By far the most unusual detail in Roll Call features writer Emily Heil’s story today on congressional titles comes at the bottom of her story in the second to last graph. The feature, “Be Careful What You Call the Boss,” navigates the tricky terrain of what staffers ought to call those in power. While many members put on that hokey front of “I’m just Rosa,” as in Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), others prefer the more lofty “Chairman” or “Congressman” as the case may be.
For members of the Fourth Estate, calling a member anything other than “Congressman” or “Congresswoman So and So” is unheard of in nearly all circumstances. Since there are so many, it’s handy to be able to say, “Congressman!” while chasing them down a hallway and then look up who they are later. Never works out well to ask a lawmaker, “Who are you again?”
But tricky is putting it mildly in some cases. At the end of Heil’s story, she reports that Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) goes by “Congressman.” A woman prefers to be called “Congressman?” We had to hear this with our own ears.
“This wouldn’t happen to be a survey would it?” a male receptionist asked after saying, “Congressman Marsha Blackburn’s office may I help you?” He transferred me to the press secretary, Claude Chafin, who was not at his desk. It was hard to hear, but we think he said on his voice mail message, “office of Congressman Marsha Blackburn.”
Claude explained by email that, “in part she uses Congressman because it is grammatically correct.” He said office staff indeed calls her “Congressman” as a general practice. But he has heard countless people call her “congresswoman.” She never corrects them — “In the almost four years working for her, I have NEVER heard her correct anyone,” he said. “When people seem confused about an appropriate title, she always says, ‘Please, call me Marsha.'” Claude recounted lore from her first campaign when a farmer asked, “If you win, what are we gonna call you? Congress Lady? Congress Girl?” And she said, “Congressman will do just fine.”
But the spokesman said the “true origin” of the preference comes from Rep. Irene Baker (Sen. Howard Baker‘s step-mother), who was elected to fill out her husband’s term after he died. “At the time there were few women in the house and ‘Congresswoman’ was a condescending term applied by the male members,” he said. “The story goes that Baker insisted on being called ‘Congressman’ as an equality move.” Women who have served after Baker in the Tennessee have carried the title in her honor.
And so it is: Congressman Marsha Blackburn.
Read the Roll Call story here.