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'Manning up' isn't the problem this election

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In this, the year of the Mama Grizzly, let's stop stirring the moose chili for a moment to ponder three words -- "man up" and "whore" -- and what they have to tell us about the muddled state of gender politics.

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"Man up" as in "man up, Harry Reid," from Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle on Reid's playing down of Social Security's financial woes. And, though it got less attention, from Missouri Democrat Robin Carnahan to Republican Roy Blunt at a Senate debate the very same night, on health care: If Blunt wants to do away with health care for others, Carnahan told him, "then you ought to repeal your own first. And man up."

"Whore" as in the accidentally tape-recorded suggestion by an unidentified aide to California Democrat Jerry Brown about a potential line of attack against Meg Whitman, his GOP rival for governor.

The "man up" phrase is part of a series of supposedly tougher-than-thou statements from female politicians. During the primary campaign, Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell told opponent Mike Castle he was being "unmanly," adding, "Mike, this is not a bake-off -- get your man-pants on." In the Colorado GOP Senate primary, Jane Norton assailed Ken Buck for not being "man enough" to run attack ads himself.

The queen of such discourse is Sarah Palin. Praising Arizona's immigration law and the state's female governor, Palin said that Jan Brewer had "the cojones" that President Obama "does not have" to take on illegal immigration. Then, Palin blasted "impotent, limp and gutless reporters." And Palin got in on the "man up" action the other day -- turning the phrase on her own side. "Hey, politicians who are in office today," she said, "you, some of you, need to man up and spend some political capital to support the Tea Party candidates."

Ladies! If we're so tough, so confident in our toughness and so comfortable with it, what do testicles have to do with it? The breakthrough appeal of the Mama Grizzly is that she combines the ultimate feminine act -- motherhood -- with fierceness. Have we really come a long way if cojones equals good and lack thereof equals wimpy?

I'm sure to some extent Angle and Carnahan were just being cheeky. There is space to acknowledge gender differences in politics, and not every reference with gender overtones -- remember John Edwards's comment on Hillary Clinton's pink jacket? -- is sexist or demeaning.

But some references are, and "whore," used about a female candidate, is one of them. More outrageous than the comment itself was Brown's get-a-life reaction to it. In a debate with Whitman last week, he grunted out an infuriatingly insincere-sounding apology wrapped in excuses:

Saying "whore" is not equivalent to using the N-word. (Okay, but not the point.) It was a "five-week-old private conversation picked up on a cellphone." (Ditto.) "I'm not even sure it's legal" to have released the tape. (Like I said.)

More Brown: "Have you chastised your chairman, Pete Wilson, who called Congress whores to the public-sector unions?" Whoa. Context matters. To take it back to the N-word, it's a lot different from one African American to another than from a white person to or about a black one. When I use the word "ladies," it's less fraught, and more obviously ironic, than it would be coming from a male columnist.

And Brown's concluding justification: "I'm sorry it happened." (I bet.) "That does not represent anything other than things that happen in a campaign."

Jerry, did I hear you say "Man up, Meg Whitman?" Because it sure sounded like, "If you can't stand the heat, get back in the kitchen." Brown did about everything except to tell Whitman to stop crying about it, little girl.

Folks, navigating the modern lines of gender and politics may seem like picking through a minefield, but the rules for safe passage don't seem all that complicated:

Don't equate typically female characteristics or activities (baking, wearing high heels) with weakness.

Don't -- even, or maybe especially, if you're a woman -- equate toughness with manliness. At least not unless you think it's acceptable for your opponent to tell you to behave like a lady.

Don't use terms with sexist or racist overtones. If you, or someone in your campaign does, groveling works better than quibbling.

Politicians of both genders don't need to man up -- they need to grow up. Judging by the campaign so far, that might be harder to pull off.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com


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