Politics of Changing Men

by R. W. Connell

© all rights reserved

A response has been received from A J Hammerton

In 1970 my wife and I, temporarily in the United States, were among a hundred thousand or so people who marched on Washington – in our case by Volkswagen – to protest against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, and the subsequent killing of students during a protest at Kent State University. The action was one of those dramas of confrontation that Americans do so well. A chanting avant-garde of students, mostly men, tried to storm the line of buses parked in a defensive ring around the White House. Through clouds of tear gas, they were turned back by rows of scowling police, all men. Meanwhile tens of thousands of other protestors massed in the wide parklands and crowded into the streets of downtown Washington in support.

In 1994 I went to another demonstration against violence, this time in Sydney. It was organized by the Australian group Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA), to protest against men’s acts of violence against women. We marched through the streets from near Central Station and held a rally with speeches and music in the main park of the city. About seventy people came. There was no tear-gas and there were no arrests, though there were a few police.

The contrast is obvious. Looking back, we can see the 1970 demonstration, for all its radicalism, as a patriarchal event. The confrontation was a display of masculinity on both sides, a declaration of toughness, which sidelined women physically and morally, even though women made up a large proportion of the protestors. This pattern in the anti-war movement was a key reason why the Women’s Liberation Movement was emerging at that time.

The 1994 protest was tiny because there was no social movement backing it. The Kent State protest had a specific target, a perpetrator of great visibility, living right there in the building facing us. The MASA protest had as target the same group that was making the protest, “men”. Though the moral point of the protest was as clear, both being actions against violence, the political situation was much muddier. And the demand being made on the demonstrators themselves was more complex. For MASA was criticizing the very masculinity that produced “the demonstration” as a confrontational genre of political action.

The issues at stake in this critique of masculinity seem to me far more important than is suggested by media jokes about Sensitive New Age Guys, or the Wild Men beating on drums and pretending to be bears. For men to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, especially at the level of emotions, is a key to the transformation of personal relationships, sexuality and domestic life. Men’s gender practices raise large questions of social justice, given the scale of economic inequality, domestic violence, and institutional barriers to women’s equality. Masculinities are deeply implicated in organized violence (for instance in the wars tearing apart Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan); and in technologies and production systems that threaten environmental destruction and nuclear war. The path of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is closely connected to recent social changes in men’s sexualities.

The Historical Moment

For much of this century there has been a gradually increasing awareness of the possibility of change in gender. This consciousness erupted in the Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and Men’s Liberation movements in the years around 1970. To people energized by these movements, it seemed that millennia of patriarchy and oppression could now end. The technological conditions for the equality of the sexes now existed, and the change of consciousness had arrived. Feminist women began to invent a new language for a post-patriarchal world and a new politics based on “consciousness-raising” and “sisterhood”.

For the brothers in Men’s Liberation, many of whom had a background in the anti-war movement, this sense of a great historical drama unfolding gave resonance to otherwise modest reform proposals and vague rhetorics of change. A genre of criticism of “the Male Role” was created in the 1970s. Most of the critics believed that masculinity was in crisis, and that the crisis itself would drive change forward. The end would be a world where masculinity as we know it would be annihilated, replaced by some kind of androgyny.1

Twenty years later, this apocalyptic thinking has become rare and even seems naive. We are all so much more sophisticated now! Yet those innocent pioneers did us a tremendous favor. The shift in thinking about gender achieved by the liberation movements of the 1970s is irreversible.

From the Male Role to Masculinities

The concept of a “male role” has severe weaknesses, both scientific and practical. It gives no grasp on issues of power, violence or material inequality. It misses the complexities within masculinity and the multiple forms of masculinity; and it offers very limited strategies of change. Let me offer a definition of what is meant by masculinity: a configuration of practice around the position of men in the structure of gender relations.

To speak of a configuration of practice is to place the emphasis on what people actually do, not on what is expected or imagined. There is no limit to the types of practice involved. It was once thought that gender could be defined as a special type of practice, for instance as social “reproduction” rather than “production”. But masculinities are constructed in the sphere of production too. Research on working-class and middle-class masculinities in several countries has documented the shaping of masculinities in the workplace and the labor market, large-scale organizations and the political system. 2

To speak of practice is to emphasise that action has a rationale and has historical meaning. This is not to say the practice is necessarily rational. We would not think rape, sexual harassment or wife-beating “rational”; but neither is sexual violence a meaningless explosion of inner rage. As feminist research has shown, sexual violence is competent, generally purposeful, action directed towards intimidation and the maintenance of men’s supremacy. Hence the emphasis, in prevention work with violent men, on men taking responsibility for their actions. 3

To speak of the position of men is to emphasise that masculinity has to do with social relations and also refers to bodies – since “men” means adult people with male bodies. We should not be afraid of biology, nor so refined or tricky in our theorizing of gender that we have no place for sweaty bodies. Gender is, in the broadest terms, the way in which the reproductive capacities and sexual differences of human bodies are drawn into social practice and made part of the historical process. In gender, social practice addresses bodies. Through this logic, masculinities are embodied without ceasing to be social. We experience masculinities (in part) as certain muscular tensions, postures, physical skills, ways of moving, and so on.

To speak of the structure of gender relations is to emphasise that gender is far more than face-to-face interactions between women and men. It is a large-scale structure, embracing the economy and the state as well as the family and sexuality; having, indeed, an important international dimension. Gender is also a complex structure: different masculinities are produced in the same social context; gender relations include relations among men, relations of dominance, marginalization and complicity. A hegemonic form of masculinity has other masculinities arrayed around it. Any particular form of masculinity is itself internally complex, even contradictory, an we owe especially to Freud, who emphasised the presence of femininity within men’s character and masculinity within women’s, and who analysed the processes of repression by which these contradictions were managed. If “masculinity” simply meant the characteristics of men, we could not speak of the femininity in men or the masculinity in women (except as deviance), and we would lose our grasp on the dynamics of gender. Gender is always a contradictory structure.

The Remaking of Masculinities

If gender is a historical product, it is open to historical change and if that change is to become conscious, and open to democratic control, we need to know how gender is shaped and how it may be reshaped.

The conventional story about how masculinities are made says that boys are pressured to act and feel this way, and to distance themselves from women, girls and femininity, understood as the opposite. The pressure for conformity comes from families, schools, peer groups, mass media, and (eventually) employers. Most boys internalize this social norm, and adopt masculine manners and interests, often at the expense of repressing their feelings. Striving too hard to match the masculine norm may lead to violence or to personal crisis, and to difficulties in relations with women. This conventional story is not wholly wrong, but it is drastically incomplete. We need to make three major revisions.

First, the conventional story takes one form of masculinity to define masculinity in general. This mistakes gender hegemony for gender totalitarianism. The evidence is clear that hegemonic masculinities are produced alongside, and in relation to, other masculinities. For instance, in one school my colleagues and I studied, hegemonic masculinity was represented by a group called “The Bloods”, who benefited from the school’s cult of football and pursued an aggressive, physically dominating style of conduct. But the same school also produced an intellectual masculinity, represented by a group called “The Cyrils”, who were not physically aggressive but were academically competitive. The point is that the school produced both, and needed both, and the teachers had to regulate the relationships between them. 4

Second, the conventional story takes gender as a social mould whose mark is imprinted on the child, so that masculine personalities are turned out from the conveyor-belt like chocolate frogs. This woefully under-estimates the energy, the activity, the agency of a growing person. It under-estimates the pleasures and excitements of entering a gendered world and appropriating masculinity there — pleasures that are very clear, for instance, in autobiographical narratives of men and sports, or men and motor vehicles.

This suggests we should think of the making of masculinity as a “project” (in Sartre’s sense), pursued over a period of many years and through many twists and turns. Such projects involve complex encounters with institutions (such as schools and labour markets), and with cultural forces (such as mass communication, religion, and feminism). These encounters have a dialectical structure, not a mechanistic one. Boys and girls may struggle against the institution or cultural force, as well as accept its imprint. This is common, for instance, in working-class boys’ conflicts with schools and police.

Third, we must see the making of masculinities as a collective project as much as an individual one. Sometimes this is very obvious: as in the masculine display of the motorcycle gang, the army on parade, or the football crowd. Sometimes it is more subtle. Cynthia Cockburn’s rightly celebrated study of British printing workers shows a collective masculinity sustained as a workplace and union culture, built in struggle against both bosses and women. 5 The masculinization of the state and of corporate management is equally a collective accomplishment, achieved by the many practices that exclude, subordinate, or marginalize women – practices that are gradually being revealed and fought by “equal opportunity” programs. If the current right-wing assault against affirmative action in the United States succeeds, one of its effects will be to conceal these practices again.

If masculinities are made in such ways, they are also constantly re-made. Popular ideology often represents gender as what does not change, the stable “natural” pattern underneath all the flux. The pattern now often called “traditional masculinity”, and linked to the “traditional family”, is in fact a historically recent gender form, very much a product of the modern world.

In understanding the politics of masculinity, two aspects of this historicity are crucial. The first is the fact of a struggle for hegemony. Groups of men struggle for dominance through the social definition of masculinity. The dominant position in the gender order gives material as well as psychological advantages, and this makes it likely to be challenged. The conditions in which hegemony can be sustained constantly change. In consequence, a given pattern of hegemonic masculinity is liable to be either displaced or transformed over time.

In the last two hundred years of European and American history, for instance, we have seen the hegemonic pattern of gentry masculinity displaced by a more rational, calculative masculinity better suited to an industrial-capitalist economy and to bureaucratic states. This in turn has been challenged by forms of masculinity emphasising impulse and violence – fascism in the metropole, “cowboy” masculinities on the frontier. The hegemonic form of bourgeois masculinity has split between forms emphasising expertise, and forms emphasising domination and egocentric calculation. The struggle for hegemony between them can be seen in the liberal/conservative split in bourgeois politics.

These are specifically the hegemonic masculinities of the dominant world powers. In most discussions of masculinity, Europe and North America form the entire, unquestioned universe of discourse. My second point about historicity is that we cannot ignore the majority of the world’s population, nor the history that made possible the hegemonic masculinities of the hegemonic powers: the history of imperialism including direct colonial conquest, which made race relations an inescapable part of the dynamic of gender.

The outcome of globalization is not necessarily that Western masculinities are cloned on the periphery. The collective remaking of masculinities, like the construction of masculinity at a personal level, is a dialectical not a mechanical process. Thus the Japanese “salaryman”, born from the Zaibatsu, is not exactly the same as the “executive” of corporate America. The corporate world of East Asian industrialization is massively patriarchal, even more so than European and North American business is now. But it is not marked by the competitive individualism that is important in the European/American corporate elite.

It is possible that we are now witnessing, out of this global interaction, the creation of new forms of hegemonic masculinity. The conditions for hegemony are changing, with the growth of world feminism, the stabilization of new forms of sexuality, and the creation of a global economy. The crucible of new forms is the globalization of finance, the deregulation of markets, and the growth of corporate empires outside the control of any governments and of any democratic process now existing. The masculinity likely to be produced in this context is calculative, with an opening to authoritarian violence as a form of economic action; sensual, inheriting the pleasures of patriarchal masculinity without much in the way of cultural restraint on self-indulgence; and uprooted from kin and locality to a striking degree, though quite able to use local nationalisms where these yield political support or markets for exploitation.

There is no reason to suspect the ascendancy of such masculinity would mean anything good for women. One of the notable institutions of the new world order is international sex tourism – more bluntly, the prostitution of women of the periphery to men of the industrialized countries.

Masculinity Politics

Men’s Liberation assumed that a historical consciousness masculinity itself defined the goal of politics. All that was required was to egg on the apocalypse, thus accomplishing the end of patriarchy that had come into view.

We now know that very different kinds of politics can be pursued within the horizon of historicity. Within the countries of the metropole, including the United States, four main kinds of masculinity politics have emerged. Each has a structural basis ingender relations.

1. Masculinity therapy is the best-known form of gender politics among men at present, in the English-speaking countries, sometimes called simply “the men’s movement”. It has the most conspicuous public figures, such as Robert Bly and Sam Keen , and a great deal of media attention. 6

It is historically derived from Men’s Liberation, but represents a dramatic shift towards the political right, which gained force during the 1980s. It mostly ignores social issues and economic inequality, and totally ignores the international context, to focus on emotional problems. It is, at bottom, a psychological “recovery” movement, addressed to the pain that heterosexual men feel and their uncertainties about gender. The base of this politics is the complicit masculinity that accepts the broad structure of gender relations but is not militant in its defence.

The clients of masculinity therapists are mostly white, middle class, and often middle aged. They feel they are in trouble, and they feel they are unfairly blamed by feminists. Some of their theorists, in fact, claim that men are more disadvantaged than women. All of them say it is men’s turn for the attention feminism has been getting for the problems of women.

2. The gun lobby is a politics that exalts men’s power and explicitly pursues an anti-feminist agenda. Its point of reference is hegemonic masculinity, but it may recruit key support from marginalized masculinities (e.g. among working-class youth).

For the most part this does not take the form of a “movement”, but is a trend or emphasis in culture, politics and business. An important part is the commercial promotion of exemplary masculinities. Televised sports, Hollywood “action” movies, super-hero comics, airport-rack novels, violent video games, children’s plastic toy sets, relentlessly insist on the bodily superiority of men and their mastery of technology and violence.

But this is not the only arena. A gun-lobby agenda is also built into the cult of the ruthless business entrepreneur, which has been given force by globalization and by political demands to achieve “international competitiveness”. New-right attacks on the welfare state have a gender dimension as well as a class dimension.

And at times a social movement can arise from hegemonic and marginalized masculinities. We have been forcibly introduced to this by the Oklahoma City bombing. As Bill Gibson’s important study Warrior Dreams indicates, the U.S. “militia” movement is part of a wider paramilitary culture, in which a particularly narrow model of masculinity – tough, dominating, and violent – is obsessively pursued. 7

3. Gay Liberation in the 1970s mounted a vigorous critique both of conventional stereotypes of gays, and of conventional masculinity as a source of oppression. It is worth recalling, whenever masculinity therapists talk of the need for a men’s movement, that there is a movement of men in gender politics that has now been in existence, and has won important victories, over a quarter of a century. This movement is based in the principal form of subordinated masculinity in the current Western gender order. Gay men’s politics have been re-shaped around AIDS. In making their response, gay communities have given a stunning demonstration of men’s capacities for care, for emotional solidarity, and for collective action in the face of crisis and abuse. 8

Queer politics involves a reversal of the mainstream approach of gay politics, contesting and dismantling identities rather than affirming them as bases for community-building. There is no doubt about the creativity of this movement, and the relevance of its cultural critique to the dismantling of hegemonic masculinity. Whether it has the capacity to build long-term responses to homophobic violence, HIV/AIDS, and the new Christian right, remains to be seen.

4. Exit/Transformative Politics. Anti-sexist activism among straight men declined in the 1980s, but never died out, and has found new strength recently.

Left-wing men in Britain produced a lively and intelligent magazine called Achilles Heel , and American men have sustained a network now called National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and a magazine Changing Men . Canada has produced the most impressive outreach, the White Ribbon movement. In the wake of the Montreal killings of 1989 a widespread movement against violence against women developed, with men campaigning alongside feminist women. 9

There is no convenient name for this form of politics; it seeks to exit from current patriarchal structures (thus the term “anti-sexist men’s movement”), but it also tries to transform existing forms of masculinity. It shares many goals with gay politics but has a different underlying logic, since it involves an attempt to escape from a gender identity, not to affirm one. Its arenas are private as well as public, including a gender revolution in certain households where men take an equal share with Kinder and Kuche, if not Kirche, and women take an equal share in decision-making and control of assets.

Men’s Interests

All forms of masculinity politics involve a relationship with feminism. Whether rejection, wary co-existence, or warm support, this is the emotional centre of current debates. In the days of Men’s Liberation, it was assumed that feminism was good for men, because men too suffered from rigid sex roles, but the failure of any large number to sign on as the men’s auxiliary to feminism suggests a flaw in this analysis. Men’s dominant position in the gender order has a material pay-off, and the discussions of masculinity have constantly under-estimated how big it is. In the rich capitalist countries, men’s average incomes are approximatelydouble the average incomes of women. Men have ten times the political access of women, world-wide (measured by representation in parliaments). Men have even greater control of corporate wealth (looking at top management in major corporations). Men control the means of violence, in the form of weapons and armed forces.

I call these advantages the “patriarchal dividend” for men, and this dividend is not withering away. Yet not all men are corporate executives or mass killers. Though men in general gain the patriarchal dividend, specific groups of men gain very little of it. For instance, working-class youth, economically dispossessed by structural unemployment, may gain no economic advantage at all over the women in their communities. Other groups of men pay part of the price, alongside women, for the maintenance of an unequal gender order. Gay men are systematically made targets of prejudice and violence. Effeminate and wimpish men are constantly put down. Black men, in the United States (as in South Africa) suffer massively higher levels of lethal violence than white men.

When we look at men’s lives concretely, we regularly find dense networks of relationships with women: with mothers, wives, partners, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, friends, workmates, neighbours. Very few men have a life-world that is blocked off from women, that is genuinely a “separate sphere”. Men who try to develop a politics in support of feminism, whether gay or straight, are not in for an easy ride. They are likely to be met with derision from many other men, and from some women – it is almost a journalistic cliche that women despise Sensitive New Age Guys. They will not necessarily get warm support from feminist women, some of whom are deeply distrustful of all men, most of whom are wary of men’s power, and all of whom make a political commitment to solidarity with women. Since change in gender requires reconstructing personal relations as well as public life, there are many opportunities for personal hurt, mistaken judgments, and anger.

Goals and Visions

Given the difficulties of the project, what might motivate men to press on into the flames? For more than a decade, the trend in feminist theory re-emphasised difference between women and men. This had obvious advantages in knitting together a women’s movement, but it also had costs. Within a patriarchal culture, difference is always read in hierarchical terms, the masculine as the pole of authority. Difference becomes difference/dominance. This cultural fact sets limits to a rights-based popular politics of reform. Conservatives can always get mileage by painting criticisms of male dominance as attacks on difference – as attempts to turn boys into girls, men into women.

The only way past this knot is to go through it. A de-gendering strategy, an attempt to dismantle hegemonic masculinity, is inevitable if we are to move towards gender equality.

Models of Politics

It is commonly assumed that a progressive politics of masculinity must take the form of a social movement. The usual model is feminism; many writers imply a close parallel between the women’s movement and a men’s movement. More remotely, the labor movement and civil rights movements serve as models.

I would argue that these parallels are not close, and may be seriously misleading. The movements just listed are mobilizations of oppressed or exploited groups to end their subordination. They seek the unity of the group and assert the dignity of a previously stigmatized identity.

“Men” as a group, and heterosexual men in particular, are not oppressed or disadvantaged and hegemonic masculinity is not a stigmatized identity. Quite the opposite: the culture already honours it. Seeking the unity of “men” can only mean emphasising the experiences and interests men have that separate them from women, rather than the interests they share with women that might lead towards social justice.

This is not an abstract theoretical point. It has happened in practice in the history of some anti-sexist men’s groups, such as the American group MOVE studied by Paul Lichterman.10 Initially involved both in anti-violence work with batterers and in raising public issues about masculinity, this group gradually moved towards a therapeutic ideology, developed a concern with being “positive” about men, and moved away from public stands and issues about the structure of power. What happened in this specific case also happened much more broadly in the transition from “men’s liberation” in the early 1970s to masculinity therapy in the 1980s.

To fight for justice and a new way of life often means, paradoxically, doing the opposite of the things that would create a “men’s movement”. That is, tackling issues that inevitably divide men rather than unite them: issues like homophobia, affirmative action for women, equal pay, sexual harassment and violence.

This points to the importance, for men engaged in such struggles, of networks such as NOMAS. At the end of the 1980s NOMAS moved towards a more clearly defined anti-sexist stand – though it still has a lot of overlap with masculinity therapy. Journals such as Changing Men in the United States, XY in Australia, are key elements in anti-sexist networks. P> We should be clear, however, that none of this amounts to a social movement comparable to feminism or to the gay movement. Rather than agonizing over the failure to produce a large-scale movement including straight men, it would be better to recognize that there are structural reasons why a movement is unlikely to appear, and work out a more relevant political model.

The relevant model is, I think, one of a variety of struggles in diverse sites, linked through networking rather than mass mobilization or formal organization. Not a social movement of men, but some kind of alliance politics. Here the project of social justice depends on the overlapping of interests or commitments between different groups. The overlapping may be temporary, but can be long-term (a perfectly familiar situation in politics). Existing power resources can be used for new ends; we do not have to start from scratch all the time.

Pluralism in alliance-making is necessary, but containment is not a necessary result. Given that patriarchy is a historical structure, not a timeless dichotomy of men abusing women, it will be ended by a historical process. The strategic problem is to generate pressures that will culminate in the long run in a transformation of the structure; and any initiative that sets up pressure in that direction is worth having. Lynne Segal, in the best feminist appraisal of issues about masculinity, is cool about the pace of change; her book is called Slow Motion . But she is in no doubt about the possibilities of change, through hard work in familiar institutions such as workplaces, unions and political parties. 11

In parks I often see something that I hardly ever saw twenty years ago: fathers taking toddlers and babies in pushchairs for an outing.

I want to end these reflections with this image, not with a grand strategic statement. A new gender politics for men means new styles of thinking, including a willingness to be uncertain and an openness to new experience and new ways of conveying it. When pictures of men with guns are rare, and pictures of men with pushchairs are common, we will really be getting somewhere.


Bob Connell is Professor of Education at Sydney University. His latest book is Masculinities, University of California Press, 1995. An extended version of this paper was published in English in Socialist Review, vol. 25 no. 1.


1. Popular examples of this genre were Marc Feigen Fasteau, The Male Machine (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975) and Jack Nichols, Men’s Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (New York: Penguin,1975). The genre as a whole is analyzed in Tim Carrigan, R. W.Connell and John Lee, ‘Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,’ Theory and Society, vol. 14 (1985), pp. 551-604.

2. Mike Donaldson, Time of Our Lives: Labour and Love in the Working Class (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991); June Corman, Meg Luxton, David Livingstone and Wally Seccombe, Recasting Steel Labour: The Stelco Story (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1993); Jeff Hearn, Men in the Public Eye: The Construction and Deconstruction of Public Men and Public Patriarchies (London: Routledge, 1992).

3.James Ptacek, ‘Why Do Men Batter their Wives?’, in Kersti Ullo and Michele Bograd, eds., Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (Newbury Park, Sage, 1988).

4. S. Kessler, D. J. Ashenden, R. W. Connell and G. W. Dowsett, Gender Relations in Secondary Schooling, Sociology of Education, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 34-48.

5. Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change (London: Pluto, 1983).

6. For an excellent discussion of this movement see Michael S Kimmel and Michael Kaufman, “Weekend Warriors,” in Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman, eds., Theorizing Masculinities (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994).

7. James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994)

8. Dennis Altman, Power and Community: Organizational and Cultural Responses to AIDS (London: Taylor & Francis, 1994).

9. Michael Kaufman, Cracking the Armour: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men (Toronto: Viking, 1993) is the most thoughtful recent account of the ideas and experience of this movement.

10. Paul Lichterman, “Making a Politics of Masculinity,” Comparative Social Research, vol. 11 (1989), pp. 185 208.

11. Lynne Segal, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (London: Virago, 1990).

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