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The Wimp Factor
A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
In the last century the prime targets of hypermasculine politicians were the Mugwumps.
Political wimp-baiting was new neither in 1988 nor in 1984. It has ever been thus. American politicians and the American press perennially reflect and magnify the public’s hopes and fears. The presidential campaign of 1988 only confirmed what a historical perspective reveals: Sweeping changes in American life over decades and centuries have left virtually undampened the burning issue of masculinity; indeed, at times winds of change have fanned the flames. Historically, concern with masculinity has engendered a variant of what in 1969 Kate Millett called “sexual politics”—that is, “power-structured relationships” whereby one group (men) controls another group (women). But American sexual politics has been and is more complex and pervasive than that. Of course, men use sexual politics to control women, but men use sexual politics to control other men as well.
Masculine anxiety attended the birth and growth of American politics. Late in the eighteenth century Thomas Jefferson was accused of “timidity, whimsicalness,” “an inertness of mind,” “a wavering of disposition,” and a weakness for flattery, all stereotypically feminine traits. A late-nineteenth-century historian was more direct: Jefferson had been “womanish” because “he took counsel of his feelings and imagination.” Early in the nineteenth century the Indian fighter, war hero, and duelist Andrew Jackson referred to a politician whom he suspected of homosexuality as “Miss Nancy,” while another politician called the same man “Aunt Fancy.” In the same era, President Van Buren was accused of wearing corsets and taking too many baths, presumably perfumed.
In the game of sexual politics perhaps the most obvious nineteenth-century targets were men—the Alan Aldas of their day—who supported the women’s movement. Such weak-minded creatures, said the Albany Register in 1854, “tied to the apron-strings” of “strong-minded” but “unsexed” feminists, were “restless men” who “comb their hair smoothly back, and with fingers locked across their stomachs, speak in a soft voice, and with upturned eyes.” Similarly the New York Herald in 1852 had characterized “mannish” feminist women as “like hens that crow"—while most men who attended feminist conventions were termed “hen-pecked husbands” who ought to “wear petticoats.”
The petticoat recalls another antiquated slur that not long ago flowed easily from the pen of George Will, the columnist. Will seems to have inherited the mantle of concern with national toughness and masculinity from the late columnist Joseph Alsop, who was a grandnephew and spiritual descendant of Theodore Roosevelt. Will, intimating that then presidental candidate Paul Simon’s foreign policy would not be tough and manly enough, asserted that Simon had “lifted his pinafore and cried ‘Eeek’” when another candidate had “let loose” the “mouse of a thought” that American interests abroad must be defended. With such words, Will managed to insult one man and all women; he may also have intimidated politicians, male or female, who were concerned about the importance of presenting a strong image to the electorate.
In the nineteenth century the prime targets of hypermasculine politicians and journalists were those cultured upper- and middle-class reformers called Mugwumps. The machine spoilsman Roscoe Conkling attacked the leading civil service reformer and editor of Harper’s Weekly George William Curtis—who was conveniently both a Mugwump and a women’s suffragist—by asserting that such effete types “are the man-milliners, the dilettanti and carpet knights of politics” who “forget that parties are not built by deportment, or by ladies’ magazines, or by gush. …”
These reformers were further denounced as “political hermaphrodites,” as “namby-pamby, goody-goody gentlemen” who “sip cold tea.” They were, stormed Sen. John Ingalls of Kansas to his fellow legislators, “the third sex” and “have two recognized functions. They sing falsetto, and they are usually selected as the guardians of the seraglios of Oriental despots.” They were, fulminated the senator in nicely balanced rhetoric, “effeminate without being either masculine or feminine; unable either to beget or bear; possessing neither fecundity nor virility; endowed with the contempt of men and the derision of women, and doomed to sterility, isolation, and extinction.”
If the political argot of today and a century ago could have been conflated in the 1988 election, surely George Bush, with his Ivy League and Establishment pedigree, would have been labeled a “Mugwimp,” for, like Bush, the Mugwumps were attacked not only for the substance of their politics but also for their style and social class. And surely questions about the manliness of both derived from pervasive unease about masculinity in both fin de siécle eras. The hyperbole of Ingalls and Conkling suggests that an enduring American male concern with masculinity became inordinate late in the nineteenth century. Indeed, numerous scholars have discovered a masculinity crisis in that era of unsettling change. Why did this crisis develop?