Radical History Review 82 (2002) 191-207
[Access article in PDF]
Men Interminably in Crisis? Historians on Masculinity, Sexual Boundaries, and Manhood
Judith A. Allen
Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
George L. Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Historians scrutinize femininities in various ways. In the past thirty years, feminism has explicitly inspired or framed much of that scrutiny. Feminist appropriations of the term gender became increasingly ubiquitous by the late 1970s and early 1980s. For a while, many associated gender only with women--as a shorthand--though such use troublingly recalled the nineteenth-century reference to women as "the sex." With recent studies like Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995) and three [End Page 191] texts of the latter 1990s discussed in this essay, however, gender also now connotes "men" and "masculinity." 1
If historical explorations of men and masculinities are increasing, establishing the central intellectual and theoretical frameworks, pressing questions, best methodologies, and canon of concerns for this work has not proved straightforward. First, there are few ready models or templates to hand. As the dominant sex in patriarchal culture, and historically the dominant practitioners of history, men as a group have not proved especially curious about men as a sex. In relations of dominance and subordination, as the truism goes, the dominant group remains unmarked, transparent, unscrutinized. 2 The matter is epistemological--the fish does not know that water is wet. Men have not regarded their sex--its characteristics, attributes, subjectivities, preoccupations, behaviors, rights, duties, and conditions relative to women of their own race, class, ethnicity, and group--as problematic enough to investigate. The study of men, manliness, and masculinity, and more particularly, male heterosexuality has not been a standard topic of ordinary inquiry among academic and professional historians.
Let us be clear. Much--indeed most--history writing centers on protagonists and groups who happen to be men--unionists, explorers, presidents, governors, soldiers, civil rights campaigners, Progressivist reformers, borderlands ranchers, journalists, and diplomats. This historical investigation is not focused, however, on these individuals or groups as men. Scrutinizing the other sex included in the category "gender"--men, and thus the cultural elaboration of masculinities--is a distinctive and arguably critically important historical project.
Feminists excoriate the discipline for proceeding with criteria of historical significance and approaches to evidence, causality, and periodization which privilege men's typical activities, especially in the modern public sphere. 3 Yet, paradoxically, as a cultural product, history stands to be utterly transformed by rigorous and critical interrogation of men as a sex, and of masculinities, precisely because it is so preoccupied with men's lives, activities, experiences, and sense of self. Put simply, the field's content is positioned, substantially, by sex. Failure to specify the sexed positioning of that content obscures the history of both sexes under the pretended gender neutrality of mainstream history--an intellectual strategy justly dubbed phallocentrism. 4
Contrary to the easy feminist quip of the 1970s and 1980s that all knowledge hitherto had been men's studies or the study of men--"his-story"--a tradition existed of problematizing and scrutinizing women. 5 Virginia Woolf reported to her 1929 women's college audience the prolific content of the British Museum card catalogue devoted to "woman" and "women," works provided by learned men, agreeable essayists, scientists, and men of all kinds. "Are you aware," she asked, "that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?" Then, with some finality, she contrasted men's earnest and often misogynist studies of women with the simple [End Page 192] observation, "Women do not write books about men." 6 That is starting to change, but until relatively recently, it was fair to retort, "nobody does."
Histories of femininity and of...