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Gender in The Gilded Age

Key Points

  • The growing comfort of middle-class life during the Gilded Age led many to fear that American men were losing their manliness
  • Many middle-class Americans embraced formerly taboo violent sports like boxing and football
  • Others called for military action; the Spanish-American War was seen as a great opportunity to prove American manhood

Breaking the First Rule

  • During the Gilded Age, many worried about the vitality of American manhood

In the cult classic Fight Club, urban terrorist Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) sums up the cause of his army's psychological maladjustment—"we are a generation of men raised by women." The film, based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, actually offers a more extensive critique of modern life. According to the film, our work is meaningless and our "single-serving" relationships are shallow. We obsess over the junk in the IKEA catalogue and we construct identity through consumption. Our lives are so flat, we feign terminal illnesses in order to tour real suffering. But at the center of this critique lies the idea that men have been stripped of their masculinity. Unsatisfying work and the quest for convenience and comfort have left men something less than men. "Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is," Tyler asks. "Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?"30

Tyler's solution to this emasculation is Fight Club—a weekly opportunity to experience life at its most primal level. Physical combat adds a desperately craved element of experiential intensity to an otherwise flat existence. "You aren't alive anywhere like you're alive at fight club," the narrator explains. And the weekly brawls revive the masculine core buried by modern existence. "A guy who came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood."31

While intended as a commentary on life in the late twentieth century, the film would have resonated just as fully with audiences of the 1890s. There is more than a little irony in the concerns about masculinity that pervaded the closing decades of the nineteenth century. In 1890, women could not vote or hold public office. They enjoyed more educational opportunities but their career opportunities were few. The dominant cultural norms prescribed marriage for women—it was generally believed that women were neither physically nor intellectually suited for the demands of the workplace. The millions of working class women toiling in America's factories and sweatshops were pitied, condemned, or ignored in their "unfeminine" employment. More than a century after Americans fought to defend the principle that "all men are created equal," women remained second-class citizens.

Yet ironically—some might say typically—American writers and social critics obsessed far more about the condition of men as the nineteenth century came to a close. Despite the gross inequalities between men and women during the Gilded Age, it was the condition of men that was most lamented, the threats to American manhood that were most commonly explored.


  • Labor for middle-class men shifted from outdoor manual labor to sedentary office work

The supposed assault on the American man began with the changing nature of work. As American cities grew, and more and more men found work in the office buildings of the American corporate economy, many worried that these forms of work bred softness. Men, who had once worked in the fresh air, working with the soil and in collusion with nature, now toiled in the stale air of an office building. Separated from nature, they were alienated from a portion of themselves—and as a result, they became less fully men.


  • Middle-class life during Gilded Age became much more comfortable
  • Drugs, plumbing, heating, and new consumer goods made life less painful

The sterility and effeminate nature of work was reinforced, many argued, by Americans' growing preoccupation with physical and emotional comfort. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, a number of medical advancements had reduced the unavoidability of pain. Improved anesthetics and aspirin were just the tip of the iceberg—by the end of the century, Americans could easily and legally acquire laudanum, cocaine, morphine, and opium to soften the edges of their daily lives. But these pharmacological aids were just one of the keys to modern comfort. As the Gilded Age advanced, indoor plumbing and central heating filled more and more homes, and a whole range of new consumer goods made life more convenient and comfortable.

There was no denying the benefits of all this—but for many people, the price of comfort was an unsettling removal from the primal realities of life. Could life be too comfortable? Could a life stripped of all pain and discomfort prove too easy? For a growing number of social critics, the Victorian parlor—crammed full of overstuffed furniture, heavy draperies, and shelves loaded with all of the conveniences of modern life—summed up the over-civilized and emasculating character of Gilded Age society, the softness, the clutter and the silliness of the new consumer world.


  • New scientific approaches to management made life more rational and regulated

The drive for increased comfort was paralleled by the pursuit of increased rationality. The importance of the rigid regulation of the one's entire person was a value preached over the course of the entire nineteenth century. But the demands of the growing corporate industrial economy placed an even greater premium on the values of punctuality, order, sobriety, and industriousness. The emphasis on self-rationalization was paralleled by a cult of efficiency in the factories. Frederick Taylor, an industrial scientist, preached the value of time-management and production efficiency. His legion of efficiency experts, equipped with stopwatches and clipboards, broke the production process down into micro-units, outlining the steps to ever greater workplace productivity. And indeed, these values and methods did grease the wheels of the new economy. But again, growing numbers questioned the impact on the male psyche—the crushing of a former virility, the regulating into extinction of more vital qualities that had served individuals and nations in other times. Regulation might serve the workplace, but nations needed heroism and courage—the bold stroke, the creative and barrier-shattering initiative. If America became a nation of self-regulated drones, could it ever live out its greater destiny?


  • Religious preferences shifted away from "fire-and-brimstone" Calvinism to more liberal strains of Christianity

Some social critics argued that even American religion had been emasculated. Over the last decades of the nineteenth century, the harsh demands and even harsher cosmic view of Calvinism had been replaced by the feel-good doctrines of liberal Protestantism. Calvin's God of judgment and wrath had been replaced by a God of unconditional love and forgiveness. In this new version of Christianity, hell was no longer a real place or a real threat—it was just not consistent with the rational and loving God of liberal theology, the modern God that was as much committed to comfort and pain-free existence as were His people. Here again, Christians flocked to the more reassuring doctrines of religious liberalism, but, as many critics pointed out, these feel-good teachings came with a price. People found peace of mind, but the universe lost some of its majesty; God became less terrible but also less awe-inspiring. As cultural historian T. Jackson Lears has suggested, modern Christians "won freedom from fear but lost possibilities for ecstasy."32


  • New trends in literature emphasized parlor intrigue over heroic romance

The litany of complaints against modern civilization also advanced the argument that even American's literature had gone soft. Instead of the swashbuckling historical romances inspired by Walter Scott—stories about heroic knights and death-risking warriors—the new literature wallowed in the subtle dramas of daily life. Writers like William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton explored the rituals and mores of America's social elite. The world they explored was not absent all oppression, danger, and adventure—but it was the oppression of the stifling social codes and the danger of the high-risk parlor intrigue. Protagonists ventured courageously against the complex and subtly charged arena of human society—they wrestled valiantly to decode its nuanced verbal clues and confusing rules of etiquettes, and to decipher the meaning lying behind a sustained glance or a cold shoulder.

Like other aspects of Gilded Age America, this new literature, labeled domestic realism, had its fans—but others condemned its "feminine" character. One critic argued that an "Iron Madonna" had choked the more manly life out of American fiction; another suggested that America's magazines and journals had become so "lady-like that naturally they will soon menstruate."33

The changing nature of work, the cult of rationality and self-regulation, liberal religion, and domestic realism all combined to fuel the sense that the American manhood was at risk. Whether at work or at home, he was separated from his vital self; whether slaving in the stale air of the office or buried in the comforts of his parlor, he had been sucked into an unmanly existence. His world had been transformed into one of overstuffed furniture, social gossip, and mushy religious belief—his world had become, in short, the world of women.

Recovering Manhood

  • Writers like Richard Hovey and Frank Norris began emphasizing return to manly pursuits

The rebellion of men against the emasculating tendencies of modernity took a variety of shapes. New forms of literature emerged, for example, that stressed the harsher and more "authentic" sides of existence. Most prominently this new literature explored war and celebrated the redemptive power of violence. Writers like Richard Hovey turned to the Middle Ages to find a nobler batch of men who embraced war as the complement of high ideals and righteous passions.

I am for war.
. . . For men in peace lacking brave emulation, and the zeal
Of a great cause, fall to their petty ends
And, letting their high virtues atrophy,
Wallow in lust and avarice, till the heart
And nobler functions rot away and leave
A people like an oyster, all stomach.

The world these writers celebrated was filled with real men who shunned comfort and accepted pain and death as the price of authentic experience. And it was a world filled with violence that flowed from the primal core of man. Frank Norris, a California representative of the new forms of literary realism, treated acts of violence as epiphanies, as moments of self-realization.

"At the sight of blood shed by his own hands," Norris wrote, "all the animal savagery latent in every human being awoke in him,--no more merciful scruples now. He could kill. In the twinkling of an eye the pale, highly cultivated scholar, whose life had been passed in the study of science and abstruse questions of philosophy, sank back to the level of his savage Celtic ancestors. His eyes glittered, he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, and his whole frame quivered with the earnestness and craving of a panther in sight of his prey. He could not stretch his arbalist quickly enough again, and his fingers shook as he laid the bolt in the groove."35


  • Middle-class boys took to violent sports like football and boxing

The celebration of violence as a path to the restoration of true manhood was not limited to literature. (These people had some sense of irony.) It also played a part in the ascendance of college sports during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. For much of the nineteenth century, bare-knuckle prizefighting was an exclusively working-class sport. Its violence was condemned by middle-class moralists as barbaric—wholly contrary to the bourgeois ethic of self-control. But by the 1890s, prizefighting had been adopted by elite colleges as an important element within the overall formation of young male citizens. The sport was moderately refined—the newly adopted Queensberry rules broke fights into precisely measured rounds, forbade much of the wrestling that had filled earlier fights, and required that the fighters wear gloves. But while in this way prizefighting was reconciled with certain aspects of middle-class culture, the adoption of the sport by upper-class educated men signaled another strategy to restore pain, conflict, and toughness to male experience.The same was also true of the new sport of football. When first introduced in the 1870s, American football—originally a variation on rugby—looked little like the game we play today. But by the 1890s, largely through the efforts of Yale coach Walter Camp, football had taken on many of the features of the contemporary sport. As important, it had begun to acquire the elements of spectacle that still make it such a vibrant part of American college life. Within just a couple of decades, college football was being played from coast to coast before crowds exceeding 70,000. The sport had plenty of critics. University presidents and concerned clergymen decried the sport's violence and labeled it antithetical to the values of higher education. But football's defenders argued that its violence was part of its value. One college player explained that it "flushes the ducts and avenues of his being, prevents deceit, morbidness; makes him manlier, freer, franker, and healthier." Another praised the game as an antidote to the over-civilizing emphases of the classroom; "I value what I would be pleased to call the 'inhumanities' dinged into me on the football field."36


  • Others sought a return to manliness in warfare, calling for American imperialism

Still others carried the celebration of martial ideals towards their ultimate conclusion by urging Americans to assume a more expansive and militant role in the world. American statesmen and intellectuals arrived at this position from several directions. Josiah Quincy Strong argued that America had a responsibility to spread its superior institutions and ideals. Alfred Thayer Mahan suggested that national strength depended on the cultivation of international markets—especially in China—and the conquest of a chain of islands across the Pacific to facilitate and protect America's international trade. And Brooks Adams argued that imperial expansion would elevate America's economic obsession above the merely materialistic. By spreading American wealth and institutions, American economic development would be transformed from the silly accumulation of consumer goods into a modern crusade.

Theodore Roosevelt

  • Teddy Roosevelt's pursuit of "the strenuous life" epitomized the new concern with manliness
  • Roosevelt was born a sick child into a privileged family
  • But through a variety of vigorous endeavors he built himself into a strong man

These attacks on the effeminate and emasculating qualities of American life came together in the person of Theodore Roosevelt. Born into wealth and sickly as a child, he personified many of the cultural fears that America was breeding a generation of weaklings. But after the deaths of his mother and wife, on the same day in 1884, he went out West to restore his spirits and he returned with a new take on life.Roosevelt's recipe for masculine revitalization was summarized in a speech he delivered in 1899 labeled "The Strenuous Life." In it, he condemned the life of "slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things." He urged his audience to remember the "iron in the blood of our fathers, the men who upheld the wisdom of Lincoln, and bore sword or rifle in the armies of Grant." And he warned that a descent into scrambling commercialism," a future of "unwarlike and isolated ease" loomed on the horizon if individually and collectively Americans did not embrace the "higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk."37

Roosevelt's personal habits also reflected these new ideals. He traveled to Africa to hunt big game; he built a boxing ring in the White House to maintain the combative edge he deemed a vital part of manhood. He urged his undersized son to play football at Harvard and to persevere in the sport even when he took a beating. And as president, he supported the interventionist philosophies of Strong, Mahan, and Adams, and he forced Congress to fund a vast program of naval expansion as part of plan to spread American influence around the world.

Perhaps most revealingly, when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to organize a cavalry unit to fight in Cuba. For Roosevelt, the war was something of a dream, or a national need, realized. He had earlier said the country needed a good little war—and this lopsided fight against a tired old Spanish Empire more than fit the bill. But Roosevelt was far from alone in believing that America, and the American man, needed a crash program of "remasculation." By the end of the nineteenth century, as Americans indulged in all of the comforts and conveniences of a half century of technological, scientific, and economic progress, many began to sense that American manhood was paying the price.

As Fight Club's Tyler Durden phrased it a century later, "without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. Like the first monkey shot into space."38

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