11/09/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Election 2010: Man Pants and the Girlie-Man

Now that the midterm elections are over, it is time to decide what they were about. The right answer, of course, is many things. The economy, to be sure. The future direction of the nation, definitely. But I think they were also about something else, the signs of which are more subtle, but the outcome of which might, in the long run, the most important question of all is how do we think about gender.

As a society we have been nibbling around gender definitions and expectations for a long time. What is the difference between the sexes? How important is it that there be such a difference? Is it meaningful to think in terms of men's vs. women's roles?

Once upon a time, the answers to such questions were obvious. Now they are contested and shifting, round and round, back and forth. Gradually, women have moved into territory that once was occupied only by men: the corporate boardroom, the university lectern, and all but the highest level of American government. To a more limited degree, men's options were also extending and the lines getting fuzzier; men are now nurses and kindergarten teachers, and can even take paternity leaves to be with their children... sometimes.

But, important as these are, they are merely the official manifestations of gender differences and their consequences. What is yet to be resolved is the more tangled question of what it means -- if it means anything at all -- to be or behave like a man or a woman.

And the beginnings of a resolution of that question, or perhaps of an understanding that the question is becoming less salient, may be the most important thing that, in the end, this election will turn out to be about. Over and over we saw new gender roles being played with, tried on, and evaluated. To be male or female in the future will not be quite the same as it was a year ago.

For instance: it has always been acceptable, if abominable, that women seeking high positions could be attacked as behaving in ways inappropriate to their sex. Ever since women started running for public office (and actually even earlier, when they started to demand suffrage), female candidates were brought down by questions about whether they were fit to hold such offices -- their children were too young, they had no children, what if they suffered from menstruation when the red button had to be pushed?

Equally irrelevant questions might have been devised for male candidates, but since the male officeholder was "normal," such questions were not only un-askable, but unthinkable. Women had to cross a gender line on their way to prestigious work, and crossing that line made them vulnerable to attack.

Hillary Clinton, in her concession speech in 2008, made the first stab at the gender line in the sand with her remarks about the cracks in the glass ceiling. But no one's ox was gored in making that metaphor. It remained for this election cycle to make gender differentiation a dangerous game and new spectator sport.

Sarah Palin's evocation of "mama grizzlies" to describe the female Tea Party candidates she endorsed might have been the opening wedge of the new gender perspective. (In this way Palin is indeed a feminist, if only in this way.) Traditionally, women could be "mamas" (nurturing and protective) and men could be "grizzlies" (aggressive and dangerous). But a "mama grizzly" (a new collocation) are by definition all of those things; they cross gender lines, and it is natural that they do so. Indeed, because it is natural, they are all the more powerful for doing so, and demand our admiration and respect for doing so. We, of course, are the cubs that Palin's grizzlies are protecting, so our only appropriate emotion must be gratitude.

It is true that Clinton may have been first in commingling that set of gendered traits and making the combination acceptable for a woman in her 2008 "3:00 a.m." ad. But the ad was a bit too scary for many -- too literal and insufficiently metaphorical. Representing strong women as creatures (nothing new there!) rendered them less threatening.

Then there was the explosion of insults from socially conservative women in the Tea Party, directed against their male opponents, demands that they "man up" or put on their "man pants"; wondering aloud about their "cojones." While men have always been able to twit strong women about their sexual inadequacy or gender inappropriateness, this is the first time that I am aware of that women had such weapons available to them for public use and were unafraid to use them. This novelty is all the more astonishing when you recall that the women flinging these words around were social conservatives: women who, in all other ways, wanted to keep the gender lines firmly in place (no abortion, no gay rights.

And finally, there is the striking difference in the reactions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner to their reversals in fortune last Tuesday. Pelosi smiled (a bit thinly, to be sure), and acted tough, saying she would stand her ground and fight. Boehner, on the other hand, went through his news conference barely able to control his tears, raspy voice, and snuffles -- a quintessential traditional girlie-man.

It used to be axiomatic that girls could cry, but men had to be brave. Only thirty years ago, Edmund Muskie had to abandon his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination because he had been brought to a public display of tears. But today a strong woman can be tough, and a strong man can dissolve in emotion. The times, and the genders, they are a-changin'.

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