men, masculinities and gender politics


Hard yakkin'

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Martin and David often find themselves sitting together awaiting the morning train. Despite the regularity of this workday ritual, they have never spoken. They are, well... different. There was the time, however, after a young woman walked by, their eyes met briefly in joint acknowledgment of the moment. Aside from the verdict on her body, something else was silently affirmed. They sat back, identities intact, reassured by the outward projection of the vague threat their own physical proximity implied.They also share the train.

It takes Martin to an inner city suburb where he works as a machinist in an engineering plant. "Yeah, the job gets boring and repetitive," he says, "but the guys at work liven it up a bit, we have a few jokes, tease the secretaries, send up the suits in the office, normal stuff. And then there's drinking after work, you know, you get by. Besides, a man's got to earn a living, hasn't he? Especially with the wife and kids at home."

The train takes David into the city, where he is a sales manager in a large insurance firm. He takes pride in his aggressive marketing strategies, and his ability to get the most from his sales team. "Sure, I don't always enjoy the tough decisions, but you've got to be competitive, or you get left behind in business, not to mention promotions. Success is very important to me, and my family, and people rely on my leadership - they know who's in charge. It's a big responsibility, but it's important and I'm good at it."

Leo Meissner -- Wash Day

While Martin and David are fictional characters, their story captures some fundamental realities about the lives of countless men in western, industrialised societies. In one sense, it is a tale of masculinity: a very tall tale indeed, and widely told, with a few well-worn but important themes. The first represents an attitude toward women. The dominant version of masculinity mirrors at the personal level the tendency of patriarchal societies to reduce women to their sexual and reproductive functions. Appropriately enough, women enter the story of Martin and David as minor characters, unnamed, unheard, but integral to the identity and self-esteem of the men.

There is also homophobia, as well as an emphasis on the importance of work, of providing for the family as breadwinner, and thus head of the household.

In another sense, however, it is a tale of the actual lives of men in the specific economic and social contexts through which masculinity becomes lived experience. For most people, work, or what one does, is central to the construction of their identity, the primary determinant of who they are.

As Martin and David illustrate, however, the nature of work in the context of the capitalist economy varies greatly according to ones class position, in terms of satisfaction, autonomy and power.

The structural logic of the capitalist economy, organised around private profit and cost-efficient production, requires the existence of a large class of lowly paid, relatively unskilled workers with little or no control over their workplaces. The different types of labour under capitalism interact with the character and possibilities of conventional masculinity in several ways, providing critical support for the organisation of work under capitalism, but also producing conflict, contradiction and resistance.

Work and masculinity

For most men in Western Societies, entering the world of work signifies the coming of manhood, the initiation rite into the public, productive world of the male. Cultural definitions of masculinity place a particular emphasis on the role of the man as breadwinner for the domestic household, and consequently operate as part of a network of ideological assumptions that support the sexual division of labour between men (public/productive) and women (private/domestic). In the same way, the expectations of masculinity fuse the roles of "man" and "worker": to be a successful man is to be a good worker. As Andrew Tolson argues in The limits of masculinity (1977), contemporary Western definitions of masculinity are inextricably linked with definitions of work, through the values, qualities and priorities that inscribe both: physical strength, mechanical expertise, ambition, competitiveness and so on. Boys are taught, through the family, schools, and ultimately the workplace, to aspire to these values as the yardsticks of manhood, and eventually come to internalise these norms as identity. Men learn to define and judge themselves against these values, and work is the most important testing ground for these attributes. Both Martin and David, in different ways, attest to the fixation of masculine identity around work, and to the transformation of social expectations into issues of self-esteem and responsibility.

For men, the ability to provide not only represents a certain social status and presence as the public/economic representative of the family, it also guarantees the rights of independence and dominance in the domestic world of the home. Just as manhood is forged in the escape from the domestic world of the mother, work is critical to the maintenance of the masculine identity in sustaining the separation from the female household: to return to it other than as provider is to fail as a man. This separation of work and home constructs and reinforces masculinity at other levels. The workplace in capitalist society is very much an arena of technical rationality: emotions are a liability for the worker/man in the world of production, efficiency, problem-solving and resource management. Emotions are associated with, and best left to, the domestic sphere of women.

Given the strong connections between work and masculinity, it comes as no surprise that unemployment carries with it the stigma of failed masculinity and "bludging" dependence. Indeed, the media invariably depicts the unemployed male as the "fallen man", trapped, compromised, and effectively castrated in the female household.

It becomes obvious, when examining these issues, that masculinity is significantly defined by, and in turn comes to support and justify, the organisation of work in society. The strength of gender-identity as ideology stems from the fact that masculinity is easily (and deliberately) confused with biological maleness. Ideological assumptions are thereby bestowed the status of "the natural". In this context, it is probably no coincidence that masculine values strongly reflect the values that characterise capitalist economics and ideology: competitiveness, authority, individualism, strength, aggression, and a belief in hierarchy. Indeed, the notion of the male "breadwinner", as it exists today, emerged with the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid to late nineteenth century. In pre-capitalist society, while masculinity and patriarchy were affirmed through work in the passing of occupations from father to son, production was, on the whole, an enterprise conducted from the home by the whole family. In contrast, the structure of work in the emerging capitalist order required a separation of home and workplace. Women and children were predominantly favoured as early industrial employees, and as the old order of feudal artisan production declined, the economic and material basis of patriarchal authority began to disappear. The notion of the male breadwinner emerges out of this period as a result of popular struggle, church pressure, and state action, in response to the threat to patriarchal order. In Australia, it can be seen in the landmark minimum wage decision - the Harvester Case (1907), which determines that men's wages must be sufficient to keep a wife and family of three, whereas women's wages need only be sufficient to support the worker herself. That the male breadwinner ideal has proved remarkably resilient in the face of increased female participation in the paid work-force is a testimony to the ideological strength of connections between work and masculinity.

Class and masculinity

Having made these arguments about the links between masculinity and work, it is important to acknowledge that most people who aren't independently wealthy simply have no choice but to sell their labour to survive. However, where jobs are scarce, as is often the case in the capitalist economy, the masculine work ethic and the sexual division of labour work together to ensure that men are more likely to get them. Also, in the context of a general compulsion to work, masculinity attains a special political significance. Because men see work as integral to the male identity, as a "natural" responsibility, masculinity actually operates to limit resistance against the organisation of work. Similarly, unemployed men are more likely to see their fate as a personal failing, rather than as a reason to question the system that makes them redundant. This aspect of masculinity is particularly important when dealing with issues of class. For most working-class men, like Martin, work is seldom a rewarding or satisfying experience. It is not the place where the promise of masculine independence or power is fulfilled. Rather, entry into the workplace for the working-class youth is a virtual guarantee of constant subordination. Long hours, low incomes, unchallenging and repetitive tasks, monotony, and continual subjection to the unquestionable authority of management characterise the reality of work for working-class men and women. Limited control over the workplace and limited opportunities for individual input about daily routines and work practices, as well as the fact that forms of working-class labour are lowly valued by society, all function to undermine the masculine self-image as the powerful and autonomous "free individual". As Tolson argues, masculine status is constantly contradicted by the indignity of wage labour. Moreover, it is the working class that inevitably bears the brunt of unemployment.

While the ideology of masculinity is aimed at all men, the realities of work and class necessitate compromise and reinterpretation, and result in the formation of particular class styles of masculinity. For working-class men, having power, independence, or being successful and competitive is a patently unrealistic dream. As a result, the working-class style of masculinity tends to compensate for the lack of political or economic power in the more immediate, aggressive style of working-class "machismo". It also operates to promote forms of collective solidarity on the shop-floor, in mateship rituals of joking, drinking and so on. These can operate as important patterns of resistance to the authority of managers and hardships of wage labour. However, to the extent that masculinity in general is based upon the exclusion, objectification and derogation of women, these forms of resistance are inevitably partial.

It is possible that working-class masculinity is as much a strategy of coping as resistance. The rituals of workplace masculinity do not challenge the organisation of work so much as make it tolerable. Certainly masculinity encourages men to identify as a group, in opposition to and dominant over women, thereby preventing working-class men from identifying themselves as subordinate workers with particular class interests shared with working-class women. In this sense, masculinity fosters cross-class solidarity among men. Moreover, as Collinson argues in his article "Engineering Humour", relationships between men on the shop-floor tend to be largely defensive and superficial. This is probably attributable in no small part to the competitiveness, emotional closedness, and homophobia of conventional masculinity.

For middle-class men like David, work can provide significant opportunities for autonomy, satisfaction, power and respect. Middle-class masculinity tends to be defined more by self-discipline than authority, more by individualism than collective goals or culture. While middle-class masculinity cultivates a more austere, restrained style, it is certainly no less misogynist, competitive or dominating. Masculinity, while fractured partially by class, unites men as a whole in its sanctioning of sexist attitudes and behaviours. However, it is important to remember that power is not shared evenly among men, and that it is the wealthiest minority of white men that exert the most influence over the institutions that reinforce and maintain sexism, gender stereotypes and patterns of work organisation.

Implications for the men's movement

THE anti-sexist men's movement has, on the whole, baulked somewhat at addressing issues of work and class. There are probably two main reasons for this. Firstly, the issues surrounding work, capitalism and their connections to sexism and masculinity are fairly difficult ones, and are often not seen as particularly relevant. Secondly, the men's movement is a predominantly middle-class phenomenon, and as a result of class divisions inherent within capitalist society, it does not share much cultural ground with working-class men.

As a start, I would urge the anti-sexist men's movement to be aware of the issues concerning work, class and the construction of masculinity. The expectations, and limitations, of work are critical to the definition of masculinity and the maintenance of sexism. Just as work crucially defines masculinity, the capitalist economy defines the nature of work. Capitalism promotes and relies upon sexism, and racism, as they divide those it exploits the most. Certainly, as Friedrich Engels noted over a century ago, the structure of the family, a primary source of women's oppression, functions to make the male worker capable of sustaining his labour by removing the burden of domestic work and child-rearing. Ultimately, the struggle against sexism and oppressive masculinities must question and confront the organisation of work under capitalism.

By the same token, much of conventional masculinity cannot be adequately explained with reference to class and the economy. Misogyny, homophobia and the extent of sexual violence against women are better explained as features of masculinity which maintain the general and cross-class power of men over women. As research into rape and domestic violence clearly illustrates, there is no class bias to oppressive masculinity: middle-class men are just as likely as working-class men to perpetrate sexual violence. With regard to these issues, there is scope and justification for anti-sexist men's activism. Similarly, socialist movements need to appreciate the extent to which masculinity supports the organisation of work and thus operates as a conservative, divisive force in class politics.

The men's movement also needs to appreciate that while its issues and agendas are cast primarily in terms of personal development, it is unlikely to attract many working-class men. Most working-class men do not have the energy, leisure time, or personal freedom necessary for such involvement. The men's movement needs to actively take the fight against sexism into workplace culture, and this is probably best achieved through joint projects with trade unions. It also needs to be carried out with an eye to the realities of the structure of work. For instance, it is unlikely that most working-class men will ever have sufficient job security and "market value" to gain paternity leave provisions. The future of the groups politically mobilised around the issues of male violence, sexism, and masculinity lies in their ability to adequately appreciate and act upon the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 3(3), Spring 1993. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995