Churchgoing exposes men to messages telling them the family was created by God—it is not some evolutionary accident. Church tells men that they are accountable before God for how they treat their family….The bottom line is that Christians have a practical answer to resolving the war between men and women—one that has stood up to empirical testing. We should be bold about bringing it into the public square as a solution to the charge of toxic masculinity.
It’s no secret that the public rhetoric against men has grown increasingly harsh and bitter. Even some men have taken to maligning their own sex: “Women Have a Right to Hate Men,” wrote blogger Anthony James Williams. “Talking about ‘healthy masculinity’ is like talking about ‘healthy cancer,’” said John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man. “Testosterone is the problem….Women should be in charge of everything,” tweeted the bestselling science fiction writer Hugh Howey. Testosterone is “a toxin that you have to slowly work out of your system,” said James Cameron, director of the movie Avatar.
The negative rhetoric is causing younger men to feel especially defensive and defeated. In the Wall Street Journal, Erica Komisar writes, “In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen an increase of depression in young men who feel emasculated in a society that is hostile to masculinity.” A survey of male teens and young adults found that a full 50 percent agree with the statement, “Feminism has gone too far and makes it harder for men to succeed.”
How can Christians create a balanced view that stands against the outright male-bashing that is so common, yet also holds men responsible to a higher standard? To answer that question, we need to dig into the history of the idea that masculinity is toxic. It turns out that its roots go back much further than you might think. We will be able to counter it effectively only if we ask where it came from and how it developed.
Man of the House
Through most of human history, most people lived on family farms or in peasant villages—including the colonial era here in America. Productive work was done in the home or its outbuildings. As a result, work was not a matter of the father’s job; it was the family industry. A household was a semi-independent economic unit, often including members of the extended family, apprentices, servants, hired hands, and (mostly in the South) slaves. Often the living quarters were in one part of the house, with offices, workshops, or stores in another part of the same house.
The fact that economically productive work was performed in the home meant that both parents could be involved in rearing children. Women were responsible for a wide range of productive activities, from spinning wool to canning food to making candles. In addition, writes sociologist Alice Rossi, for a colonial woman, marriage “meant to become a co-worker beside a husband . . . learning new skills in butchering, silversmith work, printing, or upholstering—whatever special skills the husband’s work required.”
For men, being a father was not a separate activity that you came home to after clocking out at work. With a few exceptions (like soldiers and sailors), fathers were a visible presence in the home, day in and day out. They introduced their children to the world of work, training them to work alongside them. Historians who have researched the literature on parenting—such as sermons and child-rearing manuals—have found that they were not addressed to mothers, as most are today. Instead, they were typically addressed to fathers.
Today we talk about housewives, but in the colonial era, heads of household were sometimes called housefathers. Historian John Gillis writes, “Not only artisans and farmers but also business and professional men conducted much of their work in the house, assisted by their wives and children.” Surprising as it sounds, Gillis says, men
were as comfortable in the kitchen as women, for they had responsibility for provisioning and managing the house. Cookbooks and domestic conduct books were directed primarily to them [men] and they were as devoted to décor as they were to hospitality.
In their day-to-day life, colonial fathers may have been closer to the Reformation than to us today. Martin Luther once said, “When a father washes diapers and performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool,” he should remember that “God with all his angels and creatures is smiling.”
Common Good Authority
All this did not diminish the concept of a father’s authority in the home. Yet the colonists held a very definite meaning of authority. They were influenced by classical republicanism, a political theory modeled on the classical thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. They regarded social institutions as organic structures ordered toward a common good. In this theory, the person in authority was the one who had responsibility for the common good.
What does the term common good mean? A social institution—whether a marriage, family, church, school, or state—was regarded as an organic unity, something beyond the individuals involved. You can sense what that means when you hear people say, “There’s me, and there’s you, and there’s our relationship.” Sometimes people say, “We need to work on our relationship.” They sense that there is a third entity beyond the individuals. What is good for the relationship itself is the common good.
Now, this creates a problem. Everyone naturally pursues his own individual good—I look out for what’s best for me; you look out for what’s best for you. But who looks out for the common good?
That’s what authority was for. A position of authority was an “office,” and the person in that office was called to sacrifice his own individual interests and ambitions for the interests of the whole—to pursue the common good. Thus, in early America, a man was expected to fulfill himself not so much through personal success as through serving what was called the “publick good.” Virtue itself, writes UCLA historian Ruth Bloch, was defined as the willingness “to sacrifice individual interests for the common good.”
A New Script
How did Americans lose this concept of masculine virtue? The change began as far back as the industrial revolution. Its main impact was to take work out of the home. That may seem like a simple change—in the physical location of work—but it had enormous social consequences.
Men had little choice but to follow their work out of households and fields into factories and offices. Husband and wife no longer worked side by side. Historian Pat Hudson says, “The decline of family and domestic industry shattered the interdependent relationship between husband and wife.”
It also became difficult for fathers to continue anything like their traditional paternal role. They simply no longer spent enough time with their children to educate them or enforce regular discipline or train them in adult skills and trades. Again, the evidence for this is in the child-rearing manuals of the day. The most striking feature in the mid-nineteenth century is the disappearance of references to fathers. For the first time, we find sermons, pamphlets, and books on child-rearing addressed exclusively to mothers.
The world of industrial capitalism itself also fostered a new definition of masculinity. For the first time, men were not spending most of the day with their wives and children—people they loved and had a moral bond with. Instead, they were working as individuals in competition with other men.
The social script for men began to change. To survive in the new commercialized workplace, it seemed necessary for men to become more ambitious and self-assertive, to look out for number one. People began to protest that men were growing self-interested, ego-driven, and acquisitive. The rhetoric around masculinity began to focus on traits that people both then and now regard in a negative light.
In political theory, there was a corresponding shift from the household as the basic unit of society to the individual. Recall that classical republicanism rested on the idea of organic communities—that there was a common good for marriage, family, church, or state.
That organic view gave way to modern liberalism, which took its model from physics. The apex of the scientific revolution was Newtonian physics, which pictured the material world as so many atoms bumping around in the void, driven by natural forces. The same metaphor was applied to the social world.
Social philosophers constructed what they actually called a “social physics.” Civil society was pictured as a collection of human atoms—independent, disconnected individuals—who come together only out of self-interest. Political theory was no longer animated by a moral vision of the common good.
This was called social contract theory. For example, Thomas Hobbes proposed that society was nothing but an aggregate of individuals not bound by any moral obligations. In his words, we should “look at men as if they had just emerged from the earth like mushrooms and grown up without any obligation to each other.”
How did this political philosophy affect Americans’ view of masculinity? If there was no common good, then a man’s duty could no longer be defined as responsibility for protecting the common good. Men were set free to pursue self-interest.
The Naked Public Square
During the same time period, the public realm was being secularized, which further undercut the ideal of the common good. In Be a Man! historian Peter Stearns explains: “Exposed to a competitive, acquisitive economic world and, often, to a secular education, many men lost an active religious sense.”
And as men lost that “active religious sense,” they began to say that morality had no place in the realm of politics, business, and industry—that the public sphere should be secular and value-free. What did that mean for values? You were supposed to leave them behind in the private sphere. You were not to bring your private values into the public world.
The upshot is that men were no longer expected to practice self-sacrifice for the common good. They were expected to practice self-assertion for their own advancement. The male character was redefined as coarse, pragmatic, and morally insensitive. Western culture began expecting less of men—lowering the bar on what it means to be a man.
The Doctrine of Separate Spheres
Of course, people still desperately wanted to maintain values—things like kindness, affection, altruism, self-sacrifice, piety, and religious devotion. And if there was no place for them in the public sphere, where would they be cultivated?
In the private sphere. And who would be responsible for cultivating them? Women. Women were called on to cultivate the values that had been stripped from the value-free public arena. They were to maintain the home as a private haven where men could be renewed, reformed, and refined.
In the nineteenth century, a sharp dichotomy was drawn between the public and private realms. This was called the doctrine of separate spheres. And it functioned as the main coping mechanism to protect the values that were being endangered as society was secularized. As one nineteenth-century advice book put it, “The world corrupts, home should refine.” A social psychologist at MIT, Kenneth Keniston, summarizes in these words:
The family became a special protected place, the repository of tender, pure, and generous feelings (embodied in the mother) and a bulwark and bastion against the raw, competitive, aggressive, and selfish world of commerce (embodied by the father).
This was a dramatic reversal. In colonial days, husbands and fathers had been admonished to be the moral and spiritual leaders of the household. But now men were being told that they were naturally crude and brutish—and that they needed to learn virtue from their wives.
And a surprisingly large number of men accepted that message. During the Civil War, the young Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his sweetheart Julia, “If I feel tempted to anything I now think is not right, I ask myself, ‘If Julia saw me, would I do so?’ And thus it is, absent or present, I am more or less governed by what I think is your will.”
On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, the Confederate general William Pender wrote to his wife, “I have almost come to feel that you are a part of my religion. Whenever I find my mind wandering upon bad and sinful thoughts, I try to think of my good and pure wife and they leave me at once^You are truly my good Angel.”
This is the origin of the double standard—the idea that women naturally have a greater moral sensitivity. On one hand, this served to empower women. There had never been a time before in all of history when women were considered morally superior to men. This was something completely new.
From the time of the ancient Greeks, people thought knowing right from wrong was a rational insight, that men were more rational, and that, therefore, men were more virtuous than women. The word virtue comes from the Latin root vir, which means man, and the term originally had connotations of manly strength and honor.
But as the public sphere was secularized, for the first time in history, women were said to be morally superior to men (especially in regard to things like sex and alcohol). They were called upon to be the moral guardians of society.
Yet there was an underlying dynamic in all this that was very troubling. In essence, America was releasing men from the responsibility to be virtuous. For the first time in history, moral and spiritual leadership were no longer viewed as masculine attributes.