Campus News

Manliness Questioned at Common Hour

Story posted February 15, 2000

Harvard scholar Harvey Mansfield gave students his audience much to think about and argue over at Common Hour. In a talk titled "Is Manliness a Virtue" he challenged them with definitions for manliness and discussion of its origins.

"Today the very word manliness seems quaint and obsolete," he said, in a society straining to be gender neutral.

The dubiousness with which people view manliness today is not new. Nearly all poets, novelists and philosophers have taken up the topic of manliness, he said, and most have had something critical to say about it.

Because of the cloud of doubt surrounding manliness, Mansfield undertook a study of it, asking questions about the nature of manliness. As his audience, listened, laughed, murmured and stewed, Mansfield shared the following ideas about manliness and what it means in a society seeming to seek gender neutrality.

--The Greek word for manliness is also the word for courage. He compared an association with courage and manliness to conflict rising over women in the military. For if women are found to fight as well as men, they surely must be able to lead as well, tying gender neutrality in the military to gender neutrality in politics.

--Manliness, when tied to patriarchy seems undemocratic. To defend a cause, especially to the point of aggression, seems more fitting to an aristocracy. As democracy spreads in the world, he said, there would seem to be less need for manliness, because democracies are not supposed to fight each other.

--Socially men often make more of a drama out of events than women do, he said. And even when being reserved and uncomplaining, they are not humble about it. "They may not complain, but they make it clear they’re not complaining," he said.

--Manliness in treatment of women is often thought to mean Chauvinism, but at the same time, manliness is associated with gallantry. The gallantry associated with opening a door for a woman could be seen as thinking women superior, or could be seen as demonstrating his strength and power.

--Though feminism seems intent on negating manliness, Mansfield asked if that would really be best for women. "Manly men are romantic, unmanly men are sensitive
which is better for women?"

--Also in sexual roles, de-emphasizing manliness seems to bring good and bad consequences, Mansfield said. A characteristic of manliness is the desire to protect one’s dependents, but modern women don’t want to be dependents. Removing this aspect of manliness could lead to sensitivity, but could also lead to neglect.

--Mansfield also asked whether there were there was a natural manly way of thinking.

Allowing that manliness is a natural state, however, keeps it from being a virtue, Mansfield said. To raise it to a virtue means having women participate in it.

"For the most part, man will always have more manliness than women have, and it is up to both sexes [recognizing this fact] to raise manliness to a virtue," he concluded.

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