Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, gave an Army brigadier general an order this week during a committee hearing: Call me “senator.”
Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers had addressed male senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee as “sir” during the Tuesday hearing. When the time came to speak with Mrs. Boxer, the panel’s chairwoman, he called her “ma’am.”
Mrs. Boxer quickly interrupted him.
“Do me a favor, can you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’?” Mrs. Boxer pointedly asked the general. “It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it. Thank you.”
He obliged. “Yes, senator,” he dutifully responded.
The disagreement marked a deep clash in cultural understandings of appropriate address and respect. Some feminists consider the term “ma’am” patronizing; in the military, it is seen as an honorific.
California State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a Republican who is running against Mrs. Boxer in 2010, said “ma’am” is a “perfectly acceptable sign of military respect to both a U.S. senator or a senior female officer.”
Mr. DeVore said in a statement that Mrs. Boxer’s rebuke effectively “dressed down” the general and contradicted the Army’s own guide to protocol, which instructs service members to call members of the U.S. Senate “sir,” “ma’am” or “senator.” A retired Army veteran, he participated in Operation Praying Mantis to destroy the Iranian Navy in April 1988 by designing the strategic concept of it as a Reagan appointee Army officer at the Pentagon.
“So, Gen. Walsh was simply following longstanding tradition,” Mr. DeVore said.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, agreed that Mrs. Boxer was out of line and said she’s “embarrassing herself by showing hypersensitivity and insecurity that is unbecoming to a United States senator from the great state of California.”
“I’ve always been suspicious of women who are insulted by pronouns,” she added.
Mrs. Boxer spoke with the general the day after the hearing, but her office did not say whether she thought the general had acted toward her in a sexist way.
Zachary Coile, communications director for Mrs. Boxer’s office, said Thursday that “Sen. Boxer called Brig. Gen. Walsh earlier today.”
“They had a friendly conversation, expressed their respect for each other and talked about how they look forward to working together to protect our communities from natural disasters,” Mr. Coile said.