Presidents in Drag: Under Cartoon Petticoats A Subversive Sexism

Outgoing President Hayes as Cinderella, sitting at home by the fireside as her pompous ugly sisters former President Ulysses S. Grant, just back from a world tour and corrupt U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling head out to the Republican Convention with an arrogant confidence that they will win the 1880 nomination. In this Halloween season, there’s no better time to look back at what is perhaps the most peculiar propensity of the past presidency. Unknown to most Americans is the custom, begun in 1840 of male Presidential candidates and Presidents cross-dressing as every possible type of woman. For some reason, only two, the consecutive Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, seemed to slip the corset and bonnet. Perhaps it’s forgotten because since 1952, no President continued the old tradition, save for George W. Bush (to see him in a real dress and wig, see below, in a final photograph). More precisely, our past Commanders-in-Chief did not do this willingly or even wittingly, for they were dressed as women by the nation’s political cartoonists, with sketch pencil, ink pen and watercolor brush. An initial reaction to these startling images may well be to chuckle. After viewing but a few, however, what becomes apparent is the starker truth of just how integrated into American society the degrading stereotypes of women really were. It may be that Presidents and candidates were cast as women because so few real women had risen in any arena of public life to have earned a status of universal recognition. As one reviews the cartoons in congregate, however, the sexism, even misogyny, is inescapable. The intent of the illustrating political pundits was to call out the hypocrisy, absurdity and duplicity of Presidents and candidates, but did it best, so the format’s enduring popularity would suggest, by ridiculing and belittling women. Here, that gender is shown as querulous, naive, arrogant, humble, meddling, and vacillating be they old widow, wet-nurse, midwife, spinster, matron, maiden, battle-axe, unwed mother, dancer, little girl, mom, movie star, cleaning woman, bride, fairytale and Biblical figure. All of it may well leave one wishing that a real woman finally becomes a President. In this 1840 election cartoon, former President Andrew Jackson is cast as the meddling old granny, at far right, offering unsolicited gossip about his former Vice President Martin Van Buren. William Henry Harrison as a midwife using forceups to deliver the country of “King” Van Buren. “It’s a dreadfully damp,

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Categories: Political Satire, Presidents

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