What are manly virtues and can they survive?*
by Patricia Lança
Manliness, Harvey C. Mansfield, 2006,
Professor Mansfield seems a very agreeable man: understanding of women’s problems, erudite and persuasive. Above all, perhaps, patient: excessively so with the academic feminists he aims to convert to some appreciation of manly virtues. This he tries to do by proposing to allocate manliness between the sexes, not quite equally but in part. He concedes that some men are not notable for manliness and that some women are. He believes that manliness has come into disrepute, that society, or at least that part of it which sets fashions, now prefers males to aspire to something called “sensitivity” rather than manliness. He thinks we are now living in what he calls a gender-neutral society, a state brought about by the campaigns of the radical feminists, especially in academia. They managed this, he says, by peaceful means; by 'consciousness-raising', by words rather than violent action. And they were astonishingly successful. Their adversaries caved in all around them and they managed to change practices by changing the language, making any kind of verbal 'sexism'—a word they themselves popularized—unacceptable among decent people. And the new dispensation was achieved with extraordinary rapidity, which Professor Harvey confesses causes him surprise and some puzzlement. He says he is still unable to explain feminists’ easy victory. So easy indeed, that manliness is now deprecated and men feminized Not that the author calls the process of sensitization by that name. But many others have and there may be some truth in it.
In measured and often witty argument he examines the concept of manliness in all its manifestations, practical and literary, historical and philosophical. No reader will be surprised at his citing Achilles or John Wayne; most will find the mention of Nietzche less consensual, unless uber-menschism can be construed as manliness. But Professor Harvey readily admits that not all manliness is commendable. However, its core characteristics certainly are and the feminists are mistaken to decry it. If only they were to accept society’s (and women’s) need of manliness in men they would lose nothing and strengthen their case.
Professor Mansfield’s ideas in this regard are generally unexceptionable. The trouble lies with the feminist framework he appears to accept. There are a number of points he might have questioned. First, while academia may be a gender-neutral space, it is doubtful that this is true of society as a whole. Or even desirable. Secondly, the accession of women to full citizenship (something feminists call 'women’s liberation') cannot really be ascribed to the last three or four decades of radical feminist activism. The realization of sexual equality, still uncompleted in many areas and especially on the domestic front, owed itself to other causes and would have come about regardless of the activities or arguments of people like Greer, Friedan,
It is likely that the appearance of these figures in the first place was because new spaces had for a long time been opening up to women and those self-appointed spokeswomen for the female sex simply took advantage of their opportunities. Like the Bolsheviks in 1917
Professor Mansfield, however, leaves the premises of radical feminism untouched,. Refuting feminism is not his objective. He does not even talk about the ravages it has caused in terms of sexual harassment legislation, quarrels over quotas and affirmative action, the bitterness of the so-called culture wars, fatherless homes, mounting domestic violence, intellectual and moral obscurantism, the breaking down of civility and the coarsening of manners. What he wants is to put in a plea for men. He does so eloquently and with some elegance. But it is doubtful that he will get a hearing from either side.
Instead of looking to biology, anthropology, history and economics for the sources of women’s subordination, without which it is impossible to find the right solutions, radical feminism has been largely based on the Marxist theory of class war, discredited notions about primitive communism and what Engels called 'the overthrow of mother-right' in those halcyon days when savages were noble and there was no class exploitation.
One of the curious things about this book is that its author, who is a Professor of Government at Harvard, in over 280 pages scarcely mentions economics. What he is concerned with are philosophical ideas. It is as though he had been dazzled by radical feminism’s forays into the dismal labyrinths of post-modernism and had decided that philosophy would be the area in which he was most likely to impress his word-drunk feminist readers.
What follows is not intended to diminish the significance of ideas or their influence in human affairs. Of course, these are immensely important. But Professor Mansfield’s mistake is to forget that ideas only gain influence in an appropriate environment. Ideas which don’t catch on because they are ahead of their time or out of context are quickly forgotten. Plato, in the IVth century BC, had a great deal to say about the role of women in the communist society described in The Republic. And Professor Mansfield gives Plato frequent mention. Before the scientific revolution of the XVIIth century and the Enlightenment of the XVIIIth century, Plato’s social projects could not but remain a dead letter. And although what came to be known as “the woman question” began to come into the foreground in the nineteenth century it was not until the twentieth that matters really came to a head. It was the industrial revolution and accelerating technological advance that set the scene for women’s emancipation which could not have taken place without them.The radical feminists are quite mistaken in their theories about the patriarchy being the source of women’s subordinate status. The unwelcome truth of the matter is that until modern technology could produce efficient means of contraception on the one hand and on the other multiple labour-saving devices, women and children—the human race, in fact—could not survive at all without the protection of the male sex. Radical feminists forget that young humans need their mothers because they have a very long childhood, required for learning language and other exclusively human skills. Men, as the necessary protectors of women, had manliness thrust upon them by Nature and this was reinforced by culture; their reward was honour and the status of leadership in the home and outside it. Some exercised their power magnanimously, others were tyrants. But women could not avoid dependence until technology freed females from annual childbirth and both sexes from back-breaking labour.
It is an extraordinary commentary on the obtuseness (not to say scientific illiteracy) of some female academics that they continue to mythologize patriarchy as an evil imposed from outside of nature, and insist that “gender” is a social construction. Schools may no longer provide adequate teaching of biology or zoology but our television screens and newspaper columns are filled daily with studies of animal behaviour, the courting rituals of alpha males, programmes about genetics and the role of mitrochondrial DNA in heredity, X and Y chromosomes, testosterone and the rest. Everything indicates that the males of mammalian species are hard-wired for masculinity (manliness). During 99.99 per cent of the human and pre-human past men had to go hunting and kill animals for food, and some of the attributes of manliness are associated with this activity—boldness, aggressiveness, stoicism, etc., while associated cultural traditions account for most of the rest. But feminists have preferred to learn from a crackpot male philosopher, Michel Foucault who thought heterosexuality had been imposed on society by the bourgeoisie. They have made him one of their most significant intellectual icons. But this is not really surprising if they are misguided enough to dismiss science as a male enterprise: part of phallogocentrism condemned by Foucault..
However, rather than persist in beating that dead horse, it is more to the point to mention once again just a few of the many factors that brought about women’s emancipation and in which the radical feminists had no hand at all. It should also be borne in mind that those phenomena which helped to liberate women had the inevitable tendency of making many masculine attributes redundant. These phenomena are to be found in the history of transport, production, technology and education.
Take transport. The advent of the motor car at the end of the nineteenth century had far-reaching social repercussions. When the first members of the upper classes bought motor cars and reserved their horses for the hunt, it really was the beginning of the end of chivalry in every sense. It ushered in the possibility of freedom of movement for women as well as men, and with no muscular exertion. Not only could people get from place to place rapidly, safely and dry: chaperones could be dispensed with. In southern
More or less simultaneous with the appearance on the market of motor-cars was that of the condom. Whether or not the latter was first thought of as a prophylactic its use as a contraceptive soon became widespread and from that time onwards the size of families among the educated classes dropped dramatically. The path was opened for separating sex from reproduction and women were set for biological freedom.
Long before the First World War sent droves of women into the factories to replace men who had departed for the armed forces, growing mechanization during the previous century had already lured working women into industry. The sewing machine needed female operatives at home and in the workplace. As capitalism developed so did its concomitant service industries. In offices everywhere the typewriter became ubiquitous and with it the female typist. Employers had been quick to see the advantages of lower-paid female labour and there were simply not enough men to fulfil the growing need for clerical workers. Of course, women had never been absent from economic life. Throughout history peasant women had worked long and hard in the fields and villages, even though some of their tasks might have been lighter than those of men. But with the advent of machinery, agriculture needed less and less manpower and the exodus of whole families to the towns provided expanding industry and commerce with the human beings needed as producers and consumers.
In truth the long, slow movement towards female emancipation ran parallel with the growth of capitalism. As did education to fill the need for a more educated workforce. None of these needs or their satisfaction grew at an even pace. As usual it was the political sphere that lagged behind and this was the arena where conflicting interests met and policies were hammered out. Hence there were women physicians before there were women members of parliament, women writers before there were women cabinet ministers. Family law was one of the last bastions to give way but now, for good or ill, an entire generation of women has grown up into a world of easy divorce, contraception and abortion. The
Why then the remarkable rancorousness of feminist discourse? Why does even a man as urbane as Professor Mansfield make so much rueful mention of the domestic battle to get husbands to share the housework so that their wives might have careers. Why did Betty Freidan’s unremarkable book The Feminine Mystique have such success that it is now regarded among feminists much as The Communist Manifesto among socialists? The answer is simple: the educated woman’s boredom with housework. A glance at the pace of female emancipation in places like southern
Against this backdrop we need to take a further look at Professor Mansfield’s book and his concern with manliness. There can be little doubt that modern life does indeed threaten traditional ideas of manliness. The multiple social and economic factors which were crucial to the emancipation of women have also been significant in creating a deficit of manliness in men. This is observably so where muscular aspects of manliness are concerned. Who needs muscle when you’ve got machines? Even the horny-handed sons of toil have mostly disappeared to be replaced by clean, neatly overalled technicians. There are, of course, still enclaves where brawn and endurance are needed, and the fork-lift truck and bull-dozer are not always the complete answer. But even extractive industries, abattoirs, or fishing vessels are easier places to work in than they once were. As for the legions of office-workers, where is there scope here for old-style manliness? What scope does exist is on the streets and playing fields where much male aggression stubbornly persists to everybody’s inconvenience.
Much as all normal women appreciate manly men, and normal men prefer womanly women, it really does seem time to get rid of these words, certainly of their use as nouns. What we want today is character in both sexes and this is something that western education systems have been remiss in developing. If educators, professors, school-teachers and those who run their institutions, can pull themselves together and set about this task a good many of our troubles would be over.
*First published in The Salisbury Review, London, Autumn, 2006
*First published in The Salisbury Review, London, Autumn, 2006