efforts by the fashion-industrial-complex, male garb has remained basically unchanged for more than a century. The dark suits, pale shirts, and solidly colored ties that constitute the look of today’s corporate honcho would hardly seem out of place among comparable business leaders of the 1920’s. Lapels may wax and wane, but as perpetually profitable companies like Brooks Brothers understand, expensive male clothing emphasizes timeless class. When it comes to formal wear, tuxedos have registered such slight alterations over the years that it might well require a professional to spot them.
With women, of course, it’s a different world with a vast industry (and eager press) devoted to breathless, yearly accounts of the “hottest new fashions” from Paris, Milan and New York. Many (if not most) American females fret over appearing at important occasions in attire that might be considered out-of-style; far fewer men share that concern.
At glittering social events (like the Oscars) ladies feel humiliated if they show up in the same dress as another prominent participant. For men on such occasions, it’s reassuring to don identical, understated uniforms that make you look indistinguishable from the other guys.
Even at home, a related hoary stereotype demonstrates important contrasts in male and female nature. Quick, now, a show of hands: how many husbands have ever nagged your wife to throw away some favorite outfit she’s enjoyed for years and to go out to purchase more up-to-date attire? See, I didn’t think so. Now, how many women become irritated with their men because they refuse to part with stained, tattered but cherished garments that may have originated in the Jurassic era? In our family, my wife regularly (and unsuccessfully) seeks to purge embarrassing items in the closet that date back to the prehistoric age before our marriage 27 years ago.
There’s something in the essence of male nature that provides a powerful desire to hold on to the past and connect with previous generations. During this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, consider the burgeoning mania for elaborate, massive battlefield re-enactments. Is there any female equivalent where women endure great expense and inconvenience to try to relive some thrilling historical episode?
In the Bible, the Hebrew word for “male” is zachar – virtually identical to the word for memory. It’s a man’s responsibility to guard family recollections and social traditions, which is one of the reasons that “juniors” and “Howard III’s” appear so much more frequently than girls named after their mothers.
It’s also why society generally passes on family names through the male side. Recent attempts to equalize the situation by urging married women to keep their last names, or to hyphenate with their husbands, have largely failed: recent statistics indicate that more than three quarters of married women eventually adopt their husband’s name (including top career women Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama) and assign that same name to their children.
The male role as defender of time-honored customs and norms may also help to explain why men show more conservative inclinations than women on most political issues, reflected in nearly all polls and elections.
So when American parents grace a baby girl with a pretty, musical, exotic name meant to sound fresh and distinctive, or when they anoint a tiny boy with a Biblical moniker that’s been rattling around the family for generations, they may not consciously intend some important sociological statement. But the enduring, very different preferences in naming male and female children nonetheless express starkly contrasting attitudes that continue to shape our lives and culture.