Great Moments in American Masculinity

Why are men always trying to prove their masculinity? At least some of theblame may date back to 1832, when Senator Henry Clay declared the United States "a nation of self-made men."

That seemingly innocuous statement of national pride has some profound psychological implications, contends Michael Kimmel, Ph.D., a sociologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. If men are self-made, "it means that you can always be unmade. You have to continually prove your masculinity. You watch Jack Palance doing his one-armed pushups at age 77 and you think, When does it end? When do men get to stop proving it?"

In his book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Free Press), Kimmel traces the evolution of manhood from its original conception--as simply a stage of life, the opposite of childhood, something all men possessed--to what it is today: a term fraught with insecurity, emotional baggage, and gender politics. Among the revelations he uncovers along the way: around the time of World War I, pink was a boy color and blue was for girls. (It's not clear exactly why, after years of debate in magazines, parents flip-flopped.)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

In an interview with PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, Kimmel singled out some key moments in American manhood:

1820: Henpecked husband Rip Van Winkle awakes from a 20-year nap and learns his wife has died, "When he finds out," notes Kimmel, "a smile creeps across his face and he lives happily ever after, hanging out in front of the saloon."

1832: Henry Clay's declaration that "we are a nation of self-made men."

1840: During the presidential election campaign, challenger William Henry Harrison plays the "wimp card," portraying himself as a manly man--born in a log cabin and fond of hard cider--while casting aspersions on incumbent Martin Van Buren for his ruffled shirts and for installing indoor plumbing in the White House. Harrison wins,but in an ironic coda catches pneumonia on the day of his inauguration when he manfully braves the weather sans overcoat despite record cold temperatures. He dies a month later.

1845: Henry David Thoreau ventures into Walden Woods and does his own Robert Bly initiation ceremonies. Thoreau dunks himself in Walden Pond and barely contains his urge to devour raw woodchuck. 'If he could have," Kimmel quips, "he would have gone into a sweat lodge."

1848: The first women's rights convention draws 30 male supporters, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who is subsequently denounced by newspapers as an "Aunt Nancy Man."

1860: The Civil War, with a manly metaphor--"brother fighting brother." The message: Events are experienced through masculinity. Shortly before the war's end, Confederate leader Jefferson Davis allegedly escapes from Richmond, which is surrounded by Union troops, by dressing as a woman.

1897: The Golden Age of Fraternity. Nearly 1 in 3 men belong to fraternal orders like the Freemasons.

1902: Birth of the cowboy myth: The first Western novel, The Virginian, is published.

1910: The Boy Scouts is founded "to rescue boys from the feminizing clutches of mothers and Sunday School teachers, and to get them out into the woods to learn how to be men."

1905-1915: Fed up with wimpy ministers and a bland Savior, the Muscular Christian movement reinvents Jesus as 'a kind of religious Rambo." The movement emphasizes the Son of God's carpentry background and such macho Bible tales as Jesus kicking the Honey changer out of the temple.

1929: The Depression throws an entire generation of men out of work, depriving them of one of the key arenas in which to prove their manhood.

1930: A Hollywood producer recommends that a budding actor named Marion Michael Morrison change his name to something less feminine. Morrison later becomes an icon under a macho, monosyllabic moniker: "John Wayne."

1936: Legendary social psychologist Lewis Terman invents the "M-F" scale, a behavioral checklist that alerts parents if their boys aren't turning out okay (i.e., heterosexual). Among the "danger" signs: boys who keep a diary or like to take baths.

1953: First issue of Playboy.

1965: President Lyndon Johnson opts not to withdraw the American troops that JFK had sent to Vietnam, lest he be thought "less of a man than Kennedy."

1967: The hippie movement rejects the traditional view of masculinity, embracing long, flowing hair and clothing. Hit song: "Are You a Boy or Are You a Gid?

1982: Real Men Don't Eat Quiche hits the best. seller list. Some men don't get the joke and mistake the book for a manifesto.

1991: Robert Bly's Iron John inspires thousands of men to head into the woods to rediscover their wild, "warrior selves."

1992: Bill Clinton becomes the first president with a dual-career marriage--and is promptly wimp-baited for having a successful, ambitious wife.

1995: The Million Man March on Washington, D.C., brings attention to issues of black masculinity and male responsibility.

PHOTO (COLOR): Bill Clinton

PHOTO (COLOR): The Million Man of March

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.