“Cover Your Face in Public,” a large highway sign instructed drivers entering Manhattan a few weeks ago. “We are NY Tough,” read the next digital panel.

It was a nice try by the state’s communications team at a time when President Trump consistently derided mask-wearing as “weak,” but equating it with toughness is a hard sell.  As recent Covid-19 statistics have shown, New York could have said “We are NY Smart,” yet the sign-writers evidently believed that to counter the “weak” narrative, only “tough” would do.

The mask debate has not diminished, nor has the incidence of virus cases in many states (though not New York). In Texas, some law enforcement officials are declining to enforce the governor’s recent order that all residents wear masks in public, citing constitutional rights.

One can’t help but ask, is the debate about masks—or manliness? 

Sociologist Michael Kimmel has written that “the story of America [is] a story of proving and testing manhood.” In the late 1890’s, for example, when President William McKinley sought to avoid war with Spain over its brutal treatment of Cubans, Theodore Roosevelt, then a Navy bureaucrat, accused McKinley of having “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Jingoist newspapers agreed, calling McKinley a “goody-goody man”—or no man at all. The New York Journal published a cartoon depicting McKinley as an elderly woman pushing a broom against the will of Congress and “The People,” represented as menacing ocean waves. The caption read “Another Old Woman Tries to Sweep Back the Sea.”

Roosevelt and other hawks declared that war against Spain would strengthen American men, who had become too “soft” in their view. If men were stronger, the argument went, women would give up their quest for the vote and focus on being wives and mothers, satisfied that the nation was in good, manly hands. War did take place in summer 1898, and the quick trouncing of Spain ushered in a hyper-aggressive standard of masculinity that still holds sway with many—though women hardly forsook the vote and participation in public life.

In the face of the threats we’re confronting today, including a pandemic, it is important to remember that even in the 1890s a large number of men did not support a martial definition of manliness.  

Senator David Hill of New York, for example, asserted that whether to fight Spain was not “simply a question as to whether we were a brave enough people to enter upon the experiment.” As historian Kristin Hoganson writes, Hill “and like-minded leaders regarded the Cuban issue not as a crusade but as a policy issue to be settled by sober statement and foreign policy authorities. In effect, they contended that the kind of manhood that should govern foreign policy debate was…that of the dispassionate, educated expert, someone who exercised restraint and sober judgment.”

That sounds a lot like the debates over how to respond to Covid-19: medical expertise and the virtues of compassion and restraint versus assertions of individual “freedom” to do as one pleases.

When it comes to Covid-19, unlike manliness, different approaches can be measured objectively by numbers of cases and deaths. By that measure, the heads of state who imposed isolation measures early, relying on medical experts, clearly saved lives in places such as New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan. That those countries’ leaders are female has drawn attention. More recently, the female leader of Scotland’s government, Nicola Sturgeon, won praise for Scotland’s low virus numbers after a three-month lockdown and slow reopening.

Is it merely a coincidence that these female leaders do not carry the baggage of worrying about their manliness?  Ms. Sturgeon’s policies stood in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s in England, and they have even fanned new calls for Scottish independence. Maybe people are ready to respond to leaders who solve problems dispassionately, based on “sober judgment” and without regard to bravado.

It can take more strength to tell people not to act than to encourage their aggressiveness. The leaders who imposed swift quarantines showed such strength. The adverse economic impacts of curbing movement and commerce were easy to anticipate, but the upside was not clear: what if the quarantines did not prove effective in reducing virus transmission and death? 

Today, few officials would argue that a course of action is right because it is “manly.” A statement such as “I want American manhood asserted” (Sen. William M. Stewart, R, Nev., speaking in 1897) would be considered as retrograde in 2020 as “men working” signs.

But concerns with manliness still influence our politics. They are more coded, especially in the language of President Trump, who has resurrected Roosevelt’s least estimable traits by portraying life as a struggle between the strong and the weak. Jeff Sessions was “very weak” and not “being a man” when he decided to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is “that woman from Michigan.” Amid the wave of protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, he pushed for governors to “get tough” and told them, “most of you are weak.”

Trump is not the only male leader to insert coded manliness concerns into the Covid-12 debate. When Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he was willing to die to save the economy, that also echoed Roosevelt. Faced with an enemy unbeatable through physical force, Patrick turned to dying for his country as a supposedly heroic option.

Yet Covid-19 teaches that strength is not the same as physical power, nor is strength male or female. Those who insist on characterizing Covid-19 as an enemy in a war must accept that in this war, the men and women who make us stand back may be showing the strength we most need. 


Image Credit: Photo of man wearing COVID face mask along North Charles between Hamilton and Franklin Street in Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday morning, 16 May 2020 by Elvert Barnes Photography (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Marian Lindberg

Marian Lindberg

Scandal on Plum Island - A Commander Becomes the Accused  by Marian Lindberg

Marian Lindberg, is an attorney and writer. Her new book, Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused (East End Press) is the product of extensive research into a 1914 military trial and deals with the origins of homophobia as a federal policy.