In 1897, the popular humor magazine Life featured the William Walker cartoon “The Inauguration of the Future,” in which a portly, spectacled, middle-aged mannish woman delivers her presidential acceptance speech. On the right appear similarly corpulent women in robes and military attire, while on the left, cross-armed, gaunt, spectacled women sit in top hats. The only man on the podium holds a squalling baby.
Walker’s caricature typified for many the prevailing anxiety about women’s changing roles in American society in the late nineteenth century. If allowed to enter political life, particularly as a suffragette, the New Woman risked becoming manly, browbeating, and neglectful of her proper role as mother and wife.
And yet at the same time that Life satirized the New Woman as political activist, it also celebrated the statuesque white American Girl by one of the most popular artists of his time, Charles Dana Gibson. With her abundant upswept hair, corseted waist, pert nose, and towering persona, Gibson’s iconographic “Gibson Girl” quickly became the de rigueur of American femininity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that young women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class, often tried to emulate. Appearing on calendars, glove boxes, popular illustrated novels, decorative plates, and weekly magazines, the Gibson Girl affirmed women’s desire for greater freedom, but only as a personal, rather than political, freedom. Her youthful beauty, then, sanctioned her greater athleticism–swimming in the sea or exclaiming “Fore” to the world on the golf course; her greater autonomy in the marriage market–juggling prospective suitors unchaperoned; or, even, occasionally, her desire for higher education–wearing a cap and gown. Hers was a transgression that shoppers would want to buy.
Indeed, while Gibson disavowed the presence of women in political settings, he extolled the American girl as the catalyst for a new consumer-based economy and as a representative of the nation. As Columbia, she was an icon of American power and seeming invincibility during a period of U.S. imperial expansion. Gibson’s illustrations for Life featured the “joke” that the Gibson Girl was a trophy to be won, and as such, the money needed to sustain her shopping sprees should be indulged if they propelled the Gibson Man to work harder.
Both the mannish suffragette turned president and the Gibson Girl turned consumer became two sides of the New Woman coin: one a symbol of derision, the other a symbol to emulate.
The pages of that early version of Life offer an important frame to understand the historic moment of Hillary Clinton as the first woman to become the nominee for president from a major political party. Initially, it appears, her presence seems to offer, at last, a definitive refutation of anti-New Woman arguments typified in Walker’s illustration. Neither fat, ugly, nor spectacled, Hilary has not reduced her husband to the role of nanny nor driven her female supporters to expressions of manliness.
On the one hand, Hillary’s candidacy initially seemed to have provoked less of misogynist backlash as her 2008 run. We aren’t watching Saturday Night Live skits about her cankles or reading that she eschewed an appearance in Vogue lest she appear too feminine, a decline that prompted Anna Wintour to remark, “The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying.”
And, in some ways, even though Hillary’s hawkish approach to foreign policy suggests a need to assert masculine toughness, Hillary seems to have dodged Walker’s satire of maternal abandonment by being a mother and grandmother, which she noted in her presumptive Democratic nomination acceptance speech. She has watched her weight, in a way that a male presidential candidate could forego. She had declared herself a “bottle blonde” who wouldn’t “shrink from a fight”—thereby appearing younger but still tough enough to lead a nation.
And yet, a sexist backlash still frames Hillary’s candidacy, especially to the extent that arguments against her focus on how her behavior defies that which is positively but subordinately feminine—namely that her overwhelming political ambition leads her to break the rules.
If Obama, as the first president to break the color barrier, is accused of being foreign-born and secretly Muslim—in effect, profiting from the unpoliced borders of nation and religion–Hillary, as the first woman to break the barrier of sex, is accused, albeit indirectly, of being manly in her ambition and womanly both in her cowardice and deception. As man/woman she is inherently “crooked”—a term before this election season typically applied to men—in the very way that the corseted Gibson Girl is straight. Rather than smiling to please, she yells, presenting herself, in the words of Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, as “angry and defensive.” Pandora-like, she lies to mask the extent to which she is to blame for the world’s ills. In that hybrid of masculine ambition and feminine deception, she becomes, as we heard in the Republican Convention, monstrous, deceitful, criminal, murderous even. Her legacy, according to Trump in his acceptance speech, is “death, destruction and weakness.”
In the view of Trump’s supporters, Hillary is the candidate of transgression, the crossing of gender, legal, national and economic borders, as Trump is the candidate of walls—traditional gender roles, tight border security, and high tariff barriers. He is clearly the patriarch; the chooser of desirable women, the father of five children. His authoritarian style, exemplified by his admiration for Vladimir Putin, is an extension of that patriarchal role. Commanding other nations to bow to his authority, he would order Mexico to pay for the construction of a border wall and would somehow compel other countries to acquiesce to trade agreements more favorable to the United States.
Making American Great Again offers in Melania Trump a revival of the Gibson Girl, a figure more often seen than heard as beauty icon and trophy wife.
And yet, of course, the open/closed dichotomy is messy, just as the New Woman/Gibson Girl icon was. Trump has clearly benefitted from free trade and a globalized labor force; his wife is a first generation immigrant from Slovenia; his daughter Ivanka, more visible on the campaign than his wife, is an accomplished businesswoman.
But the historical parallel does offer us an important reminder of the lenses that still color how we view this first female presidential nominee and the zeal of her antagonist’s followers, even as it points to the irony of Trump as the disciplined border-control, tough-on-terrorism and law-and-order candidate. The quest for the Gibson Girl, as Columbia, was supposed to inspire a rigorous, but sedulous male counterpart in the clean shaven, prosperous, well-disposed Gibson Man. Trump’s impulsivity, petulance, and narcissism evoke long-held stereotypes of women as they suggest a body and mind governed by emotion rather than reason.
Changing who takes charge of the wailing baby and who assumes the office of the presidency is still, for many Americans, an uncomfortable upending of traditional mores, and raises an intriguing question. When Trump declared his candidacy in June of 2015, most Americans anticipated that Hillary Clinton would probably be the Democratic nominee. Had the Democratic frontrunner and eventual nominee been a white male, would the Republican nominee have been different? Perhaps not, but given the history of American New Woman iconography, it no surprise that her rival for the presidency offers Americans such a dramatic contrast, in gender politics as much as political vision.