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The Wimp Factor
A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
One answer is that by the late nineteenth century not only working-class, black, and immigrant men but women—especially Anglo-Saxon women—were demanding a share of the power, prestige, and wealth of the dominant males. As recognition of their inferior status impelled women to strive for equality, rapid industrialization and urbanization created greater opportunities and necessities for them to break from rigid gender roles. Consequently, a great many men expressed heightened concern to maintain, or restore, or even intensify traditional gender distinctions and especially insisted upon the crucial importance of masculine “Virility.” This was true not only of privileged males but also of black and immigrant males, who saw their masculinity as one of their few resources.
When Basil Ransom, the traditionalist Southerner in Henry James’s 1886 novel The Bostonians, speaks to Verena Tarrant about aggressive feminist women, he says: “There has been far too much talk about you, and I want to leave you alone altogether. My interest is in my own sex; yours evidently can look after itself....The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age....The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is—a very queer and partly very base mixture—that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover; and I must tell you that I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt!”
As in fiction, a California newspaper editorialized in the 1890s that “the ardor and strength of prime manhood is a much needed quality in American government, especially at this time, when all things political and all things social are in the transition stage.” Then into the masculinity crisis strode Teddy Roosevelt, a weak-eyed Harvard man, to be sure, but a self-made boxer, rancher, and Rough Rider, come to preach the “Strenuous Life” of benevolent expansionism and to shame members of either sex who threatened traditional gender roles. “In the last analysis,” Roosevelt asserted in 1899, “a healthy state can exist only when the men and women...lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives....The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the house-wife, the helpmeet...the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children....When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should vanish from the earth....” Consistent in such concerns, Roosevelt would later rage that, by not plunging into World War I, President Wilson had “done more to emasculate American manhood...than anyone else I can think of. He is a dangerous man...for he is a man of brains and he debauches men of brains.”
The remarkable fact about Teddy Roosevelt is that despite superior qualities of intelligence and leadership, despite his popularity and power as head of a great and rising imperial nation, when he preaches manhood from his national “bully pulpit,” he sounds, to present-day observers, insecure. And if in this he seems a virtual contemporary of politicians we know well, that is perhaps because, a century after the first wave of feminism threatened to inundate Roosevelt and his cohorts, American men are now awash in a second wave. Many men, in a traditionally reactive way, are experiencing another crisis in our enduring historical concern to be masculine enough. That concern, as Richard Hofstadter perceived a quarter-century ago in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, is written into “the national code at large.”
TR raged that in keeping out of World War I, Wilson had “emasculated American manhood.”
The roots of our present masculinity crisis grow deep into American history, but they draw special sustenance from developments of the last half-century—depression, war, cold war, and inflation. In this era traditional gender-role verities have been overridden more than ever by events: widespread male unemployment in the thirties; demand for women workers ever since the forties; revolutionary changes in international relations, in which American power has increased and then diminished; and a revived, broadened women’s movement. Especially in the last twenty-five years, masses of women, impelled by personal and family opportunities and necessities, have asserted their rights to work, to freedom, and to sexuality. Even traditional women have been drawn from the domestic into the public sphere.
The reaction of men to this battery of changes in social conditions has been complex, involving confusion, resentment, resistance, and grudging acquiescence to realities, public and domestic, American and international. Sometimes men have felt gratitude for being relieved of manhood’s solitary burdens; occasionally they have supported more egalitarian gender roles and relationships. Many American men, however, have not yet adjusted to the withering of their self-image as the husband-father-breadwinner who endures daily battles in the public jungle for the sake of his loved ones.