Why We Like Boys Better Than Girls (Or At Least Their Names)

Nov 6th 2014

Want to strike a blow for equality? Name your son Emily. Go ahead, I dare you. I'm betting that it's not going to happen, because "androgyny" in baby names is a one-way street, heading off toward the masculine horizon.

This point hit me hard when I read the viral tale of a man whose daughter wanted to dress as Han Solo of Star Wars for Halloween. The 7-year-old wasn't sure that she could choose that costume, because she was a girl. Her dad's response, in his own words:

"Screw that. I grabbed my laptop and started showing her some really excellent examples of other girls and women cosplaying as Han Solo....My daughter's eyes went wide. She was sold on the idea. This could happen."

But then came the wrinkle. Their father-daughter tradition was that she would pick out her own costume, and his. Since his daughter was going to be Han Solo, she naturally chose Princess Leia for her dad.

"She looked at me with an implied question in her eyes. And, c'mon, if I immediately told her, 'YES, a girl can be Han Solo,' it would've been pretty hypocritical of me to say, 'Nope, a boy can't be Princess Leia.' So, as quickly as I could, I said, 'That would be FANTASTIC. I totally should be Leia.' And that's exactly what I did. Because that's what dads do."

The devoted dad pushed past a double standard for his daughter's sake, but he still felt it. He knew that in our society, there's a huge difference between a girl dressing as Han and a guy dressing as Leia. Her cross-gender costume was a bold, confident choice. His was comical. How would this story have been different, I wonder, if it had started with a boy wanting to be Princess Leia for Halloween? Or — brace yourself — if the parents had decided to name their son Leia?

Our modern naming age sees lots of names flowing around the gender divide. Some traditional male names, like Micah and Riley, are showing up more and more on the girls' side. Other names with no traditional gender link, like word names, place names, and surnames, are flipping back and forth or remaining unisex. But even in this fluid, creative naming culture, I challenge you to find a traditionally female name that is given to boys. Much as a reference to running or fighting "like a girl" is taken as an insult, so do we shrink from any hint of girliness in our boys' names. As a result, the move toward androgyny in baby names turns out to look an awful lot like masculinization.

Frankly, there's research to back that parental attitude. Study after study confirms that masculine names are a winning move. Girls with feminine-sounding names are less likely to advance in math and science. Female lawyers are more likely to become judges if they have masculine-sounding names. Boys with names that are common for girls are more likely to be disruptive in school. In the realm of names, masculine is an absolute, functional good.

Given those findings, it's not surprising that we see no boys named Emily. But does it suggest that we should also choose boyish names for our girls, in the spirit of equality? Certainly, some parents do approach gender-bending names in that spirit. Yet it can also be seen as capitulating to inequality. In our naming patterns, we're plainly acknowledging that the masculine is privileged. We give our girls a boost by letting them hitch a ride on a male name, like bicycles slipstreaming behind an 18-wheeler.

I can't fault any parents for choosing a name that they believe will give their child an advantage in life. And yet I balk at the idea that choosing a "strong" name has to mean choosing a masculine-sounding name.

Names have enormous symbolic power. They send messages. What message would it send to girls if the women of the U.S. Supreme Court were named Raymond, Simon and Elliot instead of Ruth, Sonia and Elena? Just as we may wish for a future where "running like a girl" means "running as fast and long as you can," I'm rooting for a future where a little Leia is considered just as bold and confident as a girl dressed — or named — like Han.


By JuLu
November 6, 2014 6:04 PM

Standing ovation! THANK YOU!

November 6, 2014 6:19 PM

We kind of went for this one - our eldest son has an obscure variant form of a name... that is almost entirely mistaken as female, as it turns out. It's a great name, it has a great namesake, we loved and love it... and we have no regrets. For what it's worth, he seems thus far to be doing wonderfully in school. His class includes a few other boys with unusual names that would be likely mistaken for female, actually, so I don't really see him being in a situation where his name's being perceived as androgynous is going to be a major setback. He has a masculine nickname option (and middle name) that he can fall back on if he chooses, if it should ever become problematic for him.

Likewise, one of my brothers has a name that is usually mistaken as female in writing (it's a traditionally male name from another language, which is spelled the same as an English traditional female name). He's one of the most socially outgoing, popular people I know, and he's always felt very positively about his name, both growing up and now, as an adult.

November 6, 2014 10:30 PM

I was actually thinking about this lately, because I have a traditionally female name, whereas my sister has a unisex nickname which she's gone by since birth, and she goes by that exclusively. (I was even tempted to create a thread). I actually asked my mom a while back why that was. Her answer?

"I like the ambiguity of [sister's name] and I think it sounds strong and not too frilly. I chose [your name] because even though it's obviously feminine, every woman I've met with your name has been a very strong person."

And yes, my sister is mathmatically-inclined and was quite good at science, too, yet she can't write a proper essay; while I am better at writing, yet struggled with math from a young age.

Do I think that has anything to do with our names?

Maybe, but probably not, since a) We've always envied each other's names, b) Ironically, I've always been more of a tomboy, and my sister was quite girly when we were kids. {It evened out in our teens, though, so maybe that's not saying much?}, and c) I couldn't really change the fact that I've always been terrible at math {started with simple timestables, which doesn't seem to suggest any nurture factors}.

*Sorry for using different brackets, it just seemed more organized that way -- to me, at least.

November 6, 2014 10:27 PM

Laura, could you find us some strong female names? The one that came to mind for me was Jane. I think there's support for that in the fact that a male character was given the name (Jayne! Firefly!) There have to be other names that are both STRONG and FEMALE. Whatcha got?

November 6, 2014 10:39 PM

MelissaM, that's a great challenge! It's a little tricky since "strong" can be in the eye of the beholder. But I'll definitely work on it, and I'm curious for everyone's nominations. Strong female names, anybody?

By ozy
November 7, 2014 12:15 AM

I read that there are proportionally more "Diane"s in positions of power than the general population, so I think of that as a strong female name (it also has a sturdy sound to it)

November 7, 2014 1:47 AM

Strong female names? I always think of Elizabeth and Catherine.

Perhaps, to find "strong" feminine names, looking at namesakes who embody the specific characteristics you value would be more effective? Despite being a name nerd, I like to think actions speak louder than words. 

As for Princess Leia, my eldest son decided that he would answer only to Princess Leia for almost a month, around his third birthday. We got some odd looks when I called him Princess in the supermarket, but we loved it. She's a strong, determined character, who stands up for what she believes in.

November 7, 2014 1:58 AM

Just thought of another one: we have a couple of notable, amazing doctors in our town called Fiona. They are leaders in their fields (on an international stage), have successfully raised families and their contribution to society is astounding. Come to think of it, all the Fionas I know are strong women.

November 7, 2014 6:41 AM

I think my daughter's name Harriet is a strong female name - the hard 't' sound at the end makes it sound that way, and the meaning is 'ruler of the household' (Something we found out after we had picked the name!) Our son has a softer sounding traditional male name.

November 7, 2014 8:16 AM

ozy wrote: "I read that there are proportionally more "Diane"s in positions of power than the general population..."

You might even have read that right here! :)

I'd definitely put Diane/Diana on a "strong female names" list, for its combo of present-day and mythological power.

November 7, 2014 12:31 PM

Basically I think the only even remotely objectively "strong" names are the word names where the words refer to weapons, rocks, construction materials (like Brick), large predatory animals (say, Wolf), and the like and the names, when unusual, of military heroes and other historically "strong" people (like Boudicca).  Otherwise the impression of "strength" is completely subjective.

One name that meets my own subjective criteria of "strength" is Barbara.  First, it comes from the same root as barbarian, with a root meaning of 'foreign.'  Then St. Barbara is patron of stone masons and artillerymen, pretty strong there.  It's got the two voiced stops, and its nicknames are Barb (as in barbed wire) and Bobbie.  Finally, a number of powerful women have had that name: Barbara Jordan, Barbara Boxer, Barbara Walters, Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Bush, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Stanwyck.  As it happens, the Barbaras I have known personally (and I have known quite a few since the name was popular in my generation) have almost invariably been "strong," sometimes to the point of being aggressively "difficult."  No doubt others will have an entirely different impression of the name.

November 7, 2014 1:15 PM

Cross-gender names and their unidirectionality go back to at least the 13th century in English. According to the Introduction (p. xxxv) of E.G. Withycombe's The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund, and Simon are all found in 13th- to 15th-century records as the names of women. In the same book, there's a quote from a 12th century philosophical tract, where the author is refuting the notion that Salome is a man's name. The quote illustrates why I disagree with those who consider boy's names on girls to be a step in the right direction for gender equality:

"'Were you never present in a baptistry when infants were being baptized?' 'Yes, often.' 'Did you ever on such an occasion hear a boy named Beatrice or Gunnilda or Matilda or Godiva?' 'Certainly not.' 'Then why should you suppose that the Jews should be in the habit of giving feminine names to males? Women's names or nicknames are given to lazy, slothful, effeminate persons, not in their baptism, but on account of their vicious life, as, for example, we formerly knew a Robert who for his infamous character was called Godiva.'" (Emphasis mine.)

Until it's just as acceptable to name a boy Emily as it is to name his sister Emmett, the use of boy's names on girls will just send the same 12th-century message: that it's bad to be a girl.

November 7, 2014 6:33 PM

I always think of Eleanor as being a very strong name, since I associate it with Eleanor Roosevelt. I agree that Harriett is a strong sounding name.

November 7, 2014 9:24 PM

Hmmm, strong female names. I will echo some of the nominations above and add a few; Diana, Eleanor, Maude, Joan, Leah, Beatrice, Margaret, Esther, Julia, Frances

November 7, 2014 11:42 PM

I second (or third? forth?) Jane (Jayne) as a strong female name. I think it could work, particularly if it was changed to Jain which makes it look like a completely different name (also has a fantasy connection as it's the name of a male character in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series). Jane is similar to Zane and Dane as well. Other suggestions could be: Ruth, Gail, Hazel, Tara/Taryn, Wynn(Win/Wyn). Maybe I'm weird but I think a little boy named Emily would be pretty awesome, I think there are so many girls names that used to be boys names from that could come back in style with just one popular character or celebrity... like Evelyn (I loved Evelyn Napier in Downton Abbey - maybe with the spelling Evelin?) or even names like Stacy, Allison, or Lauren. I always loved "Laurie" in Little Women, even though it's just a nickname, it suited him and I never read it as being feminine even though I have a girl cousin named Laurie.

By JuLu
November 8, 2014 9:13 AM

Ursula (bear), Ylva (wolf), Nordic names like Sigrid, Hilda. Lots of strong warrior women. 

November 9, 2014 5:45 PM

@CoraDelphine, note that Allison was not historically a masculine name. Because of its similarity to names like Madison or Jackson, people want to parse it as Allie + son, but it's actually Alice + on.

November 9, 2014 11:30 PM

Wynn is also a masculaine name.

November 10, 2014 1:10 PM

For me, "strong" female names are those that don't stand in the way of the bearer being taken seriously, especially in a professional sense. For me, those are the majority of female names that *aren't* nicknamey or cutesie or childish or frilly. Tremendously subjective, I know! I see names like Katherine, Elizabeth, Susanna, Margaret, Esther, Eleanor, Mary, Julia, Victoria, Veronica as strong; names like Katie, Lizzy, Susie, Maggie, Essie, Ellie, Molly, Jules, Vicky, and Ronnie as not strong. It's one of the reasons I much prefer children (of either gender) to be given a formal name at birth, even if he or she goes exclusively by a nickname all the time. I myself go by Kate everywhere except on things like my diploma and grant applications where I feel Katherine does the better job being taken seriously.

But even that isn't a foolproof strong-name formula for me -- Molly has become a formal name, for example. And Alessandra, which I consider to be a gorgeous name, and certainly a full, formal name, still falls just too far into the "frilly" camp for me to consider it "strong." And for boys too -- Edward is much stronger than Eddie imo, as is Thomas more than Tommy … but Ed and Tom have strength. Also, names like Moll, Liz, Kate, Jess, Cass all seem stronger to me than their -y/-ie counterparts. It’s a weird thing, one’s opinion of names!

November 11, 2014 1:33 PM

Christian and Emmett were both originally girls' names. Not exactly a recent switch, and very rare, but it has happened.

November 11, 2014 3:01 PM

This has been my refrain for years! I'm so glad to see this blog address the phenomenon (which I don't think is a global one but certainly widespread).

I remember a baby name advice thread probably a decade ago now, where the expectant mother said she needed a unisex name for her baby girl, because only they sounded "strong" and "spunky" to her. It was the first time I got called "not progressive enough" -- for suggesting that feminine names could or should sound just as strong or spunky! 

I suspect that even in the sphere of names that we currently would class as definitely female yet strong-sounding, we'd choose names devoid of FEATURES we identify as feminine. Strong probably means fewer -ee ending sounds and fewer syllables.  Frillianna may be cute, but strong she is not. 

But she SHOULD be, and... I have a problem with that. 

November 11, 2014 3:05 PM

We have a tradition that if 2 or more people on the team have the same first names, other team members choose nicknames for them that satisfy following criteria:

1) It's an existing full name, preferably associated with the opposite gender.

2) It starts the same way as person's last name. More common letters = better.

3) No other team member has this name (either as their real name, or as a nickname).

The nickname often remains even after it's no longer needed (because the other person has left).


-- Yevhenii ("Diana" ;-) )

November 11, 2014 6:26 PM

I have a girly first name (Lori - it's my whole name, not a nickname) that didn't stop me from getting a PhD in a scientific field, nor hinder my career as a research scientist. (Or if it's hindered me unawares, then it hasn't managed to stop me.) I wonder how things might have been easier with a tougher name like Beatrice or Jane (although I'd prefer Juno).

Of course, I got past all the discouragement by being both oblivious and self-centered, so maybe my name is irrelevant.

The whole women's movement has been just this: women taking over the roles, professions, and physical appearances traditionally dominated by men. Men feel sidelined, but they don't have to, since they could take over some of the places left vacant by women - except they'd be ridiculed if they did, because feminine roles are so belittled, even more when men who do them. Women can wear pants to work, cut their hair short, take on a masculine tone (to some extent), and be successful, but it's difficult for a man to do the opposite: wear lipstick, a skirt, and a bob, and expect success in a standard office. The naming tradition is just another example of this trend.

November 11, 2014 11:18 PM

I'd like to nominate Helen as a strong female name.  I had an aunt with that name who was one of the smartest people I know.  

November 12, 2014 1:20 AM

My middle name is considered a boy's name (Jerel) and honestly for a long time I hated it. Now I've learned to live with it and have embraced the uniqueness not to mention my brother namenamed me. He was 6 at the time so I realize how much that must have meant to him to take part in something that major. On the flip side, my first name has been on the unisex side as well. My best friend cousin's name was Lindsey Ray. I also know several guys named Shannon and have recently learned of a guy named Honey. Honestly the Honey may be a little much for my taste. 

By hka
November 12, 2014 1:22 AM

Gertrude - Strong Spear

November 12, 2014 12:54 PM

This topic comes up between me and my husband in the context of football players and coaches. Former Bears running back Danieal Manning (pronounced "Danielle"). Former Bears coach Lovey Smith. Peyton Manning. Marion Barber. Here's a discussion board where people list some more: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-544028.html We figure it's the "Boy named Sue," principle. These guys feel they have to be extra masculine to compensate for their names, so they go into football.

"Strong" girls names: Agree with Eleanor (of Acquitaine, as well as Roosevelt), Katherine, Elizabeth, Jane, and Margaret, and would add Ann. Queens, basically, although not especially powerful ones in the case of Jane and Ann. Helen is good too, and Diane. Lauren. Caroline. Do these sound "strong" to me because of the trend for masculine "ends in -n" names these days? Eve and Deborah and Judith and Ruth, and Lilith for that matter, in terms of names with dignity and strength not only based on their Biblical namesakes but because also they're so traditional, much used among older generations and the upper classes.

Many of these were on my own short list for my daughters, but since my husband prefers more exotic and more "girly" names -- all his choices ended in "a" and none of my "strong" names above does, I notice -- we went with "Elena" rather than Eleanor (but we still call her Ellie) and "Katerina" rather than Katherine (I call her Kat -- my husband does not!)

November 12, 2014 3:56 PM

I really want to change this trend - it's weird and so ingrained even I cant imagine a boy with an overtly feminine name and that bothers me because we are totally fine with the opposite which makes me think that women are still so oppressed even in the west ;(

We could sneak it in by giving subtly feminine names to boys until it becomes normal and acceptable - we could use names like, Sasha, a girls name in UK, is used in Russia as a boys name.. I also think Jan, Ellie, Jody, Jessie, +Laurie could be acceptable, subtly femiminie boys names - if these sorts of names became more popular for boys then maybe one day we could see a boy called Emily, and be fine with it

November 12, 2014 4:02 PM

Also how about Anansi/Anancy? its the name of a male spider God in Caribbean mythology

.....I could imagine a boy, in a culture not familiar with the mythology, being bullied quite a lot for being named Anancy ;(((

November 12, 2014 4:05 PM

Kat, I think Kat could work for a boy.. one syllable names seem to be less obvioulsy feminine

November 12, 2014 4:09 PM

Also Angel and Star work for boys but are still, imo, feminine

November 12, 2014 9:03 PM

I know of a family with three boys: Haley, Devin, Dorian. Per Name Voyager, Haley is a girl name, and Devin is more popular for girls than boys. Dorian is the only name which shows up entirely blue. 

I also know a boy who goes by Fran (different family), yet wishes his name were more masculine. Don't know why his family doesn't call him Frank. 

November 13, 2014 12:32 PM

@Beth01 - Actually Devin is quite a bit more common for boys (Devon too).

ETA: The links didn't post, but you can search NameVoyager yourself and see.

November 13, 2014 11:47 PM

Jamie is a nice name that to me sounds strong for both boys and girls. For other strong girl names I would add Claire and Caroline. Definitely going with the hard sounds here :) I would second Harriet, Diana, and Catherine. Hillary, anyone?

November 17, 2014 4:12 AM

Alessandra seems plenty strong to me.

November 29, 2014 5:03 PM

I found an interesting set of graphs about unisex names and found a couple names that have started out as female names and are now more used for males: 

Laverne was used more for females until 2000, when it was used almost exclusively for males (it's a pretty uncommon name though)

Lou was used mostly for girls until the 1980's

Merle was a pretty unisex name and used more often for females in the late 1800's to early 1900's but now is mostly just a boy's name

Mickey was pretty unisex and some years used more for girls until the 1920's when it switched to more of a male name

Ollie and Robbie made the switch from girls to boys in the 60's

Toby was more feminine than masculine until the 1940's

Tristen/Tristin was used more for females until the 1990's


By mcv
December 4, 2014 11:48 AM

I knew a guy called Anne once. Apparently Anne is not entirely unusual as a boy's name in Friesland.

Also, almost all men on my wife's side of the family are called Nimda, a name that goes back to a few centuries ago in Germany, where it was a girl's name.

April 3, 2015 12:01 PM

I named my daughter Madelyn because I love the sound and I feel it is strong and timeless. It would definitely join Harriet, Elizabeth, Catherine and Diane/Diana on a list of strong female names if I were compiling one. 

Personally, I dislike androgynous names for any gender. I want someone to read my child's name and know immediately whether he/she is male/female. But, I would never discourage a friend or family member from using an androgynous name if it was one they loved. I would describe my style as strong feminine (i.e. Charlotte, Claire, Madelyn, Elizabeth) and traditional male (i.e. Benjamin, Zachary, Nicholas, Matthew).

This often gets me into discussions with my father who likes to remind me that names I view as solely female (i.e. Shannon, Leslie, Ashley, Courtney) were originally male names.  

April 3, 2015 2:52 PM

Willa has always sounded like a strong name to me as well as Tara, and Reba. For me strong names seem short but with hard consonant sounds in the middle. Flowey names with lots of vowels seem feminine and frilly to my ears. 

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