- - Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Sexual politics is always a slippery game. Democrats are salivating at the possibility of winning the White House with Hillary Clinton. They’re enamored of the wide female gender gap in her favor. (Nobody says very much about the male gender gap running the other way.)

But sexual politics has frequently been difficult to gauge. It’s quicksilver coursing through improbable cultural moments, exploited from various vantage points, and slides enigmatically across the landscape of politics. Sometimes sexism is in the blinded eye of the beholder.

We’ve come a long way since women first employed their sexuality to determine who occupies the White House. “Petticoat politics,” as women’s participation in campaigns was described in the 1840 campaign, when Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison, a hero of a battle with the Shawnee Indians on the Tippecanoe River in Indiana, who with his running mate John Tyler were famously described as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” It was the first time women were actively drawn into a presidential campaign, and they rallied for Harrison against Martin Van Buren, the incumbent.

Harrison was 67 years old, and would be the last president born a British subject and the first president to die in office. (He was younger than either Hillary or the Donald are now.) He was no longer a dashing officer in gaudy uniform, derided as “Granny Harrison.” Women were encouraged to rally to a man few had seen, and to spread feminine idealism through nostalgia. What Harrison really needed was a woman to tell him to “wear your overcoat,” because he rode a white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue to his inauguration in a driving cold rain on a raw March day. Several days after he spoke for almost two hours, bareheaded without a coat, he caught a cold, which became pneumonia and pleurisy. Three weeks later he died.

Women couldn’t vote, but they influenced the vote. In his book, “The Carnival Campaign,” Ronald Shafer tells how the campaign of 1840 was “the mother of modern presidential contests.” For the first time women went on the hustings, reflecting mixed messages of female power that have come down to us today, for better and worse.

“When the sound of war whoops on our prairies was the infant’s lullaby, our mothers reposed in security, for Harrison was their protector,” a female Whig speaker told the ladies. “We would indeed be traitors to our sex if our bosoms did not thrill to his name.”

More prim than their female forbears in the Aristophanes play, “Lysistrata,” who deprived their men of sexual favors until they ended the Peloponnesian War, Whig women teased their suitors that they wouldn’t marry a man who voted for Martin Van Buren. Such men were “dumb and unpatriotic.” One woman threatened to call off her wedding if her betrothed voted for Van Buren. Another wife took the challenge to her front lawn where her husband was hooting at a parade of Harrison supporters. She gently put her hand over his mouth and waved a Harrison banner. The Harrison crowd roared approval.

Even then it was “the economy, Stupid.” A Whig wife in Massachusetts confronted her husband, a Van Buren man, and asked demurely with sweet innocence, how could he vote for Van Buren when under his Democratic administration his wages were cut and they couldn’t pay their bills. It was his turn to demur.

“Women for Harrison” gave voice to serious subjects, invading male clubs and Van Buren men accused them of “unsexing” themselves. They rode against the enemy in decorative bonnets and sashes with campaign slogans, and waved from canoes on the shoulders of men in torchlight parades. Men spilling from taverns pelted them with eggs.

Such tales reminded me of the contemporary couples in a story in The Washington Post who are riding marital turbulence of differing enthusiasms for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. One such wife told her husband — only half-joking, surely — that if he voted for the Donald, “I’ll divorce you and move to Canada.”

The Donald brought in pollster Kellyanne Conway to manage his campaign and to shore up support from women. She thinks he can demonstrate how his policies will be good for women if he cuts out the crude insults. She says suburban caregivers, waitress moms, seniors, religious women all have good reasons to listen up.

But if women are to get his message, Kellyanne may have to act like that Harrison supporter who reached around her husband’s mouth to keep him from sounding off. Not easy to do, and modern turf is slippery, too.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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