Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

As times change, new models emerge for men and women


AMERICAN MANHOOD. E. Anthony Rotundo.

Basic Books. 382 pages. $25. When the Declaration of Independence asserted that all men were created equal, it failed to foresee that the new nation it brought into being would also re-create them -- not always equally -- every generation or so, as times changed and new needs arose.

Historian E. Anthony Rotundo shows this truth to have been especially self-evident in sexual politics throughout American history. "Manliness is a human invention," he says. "Starting with a handful of biological differences, people in all places and times have invented elaborate stories about what it means to be male and female."

He traces three phases through which our notions of manhood have passed since Colonial times. The first was communal manhood, in which a man's identity was inseparable from the duties he owed to his community. He fulfilled himself more through public usefulness than through economic success.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, men were thought to be the more rational of the sexes and therefore better able to regulate passions -- their own and their women's (see "The Scarlet Letter").

Self-made manhood resulted from the birth of a republican government, the spread of a market economy and the growth of a middle class based on the free play of individual interests. A man took identity from his own attainments rather than the accident of birth and, though his work role became more important, his public usefulness was secondary.

With this change, what were thought to be the male passions of ambition, rivalry and aggression were newly legitimized, and a man was respected not for curbing these impulses but for channeling them. What had been the old male vice of defiance became the virtue of independence, and the repository of general virtue shifted from the male to the female who, as ruler of the domestic realm, became the "civilizing" influence on male passion.

The novelty here was the 19th century invention of the ideology of male and female "spheres," considered mutually exclusive. Reason was still thought to reside with men, but the female instinct for social comity became the moderating force.

With the invasion of the male "sphere" (including the workplace) by the female later in the 19th century -- and through suffragist and reform efforts -- men entered the phase of passionate manhood. Here the male passions changed from a necessary evil curbed by women to a positive Darwinian force essential to civilization itself, idealizing war and competitive athletics and retaking the moral high ground men had ceded to their wives a century before.

Now the definitional opposites of manhood changed -- from boyhood and womanhood to womanhood and male homosexuality, which had existed only in discrete criminal practices and now became a personal identity less dependent on behavior than on womanly "tendencies" thought to exist in every man and from which every man had to dissociate himself. This was done preferably by embodying them in a created homosexual image through which any male might be scapegoated: a game of "tag," played for keeps.

Through a century's accumulation of such imagery, Dr. Rotundo says, every man has ended up in a closet from which he might be "outed" at any time: "[This value system] harms all because they lose access to stigmatized parts of themselves . . . that are helpful in personal situations and needed for the social good," not to mention simple humanity.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad