To some, “masculinity” refers to a specifically male realm, in which men’s only engagement with women is patriarchal domination. But, as historian Margaret Marsh wrote in a 1988 paper, a very different kind of masculinity emerged around the turn of the twentieth century.
Marsh notes that the mid-nineteenth century was the heyday of the separate spheres ideology, which maintained that women were uniquely suited to creating a pleasant, healthful home. As compensation for relinquishing a public role, women were supposed to have dominion over the domestic sphere. In this era, male advice writers targeting male readers emphasized economic success through hard work, sobriety, and honesty—but rarely touched on men’s roles as husbands or fathers.
“Although the moral young man understood from these advice manuals what to avoid—prostitutes, gambling dens, and the questionable pleasures of urban life—they offered him no positive assistance in settling his personal life,” Marsh writes.
As the century progressed, however, the middle-class white mothers who were the biggest targets of separate spheres ideology increasingly stepped into public life. This didn’t typically mean getting a job, but it might involve joining a discussion group or political club. Influential women writers of this time also increasingly insisted that marriage should involve mutual respect and support.
Soon, Marsh writes, male writers were also emphasizing men’s role in the home. As one 1906 writer in The Independent argued, the whole society benefited when “father and son…take their social enjoyments en famille.” Men’s participation in fraternal organizations declined, and husbands increasingly spent leisure time at tennis clubs, discussion groups, and other organizations where they could participate alongside their wives. Many also took an interest in home decor, even if they didn’t handle much day-to-day housework.
Writers giving advice to women at this time increasingly argued that a mother should engage in activities beyond her domestic duties not just for her own sake but to be a more lively and interesting companion to her husband. Couple-oriented leisure activities were so prevalent that writer Richard Harding Davis complained in 1894 that his married friends had lost interest in anything outside their spouses and suburban social circles. Among the factors making this possible was a rise in secure, predictable corporate jobs, which offered middle-class white men a stable salary without demanding all their time and energy.
However, feminist proposals that boys should study home economics and help with tasks like ironing and dusting were a decidedly minority position. In fact, to many men, part of the point of becoming more involved in child care was providing an example of manliness to boys in an effort to balance the influence of mothers and female teachers. But this still involved a move away from the figure of the distant, patriarchal disciplinarian to a generous friend who could share activities like camping and swimming.
In this new (and partially imaginary) world, Marsh writes, “husbands and wives would be companions, not rivals, and the specter of individualist demands would retreat in the face of family togetherness.”