Beyond Fatherhood: Histories of masculinity and the family in the 19th and 20th centuries

Speakers: Laura King, Jessica Meyer, Julie-Marie Strange

Chair: Helen Smith

Why write histories of masculinities? As Tosh noted, the study of both gender in the past and the gendered past can fully engage with the political project underpinning the discipline. This panel will consider what the history of masculinity does and should look like in twenty-first century Britain. In a still highly unequal world – within Britain and, to even greater extremes, beyond – the panellists will consider the continued political impetus to analyse and deconstruct conceptions of male identity in past and present. The growth of gender history over past decades has reiterated how men are both everywhere and nowhere within history writing – history has often been written almost exclusively about men, but the gendered nature of the past, and writing about it, remains under-emphasised. This panel considers the importance of gender – alongside other categories of analysis such as race and class – in researching a period characterised by ‘changing forms of self and subjectivity’.

In particular, this panel identifies a range of masculine identities related to the family, using gender analysis to explore the family as a transformative and transforming social space in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. By examining the variety of ways in which men lived within and interacted with family, the papers in this panel seek to both complicate understandings of gender relations and to interrogate the boundaries between public and private, a project which can help disrupt apparently timeless constructions of gender roles and identities in past and parent. The panel papers address issues including the role of grandparents, state provision for men disabled in war, and the uses of histories of masculinities beyond the campus. This panel thus makes the case for the importance of complex, interdisciplinary histories of masculinity and of the family to the wider understanding of modern British studies.

Paper 1 Abstract: Laura King, University of Leeds

Creating ‘usable’ histories of masculinity: men and family life in twentieth-century Britain

What does, and should, the history of masculinity look like in twenty-first century Britain? This paper will consider the role of histories of masculinities, considering their potential in informing contemporary debates about feminism and gender inequality, and as part of new ways of making history within the higher education landscape of impact and public engagement.

The impetus to study masculinities, emerging from women’s history and Scott’s seminal paper on gender as a key category for analysis, remains as strong as ever, particularly as histories of masculinities in twentieth-century Britain remain relatively scarce. In this paper, I will consider the role of histories of masculinities within history as a field, but also their political potential beyond the academy. Furthermore, I consider how we can best problematise gender when we ourselves are part of a patriarchal system, within higher education and beyond, which continues to capitalises on gender (as well as race and class), and the power relations inherent in it.

Secondly, this paper responds to the idea of ‘cultures of democracy’, using gender history as an example to think about who does and should make history. As Samuel stated, history is ‘a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands’. Here I consider what history should look like in a ‘post-impact’ world, focusing particularly on my work around the history of fatherhood and masculinity in modern Britain, and experience in collaborating with theatre groups, arts organisations, museums, NGOs and others.

Finally, this paper turns to considerations of how we research masculinity, thinking about whether institutional archives hold the answers for gender historians. Drawing on work for an AHRC-funded project on ‘The Family Archive’, I consider what is left out of archives when we are considering the most private aspects of people’s lives.

Paper 2 Abstract: Jessica Meyer, University of Leeds

‘The strain of constantly pushing me up these hills’: Masculinity and familial care-giving for disabled ex-servicemen

Much of twentieth-century British history has been defined or influenced by the two great mass conflicts that were the world wars.  Both saw men conscripted into the British armed forces with consequences for the social and political relationship between the male citizen and the State.  Key among the issues raised by mass participation in warfare was that of war disability and the debt owed by the State to the disabled ex-serviceman for health of lost in its defence.

The study of the intersection between the politicization of war disability and fluctuating constructions of masculinity across the 20th century has been the subject of a number of important studies by gender historians.  There have similarly been numerous studies of the ways in which post-war periods saw a turn to the domestic among men returning home from war.  However, the role of the family in providing medical and social care has yet to be fully examined as a significant aspect of disabled male experience.

This paper will examine this role and the impact that it had on understanding of the family as a gendered space in interwar society.  It will argue that greater insight into the role of the family in caring for disabled ex-servicemen in this period not only has the potential to affect historic understandings of the importance of the family as a social force and a gendered sphere, but can also influence understandings of contemporary debates over State responsibility for medical and social care for ex-service personnel within context of the so-called ‘military covenant’.  In doing so, it will suggest that interdisciplinary perspectives, in this instance disability studies and the history of masculinity, may offer one approach to the challenge recently posed by John Tosh to revive the political project underpinning the history of masculinity in the modern period.

Paper 3 Abstract: Julie-Marie Strange, University of Manchester

‘Invisible men’: aged masculinity in social histories of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain

There is a growing scholarship on masculinities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Overwhelmingly, this scholarship takes normative masculinity as placed somewhere between the post- juvenile years (what we would call the late teens) and forty-ish (that is, the age after which men were more likely to experience unemployment and deskilling). With working-class masculinities, the normative age range is even more entrenched as conceptions of labouring masculinity depend so much on able- bodied independence. As social surveyors found in 1910, men over the age of forty-five were far more likely to lose jobs, experience higher rates of sickness, become less mobile and deskill. Histories of welfare show that aged and ageing men were far more likely to enter workhouses or to live alone, suggesting that older men were disconnected from networks of family and friendship. There is also a scholarship on the social history of age which is tied closely to the history of welfare and that of family. This is biased, for good reason, towards women.

This paper shifts focus towards aged and ageing men. Taking ‘grandfathers’ as a point of entry, the paper especially interrogates the dynamic between older men and family life. In doing so, it reflects on why aged men are under-represented in histories of both masculinity and age, how we might redress this imbalance and what could be the benefits of doing so for our understandings of masculinity and age.


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