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Manliness and Civilization, by Gail Bederman.

January 13, 2014

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 by Gail Bederman.  University of Chicago Press (1996), Paperback, 322 pages.


University of Chicago Press (1996), Paperback, 322 pages

 A brilliant analysis of how assumptions about race, gender, and the perfection of civilization shaped thought and behavior in the US between 1890 and 1915.

 For Gail Bederman, race and gender are not two competing categories, but two threads in a societal conversation so tightly interwoven they cannot be understood separately.  As the United States entered the twentieth century, both were also connected with ideas about “civilization” that grew out of social Darwinism and posited the evolution of social perfection for the “fittest” individuals, inevitably defined as white men.  Male dominance had long been in existence but during this period white male dominance over everyone else was defended with a particular urgency.   While Bederman focuses on the American part of the story, the ideas she analyzes underlie the rise of white male supremacy and colonization throughout the global.

Bederman takes her underlying conceptual structure from post-modernism, but unlike many post-modernists, her research and writing is not abstract but firmly grounded in extensive research and detailed historical facts.  Instead of being stable lists of qualities, she sees race and gender as ever-changing, often contradictory discourses which compete to define human beings.  Her book reveals the shifting context in which leaders at the beginning of the twentieth century thought about race and gender.  She analyzes why these patterns emerged. For her, even those who resisted a world defined by white male supremacy shared the basic assumptions about how race, gender, and civilization were connected.

 The opening chapter of Manliness and Civilization lays out Bederman’s basic conceptions and applies them to people’s extreme reaction to Jack Johnson’s victory over Jim Jeffries in the boxing ring and to the Chicago World Fair.   She lays out evidence of how white middle-class men were claiming that a “crisis in manhood” was occurring by the end of the 1800s.  Although she does not agree that a crisis existed, she does explain that the ideology of manhood which emerged at the beginning of the century no longer fit the lives that middle class men were living.  The idea that a good man was restrained and self-possessed in running his own business was losing its relevance as that option faded with the rise of large corporate businesses.  In addition, women were challenging male prerogatives in homes and immigrants were challenging white men’s prominence in businesses and politics.  Social Darwinism blended with religious belief in creating perfection on earth, and provided white men with a new language for proclaiming their superiority.  Viewing society as “the survival of the fittest” men also sought to define themselves as containing a drive for dominance which included a new acceptance of violence.

In her later chapters, Bederman discusses the writings of very different leaders all of whom used the combination of race, gender and civilization to support or oppose white supremacy.   While the individuals on whom she focuses are well-known, her examination reveals racist, sexist, and evolutionary elements in their thought that are often ignored.  Ida B. Wells lead the fight against lynching and the false claims of black rapists attacking white women on which lynchings were said to be based.  In doing so, she subverted common assumptions of race and gender by claiming that white men, not black men, were the ones acting as savages and brutes.  The black men were the more manly and civilized ones in her view.  Professor Stanley G. Hall was among those who claimed that civilization was failing because of “overcivilization”.  Men were inadequate to act in the changing world.  He proposed that boys be allowed to act like savages while they were young so that they could “reenact” evolution in their own experience.  As they were educated, they would be stronger and more aggressive men.   Charlotte Gilman, the primer feminist thinker of the time, put forth strong arguments that women needed to be equal to men, but her vision was limited by her evolutionary thinking.  She only saw middle and upper class women and men as equal, and dismissed all people of color as inferior.  Teddy Roosevelt believed strongly in the need for boys and men to realize the primitive element in their make-up.  In addition to his own adventures in the American West and Africa, he advocated that the United States take a masculine, dominating role in conquering and control the “lesser” people at home and abroad.

 In closing, Bederman uses Tarzan as an example of how the themes she has analyzed combine into an image of manhood that is both civilized (in his legacy from noble English aristocracy) and primitive (from his rearing by the apes).  His dominance over animals, Africans, and even the white women he loves rests on his superiority.  She also discusses how the more recent “men’s movement” led by Robert Bly continues to blame women for men’s problems.  As I read the book, I was more troubled by how the rhetoric from a century ago resembles the attacks of today’s radical right on both blacks and women.  The same dangerous need to define others as inferior and to dominate them can be seen in everything from claims that President Obama was born in Kenya and that good women never need access to abortion.    I agree with her closing point that racism and sexism are so closely intertwined that we will never be able to get rid of one without eliminating the other.

Bederman has written an important book.  Some historians will find it challenging and protest her interpretations, especially regarding  some of the individuals she discusses.  In my view, Bederman offers us a new way of thinking about race and gender and evolutionary thought to be placed alongside other scholarship.  I am thrilled with what she has done.

The first chapter of Manliness and Civilization, in which Bederman lays out her basic ideas are a must read by all who care about race, gender, and civilization. They should be required reading for everyone.   I recommend the whole book to those who care about the history of ideas and social patterns.

 In Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, present the global picture of settler societies working together to justify white supremacy. It would be an excellent book to read along with Bederman’s.

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