Iron John In The Gilded Age


Some social scientists regard male rites as attempts by men to assert their fading power over women. In this vein, many feminists view the mythopoets as part of a backlash against their movement, a longing for the good old days when men were Wildmen and women chattel; they brush aside the pro-feminist protestations of Bly and his followers as little more than a smoke screen.

Many women in the nineteenth century, particularly those active in reform and women’s rights, had similar misgivings about what transpired behind the lodge’s thick veil of secrecv. If, as defenders of the orders claimed, fraternal rituals were designed to make initiates “gentle, charitable, and tender as a woman,” why weren’t women permitted to see what went on? If the purpose of the orders were laudable, why were they so elaborately cloaked in secrecy? The charge that men’s rituals are a male reaction against the advances of women has surfaced repeatedly; it is probably not far from wrong.

By the first few decades of the nineteenth century, women were assuming a new place within the homes of the emerging middle classes. At a time when lawyers and merchants—not to mention legions of ambitious inventors and clerks—fastened their attention upon the prospects of making money within the rapidly expanding national economy, they all but abandoned patriarchal traditions of men’s religious and moral guidance. And women, delivered from many of the crushing burdens of farm life, eagerly filled the void left by men’s withdrawal from the “domestic sphere.” Their special task, women now proclaimed, was to redeem the nation from a hardhearted materialism by instilling in children the gentle and self-effacing virtues of Christ.

When the men who had been reared in such homes came of age, they found themselves inhabiting a competitive world where the government safety net was but a few filaments in the imaginations of the likes of Edward Bellamy and Henry George. How were these young men to reconcile the demands of bosses and the remorseless workings of the market with the lessons of love learned at a mother’s knee? How reconcile the Darwinian world of adult men with the peaceable promises of childhood?

Fraternal rituals offered psychological guidance by leading men from the precepts and enticements of childhood into a closer affinity with bosses and bankers, customers and colleagues. It did so by attenuating adult men’s associations with childhood and women and by strengthening the ties amongst themselves. The rituals provided a religious experience antithetical to what they had learned as youths and supplanted the familial bonds of childhood with the brotherhood of the lodge.


Lodge officials insisted that their rites accorded with Christianity. There was seemingly no reason for initiates to view the religion of the lodge with suspicion: lodge meetings usually began with a minister offering a prayer, all initiates were obliged to profess belief in God, most rituals were drawn from the Bible, and the setting itself resembled nothing so much as the church. But the altars, chalices, coffins, and flickering candles, when used as props to enact the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple (Royal Arch Masonry), the execution of a spy (Grand Army of the Republic), or a sojourn through the “calcined wastes” of Hades (Knights of Pythias), conveyed lessons far different from what ministers imparted to their flocks on Sunday. The deity of the lodge was distant and impersonal, totally unlike the loving God that then prevailed in Protestant churches.

The rituals, too, provided a family psychodrama that drew initiates from the feminine attachments of childhood and brought them, by means of an initiatory “rebirth,” into a new family of brothers. This transference climaxed with the reconciliation of the initiate—the son—with his new father.

The rituals of Bly’s mythopoets seem to function much the same way, evoking the “old gods” of patriarchal tradition, imitating the warrior rites of tribal societies, enshrining ancient kings and heroes. From these imaginative realms women are almost entirely absent. Modern men cling tightly to Iron John partly because he carries them into a world where manhood is unencumbered by gender-role ambiguities. The leaders of fraternal orders nowadays take unabashed pride in the “masculine” character of their rites and express misgivings over what they regard as the “feminine” inventions of the men’s movement: the “touchy-feely” quality of the steam baths, naked romps in the woods, the self-revelatory discussions that stretch deep into the night. Such experiences may well be therapeutic, states Harry E. Echols, a lawyer and prominent Odd Fellow and Freemason in Washington, D.C., but they lack the ongoing fellowship of the lodge and meaningful rituals that, burnished by the passage of time, reflect the wisdom of the past.