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Read R.W. Connell’s Politics of Changing Men
I do not wish to question R. W. Connell’s worthy call for a new challenge to the gender order based on a loose coalition and network of socio-political alliances. Such groupings may well generate valuable pressures for change and keep central questions about gender inequalities in the public eye. But from an historical standpoint there are grounds for doubting whether such a strategy will be the key to enduring social change. Like Lynne Segal, Connell anticipates that pressures to challenge hegemonic masculinities will best be generated from public institutions: the work-place, trade unions and political parties and organisations committed to equality. 1 The crucial omission is the private sphere, where so many of the abuses of masculine power continue to be perpetrated oblivious to the pressures of institutions, and from where it is most difficult to organize resistance.
The private sphere, the family home, the nuclear, heterosexual family – whatever we choose to call it, and however much it has been pushed into the shadows by the prominence of alternative household forms – remains a key site for the playing out of private sexual politics; ultimately it may be a more potent force for change, or at least its prerequisite, than the kind of political mobilization Connell envisages. Routinely now the feature pages of the press dwell on degrees of flux in the domestic division of labour, the consequences of hard-pressed, overworked two-income families struggling to survive materially and to maintain domestic harmony. Here, it is often suggested, if a revolution in sexual politics has not taken place, it must be around the corner. Sceptics note the continuing trauma of domestic violence, high divorce rates, women’s lower incomes, the glass ceiling and the penalties paid by women for maternity. But inexorably popular understandings of gender equity and the material demands of domestic life continue to force the pace of change in the home.
Yet it is striking how, historically, and still today, the image of the husband and father at home has remained a liminal one. In John Gillis’s recent study fathers, ‘strangers in our midst’, always ‘at the threshold of family life, never at its center’, invariably appear to be out of place in the domestic setting, even ridiculous. Their popular treatment has been mostly satirical or dismissive. Even their greater visibility in the late 20th century is largely a by-product of our increased preoccupation with motherhood. 2 Intruders into a feminized space, men at home have always invited scorn as bungling incompetents. The image still informs our idealized views of what even ‘normal’, heterosexual masculinity should constitute.
Even in urban-industrial societies the tradition of scorning domesticated men has a long history. It was epitomized in Britain over a century ago in the lampooning of Charles Pooter, the hapless bank clerk for whom commitment to his home-life was a badge of respectability, despite the fact that he was treated as an ineffectual fool by his wife, his son, the servant, his friends and impertinent tradesmen. 3 For upper-class critics Pooter’s obsession with domesticity was rather a mark of effeminacy, an indication that even the masculinity of the heterosexual husband could be contested terrain. The critique of these lower middle-class ‘black-coated workers’ quickly found its way into the wider international attack on suburban values, where men were depicted as hen-pecked wage-slaves to their wives’ consumerist obsessions, victims of women who dictated the domestic order just as surely as they determined the size of their families. 4 In this model those fathers Connell now sees ‘taking toddlers and babies in pushchairs for an outing’ were nothing new, but an increasingly worrying sign of masculinity compromised. Far from the mockery of such practices subverting traditional models of male power, its purpose and effect was rather to sustain it by marginalizing deviance.
The material dynamics of power and authority in the suburban home in practice have no doubt differed from the satirical cliches, and Connell would surely be right to point out that even these much scorned suburban men retained something of a ‘patriarchal dividend’. We know that when men first began to respond to pressures in the nineteenth century to take a more active domestic role, they often did so in ways that enhanced patriarchal powers rather than inhibiting them. 5 Attempts to mitigate the inequities of separate spheres in practice have never had straightforward results. But Pooterism may have been an early sign that no resistance would prevent changes in women’s workforce participation and in family size from having a more enduring and profound impact on sexual politics in the home, and ultimately in public institutions. Political alliances may help to hasten those changes in public structures and in social justice to which Connell looks. But they will rest ultimately on a more fundamental change in values – in redefinitions of both masculinity and femininity, motherhood and fatherhood – in line with evolutionary changes in everyday social practice, without which any political strategy will remain ineffectual.
Jim Hammerton lectures in the History Department at Latrobe university and is engaged in a study on masculinity and gender in the English lower middle-class.
Notes and References:
4. A. J. Hammerton, ‘”Men as Well as Clerks”: Normative Masculinity and the English Lower Middle-Class,1870-1920’, Meridian, November, 1996, Vol 15, no. 2, pp. 187-205. This article is part of a larger study on masculinity and gender in the English lower middle-class.