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Men and Masculinity


In the next generation, the pioneering German educator Mathilde Vaerting (1884–1977) produced in The Dominant Sex (1923) perhaps the most revolutionary theory of gender ever written. She argued that masculinity and femininity were not fixed characteristics but reflected the fact that we lived in a male-dominated society—a Männerstaat (men's state). In societies where women held power, she argued, men showed the very characteristics that Western bourgeois society saw as quintessentially feminine. Masculinity or masculine characteristics, to Vaerting, were thus not expressions of the male body, and had nothing whatever to do with evolutionary forces. They were the consequences of social power structure and of this alone.

Vaerting based her arguments on a social learning theory, common among progressive educators at the time. She traced gender patterns in institutions such as the legal system (anticipating a later generation of sociological research on gender). Among other consequences of her perspective was a remarkable prediction of the men's liberation movement, which appeared fifty years later.

Vaerting's ideas did attract some attention in the 1920s. But first-wave feminism was in decline, Vaerting lost her academic position when fascism came to power in Germany, and it was in other currents of thought that the questioning of masculinity was carried forward.

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