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Weren't Republican Women Supposed to Like Men -- and Act Like Ladies?

4 years ago
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As others have noted, the hot trend among candidates on the campaign trail this year is questioning the other guy's sexuality. But that it's female candidates who are doing most of the ridiculing has me wondering whether those of us who've argued that more women on the political stage would raise the level of discourse weren't just plain wrong.

And shouldn't we at least be asking whether there's any connection between these increasingly common taunts, from candidates who act like they're in the seventh grade, and the heartbreaking recent spate of bullying of and attacks on gay kids?

Of course the nine New York thugs – the Latin King Goonies, they like to be called – who recently tortured two teenagers and a 30-year-old in a homophobic rage were not literally taking their cues from the cutesy put downs used by female Senate candidates like Sharron Angle (R-Nev.) and Robin Carnahan (D-Mo.). But do we really need any more reminders that squirreliness about sexuality regularly leads to violence? How can we tell our kids that both words and actions have consequences and then elect leaders who run around pointing groinward and laughing?

In Monday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote that we are living in "the era of Republican Mean Girls, grown-up versions of those teenage tormentors who would steal your boyfriend, spray-paint your locker and, just for good measure, spread rumors that you were pregnant. These women -- Jan, Meg, Carly, Sharron, Linda, Michele, Queen Bee Sarah and sweet wannabe Christine -- have co-opted and ratcheted up the disgust with the status quo that originally buoyed Barack Obama. . . . They are the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate." Some of this strikes me as projection, torment being one of Dowd's own many talents, and she, too, has been known to question a man's manhood, as when she described presidential candidate Al Gore as "so feminized he's practically lactating."

Still, it's true that most, though not all, of the women mocking an adversary's lack of political cojones are Republican, and that's actually quite odd to me. According to their own narrative, weren't conservative women supposed to be the ones who liked men – and hated seeing them put down? Isn't there something disconsonant about touting womb-to-tomb respect for life, then shouting about testicles in any language?

I keep trying to imagine my seriously conservative Aunt Virginia, regent of the DAR -- who wore pumps and full makeup to pick up her dry cleaning, who signed me up for the Phyllis Schlafly Report in the seventh grade, and who would have given Ronald Reagan her last nickel -- saying such a thing, but I can't get there. Nor am I at all sorry about that.

For better and worse, these aren't Elizabeth Dole-style Republicans, but I hope they haven't permanently jettisoned one of the things I admired most about the classy R dames I grew up around, which is that they really were ladies.

Sarah Palin was, as usual, a bit ahead of the pack when she said back in August that Arizona Gov. "Jan Brewer has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans" by cracking down on immigrants. Defeated Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, a former secretary of state, also told her fellow Republican and runoff opponent Nathan Deal that month that it was "time to put the big-boy pants on" and stop "squealing" about her campaign ads. (Deal narrowly won the run-off.)

This fall, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell called her fellow Republican, Rep. Mike Castle, "unmanly" for filing an election law complaint against her. "This is not a bake-off,'' she admonished. "Get your man-pants on.'' Which is the same way Republican Jane Norton of Colorado spoke about her primary rival, senatorial nominee Ken Buck. "Seen those ads attacking me?" Norton said in an ad. "They're paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck. You'd think Ken would be man enough to do it himself."

Last week, Sharron Angle smiled as she zinged her debating partner on the topic of Social Security: "Man up, Harry Reid!" And that same day, Democrat Robin Carnahan told her Missouri Senate competitor, Roy Blunt, that she disagreed with him on health care reform. Only, she didn't put it quite that way: "I think people should have access. They should have the same access you have as a member of Congress. So I think if you want to repeal health care reform and let insurance companies go back to their worst abuses, Congressman, then you ought to repeal your own first. And man up. And do what you're asking other people to do."

At least a couple of Republican men have also gotten in on the questionable cojones-questioning: In his campaign in 2009, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said Jon Corzine should "man up and say I'm fat." And the ever-genteel New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, in an open letter challenging Andrew Cuomo to a debate, wrote, "Frankly, I don't think you have the cojones to face me and the other candidates." (Uh-huh, he so does: The debate was Monday night.)

If I'd known that "Man up!'' was going to be the favored insult of the '10 campaign season, I'm not even sure I would have named Politics Daily's women's blog "Woman Up'' when it launched 18 months ago. Yes, the tagline is "Where big-girl panties are always a fit,'' but we were joking, not putting anybody down.

The phrase "man up" does seem to have become more insulting over time; in September, the Times reported in its "On Language" column that "the earliest example I've found of this extended use is from 1987, when the San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Mike Charles told The Union Tribune: "Right now, by the grace of God, we're hanging by the skin of our teeth. Now we've got to man up and take care of ourselves."

The sentiment behind the current usage certainly isn't new, and Madeleine Albright questioned Fidel Castro's cojones 14 years ago. But isn't it time to button up about man-pants, and maybe even big-girl panties? Women in politics and beyond would rightly cry sexism if the tables were turned. And wouldn't a little more decorum from the aspiring gentlemen and gentleladies do us all good?

Click here to follow Melinda Henneberger on Twitter.

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