The Power Of Michelle?

Nov 21st 2008

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?


November 21, 2008 2:26 PM

Hrm... is it because of Lady Di?

November 21, 2008 2:40 PM

I'll put in a plug for my favorite Michelle: my dear friend Michelle Mayer, who died in October. If you're in health care, check out her blog at, especially her entry on October 2 when she talks about being a nurse and a terminally ill patient. (It was Michelle's dying wish that her blog be used to educate health professionals.) Sorry for hijacking the thread!

As a 1968 Elizabeth, I have so many friends named Michelle that I have assigned adjectives to them when speaking with my husband (blond Michelle, Noah's mom Michelle, etc.).

November 21, 2008 3:26 PM

Interesting baby names from

"Korn frontman Jonathan Davis guides his son Zeppelin, 18 months, as they walk along the beach in Malibu, Calif. on Wednesday. Jonathan, 37, and wife Deven are also parents to son Pirate, 3 ½. Additionally, the rocker has son Nathan, 13, from his first marriage."

Zeppelin and Pirate!

I don't think Bronx is that out there.

I saw a boy (6 years old?) named Bentley the other day at the playground.

Somehow Michelle doesn't strike me as a very powerful name, probably because of the soft "sh" sound. Barbara and Diane seem much bolder.

By Melissa C (not verified)
November 21, 2008 3:51 PM

Ya I have the same feeling about the name Michelle... it doesn't have a powerful sound to my ears either.

Although I know many many Michelle's... born in the 80's. My name being Melissa always got mixed up and many times I was called Michelle.

By Vivienne Jo (BDL) (not verified)
November 21, 2008 3:56 PM

Michelle Obama is also the very first Michelle to be first lady. (Cindy would have been the first Cindy, too.)

Oh, and some more new administration name trivia: Obama is the first presidential surname to both start and end with a vowel. (There were only four other presidents whose surnames started with vowels.)

By Melissa C (not verified)
November 21, 2008 3:56 PM

I just thought for fun I would share with you the names of all the babies born 2008 that I have heard... family, friends and play groups. It seemed to be the year to have babies in my circle myself included. I always find this blog interesting to hear what is common in the U.S. and what is common here in Canada.. sometimes naming is so similar.. .and sometimes not so much.

-Lillian (Lilly)
-Eliana (Ellie)


By Matt (not verified)
November 21, 2008 4:11 PM

Might the causality be the other way around? Maybe Diane is a name more popular with the upper class. The name might be riding along on an underlying social trend (people born into the upper class remaining among the power elite), rather than the name itself actually helping the person who bears it.

November 21, 2008 4:18 PM

Interestingly, NameMapper bears out your hypothesis that Diane is a higher income name -- neither Barbara nor Michelle seem to have any income bias... (You can see this by going to type in "diane"; then click on the "timeline" tab within namemapper and sort by income. Repeat with other names for comparison)

By yetanotherkate (not verified)
November 21, 2008 4:32 PM

I've always noticed that there are a large number of Ann(e)s on the Forbes 50 most powerful women list that comes out every year. This past year, there were 5 Ann(e)s -- the most of any other name. Other repeaters were Margaret, Michelle, Diane, Susan and Christine (each showed up twice).

I think Ann(e) is interesting, because I don't think of it as being a hugely popular name, even when these women were born (mostly late 1940s to late 1950s). I can't do the name voyager on my computer (java is blocked at work), but I'd be curious if Ann(e) really was more popular than Diane, Michelle, etc... during that time, or even names that I associate with that generation, like Nancy or Barbara. Anyone want to check it out?

November 21, 2008 4:41 PM

JB, I did what you said, but I can't figure out how to read the chart. Is it that the bars are taller near the top of the graph that shows that Diane is an upper income name?

By Michelle (not verified)
November 21, 2008 5:06 PM

Too bad about the powerlessness of Michelle :(

November 21, 2008 5:09 PM

yetanotherkate, You're correct that Ann(e) was less popular than either Barbara or Diane in the 1930s and 1940s.

November 21, 2008 5:09 PM

Yes, you are reading the NameMapper correctly. There is a key on the right side that indicates how the graph is sorted --- so to read the graph:

-The X axis (across the bottom) represents year (beginning at 1960 and ending at 2007)
-The Y axis (vertically oriented) can be viewed by income, population density, naming region or political inclination and is labelled in gray all the way over on the right side of the graph...

I hope that little tutorial helps; once you figure out how to use the NameMapper it is completely addictive -- and revealing!

By KRC (not verified)
November 21, 2008 5:43 PM

I posted not too long ago regarding my horror that Jan on The Office had named her baby Astrid, as that is my chosen name for a girl and I am 20 weeks pregnant. Well, as some of you suggested might be the case, I don't have to worry about it because we found out today that the baby is a boy!

The doctor did an ultrasound in her office two days ago and told me it was a girl. So I am still reeling from the news today. I didn't really care which one it was, but I got so attached to the idea of my baby as a girl in the past two days, that I felt like the tech was talking about someone else's baby the whole time she was doing the ultrasound. I can't believe how emotionally shocking this is. Must be the hormones??

Anyway, the boy name we are thinking of is Hugo. What do you think? I think it would be Hugo Thomas my LN his LN. Hugo sounds really, really good with my husband's last name. Should I be worried about the feminization of o endings? I kind of doubt that Hugo will ever become a girls' name. I am not terribly concerned that my son's name be the most masculine one out there, but I do want it to stand the test of time. Thoughts?

Does anyone know when the new BNW is coming out? Laura??? I am praying that it will be available before my baby is due in April.

By FrancesNo.? (not verified)
November 21, 2008 5:50 PM

looks like the income the state where the child is born is measured, not the income of the family in question. Do I read the graph correctly? That would help us here, though...

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 21, 2008 6:05 PM

KRC -- I adore Hugo, but that doesn't come as much of a surprise to me as we seem to share a liking of similar names.

I wouldn't worry one bit about girls overtaking the /o/ ending names, even if they gain in popularity. I don't think Hugo will succumb, and there are still many viable boys' names that end in /o/.

November 21, 2008 6:29 PM

Re sorting by demographics in the NameMapper: yep, you're sorting states by the *state* characteristics. State income rankings (which tend to be the least predictive variable, btw) are based on the latest figures from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

Ohh...all of this has led me to discover that the FAQ link on the NameMapper page is broken! My apologies, I'll get that back up and plan a more detailed guide to the 'Mapper soon.

p.s. anybody else notice that Michelle and Michele have different geographic patterns? Michele was particularly popular in the Northeast.

By KRC (not verified)
November 21, 2008 7:01 PM

Laura, do you know if the new Baby Name Wizard will be out any time soon?

Thanks, Amy3, I like your taste!

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 21, 2008 7:12 PM

KRC-Congratulations! Boys are lots of fun.
Of course, it is possible the tech. was seeing something else-I never discount mother's intuition about such matters!

For personal reasons, I can't be neutral about Hugo, but I definitely think it's masculine.
I wouldn't be surprised to see it get somewhat more popular, as it's a name I associate with Hispanic communities. I doubt your little guy would be one of many, though.

November 21, 2008 7:50 PM

KRC: I think that Hugo is an excellent choice, and I wouldn't worry about the issues you mentioned with the name.

By Erika (not verified)
November 21, 2008 11:39 PM

KRC: I agree, Hugo is great. It's strong, unusual without being really eccentric, and the two syllables with an "o" ending give it a very active, dynamic feel that I like.

November 22, 2008 6:31 AM

KRC - Hugo, great name and -o endings are definitely very masculine and trendy, think Milo, Leo, Theo, Arlo, Otto. There's hardly any little boys in north London without an -o ending!

November 22, 2008 11:21 AM

KRC - Congrats! With my last pregnancy I thought I was having a girl and when the tech told me he was a boy I was shocked. (I had a few ultrasounds and he made his maleness very clear every time.) I'm sure the surprise will wear off soon. Hugo seems to be a dear name, it makes me think of Victor Hugo.

Tried to think of local powerful women - Georgia, Virginia, Arlene, Victoria, Patricia, Maryellen, MaryAnn, Geralyn, Elizabeth - nary a Michelle, Diane or Barbara. Geralyn is a surprise, though, huh? She is a religious leader, not political.

By Knee Coal Peay (not verified)
November 22, 2008 3:25 PM

KRC - Oh no! That's way too much of an emotional rollercoaster for an expectant mama! I hope you finally have some certainty as to your unborn child's sex, which I'm sure you do if they're now saying BOY. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember hearing that approximately 15% of ultrasound predictions are wrong whenever they say "it's a girl," but it's usually a correct prediction when one hears "it's a boy." When those little boy bits show up on the screen, they're pretty unmistakable ;)

Hugo is a solidly masculine name - please don't let that concern you. I'm sure you know about the Hugo (nn Hurley) character on the TV show "Lost," who is a lovable fan favorite despite his obesity & mental illness. I also think immediately of Victor Hugo. Great choice!

By ET (not verified)
November 22, 2008 4:03 PM

I also like the name Hugo. It's one that I don't think I'd personally use, but Im always pleased when I hear about people using it.

Completely unrelated but I came across a family tree of a woman named Sabrina Bennett who was born in 1817 the other day, and it contained many names Id never heard before, I was just wondering what people though of them. And if they are more common in America, where Sabrina Bennett was from.

Alcemena (x2, mother and daughter)
Phebe Ann

Im guessing all apart from Plummer, Gardner and Decatur are boys.

In a different family tree I recently came across a Parthenia and Triphene. It was suggested that classical or feux-classical names were popular.

By ET (not verified)
November 22, 2008 4:03 PM

*All apart from Plummer, Gardner and Decatur are girls.

By Beth (not verified)
November 22, 2008 8:28 PM

I had the exact opposite reaction to Michelle as a first-lady name: completely atypical. Because first ladies have tended to have traditional WASPY names, no? Jacqueline, Elizabeth, Barbara, Laura. Not sure about Hillary. I think of Michelle as more a trend-of-yore. and hence a bit more demographically spread out. But then again, Michelle is date-stamped, and it definitely means us Gen-Xers are in the House.

November 22, 2008 10:00 PM

When I mentioned the Slate report and Laura's comments about Barbara and Diane to my dh, he said, "Well of course these are powerful women-- Barbara comes from the word barbarian and Diane from Diana the goddess of hunting!" I said I thought it was hardly likely that most of their parents were conscious of these associations when naming their daughters, but he insisted there was probably a sub-conscious association. Interesting, huh? What do you think?

By juniemoon (not verified)
November 22, 2008 10:17 PM

May I change the subject? :)

Does anyone know the correct pronunciation of the Norwegian name Leiv? I've searched and have found conflicting answers. I've thought about contacting a Nordic Leiv on facebook and asking him, but feel hesitant contacting a strange man on the internet. :)

By Allison (not verified)
November 22, 2008 11:29 PM

Sorry to be off topic but I'm looking for some help. I'm currently pregnant with my third child. We don't know the gender but I'm having a problem coming up with boys names that compliment my son's names, William (nn Will) and Cameron whom we typically call by his full name but sometimes call Cam. I have a bit of namer's remorse with his name. I had wanted to call him Callum but we had a dog growing up named Cal so I went with Cameron instead. Our last name is D@vies.
For girls I like, Georgia, Annika, and Madelyn. For boys, Lachlan, Griffin, Elliott & Graydon. What do you think? Suggestions and comments welcome!

November 23, 2008 12:07 AM

Baby name alert: a friend's sister is about to give birth to Abr!ella Gail (sister to Timothy and Kayla). I had to share this, in view of Laura's post entitled "Off with their heads". Funnily enough having a mn which starts with G seems to heighten the effect to me, almost like 'pig Latin' (Alerie-Vay, for Valerie etc.). I also think that this new addition has a more 'frilliana'-type name than the others.

By Vivienne Jo (BDL) (not verified)
November 23, 2008 12:21 AM

First ladies' first names:
Anna (3), Martha (2), Abigail (2), Julia (2), Edith (2), Mary (2), Elizabeth (3), Dolley, Louisa, Rachel, Hannah, Sarah, Margaret, Jane, Lucy, Lucretia, Ellen, Frances, Caroline, Ida, Helen, Florence, Lou, Jacqueline, Claudia, Thelma, Eleanor, Nancy, Barbara, Hillary, Laura.

Michelle doesn't strike me as more "untraditional" than Jacqueline for the most obvious comparison (popular French names of their generation).

You may wonder, where's Mamie, Rosalynn, etc? Aha, those weren't their real first names! I also liked that the three Elizabeths used different nicknames (Eliza, Bess, and Betty).

By Natalie Hastings (not verified)
November 23, 2008 12:24 AM

Laura, what do you think of the name of new celeb baby Bronx Mowgli Wentz? I would love to know.

By Louise (not verified)
November 23, 2008 4:42 AM

Hmmm, Michelle doesn't sound like a prticularly powerful name but it does sound like there is a younger crowd in the White House now (or soon, rather).

KRC, congratulations! We must have a similar due date as I am 20 weeks this week too. And I too found out, fairly decidedly that our little one is a boy... So back to the drawing board! I guess it won't be Eliane or Malia (for those that gave their imput a couple posts back!). I love Hugo but dh isn't into it. I think is interesting and different enough, without being too popular either. Gorgeous.

By Guest (not verified)
November 23, 2008 9:02 AM

I've known two Michelles in my 50 some years. One was called Mitzi. Probably not a power name.
I think Pete and Ashley Wentz are two of the most sad, unattractive, demi-celebrities I've ever seen. I think Bronx sounds like a sneeze, and (even sadder) is a hijacking of the Brad/Angelina "tradition" of giving their male offspring a name ending with X.

November 23, 2008 2:05 PM

Mitzi to me sounds like a country club name which is powerful in a way.

Allison: I think all the boys' names you list work well. With William more traditional and Cameron more trendy, seems like you have a lot of leeway. Although it seems like you are aiming somewhere in the middle of tradition and trendy for the third, which I think is a good idea. Like a bridge. The only thing I wonder is, with Lachlan, do you need a nickname? Seems like your other two go by nns so do you think people will try to nn Lachlan? And if so, what would the nn be? Or will they just go with the full name?

In my local listings today, I saw a Zildjian. I am pretty sure this is from the percussion instrument company... although I suppose it could be from somewhere else as well... I kind of like the concept--marks baby as a child of a music geek. And it fits current trends with the Z and n. I don't hate it although it's quite unusual and a little shocking.

By anon (not verified)
November 23, 2008 3:18 PM


I'd say Leiv as 'LAYv' with a short "v" sound at the end, basically how I'd pronounce Leif ('LAYf').

By Guest (not verified)
November 23, 2008 3:46 PM

i have a friend named leiv and he pronounces it almost like "leave" but he says it... faster, if that makes any sense. it's a tricky name for me, to be honest. hope this helps!

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 23, 2008 6:42 PM

I was thinking about the Michelle issue again. To my ear, Michelle is a real every-girl name. The Michelles I knew growing up were nice, sweet girls-not the cheerleaders or the class presidents-just the kind of friendly girls you wanted to sit by.
Michelle Obama seems to have some of this same everywoman quality. Now, it could be consciously cultivated, of course, but there is something about the way she talks about shopping at Target that seems very unforced to me. Of course, I'm an unabashed lefty, so my opinion is probably biased.

Kudos to Laura for pointing out that being married to someone powerful isn't the same as having one's own power, btw.

As to Diane and Diana, they're absolutely names that ooze competence and directness, but I really can't say why.

I suppose the other fun question is what the future power name will be. I'm thinking Grace could be the future Diana.

Allison-I like most all your choices. I also like Robyn's idea of a bridge name, and with that in mind, I'd go with Griffin for a boy and Annika for a girl (though Georgia is one of my current favorites).

November 23, 2008 7:24 PM

hello, I am new to this web site and totally LOVE it so far. I am 7 months pregnant with my fifth child (oh my god ) right now, and we know it is a girl! Me and my husbund just can't think of a name. We wan't something that "flows" with the rest of our childrens' names if possible. Our four are named:

Luke, Gemma, Riley (girl), and Kellan.

Any suggestions for number 5??

By Aybee (not verified)
November 23, 2008 7:34 PM

Allison- My votes would be for Georgia and Griffin. Good luck!

Lillian- Here are a few suggestions that I think fit with your tastes:

congrats on number 5!

By Melissa C (not verified)
November 23, 2008 8:21 PM

Rowan, Finlay, Bronwyn,Ainsley,Gillian, Nora, Fiona, Felicity, Amelia, Daphne. Here are a few suggestions hopefully you see something that you like.

By Louise (not verified)
November 23, 2008 9:15 PM

Is it just me or is Bronx Wentz REALLY hard to say?

Not a fan I'm afraid!

Allison: I like all your names but my favourites would be Georgia and Griffin.

Juniemoon: I have heard Naomi Watts refer to her husband Liev Schreiber (sp?) as 'leave'...if that helps?

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 23, 2008 10:52 PM

Allison -- I can't decide between Georgia and Annika. I like both of these. For a boy, I'd choose Griffin.

juniemoon -- The following names were suggested by Nymbler as possible sib names for your current 4 kids: Tamsin, Shea, Darby, Marcella, Iona, Lila, Kirstin, Greer, Larkin, and Piper (I couldn't resist!).

My fave from this list is Tamsin (although I knew a Tamsen and I prefer this spelling).

By Elaine (not verified)
November 23, 2008 11:15 PM

J&H's Mom--Interesting that you suggested Grace as the new female power name. To me, Grace suggests a meekness per the meaning of the word. I'm thinking of your question--what is the next female power name--and think of names like Anne and Jane which sound similar to Grace now that I think about it. Single syllable, no frills, and dare I say masculine leaning? Have we come to a place where softer, more feminine names exude power? Names like Sophia, Angela, Molly.

By sarah smile (not verified)
November 23, 2008 11:35 PM

Thinking about names for lillian, I just noticed something interesting. Your four names start with four different letters, which I like, so I was thinking of other good letters for a fifth name, and came up with plenty. But then I noticed that the four names also end with different letters - E,A,Y,N - and that it was much harder to think of names that didn't end with one of those four, or at least with that sound.

Not that it matters if the ending letter is the same as long as they don't rhyme, but I thought it was interesting. Looking up at names mentioned in this thread, almost all of the girls names end with those four letters.

November 24, 2008 12:02 AM

Melissa C - I love Rowan and Fiona, they hadn't even crossed my mind. Thanks!

sarah smile - I think that might be a reason why it's been difficult. I think the four names sound great together, and the addition of a fifth just seems to throw off the rythm a bit.

By sarah smile (not verified)
November 24, 2008 12:05 AM

Just for fun, some girls names that begin and end with different letters/sounds than your four, and that might fit your naming style:

Alexis, Amber, April, Harper, Hazel, Iris, Isabel, Piper, Skyler/Schuyler, Tatum, Taylor, Violet

By sarah smile (not verified)
November 24, 2008 2:12 AM

On a totally different note, I was watching a documentary on the Iditarod Sled Dog Race recently. One of the top racers has two sons, both of whom are named after small towns that serve as checkpoints on the race - Nikolai and Rohn (rhymes with bone). Nikolai is obviously a common Russian name, but I had never heard Rohn before and I rather like it, especially given the family's connection to the place. So I thought I'd look at the other checkpoints to see if they might serve as a source of names to Alaskans proud of that heritage.

Already in common use: Willow, Ruby, Galena
Other possibilities: Ophir, Anvik, Grayling, Kaltag, Koyuk, Elim

I don't see any of those in the top 100 in namemapper, but I wonder if they turn up further down the list.

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 24, 2008 12:49 PM

Sorry, my comments ^ about sibs for Luke, Gemma, Riley, and Kellan should have been addressed to lillian, not juniemoon.