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'Petticoat Politics' Is Still a Dangerous Game

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Sexual politics is always a slippery game. Democrats are salivating at the possibility of winning a Hillary Clinton White House. They're enamored of the wide female gender gap in her favor. (Nobody says very much about the male gender gap running the other way.)

But sexual politics has frequently been difficult to gauge. It's quicksilver coursing through improbable cultural moments, exploited from various vantage points, and it slides enigmatically across the landscape of politics. Sometimes sexism is in the blinded eye of the beholder.

We've come a long way since women first employed their sexuality to determine who occupies the White House. It was "petticoat politics," as women's participation in campaigns was described during the 1840 presidential campaign. Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison, a hero of a battle with the Shawnee Indians on the Tippecanoe River in Indiana, who was famously described along with his running mate John Tyler as "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." It was the first time women were actively drawn into a presidential campaign, and they rallied for Harrison against Martin Van Buren, the incumbent.

Harrison was 67 years old. He would be the last president born a British subject and the first president to die in office. (He was younger than Clinton and Donald Trump are now.) He was no longer a dashing officer in gaudy uniform, derided as "granny Harrison." Women were encouraged to rally to a man few had seen and to spread feminine idealism through nostalgia. What Harrison really needed was a woman to tell him, "button up your overcoat," because he rode his white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue to his inauguration in a driving rain on a raw March day. Several days after he spoke for almost two hours, bareheaded and without a coat, he caught a cold, which became pneumonia. Three weeks later he died.

Women couldn't vote, but they influenced the vote. In his book, "The Carnival Campaign," Ronald Shafer tells how the campaign of 1840 was "the mother of modern presidential contests." For the first time women went on the hustings, reflecting mixed messages of female power that have come down to us today, for better and for worse.

A female Whig speaker told the ladies: "When the sound of war whoops on our prairies was the infant's lullaby, our mothers reposed in security, for Harrison was their protector ... We would indeed be traitors to our sex if our bosoms did not thrill to his name."

More prim than their female forebears in the Aristophanes play, "Lysistrata," who deprived their men of sexual favors until they ended the Peloponnesian War, Whig women teased their suitors that they wouldn't marry a man who voted for Van Buren. Such men were "dumb and unpatriotic." One woman threatened to call off her wedding if her betrothed voted for Van Buren. Another took the challenge to her front lawn, where her husband was hooting at a parade of Harrison supporters. She gently put her hand over his mouth and waved a Harrison banner. The Harrison crowd roared approval.

Even then, it was the economy, Stupid. A Whig woman in Massachusetts confronted her husband, a Van Buren man, and asked demurely, with sweet innocence, how could he vote for Van Buren when under his Democratic administration his wages were cut and they couldn't pay their bills. It was his turn to demur.

"Women for Harrison" gave voice to serious subjects invading male clubs, and Van Buren men accused them of "unsexing" themselves. They rode against the enemy in decorative bonnets and sashes with campaign slogans and waved from canoes on the shoulders of men in torchlight parades. Men spilling from taverns pelted them with eggs.

Such tales reminded me of the contemporary couples, mentioned in a story in the Washington Post, who are riding marital turbulence of differing enthusiasms for Clinton and Trump. One such woman told her husband, "I will divorce you and move to Canada" -- only half-joking, surely -- if he votes for the Donald.

Trump brought in pollster Kellyanne Conway to manage his campaign and shore up support from women. She thinks he can demonstrate how his policies will be good for women if he cuts out the crude insults. She says suburban caregivers, waitress mothers, religious women and seniors all have good reasons to listen up.

But if women are to get his message, Conway may have to act like that Harrison supporter who covered her husband's mouth to keep Trump from sounding off. That's not easy to do, and modern turf is slippery, too.

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