Politics are an essential landscape through which a group can strengthen its forces of power and domination in a society. When a demographic or group can attain social ascendancy, their position of power can be buttressed and formalized through the attainment of political office. Hegemonic power can be reified and institutionalized through the shaping of federal policies and bureaucracies. Although women’s groups have been behind a number of important political reforms, most notably during the Progressive Era, political office and elite federal appointments were dominated by men up to and throughout the middle twentieth century. Women were were first elected to the House of Representatives in 1917 and the Senate in 1931, but composed a very small number of the seats. For politicians and upper-level bureaucrats, masculinized discourse and masculine traits became important pieces of political capital, which then doubled down on the influence of masculine principles on the federal government. Historians have documented a very strong surge of masculinized political discourse throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Language describing politicians, and especially surrounding their foreign policy attitudes, began to take on overtly masculine platitudes.
In an influential 1955 essay, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell cited an increasing polarized discourse between the “hard” and “soft” line in political discourse.[^] K.A. Cuordileone traced this hard-soft dichotomy and its masculine underpinnings to the 1930s, when Americans were faced with the immediate threat of economic hardship and the looming threat of Fascism and Communism.[^] Cuordileone found that this polarized gendered language and imagery expanded rapidly as the “hardness” of one’s line toward Communism became a primary political litmus test. Looking beyond the military posturing of the Cold War, Cuordileone found, ”…a politics that relied on a complex of sexually-charged dualisms; for cultural as well as political reasons, those dualisms imprisoned the discourse of the era and as a result impoverished its politics.”[^] The masculine litmus test became so powerful that it began to apply not only to the foreign policy and ideologies of a male politician, but also to his personal lives and past experiences.
The link between liberal policies and weakness and effeminacy began to gain traction in criticisms of the New Deal. The reliance on government assistance ran contrary to the “Self-Made Man,” a long-running staple of American masculinity. The Self-Made Man ideology was built upon the physical and intellectual strength of men to support themselves and their families without the help of other individuals or institutions. David K. Johnson argued that these bureaucracies and assistance programs were seen by many as emasculating and feminizing trends, and then men who enacted them were likewise effeminate and weak.[^] K.A. Cuordileone found the link between masculine attributes like simplicity, independence, and virtue and their oppositional effete characteristics of idleness, love of luxury, and self indulgence to be more fundamental, going back to early American history.[^] Cuordileone argued that reform had long been associated with women placing rules upon men, so liberal reformers were aligned with effete characteristics, which triggered a connection with much-maligned feminine control. Right-wing rhetoric recast the term “liberalism” as ”…feminine in principle, effeminate in embodiment, and emasculating in effect.”[^]
Building upon this linkage between liberalism and effeminacy (perhaps best understood in this context as “failed masculinity”) as well as a larger cultural turn against homosexual and effete men, politicians began a venomous campaign against homosexuals in the federal government. The argument, according to conservative politicians, was that homosexuals, by nature, were immoral, and could be targets for blackmail or subversive activities. Underwriting this was the popular understanding of a strong link between straight hegemonic men and political leadership in America. The subversion of masculinity by homosexuals brought critics to question their likelihood to subvert other essential pillars of American life.[^] Congress, the Pentagon, and the State Department became filled with vitriolic and aggressive witch-hunts to rid the federal government of homosexuals, in what has come to be known as “The Lavender Scare.” Although the Lavender Scare is often associated with McCarthy, as his accusations brought about political showmanship, Johnson argued that concerns began in 1947, were institutionalized, and existed for decades to come.[^]
The link between the New Deal and effeminacy was not limited to its policies. David K. Johnson, in his book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, examined the gay subculture that grew in Washington DC as a result of the increasing size of Roosevelt’s federal government.[^] He argued that the growing gay subculture, the result of a growing city and a slowly coalescing gay identity throughout the nation, made it easy to link homosexuality (and, in turn, a subversion of masculinity) with Roosevelt’s policies, advisors, and State Department employees.[^] Following the Roosevelt administration, liberalism continued to be linked with the “softness” of effete characteristics and a weak front towards Communism and other foreign threats.
Anti-effete and antifeminist feelings were legitimated in the minds of many conservatives in the wake of Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking (and best-selling) research on male sexuality. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Kinsey’s book, released in 1948, sent shockwaves through the United States, as many Americans realized that premarital sex and homosexuality were much more widespread than previously thought. In the minds of many Americans, Kinsey’s study granted some credibility, to the accusations that effete federal officials were “homosexual perverts.” Physical traits and mannerisms became a focus for venomous attacks from political opponents. These attacks created a new focus on the bodies and characteristics of politicians and public servants. Public officials with medical conditions attempted to cover up their issues, or created fictitious or exaggerated accounts of combat or athletic issues to glorify their visible defects.[^]
Robert Dean, in his study of masculine political discourse in the Cold War era, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, found a patronage system for elite federal bureaucrats and politicians that leaned heavily upon a system of male-only organizations. These organizations, from boarding schools to fraternities and military service, shaped the way these men thought, and served as important passages for these men to achieve professional stature and proper manhood. The experiences and credentials earned though these institutions, which were highly valued by the elite “brotherhood” carried great weight when it came to appointments of political office. Dean argued that military service in WWII, became an essential part of this masculine identity, and slightly shifted and opened the patronage system and the discourse surrounding it. Placement in military service, especially in elite or accomplished squadrons, opened paths for upward mobility for many lower class men to establish themselves as capable and deserving of a position in political aristocracy.[^] According to Dean, the patronage system that filled many national security positions played into the hands of men who saw themselves as “aristocratic warrior-intellectuals”[^]
The emphasis on bodily masculinity during the Cold War, combined with the increased status of military patronage, led to politicians emphasizing their military service to assuage any potential doubts about their masculinity. Military service was practically a requirement for high office, and many privileged young men went to great lengths to see combat, especially in elite forces.[^] Political candidates and elite government officials paraded their service as a qualifier for public office, and often exaggerated their own experiences and credentials.
The liberal response to these criticisms was also heavily anchored in notions of masculinity. The discourse that the New Deal was feminizing was contested through imagery that touted the revival of the workforce and the masculine qualities of labor. The federal government, as well as labor unions, touted New Deal policies as an opportunity for men to return to work and reestablish themselves as successful providers for their families. In the post-war years, the conservative charges won out, and liberals sought new avenues to establish their masculinity. Cuordileone’s Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War focused on the masculinity present in the works of two of the most prominent American liberals, Arthur Schlesigner Jr. and John Kennedy. Kennedy’s elite family history lender itself to narratives of privileged softness and “eggheadism,” a criticism launched at liberal intellectuals. Kennedy’s backstory was bolstered by tales of courage and heroism, centered around his experiences on PT boat patrols during World War Two. According to Dean, the valor and action of Kennedy’s actual experiences on PT boats were generally mundane, and the boats were a very small part of the Pacific fighting force.[^] Much of the Kennedy mythology was formed around his leadership and courage aboard PT 109, combined with the notion that he was commanding an elite fighting force, and this narrative assuaged any doubts about his ‘soft’ upper class upbringing and elite education.
On the intellectual and ideological side, Kennedy also produced a body of work to showcase his strength and hard diplomacy. The dismissal of timidity and appeasement, and the courage to step forth and put an end to it prior to pre-WWII were central concepts in Kennedy’s Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage. Schlesinger’s work focused on assigning masculinity and strength to liberal ideology. Schlesinger’s Vital Center, according to Dean, attempted to alter the current discourse on liberals and recast them as hard-nosed cold warriors and move away from their depictions as effete intellectuals.[^] Schlesinger went so far as to say that the American tradition of radical democracy was threatened by “soft,” “dough-face progressives.”[^] “The sentimentalists, the utopians, the wailers” undermined the “hard” liberalism he sought to put forth during the Cold War.[^] Schlesinger’s “hard liberal” was then created in opposition to the masculine criticism waged at New Dealers and effete liberals.
Although the Lavender Scare caused great harm to homosexuals across the nation, David K. Johnson found that the purge was as much about partisan politics as it was about any real concerns over national security.[^] John D’Emilio referred to the purge as “the entanglement of homosexuality in the politics of anticommunism”[^] There was never any strong evidence of homosexual security risks, and no homosexual federal employees were ever prosecuted for divulging secrets. Sexuality and masculinity were only used as tools to smear opponents and undermine policies. The success of this campaign, however, speaks volumes for the amount of distrust and hatred for homosexual and effeminate men. Johnson wrote, “Originating as a partisan political weapon in the halls of Congress, it sparked a moral panic within mainstream American culture and became the basis for a federal government policy that lasted nearly twenty-five years and affected innumerable people’s lives.”[^] The ultimate long-term effect of the Lavender Scare, according to D’Emilio and Johnson, was to aid the development of gay rights organizations and create a politically active community that pushed back against these injustices in the following decades.[^][^] The Lavender Scare, the nadir of masculinized political fear-mongering, illustrates that the enforcement of hegemonic masculinity was strong enough to subvert entire political ideologies and ruin the careers and lives of thousands of individuals.