Viewing Presidents Through Gendered Stereotypes

The title of the latest column by David Ignatius caught my eye: “Trump needs a dose of ‘manly virtues.’” But it went in the opposite direction from what you might have expected. In comparing the current president to Harry Truman, Ignatius writes:

What can today’s occupant of the White House learn from Truman? The Missourian had many qualities now celebrated by historians, but let’s focus on his personal character. Truman exhibited what in those days were called manly virtues — quiet leadership, fidelity to his beliefs, a disdain for public braggadocio. He never took credit for things he hadn’t accomplished. He never blamed others for his mistakes.

What is interesting is that when Obama demonstrated exactly that kind of “quiet leadership,” we heard criticisms from both the right and the left that he needed to “man up.” There was plenty of talk from conservatives about how Obama was weak, while Michael Moore employed the gendered symbolism of saying he needed to take off his pink tutu and put on the boxing gloves. Bill Maher added a racial slant by saying Obama wasn’t gangsta enough.

As a mirror image of that kind of criticism, people on both the right and left suggested that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy positions represented an overcompensation for being female. In other words, being “tough” is the domain of males only and any woman who is exhibiting that trait must be pretending.

Regardless of your opinion about any of these politicians or their policy views, all of this speaks to the way the presidency is viewed through the lens of gender stereotypes. For example, the qualities Ignatius describes are indeed virtues. But why did he describe them as “manly?” He suggests that comes from the days of Truman’s presidency. I wasn’t around back then so I don’t know how well that captures the gendered stereotypes of the day. But it’s likely that whatever was viewed as virtuous, especially in leaders, was assigned to men. That is because men had been dominating leadership positions for centuries.

The truth is that the virtues Ignatius is promoting have more typically been part of how women are stereotyped in the modern era: quiet leadership, fidelity and humility. That is precisely why we heard cries of “man up” when Obama exhibited them. But they are something we should value in all leaders- along with virtues like integrity, resolve and courage. The fact that we still rely on gendered stereotypes that sort these virtues into categories like “manly” and “womanly” tells us a lot about the grip that patriarchy continues to hold on our culture.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.