- New Directions for the History of Manhood in America
Two decades ago, scholars began studying the history of American masculinity, for reasons that are now fairly clear. Gender roles in American society changed rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, in response both to feminist demands for gender equality and to changing economic incentives for women to enter the wage labor force. Disgruntled American men (mostly white) created a “men’s movement” in the 1990s, producing an array of groups that ranged from divorce reformers who decried the supposedly anti-male bias of family courts, to mytho-poetic men’s groups who retreated to the woods to reclaim their virility, to Promise Keepers who vowed to renew their commitment to conservative Christian ideals of responsible fatherhood and marital fidelity. The phenomenon cried out for a historical explanation. The answer scholars provided was that manhood was a historically variable experience, rather than a timeless phenomenon.
The majority of historians who have looked at the history of American manhood emphasize that male identities are culturally constructed, and thus highly variable. Maleness does not represent some biological essence or transcendent subjectivity. As Michael Kimmel puts it, “Manhood is neither static nor timeless. [End Page 193] . . . [It] does not bubble up to consciousness from our biological constitution . . . Manhood means different things at different times to different people.”1 The core methodological assumption in this line of scholarship, namely that masculinity is a cultural construction, builds upon concepts in feminist scholarship and cultural theory and has been reinforced by scholarly practices which encourage the study of discrete periods and groups. Both the assumption and the practice have encouraged scholars to focus on the subjective construction of male identity in different periods, regions, and especially, social classes, in effect offering snapshots of particular manhoods as they intersect with events at particular moments in time. It has become a truism that scholars are describing diverse masculinities, rather than looking for larger patterns in male identity in general.
While this focus on particularity has produced some enormously significant scholarship, particularly for the study of sexuality, it had tended to divert attention from inquiries that might compare patterns of male behavior across societies and time periods. One especially salient question for the history of manhood emerges from recent scholarship on long-term changes in patterns of violent and aggressive behavior, which is mostly rooted in social history and criminology, rather than cultural theory. Scholars who study patterns of violence tend to approach male aggression as a phenomenon present in all or most societies, as well as a problem that societies must find ways to deal with. Although their data by no means suggests that all men are aggressive, it shows that in societies with disruptive levels of interpersonal violence, those acts of violence are far more likely to be committed by men than by women. Cultural constructions of manhood are likely one factor that influence men’s inclinations to act aggressively in particular situations, although they are not the only factor. Other types of male experience and behavior, too, might usefully be compared across time and place. The two books under review here suggest that a more active attention to commonality as well as difference could be fruitful.
Joshua Greenberg, Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800–1840 (New York, 2008), frames his study of early nineteenth-century New York City workingmen in the context of existing scholarship on both the history of manhood and labor history. American historians have typically argued that dominant norms of manhood in eighteenth century America were patriarchal, but that the development of a wage labor system challenged manhood norms across classes. As men ceased to be involved in training their sons or apprentices, women gained authority within the family, and norms of manhood for middle class men (historians have argued) came to center on the qualities that made them successful businessmen. An older ideal of men as masters of households was supplanted...