Does Barack Obama Have Testicular Fortitude?

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Ms. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.

During this protracted Democratic primary season, issues of race and gender have taken center stage. Race and gender politics are no stranger to the political trail; however, they have become the competing elephants in the room now that the final choice for the nomination has come down to an African American male, Barack Obama and a white woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton. While this is undeniably a historic moment in American politics, the analysis of race and gender within the body politic, for the most part, has followed precedence. As whiteness is constructed as the norm so that race is seen as something only possessed by people of color, so too maleness is constructed as the norm so that gender is seen as something only possessed by women. Hence, in mainstream discussions, race and gender are often oversimplified. Constructed within an either/or paradigm, the two systems are viewed as polar opposites rather than as an interlocking system, a double stitch, if you will, threaded throughout the American fabric.

In recent days, charges of sexism have been levied against the news media and even the Obama campaign as a number of Hillary Clinton surrogates have cited gender discrimination as the cause of the New York senator’s second place showing in the primary race. The purpose here is not to refute or confirm this allegation, but rather to insist that issues regarding gender have not been exclusive to the Clinton campaign. Unfortunately, there has been a persistent silence within recent feminist discourse regarding gender issues as it pertains to Barack Obama. Nowhere is this more evident than in the commentary surrounding the comments made by Paul Gipson, president of a local steel workers union in Indiana, in his endorsement speech for Hillary Clinton during an April 30, 2008, campaign event. Gipson spoke of the type of leader the unions would need in order to perfect the provisions in NAFTA stating, “I truly believe that that’s going to take an individual that has testicular fortitude. . . That’s exactly right. That’s what we gotta have.” Gipson’s overt masculine language lent credence to the image of Hillary Clinton as the “fighter” in the Democratic race, a portrayal her campaign began to nurture during the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary. Yet, Gipson’s statement asserting “That’s exactly right,” goes one step further. He emphasizes to his audience in unambiguous terms precisely what he wants to convey, and that is, Hillary Clinton's got balls.

The reaction to Gipson’s statement was swift. Catherine Price, a writer for, responding to questions regarding whether or not Gipson’s comment was a compliment or an insult to Hillary Clinton, or if it was sexist, thought the discussion was much ado about nothing. Price believed that Gipson’s comment merely reflected our male centered society in which his wording only demonstrated an inability to articulate characteristics that are widely associated with masculinity, yet, in reality, are not gender specific. Price asserts:

Instead of simply saying that we want a strong leader who can stay calm in a crisis, be assertive, bring people together, negotiate and evaluate issues rationally and intelligently (a description that, incidentally, includes both "masculine" and "feminine" traits), we say that we need someone with "testicular fortitude," because we associate leadership with masculinity. Historically, this makes sense; most of our leaders have been male.

I would almost agree with Price except that she, and incidentally others who have joined this conversation, have viewed Gipson’s comment without any consideration for how his words should be interpreted in relation to Clinton’s male opponent Barack Obama. Are we to assume that these comments bare no insult to the senator? Could such comments be viewed as reverse sexism? Consequently, by assuming that issues of gender only relate to women, Obama has become, at least in this conversation, the invisible man, to use the words of Ralph Ellison. This is a gross error. For it stands to reason that to state unequivocally that Hillary Clinton has the testicular fortitude to run the country, is to also state unequivocally that Barack Obama does not. This sentiment was expressed several days later in Eleanor Clift’s Newsweek article titled “Showing His Mettle: Obama Needs to Show Super Delegates His Willingness to Throw a Punch.” Clift questioned Obama’s manliness due to his refusal to respond to Hillary Clinton’s “kitchen sink” strategy by indulging in a proverbial appliance free-for-all, the type of gutter politics Obama has sought to avoid. Clinton surrogate James Carville’s contribution to the article at once challenged Obama’s machismo while subordinating his masculinity to the supposed masculinity of his female rival stating, “If she [Clinton] gave him [Obama] one of her cajones they’d both have two."

Gipson’s, and subsequently Carville’s, comments coupled together demonstrate far more than an inability to articulate leadership in gender neutral terms. Theirs was a direct and deliberate assault on Obama’s masculinity, shaping a narrative which raises doubts in the minds of voters regarding whether or not the Illinois senator possesses the temperament needed to make the tough decisions as required by the president. Catherine Price is correct when she states that historically our leaders have been men, thus, leadership and masculinity become synonymous. In the same token, historically, our leaders have also been white. Thus, whiteness and masculinity have also become synonymous. Hence, Obama becomes feminized while Clinton is branded “the man” in the match up for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton’s portrayal as being more masculine than Barack Obama bears historical significance in that it articulates a racialized gendered narrative rooted in 19th century ethnology which theorized whiteness as masculine and blackness as feminine.

During the mid nineteenth century, American intellectual thought turned away from the universalism of the Enlightenment to embrace a racialist romanticism which generalized about the diversity of national character of peoples with whom they came in contact. American historiographers of romantic thought such as William H. Prescott, Francis Parkman, and John Lothop Motley, made general comparisons of national characteristics between the Spanish and the conquered natives of Mexico, the Anglo Saxon and the “Celtic” French, and Germanic- Celtic stocks which comprised the Dutch nation, respectively.

What emerged according to George Fredrickon’s The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817 -1914 (1971), was a celebration of the Anglo-Saxon whose innate character was born of “a love of liberty, a spirit of individual enterprise and resourcefulness, and a capacity for practical and reasonable behavior, none of which his rivals possessed” (98). Yet others such as Theodore Parker, an anti-slavery advocate, also recognized a dark side to Anglo-Saxon character which he described as “his restless disposition to invade and conquer other lands; his haughty contempt of humbler tribes which leads him to subvert, enslave, kill, and exterminate” (100). Although numerous terms were used to describe American ethnologic identity such as Anglican, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic-Anglo Saxon, mid nineteenth century Anglo-Saxonism came to differ from its late nineteenth century counterpart in that the former was inclusive of diverse European stocks making no distinction between various groups. At this time they were all placed under one umbrella: Caucasian.

Simultaneously, as the national character of the Anglo–Saxon was becoming popular, the slavery debate turned the focus of discussion towards the African American population. During this time, there were two schools of thought regarding black character. As Fredrickson notes, “The biology school saw the Negro as a pathetically inept creature who was a slave to his emotions, incapable of progressive development and self government because he lacked the white man’s enterprise and intellect.” Nevertheless, others whose thoughts were based in romanticism and evangelical religion provided a different assessment as Fredrickson further notes, ”Where scientists and other ‘practical’ men saw weakness, others discovered redeeming virtues and even evidence of black superiority” (101).

The evidence of black superiority, as espoused by romantic racialist thinkers, was embraced by abolitionists, both black and white, who viewed the African race as the redeemer race whose innate character as a natural Christian differed sharply from that of the “Angry” Saxon. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface of her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), described her characters as possessing, “a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race.” The depiction of blacks as the polar opposite of whites comprised a racialized gendered persona which viewed black traits as interchangeable with those attributed to women. Stowe’s most famous character Uncle Tom, the embodiment of Christian virtue, differed little from the author’s white female character Mary in The Minister’s Wooing (1859). The stark similarity between the two caused Helen Papashvily to conclude in All the Happy Endings: A Study of Domestic Novels in America (1956) “that Uncle Tom might have been a woman” (73). Romantic racialist thought advanced the notion that blacks and women shared the same traits. As Alexander Kinmont declared, “the black race was more ‘feminine and tender minded’ than the whites” (quoted in Frederickson 114). Mid 19th century black ethnologists, while not fully accepting the concept of racial difference, embraced the romantic notions of the redeemer race, according to Mia Bay’s The White Image in the Black Mind: African American Ideas About White People, 1830 – 1925 (2000), “present[ing] the races in counterpoint”(71). Most black ethnologists during this period believed that each race possessed traits uniquely their own. Blacks were:

moral, pious, and benevolent . . . less aggressive then Anglo-Saxons. A Redeemer race, people of African descent was destined by both Providence and their God-given gifts to endure and survive slavery and oppression, and to lead mankind toward a millennium. By contrast, whites were all but irredeemable. Greedy and warlike, whites had been savages in Europe, and they still terrorized blacks and other people of color. (72)

While Black Racialist Thought embraced the romanticism of a racialized gendered notion of difference contrasting “between the feminine black race and masculine white race,” whites were far more emphatic in emphasizing the so-called womanly traits of the African than their black male counterparts. The pre-eminence of the femininity of blackness proved counterproductive to black men seeking to define themselves on an equal footing with white men; while morality may have bolstered their status within the racial hierarchy, such a position proved tenuous, as in manhood they were seen as inferior to whites. Consequently, within the male dominated discussion of racial difference, white men shaped the narrative which perpetuated the stereotype of black man as cowardly, weak, emotional, and irrational, traits attributed to women.

Such an image proved problematic for black men during the Civil War as romanticized notions of racial difference cast black men as unfit for military duty. Despite the fact that black men had fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, romantic racialist thought of the 1850’s cast doubts in the minds of even the staunchest abolitionists regarding whether or not black men were tough enough to assume the duties of a soldier. Black men were eventually allowed to enlist, though few were allowed to serve as officers. Nevertheless, they used the war to not only demonstrate their patriotism, also to demonstrate their manhood. Despite serving in the Civil War with distinction, black men continued to war against the ideals of romantic racialist thought which cast doubts upon their masculinity for much of the twentieth century.

As we near the end of the Democratic primary season, the historic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton serves as metaphor for the progress as well as for the failure of America to come to terms with issues of race and gender. While Carville’s comment was an overt attack on Obama’s masculinity, Gipson’s comment, though overt in its use of masculine terminology, proved subtle in its effort to subordinate the Illinois senator’s masculinity to the supposed masculinity of his white female contender, something 19th century romantic racialist thinkers never attempted to do. Taken together, such statements articulate in staunch terms that the historical privilege of whiteness and maleness remains a stronghold in American society. Hence, while this historic moment demonstrates a decisive move towards transcending race and gender stereotypes in American politics, it also demonstrates the long journey which remains in putting such infantile ideas away.

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