Origins of the Ascendant Mama Grizzlies

>Social issues are supposed to be low priorities for voters consumed with economic anxieties, but the puerile machismo of the midterm campaigns suggests at least a strong subliminal influence of anxiety about gay rights. With strong majorities of Americans supporting the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and increasing numbers (perhaps a small majority) favoring marriage equality, the anti-gay minority must fear and may even realize that its days in charge are numbered.

Women candidates' now banal challenges to their male competitors to "man up" and other schoolyard insults to masculinity (Christine O'Donnell told her primary opponent Mike Castle, for example, to "get your man pants on") are fairly obvious indicators of resistance to gay rights and a tendency to equate it with a weak, passive effeminacy. But so is the outright thuggishness of several high profile male Tea Party favorites: New York's Carl Paladino, who can't seem to stop himself from taking a baseball bat to his own campaign; Alaska's Joe Miller, whose security guards, active members of the military, famously handcuffed a reporter for asking Miller questions; and Massachusetts's congressional candidate, former bad cop Jeff Perry, whose prior complicity in the sexual abuse of a teenage girl seems to be catching up with him (and, as I've previous speculated, may prove embarrassing for his fervent ally, Scott Brown).

The authoritarianism of candidates promoted by a supposedly freedom-loving movement dramatizes the treachery of unreasoned, free-floating fury. I don't mean to reduce the appeal of tough-guy candidates during tough times simply to anti-gay bias (or any particular policy positions). It's not so easy to discriminate among the causes of indiscriminate anger. I'm suggesting that the advance of gay rights and the machismo of 2010 candidates are not coincidental.

Gay-baiting is hardly new to political campaigns, and Democrats (the proverbial mommy party) have long been more vulnerable to the taunts. 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 macho posturing is common and blatant this year -- among women as well as men, and tough girls seem to be faring better than tough guys, whose anger has a violent, dictatorial edge.

The success, so far, of aspiring "Mama Grizzlies" reflects another interesting 2010 trend: men more than women are on the defensive in this year's 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 Condoleezza 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, considering its homophobic subtext and its provenance in a sectarian, religious, anti-choice, anti-intellectual female empowerment movement, it's not exactly progress. You might fairly characterize the Mama Grizzly movement as a strain of feminism, but, considering its profound social conservatism, it's a strain that more closely resembles the late 19th and early 20th century women's temperance crusade than the late 20th 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 at the turn of the 20th century), it still elevates traditional, strictly bounded ideals of sexuality. There's nothing revolutionary about celebrating women's fierce maternal instincts. Underlying this movement is a sense that women need to "man up" because increasingly feminized men (left and center) are "manning down."

Of course, socially conservative women have not risen up simply in reaction to the advance of gay rights, 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.