With Cowgirl County in the NYT magazine, Salon.com senior writer and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister knocked the it out of the political rodeo with a fresh perspective on the Giffords-Palin controversy:
Whether or not you believe there is any connection between the first assassination attempt ever made on an American female politician and the gun-slinging rhetoric of the first Republican woman ever nominated for the vice presidency, what’s undeniably true is that despite the vast philosophical and intellectual chasms between them, Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin have something in common: they are both cowgirl politicians. In this, they are symptomatic of the too-narrow ways in which the United States is willing to accept women as leaders.
I couldn’t find my boots and hat, but I found Willie Nelson’s Mammas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…and with a little tweaking, the lyrics could Traister’s theory of those “too-narrow ways” just fine.
Them that don’t know
him won’t like him
And them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him
He’s not wrong he’s just different and his pride won’t let him
Do things to make you think he’s right.
America has no tales of Amazons or of Atalanta; our national narrative does not chronicle the defeat of an armada by a virgin queen nor a teenage Joan leading her army into battle. American history includes no Cleopatras or Hatshepsuts; no Trung Sisters, who defended Vietnam from the Chinese in the first century; and no Catherines, great or otherwise. The mythos of our founding revolves entirely around fathers, save for the seamstress Betsy Ross and the querulous spouse Abigail Adams.
What we do have, to serve as the foundational fantasy of female strength and individualism we’ve agreed upon as embodying American power, are cowgirls: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, the outlaws, frontier women and pioneers who pushed West, shot sharp, talked tough and sometimes drew blood. Frontier womanhood has emerged as one of the only historically American models of aspirational femininity available to girls — passive princesses and graceful ballerinas not being native to this land — and one of the only blueprints for commanding female comportment in which they are regularly encouraged to invest or to mimic.
It’s no surprise, then, that female political prospects have long been stronger in Western states. America’s first elected female senator was Hattie Caraway from Arkansas (appointed to fill her husband’s seat in 1931 and elected to keep it in 1932), the first congresswoman was Jeannette Rankin of Montana (a pacifist social worker elected in 1916, Rankin was raised on a Missoula ranch and used to tromp “through deep snow potting bears and wolves for pastime”). In 1925, the first two female governors were sworn into office just weeks apart: Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming, the first territory to grant women suffrage, in 1869, and Miriam Ferguson in Texas.
Recently, too, the West has tended to do better by women than the East. Among the most high-profile modern officials have been the former Colorado congresswoman and presidential aspirant Pat Schroeder, and the Democratic convention keynote speakers Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards, both Texans. Arizona, Texas, Washington and Kansas have all elected multiple female governors. Though Connecticut has had two chief executives who were women, its quasi-inclusive approach is an anomaly among long-settled Eastern states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and, until recently, New York, all of which have more anemic histories of women in politics.
If it takes Annie Oakley to win the west, the east must favor a Trigger-like woman holding up her version of Roy – someone like the wife of Chris Dodd – but I digress and Traister contiues:
Even definitively uncowgirlish politicians have sought to gain ground by posing as flinty Westerners. In 2007, the scarf-wearing San Francisco sophisticate Nancy Pelosi made like John Wayne, telling George Bush: “Calm down with the threats. There’s a new Congress in town.” The Wellesley-educated suburbanite Hillary Clinton also did some spur-clicking at the start of her presidential run, telling hosts of “The View” that “we can’t be patsies” when dealing with China, and proclaiming in town-hall meetings that when attacked, “you have to deck your opponent.” True, both women were maneuvering through an era of presidential brush-clearing and swaggering diplomacy. But while American history has known other kinds of male authority — we’ve had Yankees and peanut farmers, policy wonks and orators, haberdashers and horn-dogs — we have made considerably less imaginative space for ways in which women can persuade us of their ability to lead.
This history is a big part of why Sarah Palin’s rootin’-tootin’ approach to image-building has often struck me as pretty savvy. Whether you think that Palin has perfected, perverted or merely performed the role of frontierwoman, her caribou-hunting, bear-evading shtick has helped situate her directly in the heart of the only tradition in which America has historically been able to celebrate its mighty women. It has made sense based not only on her home state and her constituency, but also on the history of America’s affection for cowgirls, long contrasted with its chillier attitudes toward businesswomen, brainiacs and feminists.
Giffords, a lifelong horsewoman and motorcycle enthusiast, is a Westerner who has been, necessarily for her district and her upbringing, friendly to guns and unfriendly to gun control. She gained political power in the state where she was raised, where conservative constituents liked her gumption enough to overlook her Democratic Party affiliation and more liberal social politics. It’s probable that she could not have eked out her November victory had she not been perceived, in the words of Representative Steve Rothman of New Jersey, as “charming, lovely, brilliant, warm, intellectually curious, intellectually honest — and tough as nails.”
Last week, President Obama announced that Giffords had opened her eyes after he dropped by her hospital room, but he hadn’t been the only one visiting. In addition to her husband and parents, three of Giffords’s colleagues stayed in her room after the president left: Pelosi, now the House minority leader; Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has lately edged away from her own pro-gun politics by removing the rifles she once kept under her bed. As Gillibrand told CNN, Giffords was squeezing her hand while she talked about how they wanted to grab pizza and beer together, and Wasserman Schultz was promising a New Hampshire vacation when Giffords first opened her eyes, a moment that Wasserman Schultz compared to the birth of her children. In this tableau are embedded hints of other kinds of mythic female strength, rooted in collaboration, friendship and support.
These qualities should stand in no more definitively or essentially than the gun-toting profile to which women politicians have been encouraged to cling to for far too long. But the fact that it is now possible for three female congressional colleagues to cheer a fourth through a miraculous recuperative step demonstrates that it’s high time we expand our vision of how women might, and do, embody America’s spirit.
SLABBED salutes Traister for her meaningful contribution to the conversation – and, as Sop’s re-posted post from the SLABBED archives indicates, SLABBED sends an entirely different signal to those women who no longer have a horse on the Happy Trails of the U.S. Senate.