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What’s in a name?

I have a bit of a confession to make. For years I thought that Robin Lane Fox was a woman. I was loosely aware of men being named Robin and probably should have put two and two together from Batman, if nothing else, but I only knew one person named Robin, the mother of a childhood friend. Since it never did (and still doesn’t) strike me as of any consequence whether work is being done by a man or a woman, it never even occurred to me to look up the gender. More recently, I had a similar experience with Robin Hägg. Things get even more muddled when the first name exists only as an initial, which leaves only a genderless letter. The problem, of course, is when I have to use a pronoun and therefore need to know the gender.

This topic came up yesterday when I was working with a book by an author whose name is “Alison.” The book is from the sixties and does not contain any biographical hints that give away gender. A quick google search has been less than forthcoming as to who this scholar actually is, so I am going with my gut and using “she.” But when I was only using the last name (and hadn’t looked at the first) I assumed that the author was male and used “he” throughout the section.

I am using scholarship by more men than women in my dissertation simply because there are more men than women in the corpus of research I am drawing on. I have taken to using only initials for the names of scholars for my dissertation, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I am reminded how much I use the names to cue in on gender, sometimes inaccurately. What bothers me about this is that I assumed the author was male until I looked up the first name–and that I suspect this would happen more often if I didn’t usually see the name before reading a piece. The worst that I could do here is embarrass myself, but the problems with sexism in academia are real, which is why I’m calling myself out for a genuine and fairly innocuous, easily correctable mistake.