Is manliness obsolete in the gender-neutral society?

Is manliness obsolete in the gender-neutral society?

Harvard University Professor Harvey C. Mansfield doesn’t think so. In Manliness he asserts (a very manly thing, asserting something) that manliness is not only not obsolete, but very much needed, in our modern, gender-neutral society.

Despite the title, “Manliness“, and the assertion that manliness is needed, Mansfield isn’t opposed to our gender-neutral society, though he does prefer to use the word sex rather than gender when talking about men and women. In fact, he says that a gender-neutral public society is “long overdue”. He then asserts that manliness is required to maintain it. Of course, this requires defining manliness, not an easy thing to do, and then proving his assertion. To do so, Mansfield takes the reader on a tour of philosophy and literature from Plato and Homer to feminist authors of our modern age.

Interestingly, he didn’t write the book to teach men how to be manly. You can’t teach manliness. Rather, the book was written for a surprising audience and purpose.

Manliness, the quality mostly of one sex, gets in the way of an equal or reasonable distribution of tasks and rewards; it seems to promote a bias in favor of men over women. In this book I begin from manliness as the irrational obstacle to a rational project that seeks to remove this bias. By the end I hope to convince skeptical readers–above all, educated women–of the reverse: that irrational manliness deserves to be endorsed by reason. [p.ix]

The problem of manliness

As any good thinker does, Mansfield begins by examining the problem. In this case, the problem is that changes are being made to our society, moving it toward “a practice of equality between the sexes that has never been known before in all human history.” Yet, in spite of these changes, manliness refuses to quietly fade away.

The capacities and inclinations of the sexes do not differ exactly or universally, but they do seem to differ. These differences are, one could say, all the more impressive now that they are no longer supported, indeed now that they are denied or opposed, by society’s ruling conventions. The old Adam is still effective and still visible despite all that Hollywood and the media (when they want to be serious) do to instruct us in gender neutrality. [p.12]

So the questions are, Why do these differences still exist? The answer is because Manliness still exists. But should it? Are we done with manliness? Or do we still need it? And if so, for what purpose?

Manliness defined

But we still need a definition of manliness. Mansfield supplies it: John Wayne. Manliness is confident and competent. Manly men get things done, they take responsibility when others won’t, they speak with authority.

The confidence of a manly man gives him independence of others. He is not always asking for help or directions or instructions (for it is out of manliness that men do not like to ask for directions when lost). The manly man is in control when control is difficult or contested–in a situation of risk. He knows his job, and he stands fast in that knowledge. If he doesn’t really know his job, his confidence is false and he is just boasting. If he knows it but lets himself be pushed around, he’s also no really confident; he merely has the basis for confidence. [p. 16]

In other words, manliness is “confidence in the face of risk” [p. 23], or courage.

Because of these characteristics, manly men end up taking charge and leading, in disproportionate numbers. And for that reason, manliness is a problem for the gender-neutral society that wants to see men and women leading in more or less equal numbers.

Stereotypes, feminism, and the virtue of manliness

Mansfield goes on to deal with manliness as a stereotype, examining the social sciences to ascertain whether the stereotype is justified. The social scientists tell us manliness is nothing more than male aggression. Mansfield concludes that manliness is that, and more.

Manliness is not mere aggression; it is aggression that develops an assertion, a cause it espouses. [p.49]

He next deals with the problem of manly assertion, then tackles nihilism, both manly and womanly, dealing with the feminist movement as he goes. Mansfield follows the progress of philosophical thought to our modern era where he deals with the manly liberal (in the classic sense of that word, not the modern political sense, though the two are related). Finally, he deals with manliness as a virtue, which returns to where all philosophy begins, with Plato and Aristotle.

Manly writing

Along the way, he gives us a tour of a both philosophers and poets and offers a few choice thoughts of his own. I offer a few for your reading pleasure below.

Stereotyping is a democratic failure to be sufficiently democratic. [p. 36]


Nothing is more simplistic than the assumption of a soupy continuum from one sex to the other, whose purpose is to avoid debate. [p. 38]


War is hell but men like it. To become the equals of men in combat, then, women would have to become warriors or warriors would have to become obsolete. [p. 76]


Mr. Hyde, it turns out, is unaware of Dr. Jekyll’s good, but Dr. Jekyll is painfully aware of Mr. Hyde’s evil. [p. 107]


It has always been a difficulty in the moral virtue of honesty that you have to know the truth in order to tell it. [p. 114]


When you first hear of Darwin’s theory you might wonder about the moral consequences: will this mean that human beings, since they are no better than brutes, will be encouraged to forget morality and behave like brutes? The answer is worse than you suppose. It is that human beings may think it their moral duty to behave like brutes. [p. 120]


Communist solidarity, like feminist sisterhood, exists in the movement, to be sure, but this is mutual dependency only on the way to abolishing itself. [p. 138]


Rousseau’s answer to the feminist question “what don’t you understand about the word no?” is that it might mean either “get lost” or “try harder.” [p. 195]


The evolutionary biologists and the social scientists who cannot consider human individuals and care only for generalities do not and cannot understand human dignity. [p. 202]


The practical measures taken in our schools to make boys more like girls are based on the premise that boys by their nature start out unlike girls. Gender-neutral schools have to be schools in gender neutrality. [p. 208]

I underlined these great sentences as I read the book, but I actually left out quite a large number of others equally as good. Mansfield is not only well thought, he’s well written.

Manliness and complementarianism

In his conclusion, Mansfield returns to the question, the problem, of manliness. It exists, but what are we to do with it. The problem is that it is unemployed in our society. His solution, oddly enough, though arrived at via philosophy, is akin to biblical complementarianism. Not the rabid kind that insists all women should be submissive to all men and therefore can’t hold any job that would require her to tell a man what to do. Rather, a complementarianism that insists on treating men and women as equals in the public sphere, citizens with the same value and individuals with unique skills and qualities.

In the private sphere of society, however, we should not look on people as gender-neutral, autonomous individuals all equally ambitious to become rulers or celebrities. We should consider them as “gendered,” having a sex, and not one sex by itself but as the sexes are when they engage each other–as married.

In other words, we should expect men to be manly and women to be womanly. Our society cannot survive and remain free if nothing is expected of us.

My assertions

To review this book in a manly fashion I must assert an opinion of his work. Did he accomplish his goal of convincing educated women to endorse manliness with reason? I don’t know. I’m not an educated woman. But from a manly perspective, I’ll assert two things.

First, women of all stripes would be well served to read this book and consider Mansfield’s conclusions. Especially women who are, or intend to be, wives and mothers. If you want your husband and your sons to act like men, you should learn what to expect and how to encourage them in manliness, while doing the job of a womanly woman and keeping their manliness in check. This book won’t tell you how to do this, but it will give you the tools to figure it out for yourself, which might require a bit of manliness. But according to Mansfield, manliness isn’t exclusively male, so you’ll do fine.

Second, while Mansfield’s book does a good job dealing with the public sphere, he leaves the private society undiscussed. He deals with manliness as it applies to the battlefield, politics, and philosophy, but he doesn’t address manliness as it applies to being a husband and father. I understand the distinction between ordinary manliness and heroic manliness, but I think he focuses too exclusively on the heroic. To be fair, it would require a second book, and Mansfield may not be the right man to write it. He has focused his career on the public sphere. But he should have, at least, acknowledged the manliness required, especially in our modern, gender-neutral society that has trouble maintaining the boundaries between public and private, to succeed as a husband and father.

From a Christian perspective, I want my asserted sequel to be written by someone who understands the manliness required to live a godly life in Christ Jesus. I suppose the truly manly thing to do would be to write it myself, but I suspect it may have already been written. I’ve got a couple on my list that I’ll read soon and see if either lives up to my hopes. I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, read Manliness. It’s worth the time.

2 thoughts on “Is manliness obsolete in the gender-neutral society?

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.