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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., talks

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., talks during her first campaign organizing event at Los Angeles Southwest College in Los Angeles on May 19, 2019. Credit: AP/Richard Vogel

With multiple women among the Democratic presidential frontrunners, there’s a better-than-usual chance that the next leader of the free world will answer to “Madam President.”

This got The Point wondering about the origins of the term (and its variant, Madame President).

A search on Google’s Ngram Viewer feature, which charts the appearance of words in various books over time, shows some one-off uses of the phrase in the 19th century. But computational linguist Kyle Mahowald notes that Ngram shows the term picking up soon after use in the minutes of the 1884 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a group founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Stanton appears to have been the association’s “Madame President” referenced.  

In 1887 the Women's Christian Temperance Union resolved to use the term for its leader, as quoted in a circular from the time.

“Madam” has clear benefits. Bustle, a publication focusing on women, made that point in a 2016 article during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, noting the superiority of “Madam” over “Miss” or “Mrs.,” which would “be an emphasis on her marital status that just doesn't come along with ‘Mr. President.’

The honorific appears in the organizational standard Robert’s Rules for addressing a woman chair or president, according to Daniel De Simone of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.

But the term has so far never been applicable at the highest level of American politics.

“There also might be an opportunity for whoever becomes the first woman president to establish precedent herself,” says De Simone.

It could be up to her to decide whether to “Call Me Madam.”

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