Berkshire Conference 2: rethinking masculinity

Although the Berkshire Conference is about women’s history, it also has a wider remit including gender history and one of the most popular sessions at the 2014 conference was panel 18: “Are we all on the edge now? The historical usefulness of hegemonic masculinity”, which included the attendance via Skype of Raewyn Connell who developed the concept of hegemonic masculinity in Gender and Power. It was the first time I’ve seen a panellist involved via Skype and it worked surprisingly well, though it was obviously disappointing for people who’d hoped to meet Raewyn in person.

The first panellist was Karen Hagemann who talked about starting off looking at the Napoleonic Wars using Joan Wallach Scott’s ideas of gender, but then also came to use ideas of masculinity from Connell, as well as from John Tosh and Michael Roper. Karen works predominantly on Germany history, and was pointing out how concepts themselves change meaning when they are translated: Connell’s book Masculinities
became The Made Man in German. She was also talking about her own “happy eclecticism” in taking concepts from theories such as Connell’s. She thought most historians have tended to ignore the prominence of patriarchy in Connell, because it’s seen as ahistorical, ignoring the interaction of gender with class and sexuality, although Catherine Hall and Leonora Davidoff did use Connell’s ideas in Family Fortunes.

Karen was instead interested in looking at the specific relations of power in which masculinity functions, particularly in the interactions of masculinity with politics and war. But although masculinity needed to be studied in context, she thought it was important to consider why some concepts of masculinity were more powerful in some historical periods.

Ruth Mazo Karras, who spoke next, was arguing that contrary to what’s often been suggested, it was the “noble model” of masculinity (concerning marriage in particular) that was hegemonic in the Middle Ages, not a “clerical model”. This noble model emphasised the successful deployment of violence as well as the sexual and other appetites of knights (while clerical models instead stressed the need to transcend the weaknesses of the flesh).

Ruth was drawing on Connell’s ideas of complicity (in which non-elite men also share in the “patriarchal dividend” of masculinity) and seeing clerics and nobles as complicit with one another, partly because of the close social and familial interconnections between clerics and laymen. Even though knights themselves were more or less militarily obsolete by the twelfth century (and in fifteenth-century England their main function was to attend Parliament), knighthood remained culturally hegemonic into the early modern period. Churchmen aspired symbolically to knighthood and its values, and some late medieval Jewish and Yiddish texts also tried to adapt the noble model.

Continuing the wide spread of cultures discussed, we then heard from Stephan Miescher who works on nineteenth and twentieth-century Ghana. He was picking up on two concepts of Connell’s that he found useful for studying colonial West Africa: the idea of multiple masculinities and that of life-history studies. On the other hand, the idea of hegemonic masculinity (a hierarchy of masculinities of which at any one time, one is “culturally exalted”), didn’t work so well for colonial Ghana. Connell saw a global gender order with a colonial spread, but Miescher was arguing that local masculinities were more resilient. He studied the life experience of eight different men in twentieth-century Ghana and found no dominant form of masculinity, but instead men creating their own synthesis of local and foreign forms. Stephan also mentioned the work of Didier Gondola looking at masculinity and performative violence in 1950s Kinshasa, where young men were imagining themselves as “tropical cowboys”, influenced by images of the Wild West and Buffalo Bill. (This had interesting parallels to the black British appropriation of soul style in my previous post on the conference; we shouldn’t overlook the creativity that can be seen in response to influential US cultural models).

Stephan was followed by Yvon Wang talking about Chinese masculinity and suggesting that here the hegemonic masculinity model does seem to fit with Confuscian/Daoist theory and practice, in which the two poles of society are the emperor and the peasant and the supreme form of masculinity is the emperor. She was also talking about the middle-tier masculinities studied by Kam Louie contrasting the wen manliness ideal of civilitas/examination success/poetry writing with that of wu manliness, focusing on martial ability. Yvon made the interesting point that these forms of masculinity weren’t as linked to heterosexuality as might be expected: the wen could be bisexual, penetrating other men as well as women, while the military man tended to be desexualised in his portrayal. Despite the complementary nature of this wen-wu divide, Yvon said that the civilian wu was clearly seen as superior. But there was also a further twist to this hierarchy of masculinities: the subversive possibility of the rebel peasant who might become emperor. The ‘bare sticks’, the rootless men whom land subdivision had made unable to get an education or start a family, formed an underclass from the eighteenth century. Rebellion by them could be a way of subverting the wen-wu dichotomy and imperial hegemony. Yvon also mentioned the proliferation of multiple masculinities at the end of the Chinese empire: foreign masculine ideals might be adapted or rejected. It was another reminder that even a hierarchy of masculinities needn’t be a stable one.

Finally, Raewyn herself gave a brief talk, explaining how she had originally developed the idea of hegemonic masculinity both as a historical concept (because she was interested in the dynamics of change or stability) and within feminist theory (partly in reaction to Robert Bly and the mythopoetic idea of men). She developed while looking at colonial and post-colonial Australia and seeing parallels between how Gramsci’s ideas applied to class relations and gender relations.

Raewyn saw it as quite usual that people would pick and choose from theories, including that of hegemonic masculinity. She wanted to stress the powerfully relational character of gender: that it’s defined against something else. She was also interested in Ranajit Guha’s idea of dominance without hegemony in colonial situations and thought we should think about boundary conditions: where it had not been possible to achieve hegemonic masculinity. And, leading us onto the future, she talked about the transnational state and how the new institutions that were created were gendered: the multinational media and corporations were overwhelmingly run by men.

In the discussion, there were some useful comments about different ways of analysing historical situations. Someone wanted to make a 4-level distinction: between discourses (which discussions of hegemonic masculinity focus on), individual lives, norms and practices. There was a question about whether the term patriarchy was useful or ahistorical. Ruth Karras thought it was a useful shorthand for a lot of things, if you explained what you meant by it, while Karen Hagemann argued that while it was useful as a political term, it wasn’t particularly as an analytical one: because of the intersection of gender and class, it needed to be defined carefully. Raewyn said she tended to use the notion of a gender order instead. She also talked about defining masculinity and femininity as social practices, not as identities. Although gender ideology is powerful propaganda, to her it’s a back formation from practices, not something pre-existent.

Overall, what I think the session demonstrated is that even though Connell’s model of hegemonic masculinity doesn’t fit all societies, the framework it provides can make us ask useful questions. Thinking about different forms of masculinity or masculine practices in a particular society and their cultural dominance or subordination gives us a richer picture of the gender order. But coming to the concept again against the backdrop of my new interest in patriarchal structures, I can see the limits of hegemonic masculinity’s usefulness for that. Even the men who can only have access to the most subordinate forms of masculinity can still, usually dominate some women, at least. Chinese peasant men may be at the lowest end of the traditional spectrum in China, for example, but many of them still got a wife and family to dominate.

I’ve said before that modern masculinity, with its focus on sustaining male superiority over women, doesn’t necessarily have that much in common with premodern masculinities that are often as much about sustaining the dominance of some male groups over others (with women regarded as automatically inferior). Studying the ideology of masculinity takes us to some very interesting places, but I’m increasingly unsure how much specifically it’s going to tell us about how men historically sustained control over women.


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