• Educating Gender

Act Like a Man...Shifting Perspectives on Gender and the Art of Growing Up


Boys used to wear dresses.


In the 19th century, it was fairly common for young boys to be brought up wearing girls’ clothing until about six or seven years old. Fraternities and men’s clubs were originally founded to provide lonely young men in big cities and colleges a place to make friendships and forge intimate emotional relationships. They would organize poetry and literature readings and put on plays for each other and other frat houses, where many of the female roles were played by men dressed up as women. American males also used to regularly sleep together. In boarding houses and dormitories, men saved money by sharing a bed and nothing was considered odd or strange about it. Young men’s relationships, through letters written to each other and revealed through diary writings, showed intense outward expressions of affection and emotional connection. Today, if you took away the sender’s and sendee’s names from these letters, you would surely imagine they were correspondences between lovers.

Men also expressed their deepest fears and anxieties to each other, regarding all sorts of topics. Would they find a wife? Would they marry someone who would bring out the best in them? Would they find success in the new industrialized world? What did their futures hold? Nothing was really off limits in their conversations.

So what happened? How would we describe the shift that took place in the late 19th century and even more so in the 20th century that led men to think that a severe divorce from emotional expression, vulnerability, and intimacy was the best way to define their manhood?

Young men’s relationships, through letters to each other and revealed through diary writings, showed intense outward expressions of affection and love. Today, if you took away the sender’s and sendee’s names from these letters, you would surely imagine they were correspondences between lovers.

19th century cultural, social and therefore political life maintained much stricter boundaries and enforced role expectations. Men were expected to occupy the public sphere and women, the private. When their interactions with women took place beyond childhood, and into adolescence, they were either limited, inside of family relationships or to supervised and chaperoned experiences. Women also developed significant intimate relationships with each other. The difference was that, post marriage, it was acceptable for women to maintain these emotionally supportive relationships while men were expected to distance themselves from previous close relationships. In other words, they were expected to grow up. Acting like a man, more than anything else, meant not acting like a boy. The demarcation in masculine identity became the difference between a boy’s world, the attitudes of a young man and eventually taking your rightful place in the public square as an adult male. The emotional life of the home was the place of women -- men were largely expected to not spend substantial time in this environment. They were literally expected to divorce and sever themselves from their young, vibrant emotional selves of childhood.

The late 19th, early 20th century changes shifted the landscape quickly and relentlessly. Many of the factors that caused a shift were obvious ones: Women’s increasing role in public life through the suffragist movement and politics, women’s growing ever increasing access to equal education (more women than men graduating from high school in the 20th century) the pill, and women’s continued entry into work life and demands for equal access to the public market place.

But part of the shift in perceptions was not just what was happening to women and the breakdown of boundaries between public and private expectations in gender. There was also a general shift in how men related and perceived their boyhood.

They (men) were literally expected to divorce and sever themselves from their young, vibrant emotional selves of childhood.

With the end of the civil war, the American doctrine of western and international expansionism and the rise of American individualism, the unfettered energies of a boy’s life, was slowly being incorporated into the cultural portrayals of what it meant to be a grown man. The “inner boy” was now a good thing. Rational self-control was no longer a central benchmark for male identity and everything from the tusseling and fighting of young boys to risk-taking and hardened competition were now the new normal for young boys and men. Therefore, the logical extension of this thinking was a new mantra of masculinity: Act like a man...not like a woman. 

This typography shows up in so much of the language and actions of the modern male. “Don’t be a pussy”. “Stop being a fag”. (gay men become the contra-distinction to masculine identity because they are perceived of as acting like women.) The absolutely insane growth of professional sports culture in the United States is a result of this phenomenon and also reinforces itself by distinguishing male athleticism with what is not female.

I am in no way suggesting that prior to the 20th century men did not hold highly superior, prejudicial and misogynistic opinions of women. But what we can say is that the formulations of male identity and somehow being defined as what is not female has profoundly violent and destructive consequences for gender in general. It implies, by default, a stereotyping, denigration, and dehumanization of women as part of the inherent process of identity formation in young boys and men. Men can only become identified as a man as long as they see themselves as “not woman”. “Boys will be boys” culture becomes an alienation from women as something less than themselves, without value and not worthy of respect and dignity. Is there really any downside from making a cultural shift away from such a reality?

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