How Masculinity Changed in the 20th Century

Masculinity changed in the 20th century, especially in England and France. Last week we discussed how modern menswear tradition became established through Puritanism. Today we’ll discuss how masculinity changed in the 20th century through sports in public schools, war, and the workplace.

Masculinity changed

A new age of industry and war emphasized certain characteristics of manhood. Anything associated with aristocracy, overindulgence, and carnality became despised. Michael Antony in The Masculine Century describes how “Masculinity in this new age is associated only with strength, martial vigor, and productive or commercial efficiency—not with grace, elegance or esthetic display.”

While it might seem the 20th Century was the refined man’s death, the gentleman we recognize today emerged. His focus was on “success, aggression and ruthlessness, yet victory within the rules, courtesy in triumph, and compassion for the defeated” as Professor J. A. Manga mentions in Manufacturing Masculinity. We owe our modern sportsmanship code to the British public schools of the time. Schoolmasters believed boys could be shaped into men through sport.

Sports Through Public Schools

During the Victorian era, the English became “convinced of the inherent social value of sport” and implemented sport programs throughout public schools (Sports around the World).

Many believed boys benefitted from playing sports over academic studies. Charles Kingsley declared,

…in the playing field boys acquire virtues which no books can give them; not merely daring and endurance, but, better still temper, self-restraint, fairness, honor, unenvious approbation of another’s success, and all that ‘give and take’of life which stand a man in good stead when he goes forth into the world…”

This echoed some of Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau’s earlier thoughts: “The lessons the scholars learn from one another in the playground are worth a hundred fold more than what they learn in the classroom.”

Teaching and promoting sport in schools promoted military physical readiness. Masculinity changed in this age due to a shift society’s needs. Expansion and defense became the foundation for manhood ideals.


…sport masculinity became associate[d] two decades later to the ideology of militarism and they remained inseparably linked until World War I” Manufacturing Masculinity

Another reason schools encouraged sports was because “the intelligentsia saw the need to protect the British Empire and produce leaders that were well educated and ‘manly.’”

Britain was imperialistic in nature and the goal was expansion. The Industrial Revolution became another medium through which “all things British” could be expanded.


Before the Industrial Revolution, families worked together. Women played an equal role with the husband in the household. But during industrialization, men left home for work and women became designated homemakers. This solidified gender roles. Practicality and rationality became more important manhood ideals since the burden of provision was fully male.

But in a workplace deplete of women, men had to prove their manhood among coworkers. “Masculinity was enacted through, for example, the use of jokes and put-downs; sexual and physical threat and harassment; nude calendars and pin-ups; horseplay; and homophobic jokes and activities. The management was rejected as effeminate and incompetent.”

Maybe it was the sign of the times or the need for adaptation, but masculinity changed in the early 20th Century and continues to be reflected in how men act even today.


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