Mary S. Hartman

(WOMENSENEWS)–Is leadership a sex-linked trait? Are men–in particular, macho men–alone capable of being national leaders?

Of course not.

But you would hardly know that women are even eligible to run for public office if your sources were confined to this disheartening presidential campaign.

There, leadership equals strength and strength is identified with the tough guy; the Rambo patriot, or the sheriff in the OK Corral.

We are urged to believe that leadership is all about kicking butt, or saying “You’re fired!” like Donald Trump, or strutting around in a flight suit, or accepting a presidential nomination by giving a brisk salute and announcing that you are “reporting for duty.”

Such portrayals–naive at best–are insane in a globally interconnected world equipped with nuclear weaponry.

Chief Danger

The candidates themselves agree that the chief danger we confront now is a nuclear attack. So why do they–and we–remain so mired in dated, dysfunctional, gender-soaked stereotypes that equate leadership with a Charles Atlas (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) brand of manhood, as though what Osama bin Laden needs most is a good punch in the nose?

Why does Senator Kerry make so much of his Vietnam record? Why do President Bush’s surrogates undertake a desperate assault on that same record?

Because Kerry wants to remind us that he is an authentic he-man; and the president’s surrogates wanted to undermine the unacceptable idea that their guy was, relatively speaking, a sissy.

Four years ago an interviewer revealed that candidate George Bush could not identify the heads of some important developing countries. Nobody cared. This year John Kerry mistakenly referred to the Green Bay Packers’ stadium as Lambert, rather than Lambeau, Field. The groans of anguished incredulity subsided after three or four days.

What We All Know

Most of us know in our hearts, of course, that presidential leadership is all about making serious, thoughtful decisions about complex issues in an unsafe world. The presidential candidates know this, too. I even dare to hope that each feels a bit silly over their starring roles in all this championship-wrestling-style political theater.

One sign that young people, at least, have their doubts about the strutting and the saluting is their enthusiasm for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which makes wicked fun of it all.

Being at war only partly explains this campaign season’s appeal to hyper-masculine stereotypes.

The reason such stereotypes work at all is that most of us–women and men alike–still harbor at least the residues of belief that even in a democracy, strong, manly men are the best ones to be in charge.

David Frum even claimed recently in the National Review that since voters perceived the Republican party as the party of military strength, while perceiving the Democrats as the party of “accommodation and negotiation,” Republican presidential candidates won five of the six elections since 1968.

Silent or Sidelined

In all this, women are either almost totally absent (Kerry), or pandered to in saccharine sideshows created to complement the macho dramas on center stage (Bush’s “W is for Women” effort).

Again and again, gender stereotypes in this campaign have crowded out the opinions of real women and men. Down the memory hole, for example, is the finding of a 2001 Gallup poll that 92 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified woman for president.

An especially conspicuous entry in the potpourri of gender stereotypes is Naomi Wolf’s outlandish charge that Teresa Heinz Kerry’s speech at the Democratic convention, by spending more time on herself and other women than on her husband, “did more to emasculate him in public than the opposition ever could.”

As my students would say, “puh-leeeze.”

It is precisely here, in fact, that we need to pay more attention to the laughter of the young at all these gender antics and to what that laughter really means. They are the ones least taken in by macho preening. They get it. They know first-hand that here and in other developed societies–and increasingly in underdeveloped ones as well–women’s and men’s lives, along with their attitudes and values, are moving ever closer together.

At Odds With Reality

What is more, young people are quicker to recognize that the version of masculinity peddled by the White House parts not only from reality, but also from common sense.

Even the over-30s have begun to notice that anything that Republicans favor these days is masculine; anything Democrats favor is effeminate, possibly even French.

Twenty-four years ago Republicans presented Ronald Reagan’s (fairly brief) concern for budget deficits as typical of the tough, independent father figure who pays the family’s bills on time. Now any critic of the deficits is “an economic girlie-man.” Conservatives chortle when the Terminator levels that one against Kerry. Liberals wince. Jon Stewart gives a look and the kids burst out laughing.

But that doesn’t mean the Republicans are being stupid. They understand how the Rorschach test that is our political scene unearths gender-related fears and anxieties.

Even in the “liberal” media, women and men alike eagerly record their impressions about leaders and leadership in commentaries that are not so much rational assessments of the actual capacities and merits of the candidates as they are knee-jerk responses to ink blots.

Along with others who work hard to encourage young women to pursue lives in leadership, including in politics, I might be profoundly concerned about all the male posturing in this campaign. But thanks to the time I get to spend with students, I find I am actually more annoyed than concerned.

The laughter of young people helps to persuade me that our dated gender stereotypes may finally be on the way out; that they may even cease to resonate altogether with upcoming generations.

In the meantime, the candidates and their handlers had better pay attention to the hilarity over their labored productions in this campaign’s testosterone theater.

Before long, all this stuff is likely to be laughed off the political stage.

Mary S. Hartman directs the Institute for Women’s Leadership, a six-member consortium at Rutgers University (, and recently published “The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past” (Cambridge, 2004).

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