Evolving role of manliness and masculinity in the American male from 1877 to the late 1950`s Essay

The Victorian concept of male supremacy over women seems to be not new at all. In many family settings all over the world, we see that the family structure elevate the husband to being head of the family. The husbands are traditionally the bread winner and the final decision maker. As we look at the history, what we were used to see in our society as the structure of the family, there were deeper issues concerning the role of men. Historically, there revolved different concepts of masculinity and manliness in men’s own point of view, and these concepts was product of social change that largely influenced American culture.

This was not merely about the concept that men are superior and that women were weaker and deserved to be confined to taking care of children. Men had transformed gradually in terms of gender role in American society. This paper therefore, aims to uncover developments that had taken place about the role of men as superior over women from the Victorian era up to 1950. It aims also to reveal how men’s role evolved from superior position to being dominated by women, and how at once they regained their position in the social structure of the society.

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Evolving Role of American Men’s Masculinity In understanding how the role of the American male in terms of how they defined manliness and masculinity from the Victorian society, it is necessary that we understand what the Victorian Society is. According to Eric Smith in his article The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, “Victorian society is a patriarchal institution which was based on the premise that women were inferior and thus dependent on men. ” This concept of women served to define men as the opposite of women.

Thus the premise is that women as a weaker vessel should be under the protection, provision and the authority of men who is the stronger, rational, aggressive, and superior. The Victorian society was characterized by patriarchal system limiting the role of women “to be good wives and mothers” (The National D-Day Museum), and doing all domestic works in the home. Men were seen as the symbol of power and strength that the difference between men and women became wider at the height of the Victorian era.

According to De Hart, the American concept of masculinity in the Victorian era is associated with “personal honor in defense of which duels were fought and fists flew. ” While in some other cities particularly in the North, most of the young nonworking class males have a notion of masculinity in the physical “prowess and bellicosity” (De Hart) Thus, many young males were obsessed on body building and exercise.

It was this concept that motivated adults to cultivate in their young boys competitiveness, aggressiveness and self-reliance because they see it important in the “work world of adult men” (De Hart). On the other hand, since during this time, America was largely Protestants, families whose values were shaped by evangelical Protestantism “emphasized that manliness also involved self-restraint, moral self-discipline and sobriety” (De Hart).

As economic developments were taking place, concept of men’s masculinity gradually shifted from hard work to sports. A new concept of masculinity was forming featuring a “real man” who is tough demeanor and a team player according to De Hart. This attribute was developed out of boyhood games and teen sports and eventually became a concept. Thus, according to historians, notably Clyde Griffin as cited by De Hart, “such labels reflected popular assumptions that real men were sportsmen and nonathletes were effeminate or wished to be women. ”

However, during the second half of the 19th century, there were positive developments in the status of women in Victorian society. During this period, men engaged themselves in the world of commerce and left their responsibilities as fathers to their children to their wives that placed women in the most important position in homes, children adored their mothers more that their fathers, as an article in the Victoria’s Secret says, “Men ruled politics and commerce. Women ruled everything else. The seeds of modern feminism were beginning to sprout. ”

Despite of the wide influence of Victorian social structure and values, it is quite worth noting that the anti-Victorian adherents were not all women but some men too calling the Victorian era as “static and outmoded (Smith)” The 1880-1900 period drew more reactions from many intellectuals, artists and writers against the high Victorian values. To some extent, there is nothing wrong with what the Victorian men emphasized. Men by history are the protector, provider and head of the family. This is a God-bestowed responsibility on men. But amidst fears, criticisms and social conflict, few brave men had stepped up.

According to Women’ Issues, “out of their fearful comrade to voice what was right, giving women their due, these men had transformed contemporary male thought to yield to women’s effort for higher education, social responsibility, political freedom and economic independence. ” They realized that the Victorian perspective on women as a weaker domestic creature, who must submit to her husband’s free will, was extreme and oppressive to women’s personal rights. How has His Role as Provider, Family Responsibilities and Projected Society Image Changed over the Years?

The Victorian tradition emphasized family structure, values, and togetherness that is very important in nation building. The social implication of this is that, with men as leaders, or as heads of families, it provides a strong structure of society which is anchored on the family. Pro-feminist men believed otherwise, they argued that if women will be allowed to work they can help bring home substantial wages. Thus, with the entry of women into the workforce, significant changes in the economic status of men and women has taken place.

The once feared scenario of women invading the once all men’s work area and extending it from home to economic and later to school and even church. According to an internet article entitled, Victoria’s Secret, during the age of Victoria, roles in crucial areas of social life were dramatically reversed. The side effects of women independence were now felt and the social image that used to be high is now sinking. According to same article mentioned previously, “instead of bailing the water out and waking repairs men choose to jump ship. Instead of analyzing the situation and find course of action appropriate to the situation, men made their decision “to create new roles for themselves and their wives that would excuse them from responsibilities of moral guidance for home and society” (Victoria Secret).

For Americans, 1900 was the period of heroism and conformity for male gender according to Albert Wendland. This was the progressive era of this country that brought much pride and honor to men. A report made by Fox as cited by Wendland, “one of the wonders of the 25th century…, mementos of the daring and heroism of the men who venture into space. Indeed, America had invaded the earth because of technological advancement and territorial accumulation which has lasted until the first involvement of America in World War against Germany. American men have high regard of their identity as dominant race. It was demonstrated when Jack Johnson was recognized as the World Heavyweight Champion wherein he defended his title five times. While Americans were not proud of him instead, they billed Jim Jeffries as “The Great While Hope” and supported him in his fight against Johnson because they wanted while champion.

However, by 15th round of July 4, 1910 bout, Johnson won. His won over Jeffries caused much tension; his white wife committed suicide and he was accused of immorality. Finally he lost the bout to another white American, and he was imprisoned for some years, he and Cameron divorced, and he never returned to boxing anymore. (Jack Johnson) This is another attempt of American men against gender and race prejudice. America’s victory in World War I had brought much glory to them especially men. By the 1920s, as America was experiencing amazing economic improvement, they became a consumer society.

This accordingly has paved the way for a new chapter of the American thinking particularly men’s concept of manliness or their own masculinity. Joseph Mullin pointed out that “new sets of values, norms and behavior based on material possession and middle class leisure culture” became the trend in American culture. This development in behavior of American people has led to “the shift organized union rhetoric from a wage slavery discourse to living wage discourse” (Mullin). This had heightened also the racial discrimination out of male dominance of the white class.

A new understanding of manliness has developed; Union began to replace an understanding of manliness based on membership in the producing classes” (Mullin), to one based on more equal participation in a consumer society. Mullin further added that from this rhetoric of freedom liberty, “working men both skilled and unskilled began to associate real manliness with mobility. ” This controlling idea had influenced the youth that made them “embrace the idea that consumer values as representatives of a man’s worth” (Mullin) rejecting on the process the traditional values and behavior of their elders.

This ideology had further shaped the idea of men about masculinity; it is turning away from the conservative point of view of manliness or masculinity during the Victorian era. Somehow, this caused men disorganized and a bit irresponsible of their real duty. This condition that existed between the changing roles of men and women during the Victorian era had gradually turned into worst as the Period of Great Depression in the life of Americans entered. During this time many banks collapsed, many businesses closed, and the worst, “more than 15 million Americans became unemployed” (The American Experience).

Due to this Great Depression in the American history in 1920s, “The unemployment brought on by the Depression caused self-blame and self-doubt. Men were harder hit psychologically than women were” (The American Experience). The report on the unemployment of men went on as “when many men were unemployed, the percentage of women working increased slightly during the Depression. ” The worst scenario, many men out of depression of finding jobs to support his family committed suicide.

While women, take jobs away from home letting children stay at home with their fathers, sometimes, they also helped earn money to support family needs. Before the Great Depression ended, another event struck American which strengthen the differences on the role of men and women over the time. When World War II took over, men were brought abroad to serve as soldiers for the Allied Troop. During this great history of the World, the “American women played very important roles both at home and in uniform” (The National D-Day Museum). These women worked as “volunteers for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. and other military related groups; some took office and clerical jobs, they also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, served as radio operators, worked as nurses and many other works which men supposed to be doing (The National D-Day Museum)

This great contribution in the history of the World War II had paved the way for the government to look into the women’s participation in nation-building. Therefore, the American Government gave these women-veterans benefits (The National D-Day Museum). Out of this move, the women were given recognition by the society by opening up more opportunity for them outside home.

However, men forced these women to return home after the war (The National D-Day Museum). As Nielsen reported, unemployment rate of men “exceeded that for women” after the war due to some factors such as more jobs opportunity were open to because of their commitment to work, and many others. Nielsen also added, “Several analyses have attributed these differences to slack labor demand for women in other than metropolitan areas. ” How the Male Society Attempted to Return Women to Home and Accept Roles as Housewives again. This reversal of positions drew reactions from Victorian men and attempted to bring back women in subjection to their rule.

According to the article Men in Feminism, “anti-feminist men maintained women were too pure to be thrown in grimy game of politics. ” For women, has now extended their domain from home, workplace, school and even church. According to a paper entitled Victoria’s Secret, men created a new doctrine of spheres which, puts women back to submission again to their influence. The paper said, “Men would rule the work place women would rule the home. ” In this way, women were systematically taken out of work in order for her to manage her own home while men would provide for them.

The latest movement men created in the contemporary time is called Men’s Movement (Wikipedia). This movement “seeks to support men, change the male gender role and improve men’s rights in regard to marriage and child access and victims of Domestic Violence. ” This only show how far has gone between the changes in the role of men and women which somehow affects marital relationship and children upbringing even up to the present times. Conclusion As we have seen the roles of men in the Victorian social structure, men held superior role as women were seen as weak and good only in the house and for some domestic function in the home.

Men dominated all the social spheres from work, home, school, and even church. It started in the concept of men’s superiority in Victorian era and evolved to the concept of working classes to sports, to membership to Union of workers, and finally with mobility as consumerism. Industrialism brought changes in the lives of the American men especially in the evolution of new concept of masculinity. As years passed by, American women were given more responsibilities and opportunities while men lived in leisure. Great Depression in the American society pushed women to the limit of providing for the family in behalf of the husbands.

World War II forced women to get out of home and did what only men do during that period. They participated in wars by doing clerical works, nursing aid, technicians, factory workers, and many others. Due to more opportunities open for women, men’s unemployment rate was heightened after the war until the present time. These events led to what has been feared of women domination. And after realizing their own predicament, they tried to regain their status by creating a new social order or movement which is called Men’s Liberation.


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