Manly Firmness: It’s Not Just for the 18th Century (Unfortunately)

Manly Firmness: It’s Not Just for the 18th Century (Unfortunately)

The references to “manly firmness” are everywhere in late-18th-century political sources. For example, Edward Dilly wrote to John Adams from London in 1775 to praise the men in the Continental Congress, “for the Wisdom of their Proceedings — their Unanimity, and Manly firmness.” In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed the crimes of the King against the North American colonists. He pointed a finger at George III for dissolving representative governments in the colonies because those governments had opposed “with manly firmness” the King’s “invasions on the rights of the people.” After the war, as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton pushed for a more centralized form of government, they used the adjective “manly” in three of the numbers of the Federalist Papers. In Number 14, Madison crafted a version of the American Revolution in which colonists had “not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names,” and praised “this manly spirit,” to which “posterity will be indebted.”

The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America. (Library of Congress| Public Domain)

None of this is news for anyone who has studied the United States’ founding era for the last four decades. In 1980, Linda Kerber told us in the very first page of the very first chapter of Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America that the “use of man” by Enlightenment writers “was, in fact, literal, not generic.”1 It’s not that these writers and thinkers completely ignored women and women’s roles, but rather they did not challenge the roles of women in society in the same ways that they challenged their ideas about taxation, monarchy, male citizenship, and other formerly-accepted constructions in the world around them.

In the founding era, both male and female writers had acknowledged that women could understand politics, but when these same writers approached the idea of a woman’s formal political participation, they tended to do so in a mocking and dismissive manner. Decades of college students have now studied Abigail Adams’s 1776 plea to her husband that Continental Congress should “Remember the Ladies” as they created a “new Code of Laws.” These students have also read John Adams’s maddening response, calling his wife “saucy,” and proclaiming, “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

Abigail Adams at age 21. (Wikimedia Commons| Public Domain)

Those masculine systems and the frequent use of “manly firmness” in the written record struck me as I worked with various 18th-century archival sources in September and October of 2018. It wasn’t the focus of my research, but I began to make note of it because the language was unavoidable. Like many of the founding-era documents I examine, the language struck me, too, because for all the ways American government and society have changed in almost two and a half centuries, the language of politics remains gendered. One of the many places that this can be seen still is in the politics of campaigning for President.

In 1984, a woman appeared on a major party ticket for the first time. Democrat Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his Vice Presidential running mate. When the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost to the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush ticket, some Democrats blamed the loss on the fact that Ferraro was on the ticket. Patrick Caddell spoke for many Democratic misogynists when he said, “we can’t afford to have a party so feminized that it has no appeal to males.”2 In language not really different from 18th-century language of manly firmness, Caddell and others across the political spectrum determined that political acumen was male, that women were too weak or emotional for higher office.

Ferraro speaks at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Standing behind her are California Congressmen Bob Matsui and Norman Mineta and future San Francisco supervisor Tom Hsieh. (Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons| CC BY-SA 3.0)

At the end of the cold war, women who dared to make a run for the office of President were seen as hormonal and emotional, and therefore not to be considered for the highest office in the land. If the President needed to push THE BUTTON that would unleash nuclear war, pundits, commentators, columnists, and voters were not sure a woman would be strong enough or stable enough to take that step. (Alternatively, some opined that women would be too unstable and therefore too likely to lead the country into nuclear war.) In 1987, some Americans who watched Representative Patricia Schroeder cry as she announced her withdrawal from the Presidential race took her tears to mean that all criticism of women was correct: women were emotionally unfit to serve in the highest office in the land.

Manly firmness remained on the table at the end of the 20th century and continues to do so in the 21st. Both male and female candidates are under intense scrutiny as reporters comment on and dissect their facial expressions, their perceived empathy or lack thereof, their clothing, and their tears. Much of this analysis allows the public to hold candidates up to what political scientist Mary Anne Correlli has called, “the traditionally masculine schema” of the presidency.3 Male candidates sometimes fall short of the ideal of manly firmness, but it is even harder for women to convince voters that they could rule effectively in a masculine space.

Of course, since the 2016 election, gendered political discourse has been particularly hard to ignore, even for those who do not constantly think in terms of gender as a useful category of analysis, historical or otherwise. As a candidate and then President, Donald Trump has demeaned and belittled his female political rivals and a whole lot of other women regularly. As Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, pointed out, “Donald Trump has been playing the man card, by talking about the ways in which his opponents are, in fact, not masculine enough for the office.” The man card will be one factor that plays out as we enter the next round of presidential campaigning.

On Monday, December 31, 2018, the first female candidate tested the waters. Elizabeth Warren announced that she was forming an exploratory committee as the first step toward a Presidential run. Earlier that month, her hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe, urged her not to run. The editors of the Globe wrote that, despite her reelection as Senator in Massachusetts, “there’s a ceiling on her popularity.” They then cited a September 2018 poll that put former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s favorability ratings higher than Warren’s for a Presidential run. The editors claimed that Warren “has become a divisive figure,” and that a “unifying voice is what the country needs now.”

Warren marches in the 2018 Boston Pride Parade. (Warren/Wikimedia Commons| CC BY 2.0)

It’s hard to believe that the fact that Warren is a woman is not one underlying element in the editorial. Certainly, Warren recently committed a serious gaffe with claims about Native American heritage and her recent DNA test.4 However, as Peter Beinart, a contributing editor to The Atlantic has written, the news coverage about Warren’s favorability ratings ignores gender and the fact that “women’s ambition provokes a far more negative reaction than men’s.” Warren’s gender amplifies her mistake. Consciously or unconsciously, but in measurable ways, Americans tend to hold candidates up against an ideal of manly firmness.

In the 18th century, when Edward Dilly, Thomas Jefferson, or others praised a politician’s or public figure’s manly firmness, they praised a quality that they believed only the best and most virtuous men could hold. Their adjective reflected their worldview. Our adjectives still do this in a barely-disguised fashion. “Ambitious” is fine for a man, but not for a woman. Warren is called divisive while men like Joe Biden are praised as having “maintained a common touch.” And in the world of anonymous commenters, writers glory in their sexism. In the comment section of any of the coverage of Warren’s announcement, the gauntlet of manly firmness — or the lack thereof — is thrown. Typical are the comments in a Real Clear Politics piece, including one gem (full of misspellings and bad grammar) stating that now “it’s clear that millineals [sic], soccer moms, and limp males have blindly submit [sic] to their Socialist masters.” Comments like this clearly equate support for Warren or other female candidates with feminized (and therefore negative) qualities.5

One of the big questions for historians, of course, is the question of continuity versus change. We do not believe history repeats itself, but we do see long lines of continuity running throughout the historical record. As we enter the next round of campaigns for the office of the President of the United States, historians should do what we always do: educate the public on historical precedent and on the continuity of a masculine system that has been chipped away at but not yet repealed.


  1. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 15. Emphasis in the original. Return to text.
  2. Quoted in Flora Davis, The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 428. Return to text.
  3. Quoted in Richard L. Fox and Zoe M. Oxley, “Why No Madame President? Gender and Presidential Politics in the United States,” in Michael A. Genovese and Janie S. Steckenrider, eds., Women as Political Leaders: Studies in Gender and Governing (New York: Routledge, 2013), 313. Return to text.
  4. For example, see Maggie Astor’s New York Times article, “ Why Many Native Americans are Angry with Elizabeth Warren.”Return to text.
  5. From the comment section on Tim Hains, “ ‘Morning Joe’ Panel: Does Elizabeth Warren Match the Moment?,” accessed 1/2/2019.Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.