"Git out of this," Mrs. Judy Buchanan exclaimed in this 1857 cartoon titled "ROTATION IN OFFICE." "Ye've been sittin' there long enough, an' there's some dacint boys wants your sates," she continued in her Irish brogue, "an' a dale o' scrubbin' they'll need before they'll be clane enough for 'em to sit on." Suiting her action to her words, Buchanan picks up the bench occupied by appointees of the previous administration and overturns it, and them.


Portraying male public figures as women was a commonplace in the middle of the nineteenth century. Was it to emasculate? to delegitimate? On occasion, certainly. But it was also to describe. American public culture, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman famously lamented in Women and Economics, was "oversexed." What she meant was that virtually every activity, emotion, sentiment, or pursuit was defined as peculiarly masculine or feminine. Almost nothing was simply human. Whatever the merits of her analysis of how and why the culture had come to be so, there is no gainsaying that, simply as description, her view was absolutely on the mark. Consider the following cartoon, also from 1857.

Miss Raymond [to Buchanan's left] -- "That odious Black Republican! Lor, Mr. Buchanan, I don't mean to have anything to do with him. In fact, I always did admire a certain person I could mention a great deal more."

Miss Bennett. -- "That forward minx! I declare she's making up to him."


Raymond, editor of the New York Times, and Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, sought to win favor with the new administration by flattering the president. This made them, in the gendered universe of nineteenth-century American public culture, coquettes. Hence the dresses, the bare shoulders, and the fans. But Misses Raymond and Bennett were indisputably male. Hence the beards.

The point is simple but vital: we cannot make sense of U.S. history without appreciating the extent to which Americans thought in terms of gender. This means acknowledging the pervasiveness of the notion of spheres, but it means much more as well.

Let us go back to the first cartoon. Cleaning is "woman's work." And, because presidents since Jackson had made a practice of replacing as many of their predecessor's appointees as possible, it was common to speak of them as "cleaning house" or making a "clean sweep." But, by the 1850s, cleaning was the work of a particular sort of woman, an Irish domestic popularly known as Bridget or "Biddy." What did it mean to portray President Buchanan as this sort of woman?

First of all, it played upon the growing presence of the Irish in the Democratic Party. They were the "dacint boys" who wanted the "sates" of the current appointees. And "Mrs. Buchanan" was not about to disappoint them. This leads to a second consideration. If the "true woman" of the period was dainty to the point of fragility, the Irish domestic was the exact opposite, a tower of strength. "Mrs. Buchanan" has no trouble overturning the bench and its occupants.

The cartoon invokes another stereotype about Irish domestics, their tyrannical tendencies. Here is "Brother Jonathan" on "Biddies" from the February 7, 1860 issue of Vanity Fair.

Brother Jonathan, the immediate predecessor to Uncle Sam, represented the average American male. He was strong, brave, common-sensical, and simply no match for Biddy. As the poem noted, "Brother Zeke" had tried everything to control her, all to no avail. As a result:

"Mrs. Buchanan" would doubtless prove every bit as much a tyrant. Her lack of compunction in overturning the bench while its occupants were still sitting on it was proof of that. But the "terrible Queen o' the Kitchin" was a usurper. Her power, while real, was illegitimate. It reversed the proper order of things.

"The Present Intelligence Office having been found to work badly," the caption of an 1863 Harper's Weekly cartoon read, "Mrs. Blackstone establishes an office on a new system -- the Engagement of Employers by Servants. Mrs. Bridget O'Flaherty, who wants a place as cook, calls to inspect the employers present, and Mrs. Blackstone presents Mr. Jones to her, and gives him a fair character."


Portraying President Buchanan as an Irish domestic, in short, rang a number of changes upon cultural stereotypes in addition to those associated with "spheres." Were this a singular instance, an anomaly, then we could ignore it. It was not. In the crucial winter of 1860-61, to cite an important case in point, this cartoon appeared.

" Dearie Me," the caption had "Mrs. Buchanan" saying, "these children are growing too strong for me! I am getting too old to manage them! Here's Miss Caroline and some of her sisters won't respect me a bit, and have run away! Oh, what will Uncle Sam say?"

 


The "Mrs. Buchanan" of 1857 had vigor and power, even though her ability to rule the roost was an inversion of the proper order of things. The "Mrs. Buchanan" of 1860 was "in trouble." The "children are growing too strong for me." This too was an inversion. The schoolmarm is supposed to be in charge. The Irish teacher was still a generation away, and it is tempting to connect Buchanan's weakness with the notion of the "natural" fraility of the native-born white American woman. This is a temptation worth resisting.

Here the school-mistress is Lincoln who demanded that Caroline spell Constitution.

She recited: "Se-con-ces-sti-consti-tu-constitu-on-tion-constitution." Lincoln snapped: "Caroline, you are the most obstinate brat in the whole school, and if you don't mend your ways I'll try what effect stripes will have." "Don't spell it any other way," a second pupil reassures Caroline, "and Miss Sissy, Miss Souri and Louisa Anna and all of us will back you up." There is no hint of weakness about this school-mistress, any more than there is any hint of coquettishness in the bearded, rebellious schoolgirls.

Buchanan's schoolmarm was weak and ineffectual not because she was a woman but because she was an old woman. Lucretia Mott observed at the first national woman's rights convention in 1850 that a woman "has nothing but her outward semblance in her favor; when that ceases all respect for her vanishes; for an old woman is simply an object of ridicule, and anything that is ridiculous or foolish is said to be only fit for an old woman." Here is a further example from Vanity Fair.

Americans used gender, sex in their usage, as a fundamental way of making sense of the world about them. It shaped their ideas of politics and perceptions of politicians as powerfully as it did their beliefs about family. Thus the seceding states were often portrayed as rebellious young women. In part this was an accident of their names. It would have been hard to turn New Hampshire or Pennsylvania into a woman's name. But it was also a matter of the decade-long agitation of the woman's rights issue. Did "Caroline" seek to throw off the authority of "Uncle Sam"? Americans, after the contentious 1850s during which woman's rights was debated endlessly in newspapers and magazines, on lecture platforms, and around dining-room tables, had a ready-made set of gendered metaphors with which to discuss the secession crisis.

The same was true for virtually every other aspect of their lives. As a consequence, when we seek to determine how to integrate issues of gender into the historical "mainstream," we need to define the task as recasting our basic narrative not only to include women and women's issues but also to appreciate how notions of gender helped shape the ways Americans understood the whole of their world. We cannot understand how Americans thought about pedestrian matters like "rotation in office" without appreciating the salience of gender. And we cannot understand how they thought about matters as momentous as the secession crisis either.