The Mama Grizzlies: ‘manning up’ for a fight

For all the muscular femininity of Mama Grizzlies like Sarah Palin, they actually take their cue from the 20th-century women’s temperance crusade.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

A strong majority of Americans – 78 per cent – favours repealing legislation barring gay people from serving openly in the military. But a minority of mostly Republican senators representing a much smaller minority of voters have successfully obstructed repeal, thanks partly to Senate rules and partly to the Constitution, which disproportionately provides every state with two senators regardless of population.

Whether or not Republicans take over the Senate in 2011, their numbers in that unrepresentative body will surely grow, enhancing their ability to obstruct an increasingly popular gay-rights agenda. They’ll be aided by the Tea Party, which has dramatised the power of minority voting blocs in American politics. Tea Party candidates for federal office, who generally oppose gay rights (and often demean gay people), were nominated, on average, by less than six per cent of the voting electorate, according to a recent American University poll. The majority doesn’t rule, especially when the majority doesn’t vote.

Sometimes the majority shouldn’t rule – when it acts to limit fundamental liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, religion and due process are only a few of the rights constitutionally protected from potentially tyrannical majorities. But gay-rights activists have both the Constitution and popular opinion on their side. The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law requiring gay members of the military to hide their sexual identities and the Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal recognition and federal benefits to gay people legally married by any of the 50 states, have rightly been struck down by two respective federal courts as unconstitutional violations of equality (in Log Cabin Republicans v U.S. and Gill v OPM). To the dismay (but probably not the surprise) of gay-rights advocates, the Obama administration, which opposes these laws, is appealing court rulings invalidating them, citing its general obligation to defend federal legislation, regardless of its merits. Eventually Americans will enjoy equal marriage rights and equal rights to serve openly in the military regardless of sexual orientation; but if the gay-rights movement is an irresistible force, the minority opposing it is an old, immoveable object.

Resistance to social change naturally becomes more entrenched and sometimes more violent as change becomes more likely. In the mid-twentieth-century American south, legal segregation and the denial of voting rights to black people ended with the murders and beatings of civil rights activists. Anti-gay violence is less organised and perhaps more sporadic, but it persists: a gay male was kidnapped and tortured in New York recently in a particularly barbaric attack. A string of suicides by gay teens is fuelling concern about bullying, which in turn encourages overreactions to jokes and the mildest of slurs and unreasoned demands to expand the definition of ‘hate crimes’.

Consider the tragic case of college student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his sexual encounter with another male was secretly videotaped and broadcast by his roommate. The videotaping was a gross and quite possibly criminal violation of Clementi’s privacy, and two students allegedly responsible for it have been charged with privacy offences. Still, some gay-rights advocates are calling the videotaping a hate crime, apparently assuming that any offence against a gay person is motivated by hate, which ought to be criminally prosecuted – as if hate itself were a criminal emotion.

Biased policing descends from the tragic to the trivial: one of the latest non-newsworthy controversies in the news involved a clip from a movie trailer in which a character refers to electric cars as ‘gay … not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay’. Making an issue out of stupid jokes will not advance the drive for equality, much less improve its image. The challenge to advocates for social change confronting a backlash is eschewing sanctimony and understanding that freedom allows you to give offence and requires you to take it. So do political campaigns, especially this year.

Social-issue conservatives are clearly anxious and angry about the increasing respectability of what they like to call the ‘gay lifestyle’ and the prospect of gay equality. New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino recently denounced homosexuality in a speech to a group of Orthodox Jews (whose support he sought) and attacked his opponent, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for taking his daughters to a Gay Pride parade. Paladino is running in New York, not South Carolina (where Senator Jim DeMint freely opines that gay people should not teach in the public schools) – so his remarks were widely criticised by Republicans as well as Democrats, and he quickly offered an equivocal apology for his ‘poor choice of words’.

Colorado Tea Party Senate candidate Ken Buck also generated controversy (but has not had to apologise) for opposing repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, partly because homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’, and to the extent that it may be may be genetically determined, Buck said, homosexuality is like alcoholism.

Meanwhile, as the press has recently noted, ‘man-up’ is now a campaign catchphrase. Attacks on a candidates’ sexuality are not new, and the Democratic Party, popularly dubbed the Mommy party, has long been characterised as insufficiently macho. Democratic senator John Kerry’s status as a combat veteran didn’t stop Republicans from implicitly deriding him as effeminate during his 2004 presidential run (he does, after all, speak French). But this year, gay-baiting and schoolyard insults to masculinity are blatant and routine, as the popularity of ‘man-up’ suggests. Both Republicans and Democrats have adopted this taunt, (in Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Robyn Carnahan has used it against her male opponent). But macho posturing has been especially pronounced among Republican female candidates, aspiring members of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzly club.

In Nevada, Tea Partier Sharron Angle exhorted her opponent, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, to man-up. More creatively, Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell falsely charged her opponent, county executive Democrat Chris Coons, with spending 53,000 taxpayer dollars on a ‘men’s fashion show’. (Coons’ office once contributed a few thousand dollars to a fundraiser for a local youth group that included a fashion show.) O’Donnell had previously exhorted her primary opponent, long-serving congressman Mike Castle, to ‘get your man pants on’. (When I referred to schoolyard insults to masculinity, I was being literal.)

It’s worth noting that men, more than women, are on the defensive in these 2010 gender skirmishes. Traditionally women seeking or enjoying positions of power have found their sexuality under attack (as current and former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice could testify.) This year, women – especially Republican women – are running unabashedly aggressive, belligerent campaigns, without being smeared as unfeminine. This reversal of fortune may feel like rough justice to some women; but it’s not exactly progress, considering its homophobic subtext, as well as its provenance in a sectarian religious, socially conservative, anti-choice, anti-intellectual female empowerment movement, sparked by the ascent of Sarah Palin. You might fairly characterise this movement of Mama Grizzlies as a strain of feminism, but, considering its profound social conservatism, it’s a strain that more closely resembles the late nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s temperance crusade than the late twentieth century drive for sexual equality.

While the Mama Grizzly movement advances a relatively muscular femininity (as did some of the women who took on the liquor industry), it still celebrates traditional, strictly bounded ideals of sexuality. There’s nothing revolutionary about celebrating women’s fierce maternal instincts, and underlying this movement is a sense that women need to ‘man up’ because increasingly feminised men (left and centre) are ‘manning down’.

Of course, socially conservative women have not risen up simply in reaction to advances by the gay-rights movement, but given the likelihood that gay men as well as women will eventually be permitted to serve openly in one of the last bastions of machismo – the military – these self-identified Mama Grizzlies are unlikely to back down soon.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Parts of the above article originally appeared at

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