Visualizing Gendered Change

In the 1800s, admirable men in the U.S. weren’t referred to as “masculine”; they were called “manly.” And the distinction is more important that you might realize. Words are important. While “manly” and “masculine” are used more or less interchangeably today (with the former perhaps sounding a bit more dated than the latter), the history of each is a powerful story of gendered change. The shift from talking about “manliness” to talking about “masculinity” was no accident. It didn’t happen due to vagaries of fashion–it’s not, for example, similar to the move from “brah” or “bruh” in popular teen masculine vernacular (or “brocabulary”).

At the turn of the 20th century, “manliness” and “masculinity” were used to convey different kinds of information about (and confer different types and levels of status to) different categories of people. And by mid-century, masculinity began to eclipse manliness and we’ve been living with masculinity ever since.

C.J. Pascoe and I wrote a bit about this shift in our introduction to the “Historicizing Masculinities” section of Exploring Masculinities, and our discussion draws heavily from Gail Bederman‘s research of this social shift in Manliness and Civilization: The Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. We visualized this shift using a chart from Google Books NGrams and it’s a really powerful illustration of a dramatic linguistic shift (see below).


I reproduced the Google NGram figure C.J. and I use in the text (above) to talk to my class this week about these issues. I think it’s such an interesting illustration of a piece of Bederman’s argument charting uses of “manliness” alongside “masculinity” in English publications over the course of the last two centuries. It shows precisely what Bederman suggested.

Experimenting with NGram figures, I also charted the frequencies of use of each term as relative proportions for lecture. In other words, what proportion of the use of “manliness” and “masculinity” in English publications was associated with “manliness” or “masculinity”? And how has that changed over time? Here, the battle between these two historical ideologies of gender appears even more stark.


The turn of the 20th century was a time of incredible social transformation in the U.S. Industrialization was in full swing. The urban population was growing at an incredible rate. Technological innovations were changing the very nature of “work” and “home.” And it was one of those historical periods during which men (middle-class men in particular) seem to have become unusually obsessed with something to do with manhood. This is a period historians and social scientists sometimes labeled as undergoing a “crisis of masculinity” (though that concept has been theoretically challenged for some time now). Regardless, something was happening with manhood–something related to men and gender felt like it was on the move and shifts like this provoke a lot of anxiety (especially for members of a socially dominant group).

In the 1800s, “manliness” referred to a subset of qualities and characteristics associated with manhood to which not all men had equal access. Qualities like a strong character, the ability to provide, entrepreneurship and business savvy and acumen, along with other qualities like sexual restraint had worked throughout much of the 1800s to comfortably situate middle and upper-class men as “manly” beyond reproach. They didn’t have to necessarily “do” anything particularly special for this status, but it worked as a social and symbolic mark of distinction between themselves and other men–men of lower classes, non-white men, etc.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, these qualities slowly and structurally became less secure, particularly for middle-class men. Social and economic transformations shifted the ease of access to “manliness” for large swaths of middle-class American men. As a noun, “masculinity” was only starting to be used in the 1890s. At the time, compared to “manliness,” “masculinity” was a concept and identity category more devoid of meaning. It was used to suggest that all men were somehow different from women. We started relying on “masculinity” right as feminist and gender rights activists and advocates started calling these very ideas into question. As Bederman writes:

As the adjective “masculine” began to take on these new sorts of connotations, people began to need a noun to mean “masculine things in the aggregate,” a word they hadn’t needed before “masculine” began to carry such powerful freight. It is probably not coincidental, then, that in the mid-nineteenth century, a new English noun was adopted from the French and very slowly made its way into popular usage–“masculinity.”

By the 1930s, “masculinity” had already started acquiring a different meaning in the U.S.  It started to refer to things like aggressiveness, physical force, appetites for particular kinds (and frequencies) of sexual behavior. And Bederman suggests that over the course of the first half of the 20th century in the U.S., masculinity effectively eclipsed manliness. You can see it on the figure; right around 1940, it shifted. It’s a powerfully simple illustration of how gender relations shift as forms of gender inequality are made public, called into question, or challenged by social structural changes (like economic transitions, dramatic political shifts, or victories on the part of social movements and activists).

Challenging historical ideologies of “manliness” were important. These structural shifts put privilege on stark display, and it’s during moments like those when the character of gender inequality and the behavior of gendered shifts are often most apparent. Within that moment was embedded the potential for more egalitarian understandings of gender and moves toward more equal relations between women and men. But that moment of “gender vertigo” (as Raewyn Connell puts it) failed to achieve the potential embedded in such moments.

It’s why examining history and historical shifts closely matters. As Bederman put it:

“At any time in history, many contradictory ideas about manhood are available to explain what men are, how they ought to behave, and what sorts of powers and authorities they may claim, as men. Part of the way gender functions is to hide these contradictions and to camouflage the fact that gender is dynamic and always changing. Instead, gender is constructed as a fact of nature… To study the history of manhood, I would argue, is to unmask this process and study the historical ways different ideologies about manhood develop, change, are combined, amended, contested–and gain the status of “truth.”

Understanding the historical dynamics at play in gendered change is a worthy project for anyone who cares about gender equality. Pretending that masculinity is anything other than a social construction–a historical, ideological project and process–whose effects most often work in ways that justify inequality and injustice is an old issue. And coming up with simple ways of calling these “truths” into question is an important scholarly and political goal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s