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Men and Masculinity

Questioning Masculinity

The word masculine (as a synonym for male) is a very old word in English. It was used by Chaucer in the fourteenth century. However, the terms masculinity, masculinize, and masculinism came into common use in English only in the late nineteenth century. This change in language signaled a rather different way of looking at men and their position in the world.

This change was part of the cultural response made, in the bourgeois society of the industrialized countries, to the women's suffrage movement, and to the broad challenge by first-wave feminism to Victorian-era patriarchy. The bourgeois society of imperial Europe (and its offshoots in colonies, notably in the United States) had taken the separation of men's and women's spheres to an extreme. It defined not only war as men's business but also property, knowledge, government, and, in many contexts, even waged work as such. In this context the concept of masculinity had a slightly conservative flavor, suggesting that social inequalities were rooted in permanent differences of the character of men and women. Many thinkers of the time assumed that these were based in the imperatives of biological evolution.

The term masculinity not only had antifeminist overtones, it had a clinical flavor as well. Femininity in men was seen as a source of sexual crime, especially (though not exclusively) homosexuality. Masculinity in women was also seen as a kind of pathology, especially threatening to their capacity to bear children.

From the start, however, this idea was contested. Not only women of the suffrage movement, but also men like John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and Lester Ward (1841–1913) supported equality between women and men, convinced that social progress would iron out most of the differences between men's and women's lives (see the documentary history by Kimmel and Mosmiller).

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