Prior to the late 19th century, military service was seen as a rite of passage into manhood. Masculinity revolved around the “warrior” image. Feats of manhood were displayed on the battlefield where a man could be elevated to hero status. But the Victorian era (1837-1901) is often characterized as one of the longest periods of peace in England. In the middle of shifting gender roles and social change, a new form of masculinity emerged based on performance in society and work. Today we will discuss how Victorian masculinity still influences modern manhood.
Norman Mailer wrote, “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.” But these battles might not take place on a battlefield; they take place in common scenarios. Victorian masculinity influenced interaction at church/school, work and home. Qualities like provide, protect, and good behavior/etiquette grew in prominence during this period and still impact modern manhood.
Larger percentages of women began to make up the church in this era. Men felt effeminacy was destroying the church. Edwin Starbuck, a 1900s psychologist, said, “the boy is a hero-worshipper, and his hero can not be found in a Sunday school which is manned by women.”
The solution? Hyper masculinity that came in the form of Muscular Christianity. According to Clifford Pitney, “Muscular Christianity can be defined as a Christian commitment to health and manliness.” Fed up with high brow academics, lofty ideals, and a patriotism crisis in the absence of war, Muscular Christianity was a movement marked by “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, unEnglish and excessively intellectual”
Muscular Christianity introduced sports into schools for the first time because it was believed this led to a more well-rounded education. One of the fathers of the movement, Charles Kingsley, stated, “…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…”
Additionally, sports encouraged qualities of manhood like allegiance and honor. John Percival, the headmaster of Clifton in England, encouraged sports not only because they “developed manliness (about which he felt as fervently as any Victorian headmaster), but because they encouraged school pride and loyalty.”
If you’ve played sports in school or gone to the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) gym, you can thank Muscular Christianity. The aim was to strengthen young men in “mind, body, and spirit” (which influences GoodGuySwag.com as well), represented by the triangle within the logo. Started in London, the YMCA was created in response to the Industrial Revolution. Gyms, or places of recreation, were healthy places young men could go instead of taverns and bars.
Domination has long been a characteristic of masculinity. Since peace was an aspect of the Victorian era, men proved themselves through work performance rather than battlefield achievement. Provide and protect became two important Victorian masculinity ideals.
Pride in one’s work drove men to work longer hours. A man who came from nothing, succeeded through hardships, and accumulated wealth made himself respectable among his peers. The concept of “self-made men,” which we still commonly reference today, was presented by Frederick Douglas during this era:
My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.”
However, self-made men were not loners. As Douglas stated, “…no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.” Moral aptitude and relationships were most important. The man’s role at home wasn’t ignored.
British historian John Tosh wrote, “home was central to masculinity, as the place where the boy was disciplined by dependence and where the man attained full adult status as a householder.” To be successful at work was not enough. A man could only become a better man through the atmosphere of the home. John Tosh also wrote,
With the Industrial Revolution, most men began to leave home for work. While the work place and the city crippled his moral sense and distorted his human relationship, home gave play to feelings of nurture, love and companionship, as well as natural forms of authority and deference; it nourished the whole man.”
A wife brought out the nurturing sensibilities every man needed. The home was a place where a man found peace, healing, and strength.
In many ways, though, household expectations cemented gender roles in this era and distanced men from nurturing roles. Victorian studies professor Dr. Kelly Hurley states that during this period, “emotional tenderness and sentiment, seen as compatible with masculine activity and resolution in the earlier nineteenth century, were considered somewhat effeminate qualities by the century’s end, when physical grace, courage, pluck, and toughness [were] among the highest qualities of manhood”
In the absence of war and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the old guard view of manliness being a hero on the battlefield was replaced with a redefined masculinity, a “manliness [that] was above all a moral attribute, requiring adherence to a stringent ethical code. It encapsulated the virtues of industry, self-reliance, sobriety, chastity and family affection.” Modern day gyms, public school sports, aspirations to be self-made men, etiquette traditions, and gender roles that we still consider today all arose from Victorian masculinity ideals.