Working with Historian Gwen Kay (SUNY Oswego) and Historian of Psychology Ben Harris (UNH), we looked at the way that masculinity was presented in Hearst Press’ Sunday newspaper insert immediately after WWI and just before WWII.
Why Hearst? Estimates put readership of Hearst’s newspapers at over 6 million; the Sunday supplement was also distributed in some other newspapers and it’s overall readership is estimated to be over 8 million. Hearst’s target audience was the working & lower classes. This makes it the most widely read – or at least, most widely available – sources of information in the 1920s & 1930s. Also, we had access to a near complete collection of the Sunday supplement. We focused on the psychology column because it was a place where a credentialed author summarized and interpreted psychological research for the general public. In the days of relatively low levels of literacy, and before talk shows and self-help books were common, the psychology column had the potential to be a major influence on how people understood themselves and the world around them.
Masculinity? During this time, it changed. In the early 1920s, men were expected to use reason, to not show emotions (except anger), provide for their families, be (partially) independent, adopt a sexual (not romantic) approach to women/relationships, and be physically strong. Reason was most important and men were understood to be superior to women because of men’s advanced evolution. By the late 1930s, men were (still) expected to use reason, show no emotion, (still) provide for their family, be (fully) independent, and (still) possess a sexual approach to women/relationships. Providing foor one’s family was most important. Men were still understood to be superior to women, but no specific reason was given.
So what? We often talk about men and masculinity as always being the same, over all time. Our analysis indicates that there were changes. Some were changes in degree, such as the shift from partial to full independence. Some were changes in kind, such as the explanation of men’s superiority over women. In 1920, this was credited to men’s superior evolution (over women); by the late 1930s, no explanation was offered.
If you know your history, you also know that women’s roles and opportunities expanded during this period. For example, women started to be credited with the ability to use reason – and encouraged to do so. We suspect that the reaction to this was to continue to emphasize differences between men and women, so men were encouraged to be even more reason-based and less emotional (anger disappears), so that men could continue to claim superiority. (The other option would be to expand men’s emotional range, thus making men and women equal. That didn’t happen.)