Yes, women can have balls!

Tough-guy Jim Webb is a great asset to the Democrats -- but that doesn't mean all tough Democrats are guys.

By Joan Walsh
Published January 25, 2007 10:25PM (EST)

I'm rarely tempted to go into Salon letters threads to argue with letter writers. It's your forum, readers, and we certainly get a chance to have our say. Plus, I almost always learn from the letters and see things that I did poorly in writing or editing. And going into a letters thread to clarify something sort of seems like cheating. Just do better next time.

But I almost couldn't resist when reading the letters on my "Do You Have to Have Balls to Have Balls?" piece Wednesday. Even people who wrote nice letters told me I was wrong on this one. Some people thought I was criticizing the choice of Jim Webb to rebut Bush. (I said repeatedly I was hailing Webb!) Others thought I was just looking for trouble by worrying about what Webb worship said about women Democrats. One writer thought I was envious. Some writers got my point completely, but overall, I felt misunderstood.

Then I got a call from someone I'd quoted in the piece, and he felt misunderstood, too. John Lapp, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had talked to Ryan Lizza for his "The Invasion of the Alpha Male Dems" piece in the New York Times, and was quoted -- by Lizza and then by me -- setting up the whole alpha-male theme. "We went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets," Lapp told Lizza. "These are red-blooded Americans who are tough." He dubbed them "the Macho Dems." That had made me cranky.

But Lapp's call gave me a chance to clear up areas where we both felt misunderstood. He says he had women on his list of 2006 Macho Dems, too. "I was talking about Coleen Rowley in Minnesota -- she's the FBI agent -- and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, who's an Iraq war veteran." Neither made it into Lizza's piece -- which may be because they both lost their races, or it may be that you really couldn't publish a hot, trendy piece about "Alpha Male Dems" if some of them are, um, women.

"I was making the point that I was looking at outsider, nonconventional, non-status quo candidates, people who are leaders," Lapp says. "I probably shouldn't have used the term 'macho' -- except I think women can be, and are, macho!" I told him I actually think women can have balls, but we acknowledged that in the rough and tumble of politics, those may be unorthodox views.

"What I wanted to do was crack the mode of Democrats being weak, where you'd have people like George Allen saying he'd knock 'our soft whiny teeth" down our throats," Lapp confessed, with a kind of macho edge to his voice. "And I think we did that in this election. We've elected some tough Democrats -- and a lot of them are women."

What I wanted to do was hail Jim Webb, and hail the Democrats for selecting a guy like Webb to answer the president on Tuesday night -- and to also remember that one of the leaders who gave Webb his platform was a tough Italian grandma, Nancy Pelosi. So yes, women can be macho. Women can even have balls. Don't make me come into that letters thread and say it again!


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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