Strong Women Are Scaring the Pants Off the Right

Last month saw Al Gore's triumphant return to Capitol Hill -- the once-ridiculed candidate now acknowledged as a visionary and treated with long-overdue respect. But the most remarkable moment of Gore's hours of testimony in both houses may have been one in which he wasn't even involved. It shined a light on both the changed atmosphere in Washington today, and the fear and loathing that that change is bringing on.

The most confrontational part of the day came when Gore was being questioned by Oklahoma senator, famed global warming skeptic and former chairman of the environment committee James Inhofe, in a battle of wits that was not exactly an equal match. Inhofe had trouble getting Gore to answer questions the way he wanted to, and kept interrupting him and complaining about the limited time he was given.

After some back and forth between Inhofe and Gore, the new chair of the committee, Barbara Boxer of California, put a hand on Inhofe's arm and said, "I want to talk to you a minute, please." After Boxer suggested that Inhofe give Gore the time to answer his questions, Inhofe replied, "Why don't we do this: at the end, you [Gore] can have as much time as you want to answer all the questions..." Boxer then interrupted: "No, that isn't the rule. You're not making the rules. You used to when you did this," she said, holding up the chair's gavel. "Elections have consequences. So I make the rules."

Boxer spoke with appropriate authority: not angry, not loud but unmistakably firm. There was no doubt who was in charge in that room. You could almost see the steam coming out of Inhofe's ears, not only because he had been deprived of his power, but because he was deprived of it by a woman. She even held up the gavel, the symbol of that power, and practically taunted him with it. Freud couldn't have scripted it much better.

The response in some quarters was unsurprising. Michael Savage, whose hateful rants are reportedly heard by 8 million radio listeners every day, hit the roof. Referring repeatedly to "foul-mouthed, foul-tempered women in high places bossing men around," he opined that the image of a woman giving a man orders would lead to more terrorist attacks (or something like that -- it was a little hard to follow).

And it isn't only extremists like Savage who are having trouble stomaching the idea of women in positions of increasing power. We now have a female speaker of the House, and the strong possibility of the first female president; the prospect is sending some men over the edge. MSNBC host Tucker Carlson recently described Hillary Clinton as "castrating, overbearing and scary." Why Carlson looks at the junior senator from New York and immediately fears for the safety of his testicles might be something he and his therapist should explore, but he's hardly alone -- after the election Chris Matthews wondered on the air if Nancy Pelosi was "going to castrate Steny Hoyer." And Matthews has gone through a series of man-crushes on politicians whom he sees as super-hunky in their masculine ways. First it was George W. Bush, then John McCain and the current object of Matthews' affections is Rudy Giuliani. "I think he did a great job," Matthews said about Giuliani's tenure in New York. "And I think the country wants a boss like that. You know, a little bit of fascism there."

If Rudy ends up getting the Republican nomination, it will be because the GOP primary voters ignore his stands on hot-button culture war issues in favor of that little bit of fascism they crave. And if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, we can expect a virtual explosion of sexist rhetoric, every last drop of it based in fear and anxiety. She already gets described with a whole series of derogatory adjectives that don't seem to ever be applied to male politicians -- she is "ambitious" (unlike the men running for president) and "calculating" (unlike every other politician), to take just two. U.S. News recently noted that a speech she gave "was devoid of hard edges, contrary to her longtime image among critics as a harridan and a polarizer." She must have appreciated the compliment. Conservative radio and TV host Glenn Beck admitted that Hillary Clinton's voice drives him crazy. "She's the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean?" he said. "After four years, don't you think every man in America will go insane?" (ABC News recently announced that Beck will be offering his insightful commentary on Good Morning America.)

For years, our campaigns have been marked by the "gender gap," the fact that Democrats do marginally better among women and Republicans do better among men. The gender gap in the 2004 election was actually relatively small -- John Kerry won women's votes by 3 points (51 to 48), while George Bush won men's votes by 11 points (55 to 44). But it is the fact that the latter margin is so much larger than the former that is worth noting. It is men, and white men in particular, who are so easily persuaded by campaigns like the one Bush ran, which can be boiled down to, "I'm a manly man, and my opponent is a sissy." Bush beat Kerry among white men by an astounding 25 points.

Should Hillary Clinton be the nominee, the gender gap will no doubt be bigger than it ever has been before. Part of this will come from some women who might have voted Republican (or not voted) casting their votes for her. But more of the gap will come from men fleeing from her, spurred on by the likes of Savage, Carlson, Beck and Matthews insisting that if you vote for a woman, then you must not be a real man.

One can't avoid noticing that as a group, conservative media figures are not exactly secure in their masculinity. Forever promoting war when they avoided military service themselves and doubling over to protect their tender parts every time a strong woman appears on their television screens, it's no wonder they are so impressed by politicians who may not be real men but know how to present a convincing facsimile of manliness.

Much of the audience that tunes in to the corps of overcompensating pretend macho men is just as insecure about their manhood, ready to cast a manly, masculine vote lest anyone raise an eyebrow at their choice for president. That doesn't mean that Hillary Clinton -- or any female presidential candidate, for that matter -- can't win. But if she goes around holding up any long, firm objects, a lot of guys' heads might just explode.


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