47 pages 1 hour read

Gail Bederman

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 is a work of historical scholarship researched and composed by Dr. Gail Bederman. Bederman, who received her Ph.D. from Brown University in 1992, is a professor of history whose research interests center on gender and sexuality with a geographical emphasis on the United States. Published in 1996, Manliness and Civilization is part of the Women in Culture and Society series, edited by Catherine R. Stimpson. An exploration of the values of sex, race, and civilization at the turn of the 20th century, Bederman’s work spans the years between 1880-1917 and explores the shift in expectations of and aspirations for what was expected of white, middle-class men in America.

Integrating the lives and written works of four prominent historical figures representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives, Bederman traces the transformation of perceptions of manliness and masculinity in the early 20th century, connecting these perceptions to the values of gender and race and orienting them in their historical contexts. Activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, psychologist and journalist G. Stanley Hall, feminist activist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and soldier and United States President Theodore Roosevelt are sequentially featured in their own dedicated chapters and compared and contrasted with one another and additional influential minds of the period.

This guide is based on the paperback edition of this text, published on demand by the University of Chicago press on January 4, 2022. The text and formatting remain unchanged from the original paperback edition published in 1996.

As this text examines the topics of sexual and racial identity during a period in American history in which racist and sexist values were pervasive and considered rational, customary, and scientifically substantiated by the majority of the white Anglo-Saxon population, this guide and the text itself contain topics of a highly sensitive nature. These topics include but are not limited to: racist assertions and assumptions surrounding perceived inferiority and lack of humanity with respect to white women and people of color, the likening of people of color to unevolved, primitive prior iterations of human evolutionary stages, both secondary source discussions of these values and primary source quotes directly containing these characterizations in reproduced verbiage, discussions of graphic violence, murder, lynchings, genocide, exploitation, rape and sexual assault, denigration, disparagement, dehumanization, and infantilization of white women and people of color, antiquated terms characterizing people of color, and the frequent use of heavily loaded language with historically documented ties to prejudice and hate.

Summary

Opening with an account of the legendary heavyweight prize fight between boxers Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1910, Bederman’s work traces the progression and transformation in perceptions of what it meant to be a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male as this notion underwent a profound shift at the turn of the 20th century in America. Grounded in white American maleness were its essential racial, economic, social, scientific, and sexual components, and Bederman delves thoroughly into those variables, introducing them in her first chapter and expanding upon them as she explores how the four authors she features factored them into their individual worldviews. Bederman closes the introductory chapter with a discussion of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, illustrating the deliberate separateness through which white Anglo-Saxon men designed their exhibition to distinguish themselves from white women and people of color.

The second chapter is devoted to the anti-lynching activism of Ida B. Wells, who strove to end the practice first through her efforts as a journalist and then by traveling to the United Kingdom to enlist the help of a white population she knew white Americans admired and whom she hoped might help her to effect change in her home nation.

The third chapter explores the career of psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall, who attempted to challenge the onslaught of the middle class neurological condition neurasthenia by beginning to prepare young men in childhood and adolescence for the rigors of their future professional lives and then shifted his focus toward a paternalistic attempt to further the advancement of people of color.

The fourth chapter centers on the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, preeminent feminist and author who asserted that it was racial and not sexual characteristics that set humans apart from one another and demanded the opportunity for white women to pursue intellectual growth and racial advancement outside the domestic sphere as their inherent right as members of a superior race.

The fifth chapter presents the life of Theodore Roosevelt with respect to his efforts to define himself as the roughhewn American hero and to inspire his fellow Americans to populate the nation with white children, fulfill their destinies to claim and conquer North America, and to proceed ever further in their imperialism lest they become complacent and lose their foothold to the inevitable challenges of their inferiors.

The final chapter of Manliness and Civilization recounts the plot of the tremendously popular novel Tarzan of the Apes, published toward the end of Bederman’s period of focus for this text. The main character, an all-encompassing conglomeration of all of the collective values that had emerged as the most highly prized in the early 20th century, Bederman closes Manliness and Civilization with this piece of popular culture, which is emblematic of the changing paradigms she traces over the course of the book.

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