By Linda Rosenkrantz
Since the beginning of US history, from the time of George Washington on, aspirational parents have bestowed presidential surnames (with a few exceptions like Eisenhower and Bush) on their sons, in the old platitude that every American lad could grow up to hold the country’s highest office.
(Though I admit that it’s certainly doubtful whether many of those 4474 new baby Tyler parents last year had President John Tyler in mind, let alone Rutherford B. Hayes or the anti-abolitionist Franklin Pierce, when making their choices.)
But something that caught my interest in looking back at these presidential statistics is a new wrinkle in time. Over the last few decades, girls have begun to be the recipients of these historic surnames for the first time. In the current pink column of Top 100 girl names, we find the names Madison, Kennedy, Reagan, and Taylor, followed, more recently, by Monroe at Number 692. (While Lincoln still lies far outside the girls’ Top 1000, it’s gathering steam.)
How did this happen?
MADISON. The greatest success story in the group by far is Madison, ostensible namesake of Founding Father James Madison, the fourth President of the United States , “Father of the Constitution” and more recently a key character in the musical Hamilton. As a male name meaning ‘son of Maud’, Madison was never in the higher half of the Top 1000—its highest point was in 1903 when there were all of 18 boys named Madison, and there were 63 years when there were none recorded at all, Madison dropping off the male list completely in 2004. As is well known, the feminization of Madison had nothing to do with politics at all, but rather with the Daryl Hannah mermaid character in Splash appropriating it for herself from a Madison Avenue New York street sign. That was in 1984. The name popped onto the list the following year, and by 2001 it was the second most popular name in the country, given to more than 22,000 baby girls, not to mention all the Maddisons, Madisyns, Madysons and Maddies. She stayed in the Top 10 till 2014 and now ranks at #15, as some parents have turned to Addison and Madeline instead.
KENNEDY. An Anglicized form of the ancient Irish name Cinnéidgh with the unfortunate meaning of ‘misshapen head’, Kennedy, surprisingly for such a popular president, was not a very well-used namesake for boys, ranking from 1960, the year of JFK’s election, to 1968, then reappearing in 1994 for another dozen years, but never rising higher than #853. It started to trend for girls in the 90s, a period when other three-syllable girls’ names were in vogue—Brittany, Emily, Kimberly, Tiffany—and has, for the last decade or so, remained almost exclusively feminine, a Top 100 girls’ name since 2011.
TAYLOR. This occupational surname originally became used as a first to honor 12th President Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican-American war, and continued to be used fairly consistently for boys, in the Top 100 from 1988 to 1997, when it started to drop. There had been a few known female Taylors, such as novelist Taylor Caldwell, but it was in the mid-90s that Taylor became wildly popular for girls, when another trend was boyish or androgynous names for girls. Reaching sixth place for several years, Taylor still ranks at#89, though slipping every recent year, represented by grown-ups like Taylors Swift and Schilling. On the other hand, President Tyler’s similar name never really took off for girls.
REAGAN. President Ronald Reagan’s name may have inspired some boy baby namers, but it actually had appeared on girls’ charts before his election to the office, and is still more popular for girls than their brothers (#97 for girls, off the boy charts completely as of last year). Reagan debuted for girls in 1975, a couple of years after the release of The Exorcist, featuring lead character Regan MacNeil and began its upward zoom in 1993, swept in with the rising tide of Irish names.
MONROE. Founding Father James Monroe was the nation’s fifth President and his surname was in steady, if unspectacular use for boys for most of the 20th century, at least until 1971. And then, in 2011, Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon chose it for their twin daughter, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. And then suddenly, Monroe, in tune with other Hollywood Glamour Girl names, was back—now for girls. It’s become a particularly popular middle name for celebs.
And what of the future? I’m sure that when the first woman President is elected, she’ll be happy to share her surname with boy babies, to even up the score.