No More Cowboys: How American Politics Is Gendered - by Connor Aberle

“My heroes have always been cowboys,” read a popular bumper sticker in the late 2000s. Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat sat on the left side of the sticker and George W. Bush in a similar hat was on the right. Although this is a cheesy campaign bumper sticker, it is a perfect example of masculinizing politics; the cowboy is a symbol of strength, skill, and masculinity, and portraying Reagan and Bush as cowboys associates them with masculine power. Politics of gender pervade United States politics and dangerously correlates entire ideologies with a socially ingrained power structure. Conservatism is linked with masculinity and liberalism with femininity, which is problematic because masculinity is associated with strong leadership whereas women leaders are perceived as weak or bossy.

Polls indicate that certain leadership qualities are more often held by different genders. Respondents perceived women to be more compassionate and men to be more decisive. This plays into a popular cultural perception of women to be more feeling while men are more calculating and thinking. Perhaps many people portray themselves as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” because the femininity of liberalism contributes to compassion and the masculinity of conservatism equates to well-calculated fiscal policy. The same polls indicate that men are perceived as better political leaders than women, explaining the underrepresentation of women in elected positions.

A few examples corroborate well the idea assigning gender to leadership styles. Ronald Reagan is the prototypical masculine leader. In the opinion of the modern American right, hostages in Iran were released on the same day that Reagan was inaugurated because Reagan represented strong, stern leadership. This claim is false, but it does not prevent Republicans for rejoicing in Reagan’s masculine leadership. Mitt Romney communicated this idea in his 2012 campaign: “I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength ... There's a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in.” Marco Rubio echoed this thought in his failed 2016 bid: “When I become president of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama, and it will be like Ronald Reagan, where as soon as he took office the hostages were released from Iran.” This misinterpretation of history imagines Reagan to embody such power and leadership that Iran acquiesced and released American hostages on the first day of his presidency—something Jimmy Carter was too “weak” to accomplish.

Along similar lines of Iranian hostages, Reagan is credited by the right for successfully demolishing the Berlin wall. The line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” is historic, but it is simply untrue to suggest that the Berlin wall was not going to fall until a strong leader like Reagan stepped in. Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation John Heubusch views this speech as a “verbal salvo” that caused Soviet states to “fall to freedom like dominoes.” In the constructed image of Reagan, he could unleash a military onslaught in the spread of freedom with just his words.

Bill Clinton symbolizes masculine leadership well because he co-opted traditionally conservative rhetoric. Clinton preempted Republicans on crime, welfare, and affirmative action with stunning results: he was the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two consecutive elections. This led to the infamous aspects of Clinton’s legacy. His 1994 crime bill was the follow through on a promise to be tough on crime. Clinton said, “Every day, we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder.” This is likely a lie because crime rates had reached a new low in the 90’s. But Clinton used criminality as a threat that he could stop through strength.

In 1992, Clinton released a campaign ad in which he vowed to bring the “end of welfare as we know it.” Welfare reform is evidences Clinton’s masculine appeal because he directly steals this rhetoric from Reagan. While running for office, Reagan slammed the “welfare queen” who drove a “Cadillac” and took advantage of the welfare system. Although this is a commonly debunked myth, the image of the welfare cheater helped portray as a stern rule-enforcer in opposition. Clinton borrows this language in his 1992 ad to the same tough-but-fair effect.

Barack Obama has seen a different side of gendered politics during his tenure as president, often to comical effect. Obama symbolizes feminine leadership through his policies and actions: he attempted to ensure universal health care access, he fought to protect the environment, and he cried over the death of Trayvon Martin. Obama certainly played up “masculine” attributes like bragging about finding and killing Osama bin Laden, but the controlled image focused on his giving and feeling, qualities this society associates with femininity.

After the Iran nuclear deal, Republicans echoed Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker with the phrase “leading from behind” to describe Obama’s weak (and thus feminine) leadership. Charles Krauthammer proclaimed in the Washington Post, “It is the liberal elites who revile the American colossus and devoutly wish to see it cut down to size. Leading from behind — diminishing America’s global standing and assertiveness — is a reaction to their view of America, not the world’s.” Here Krauthammer portrays liberals as active enemies to masculine elements of the United States like size and assertiveness (men are portrayed as “assertive” or commanding” whereas women are “bossy”).

More comically, Obama’s choice in clothing has been the subject of a feminine portrayal of the former president. Throwing the first pitch for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Obama wore loose fitting jeans for ease of movement. Sarah Palin quipped, “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our President as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Quite obviously, Palin contrasts the ultra-manly Putin with Obama who wears pathetic mom jeans. This unnecessarily gendered article of clothing became a joke that Obama was so feminine that he even dressed like a woman.

Two different articles in the Washington Post are both titled “Obama: the First Female President.” The first article from 2010 focused on positive qualities of Obama that are traditionally feminine. The author praised him for his coalition-building, and chided him for hesitancy and passivity. The second article simply harped on Obama’s “feminine mystique” and mocked him for appearing on The View and offering hugs and kisses.

The crucial problem of associating leadership styles with gender is that the United States privileges male leaders even when “feminine” leadership may be much better. If “coalition building” is a feminine quality, what does the United States miss with a supposedly masculine leader? Diplomacy requires delicate and patient dialogue. A shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach like a cowboy makes no room for diplomacy. Trump’s desire to return to isolationism poses a similar problem in that the modern global economy and interconnected world requires understanding and collective action. We must detach gender from leadership such that world leaders can employ an array of tactics instead of sticking to a scripted expectation of gendered action.

Gendered portrayals of leaders must stop also to combat false notions of masculinity and femininity. Immediacy of action is not inherently masculine; it is impulsive. Compassion is not feminine; it is human. No attributes are exclusive to masculinity or femininity, and perceiving leadership styles through the lens of gender only reinforces gender roles. As a society, we must demand a leader that is compassionate and stern, coalition-building and strong. American presidents must have the flexibility to use any leadership technique to contend with the intricate world. Our leaders should be complex human beings, not cowboys.

Connor Aberle