a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another
woman is really the answer we need.”
made by the Tyler Durden character in the movie Fight Club,
is one of the most memorable lines of that film and has oft been
repeated and discussed. It’s sticking power is surely due to
the way it resonated with many men – how it so succinctly summed
up their life’s experience. Products of divorced parents, single
mothers, or fathers who spent more time at work than at home, these
men lacked a vital example of manhood growing up. Oftentimes, not
only was their dad not around, male mentors in other areas of their
life were few and far between as well. They understand well Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s lament in The Marble Faun:
man and man there is always an insuperable gulf. They can never
quite grasp each other’s hands; and therefore man never derives
any intimate help, any heart sustenance, from his brother man,
but from women – his mother, his sister, his wife.”
mentors, many men of this generation have felt adrift, unsure of
how to deal with an indescribable but acute lack in their lives.
How did we
get to the point where it is possible, as Edward Abbey put it, “to
proceed from infancy into senility without ever knowing manhood?”
There are three
primary social institutions that have historically served to mold
young boys into men: family, religion, and education. Yet the masculine
influence of these institutions diminished over the last century.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
pre-industrial period, a man’s home was also his workplace.
For the farmer and the artisan, “bring your kid to work day”
was every day. Father and son worked side by side from sunrise to
sunset. Fathers taught by example, not only apprenticing their sons
into the trade, but subtly imparting lessons on hard work and virtue.
was disrupted by the Industrial Revolution, as fathers were forced
to abandon the land and the workshop for a place on the assembly
line. A clear line was drawn between the home and the workplace.
Dad left the tenement in the morning and did not return for 10–12
hours at a time. As
we’ve discussed previously, the result of this economic
shift was that the home became thought of as the women’s sphere,
a feminine refuge from the rough and dirty professional and political
realm, the “man’s world.” Children spent all their
time with mom, who, as the repository of virtue and morality, was
expected to turn her boys into little gentlemen.
The ideal (which
was always more ideal than reality) of mom at home and dad at work
would persist into the 1950s. This is still a romantic standard
many would like to return to, ignoring the fact that such a set-up
kept dad away from his children for the bulk of the day, depriving
them of his mentoring and creating a culture where his parenting
role was deemed subordinate to mom’s.
But at least
in that situation dad was around. The divorce rate began to climb
at the turn of the century and peaked around 1980 when many states
legalized no-fault divorces. And the courts, as they still do today,
typically favored the mother when issuing custody rights. Whereas
boys once didn’t see their fathers while they were away at
work, now they only saw dad on weekends or holidays. And of course,
many dads voluntarily fled from the responsibility of their children;
the percentage of single parent households (84% of which are headed
by single mothers) has doubled since 1970.
Until the mid-nineteenth
century, the vast majority of teachers were men. Teaching was not
considered a lifelong career but was rather undertaken by young
men during the slow periods on the farm or while studying to become
a lawyer or minister. Children were thought to be inherently sinful
and therefore prone to unruly behavior; they thus needed a strong
male presence to keep them in line. As some Christian denominations
became more liberal, the emphasis on children’s sinfulness
was replaced by a focus on their need to be gently nurtured into
morality, a task believed to be better suited to the fairer sex.
At the same time, women were marrying and having children at a later
age, allowing them more time to teach before settling down. The
result was a complete reversal in the gender make-up of the education
In 1870, women
made up 2/3 of teachers, 3/4 in 1900, 4/5 in 1910. As a result,
boys were spending a significant portion of their day at school
but passing the time without the influence and example of an adult
The third institution
that has historically socialized boys into men is religion. And
during the past century, that religion for a majority of Americans
was Christianity. But if the home had become a thoroughly feminized
place, the church was hardly a refuge of masculinity.
Women are more
likely to be religious than men – and this holds true across
time, place, and faith. This means they have historically been more
likely to attend religious services and be active in a congregation.
And Christian ministers, whether consciously or not, naturally catered
their style and programs to their core audience. The Jesus men encountered
in the pews became a wan, gentle soul who glided through Jerusalem
patting children’s heads, talking about flowers, and crying.
A push back
against the perceived feminization of Christianity began around
the turn of the 20th century. Referred to as “Muscular Christianity,”
its proponents linked a strong body with a strong faith and sought
to inject the gospel with a vigorous virility.
The most visible
and popular leader of this movement was the evangelical preacher,
Billy Sunday. Sunday had been a professional baseball player before
undergoing a conversion to Christianity and deciding to devote himself
to spreading the faith. Sundays’ preaching style was charismatic
and physical; peppering his sermons with baseball and sports references,
he would run back and forth, dive to the stage like he was sliding
into a base, and smash chairs to make his point.
by the difference in Sunday’s preaching versus the typical
“effeminate” style of the day, a journalist described
Sunday in action:
stands up like a man in the pulpit and out of it. He speaks like
a man. He works like a man…He is manly with God and with
everyone who comes to hear him. No matter how much you disagree
with him, he treats you after a manly fashion. He is not an imitation,
but a manly man giving all a square deal.”
Jesus as a virile, masculine Savior; he was “the greatest scrapper
who ever lived.” Here was a strong Messiah, an artisan with
the rough worn hands of a carpenter, a man who angrily chased money
changers out of the temple and courageously endured a painful execution.
Faith was not for the meek and sedentary. Sunday believed that a
Christian man should not be “some sort of dishrag proposition,
a wishy-washy, sissified sort of galoot, that lets everybody make
a doormat out of him. Let me tell you, the manliest man is the man
who will acknowledge Jesus Christ.” “Lord save us from
the off-handed, flabby cheeked, brittle boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned,
pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified, three karat Christianity,”