A Boy Named Sue Ashley

August 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Has anyone here ever seen the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’?” I ask my class during a discussion of names. “Do you remember that there was a character named Ashley Wilkes?” I say. “That role was played by Leslie Howard.”

Most students have not seen GWTW, and they are surprised to learn that Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes is the one on the left. They know that Leslie can be a boy’s name, though it’s mostly for girls. But Ashley? Yes, Ashley. Until about 1939 (the year “Gone With the Wind” was released), Ashley was unknown as a name for girls. As a name for boys it was not common – most years, fewer than 10 per 100,000 – but it was not weird, certainly not among Southern gentry.

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

Then starting around 1950 and accelerating in the 1960s, Ashley took off among girls, followed by a smaller boom among boys. (The y-axes on the graphs are not the same scale. Male Ashleys at their peak in 1980 numbered only about 40 per 100,000. In the peak year for girls, the rate was nearly 700 per 100,000.)

Boys names becoming girls names is not unusual. Nameberry has a list of more than sixty names that have “morphed from blue to pink.”  The reverse almost never happens. Leslie is a good example. Until 1940, it was rare among girls, fairly common for boys. Up until about 1910, it ranked in the top 100 names for boys.

In the mid-1940s, Leslie became increasingly popular for girls, increasingly unpopular for boys. These contrasting trajectories suggest a sort of “there goes the neighborhood” effect. As girls move in, boys move out. Eventually the name becomes thought of as feminine, and parents no longer consider it fit for boys.

Kelly follows a similar pattern. For boys, the name is unusual; for girls it’s unheard of.

Then, around 1950, the number of boy Kellys triples in a decade, though those numbers are still relatively small – only in its peak year, 1968, does it break into the top 100 and then just barely at #97.  But following the boys by ten years or so, girl Kellys come on strong.  From ranking 904th in 1950 Kelly rose in popularity so that by 1966 she was in the top 20, where she remained for another fifteen years. The gender tipping point came in the late 1960s. Kelly became a girl’s name, and parents of boys stop choosing it.

The unusual thing about Ashley is that it reverses this pattern. The increased popularity for boys follows the girl Ashley boom by about ten years. That is, a small but increasing number of parents continued to name boys Ashley even after the name had become established as a name for girls.

Despite this exception, the unwritten rule of naming seems to be that you can give a girl a predominantly male name; she and her name will still be accepted. You might even be in the vanguard of a trend, like the parents in the late 1940s who named their daughters Ashley. But you can’t send a boy out into the world with the name Sue.                                        

Males are more constricted by norms of masculinity than are females by the norms of femininity. And not just in naming. Girls will do boy things, but the reverse is less common. It’s more acceptable for a girl to be a “tomboy” than for a boy to be a “sissy.”  Girls will watch movies targeted at boys, but boys shy away from girl-centered films. Among adults as well, women give favorable evaluations to TV shows targeted at men,  but men are less able to appreciate shows outside their narrow band of interest. (Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight thinks men are “sabotaging” women’s shows by giving them low ratings.) 

The same is true in fashion, where women can choose from a wider variety of colors and styles, including those usually for men. Men’s choices  are more constrained. Men will not wear skirts, but women will wear pants and even pants suits, an item of clothing I mention only as a cheap way of getting to one final name.

It follows the usual pattern – a male name, albeit an uncommon one, declining in popularity, crosses over and becomes a name for girls. Its popularity increases rapidly. Up to a point. That point was 1993. Hillary was doing fine before that, but then for some reason, parents of daughters were no longer with her.


trrish said...

I've noticed that my own children and their friends do not follow these gender conventions so strictly. "Gender fluidity" is gaining more acceptance - among the kids themselves, possibly more than some of the parents. Granted, we live in a very open and liberal environment, and we are deep into the creative end of life. A friend's son wears a skirt to school sometimes, my own son frequently chooses pink as a color he likes to wear or use, mixed gender bands are a common thing. They give each other a little more space to just be what they are. Hope I live long enough to see where it all goes.

Jay Livingston said...

It certainly seems that gender differences are narrowing, especially in our niche of the social ecosystem. In names too. Selecting boy names has come to share some of the same criteria as selecting girl names – a greater attention to fashion. You don’t just want to call the kid “Edward, Jr.” So the diversity is about the same - the top 10 or 20 boys names used to account for a higher percent of all babies than did the top girl names. That gap has disappeared.