The Power Of Michelle?
An article in this week's Slate asks, "Why are there so many powerful Michelles in Washington?" Abby Callard writes:
When Michelle Obama moves into the White House next year, she will immediately become the most famous member of one of Washington's most powerful and exclusive clubs: the Michelles.
Callard goes on to list the members of this powerful club, and to speculate on the reasons for the name's power mojo.
I tend to be a little blasé about reports that large numbers of successful people share the same hugely popular name. After all, isn't that exactly what you'd expect? Take, for instance, this 2005 column analyzing the claim that Davids and Susans are unusually likely to get rich. But in the case of the Slate article, something else also gave me pause. The master list of Washington-ruling Michelles included only one person with an actual role in the federal government (a member of congress). The rest were mostly media commentators and wives of powerful men, plus a "well-known life coach." Is that really the best female power name the capital has to offer?
First, let's take a look at the basic claim: do Michelles really rise to political power at a greater rate than other women? Let's assume that the power age band in Washington covers roughly the birth years 1935-1975. About 225,000 American women were named Michelle/Michele/Michell during that time, heavily skewed toward the latter half of the range. The closest matches for that popularity history are Amy and Melissa. If you tally up all the members of congress, cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries, federal appeals court judges and state governers, you find exactly one Amy, one Melissa, and one Michelle, all in congress. The null hypothesis is looking pretty good about now; Michelles look a lot like everybody else.
So, are there any real power names for Washington women? In congress, the clear winner is Barbara. The name boasts four members, including two senators. (Significantly, the typical Barbara is a full generation older than the typical Michelle, suggesting that the latter name's power days may still lie ahead.) If you broaden to the other categories of government leaders you find another name of interest -- the name which I'd tab as the true #1 political power name for women. Any guesses?
Diana/Diane/Dianne has three representatives in Congress, and four more on the bench in federal appeals courts. That swamps the numbers for similarly common names like Karen and Sharon. Plus you'll find more Dianes, Diannes and Dianas in politics in other nations throughout the English-speaking world. Sure, it's a small sample and not statistically significant. But going back to our discussion of names on ballots...if you see a candidate named Diane or Diana, don't you want to trust her?