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What Does it Mean to “Be a Man” Today? Is it Any Different Than in 1856?

January 17, 2021

Livia Gershon, a regular contributor to JSTOR, posted a short essay reminding readers that debates among Congress members have not always been high-minded or non-violent. In “Political Divisions Led to Violence in the U.S. Senate in 1856, Ms. Gershon describes a physical beating by South Carolina Senator Preston Smith Brooks on his colleague Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator who fervently opposed slavery. Here’s Ms. Gershon’s description: 

As we prepare for a new term of government in the wake of the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, we might wonder just how contentious federal politics can get. But let’s not forget that time when South Carolina congressman Preston Smith Brooks assaulted Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber, beating him so badly that his skull was exposed and he lost consciousness, was covered in blood, and nearly died.As historian Manisha Sinha writes, this 1856 attack highlighted and magnified the divisions that would cause the country to come apart less than five years later.

The description of the incident was appalling, but the ultimate question that Ms. Gershon raised was not a political one: it was a cultural one. What is the definition of “manhood”. When Senator Sumner was attacked by Senator Brooks, instead of fighting back he took a defensive posture trying to protect himself from the beating. Ms. Gershon writes: 

The attack on Sumner also highlighted divisions in the nation when it came to ideas of masculinity. Some in the South reviled Sumner’s “unmanly submission.” This was in line with pro-slavery rhetoric that tied abolitionism to feminism and accused white male abolitionists of effeminate “sickly sentimentality.” Northerners, on the other hand, were more likely to embrace a bourgeois idea of masculinity rooted in self-control and to view Brooks’s attack on an unarmed man as cowardly.

This description of divisions over masculinity resonated with me. The “real men” who appeared at the Capitol on January 6 are culture warriors. After witnessing the misogyny of many in the MAGA movement in terms of the epithets ruled at Hillary Clinton, the willingness of MAGA supporters to overlook President Trump’s explicit advice to Billy Bush in the Access Hollywood tapes, and the MAGA movement’s pushback against the LGBT-Q agenda it is evident that there is a divide in our country when it comes to the ideas of masculinity. And, at its root, abortion can be viewed through the lens of a divide in the definition of masculinity since it affords women a choice that would otherwise be unavailable to them. The dog whistles offering different definitions of masculinity in our culture go back to Spiro Agnew’s decrying of “effete snobs” who protested the War in Viet Nam. No “real man” wanted to be called out as “effete”. 

I will leave it to readers to offer their own examples of how masculinity is defined within different “tribes” and how those different definitions impact political discourse. But gender clearly played a role in 2020: President-elect Biden won 57 percent of women, compared to 45 percent of men while President Trump won 42 percent of women’s votes and 53 percent of men’s votes. 

And what role does this play in schools? In formulating strategies for dealing with violence in schools when we choose to provide armed guards over counselors we are buying into the power dynamic that underlies the MAGA definition of “manhood”. When political leaders deride efforts to diminish bullying or provide counseling to troubled students instead of buying equipment to “harden” schools we are adopting the MAGA mindset of masculinity. When brute force is favored over reasoned discourse, we are endorsing the MAGA definition of masculinity. If we want to bridge divides we might need to examine our definitions of “manhood”. 


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