Why it’s not OK to ‘man up’

Would it make George Osborne more of a man if he slashed spending on pensioners, the NHS and welfare? Would David Cameron’s masculinity be enhanced if he got to grips with press reform in the wake of phone hacking?

The answer according to an influential group of Conservatives – and, perhaps more surprisingly, Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman – is yes. How else to explain Kwasi Kwarteng MP, member of the influential Tory Free Enterprise Group telling the chancellor to “man up” and show he is serious about cutting the deficit? Or the former minister for women and equalities saying on a recent Andrew Marr show: “I think it’s now time for [Cameron] to, you know, man up, step forward and actually say ‘yes, we are going to do it'”?

Accused of being a “bit sexist” on twitter by @mrirvingclarke, @HarrietHarman tweeted: “I agree. Couldn’t think of alternative!” So why has this phrase become the one politicians reach for to tell someone to get tough?

According to Wiktionary, the phrase means to “do the things a good man is traditionally expected to do, such as taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions; displaying bravery or toughness in the face of adversity; providing for one’s family etc”.

The consensus seems to be that the phrase started in the military as a term meaning that each person (OK, man) take to their station. There was a letter to the Times from a Tory MP in 1947 complaining about this insidious Americanism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Must industries be fully ‘manned up’ rather than ‘manned’?” he asked.

However, the use of the phrase to mean “be a man” is relatively new. As Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist at Oxford University, says: “It’s a new expression, but not a new thought. The idea relates to ancient stereotypes about what it means to be a man.” But, she points out, “There might be a reason for being hard, tough and unemotional when going to face death. But there’s not such a good reason in politics.”

When asked by the Guardian to explain her use of the phrase, Harman (once dubbed “Harperson” for her desire to end sexist language) blamed the fact that the language of power is masculine. “I expressed what I wanted to say but not in a way I wanted to say it … I have tried to find a gender-neutral term and I just can’t.”

There is too little space to discuss the issue of feminism and language here. It’s safe to say that there are no similar exhortations using the word “woman” – being “girly” or an “old woman” mean the opposite of being strong and active. The only action available to women, says Prof Cameron, is to “act like a lady; that is, conform to the stereotypical view of femininity”. What would “woman up” or “person up” even mean?

Feminist theorists such as Niobe Way think such language is bad for men and women, denying young boys in particular a way of dealing with emotions post adolescence. In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Cameron writes: “One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced.”

Criticisms of Osborne and Cameron and their disastrous handling of the economy and the press should have nothing to do with their sex. Doing the right thing, after all, is the most gender-neutral thing you can do.

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