Why Women Candidates Are Talking Tough

This election season, female candidates own the macho rhetoric. But it's not for the reason you think

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

There are lots of ways to measure the success of women in their pursuit of power, but I'm not sure asserting the right to be as crude as a man counts as progress. I'll grant that in perilous times, it's bracing to hear candidates call out their opponents for hypocrisy or political cowardice. But what are we to make of rhetoric that is less Margaret Thatcher than Lorena Bobbitt, from women who have declared that their male opponents aren't man enough to face the challenges before them?

First came Sarah Palin, declaring in August that unlike Arizona governor Jan Brewer, President Obama did not have "the cojones" to get tough on illegal immigration. (Palin has also scorned the "impotent, limp and gutless reporters" who rely on anonymous sources to attack her.) Then Christine O'Donnell called her primary opponent "unmanly" for lodging a formal complaint against her over election bylaws and told him to "get your man pants on." Sharron Angle, the weight-lifting grandmother of 10 who campaigns with a .44 Magnum in her pickup, told majority leader Harry Reid to "man up" during their Nevada Senate debate; when he called one of her attacks "kind of a low blow," he was not speaking figuratively.

There are lots of explanations for this orgy of emasculation, the most obvious being the presumed need for female politicians to prove they are tough. Ever since Geraldine Ferraro was offered wrist corsages at fundraisers and asked in the 1984 vice-presidential debate whether the Soviets might be "tempted to take advantage" of her because she was a woman, female candidates have had to fight the charge that they are nurturing but weak, which may explain Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln's campaign posters calling her one tough lady.

Or maybe it's just a case of turnabout being fair play, particularly after both Hillary Clinton and Palin, the polar pioneers of 2008, suffered such appalling personal attacks. Palin was portrayed as the ditsy diva neglecting her children in pursuit of an office for which she was unqualified. Adult stores offered a "This is not Sarah Palin" inflatable doll featuring a stripteasing look-alike and the instruction to "let her pound your gavel over and over." Clinton endured the "Iron my shirt!" taunts, the nutcrackers and urinal targets with her image, the fried-chicken Hillary Meal Deal mug: "Two fat thighs, two small breasts and a bunch of left wings." There was Tucker Carlson declaring on his talk show that "something about her feels castrating" and that when Hillary comes on TV, "I involuntarily cross my legs."

It was all enough to make observers like the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut despair that the campaign "set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades." But others came away with a different conclusion. Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, expects that complacent young people who imagined the gender wars were over would now be radicalized by these "loud, bright, incontrovertible consciousness-raisers."

There has been plenty more this time around. Jerry Brown has had to apologize for the campaign aide who was overheard calling Meg Whitman a "whore," but that was a gaffe, not a strategy. I suspect the current round of rhetorical castration, particularly coming from conservative Republican women, is born not of insecurity or vengeance but a shrewd reading of a restless electorate. What sounds like a "Sisterhood, hear me roar" rallying cry may actually be calculated to appeal not to women but to men--the strong, silent types who have been left behind in the Hecession, dismissed or derided by a metrosexual media culture, and whose ability to hunt and gather and provide for their families is threatened by an economy skewing more female and more verbal, toward service and away from muscle. The imperative to man up honors that old male model and is a powerful allure to men who want to hear it respected. Meanwhile the skinny, arugula-eating Harvard guy in the White House is out stumping for female Democrats, well aware that women voters may hold the key in many tight races and yet are paying less attention to the midterms than men are: 54% of likely women voters vs. 67% of men say they have a great deal of interest in the elections, according to an AP-GfK poll.

In at least one respect, this election season is likely to be a setback for women: analysts predict that the number of female lawmakers (73 Representatives, 17 Senators) may decline this year for the first time in three decades. Among the women who emerge victorious may be some who are aiming old weapons at new targets--rather than retiring them in the interest of setting a higher standard.

This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of TIME.