Gender, Race, Politics


Kristin Hoganson has argued that "[t]he Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars provided a particularly rich case study of the influence of gender beliefs on political debate. . . . Men who worried about the manly character of American politics used debates over war to reaffirm their belief that electoral politics was appropriately male terrain" (481). In her Foucauldian inspired Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman has also elaborated the many ways in which Americans were obsessed with using race to remake manhood and "civilization." Since in the 1890s "'manliness comprised all the worthy, moral attributes which the Victorian middle class admired in a man" (18), the white supremist ideology of manhood meant that African American men, like all women, were unable to be truly manly. (For African American activists like Ida B. Wells, the Spanish-American War thus carried important societal connotations and ideological stakes for African American men and women, and became viewed as a crucial opportunity to redefine social constructions of race and gender.)

It is important, I think, not to forget that the nation-building, remasculinizing function of the Spanish-American War was done historically at the expense of real bodies and cultures, turning movies into fatally sinister attractions in the 1890s. The Spanish-American War and its representations can thus be viewed as an example of what Ellah Shohat and Robert Stam present as "the [imperial] trope of 'regeneration through violence'[:]. . .the process whereby the fictive 'we' of national unity is reforged through salutary massacres" (130). And although it is important to address anxieties specific to the Deep South during the Spanish-American, both northern and southern papers discussed the Spanish enemy and the Cuban population in racialized terms. Symptomatic of the larger discourse of Anglo-Saxonism pervasive in late nineteenth century, pseudo-Darwinian arguments were harnessed to demonize the Spanish "race" and expound on the "barbaric" enemy and the "backward" victims. In May 1898, the Milwaukee Journal headlines were demanding that the U.S. "DO AWAY WITH THE MONROE DOCTRINE. The Rev. Charles Stanley Lester Says It Is a Fetich That America Has Outgrown. Spread America's Influence Throughout the World and Unite the Anglo-Saxon Race. . . ." The article casts the conflict as a race, nation, and civilization-building event that would "mak[e] the American people the most important factor in the higher evolution of mankind." "Already," says Lester, "we begin to see some most welcome results. It has made us a nation and turned the last page on the story of the civil war."

"The Great Weyler Ape"
Philadelphia Inquirer
The Milwaukee Journal also published an article titled "The Degeneracy of the Spanish Race," written by the chair of dogmatic theology at St. Francis seminary, with the rhetorical subtitle, "Is the Present Condition of That People Due to the Inquisition of Medieval Times?" The article augments a similar piece that had already appeared in the Journal elaborating Spanish barbarity through a curious mixture of dubious historical arguments informed by social Darwinism. According to the author, the Inquisition "crushed intellect and blighted minds until a brutal and stupid race resulted. . .almost beyond hope of cure." The demonization, devolution, and dehumanization of the Spanish enemy is reflected in the political cartoon of General Valieroni Weyler, who upon his assignment to head military operations in Cuba in 1896, was already described in the Chicago Times-Herald as "the most brutal and heartless soldier to be found in a supposedly civilized country" (Wilkerson 29). The Times-Herald also "warned [Spain] that if the outrages of the past were exceeded, the American people would 'rise up and drive from their doors the last vestige of that race which has plundered and murdered its conquered from the time of Cortez and Pizarro to that of Campos," the former Spanish commander in Cuba (29). The Savannah Morning News similarly wrote of "The Spanish Temperament," baldly stating that "[t]wo qualities, and only two, certainly differentiate Spaniards from the other Southern races of Europe: . . . a peculiar kind of pride, and . . . a steely callousness." We also learn that Spaniards "stab as readily as Italians [and] are about as brave as other Latin races--that is they are perfectly brave with a certain liability to panic, and a reluctance to go on when victory seems not to be attainable."

In addition to these essentialist discourses about the Spanish "race" were similar descriptions of their Cuban victims, exemplified by the following commencement speech to the class of 1898 by Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, who Richard Hofstadter argues is "[p]robably the best known of all the peace advocates and anti-expansionists" (Hofstadter, "Race and Imperialism" 195):

There are three things inseparable from the life of the Cuban people to-day, the cigarette, the lottery ticket, and the machete. These stand for vice, superstition, and revenge. . . . [T]hese people prefer the indolence of Spanish rule with all its brutalities to the bustling ways of the Anglo-Saxon. Many of them would take their chances of being starved or butchered rather than to build roads, wash faces, and clean up their towns . . . . But the world is smaller than in Washington's day. Steam and electricity have bound the world together. The interests on one nation are those of all nations . . . . ("Lest We Forget" 16-17)
At the turn of the century, although there were salient differences between the popular memories of the Civil War in the North and the South, once war became a reality, there is some evidence of enthusiasm for combat in the Deep South. For instance, on May 6, 1898, the Charleston News and Courier reported that "OLD GLORY [WAS] IN SOUTH CAROLINA" and that enthusiastic volunteers in the state capitol were "WHOOPING IT UP FOR ALL IT'S WORTH." According to the report:

There are now over sixteen hundred young Carolinians in camp in Columbia . . . . They have come from all classes, all conditions, all vocations, and all walks of life and society. It is not a city gathering, neither is it a small army of country lads, but on the contrary it is a heterogeneous gathering of young men who want to see that their state is given proper representation in the army for the liberation of Cuba . . . . It is action they want. It is battle they are hunting. Perhaps they will soon sicken of that, but there are many who want to see what it really is that their fathers and grandfathers have been talking to them about since they were little tots.
This description sounds like a plot synopsis for the 1997 TNT television movie The Rough Riders (starring Tom Beringer as Teddy Roosevelt), which presents the war as a nation- and character building event for all Americans--regardless of race and class. This recent film is symptomatic of the hegemonic history of the war, exemplified by the Charleston News and Courier's mythological presentation of the Spanish-American War transcending ideological conflicts on the homefront. Indeed, TNT's The Rough Riders-- like the actualities and reenactments valorizing the Rough Riders in 1898 and the above passage--demonstrates the ways in which American boys were socialized to desire the ritual of war as a rite of passage. It is thus an ideology of "manliness" cultivated by the ubiquitous presence of the Civil War in southern culture and consciousness that in large part motivated these young recruits. As Rough Rider, early movie star, and future president Teddy Roosevelt would later suggest: "In this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities (quoted in Hofstadter 170).

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