Mises Wire

Toxic Masculinity, 1920s-Style

"Don't Blame Mental Illness for Mass Shootings" a recent headline at Politico begins, "Blame Men." To be fair to the author, Laura Kiesel, she probably didn't choose that title. And to be doubly fair, she doesn't blame men in general for mass shooting. She does — correctly — point out that the overwhelming majority of people who shoot other people are men. 

These nuances, however, have done little to shield Kiesel from what was probably the expected response. "Politico Blames Masculinity for Mass Shootings. Here's Why That's Ridiculous," an article in The Federalist fires back. Many other responses were less polite. When it comes to mass shootings, it seems that "toxic masculinity" rears its head yet again. 

Many readers, even those not prone to thinking up defenses of men, might think that blaming "men" for mass shootings takes things a bit far. Some might even think that such a claim takes anti-man rhetoric to a new level. 

Such thinking would probably be wrong. There have been other times in American history when men have been blamed for most of society's ills. And some of those campaigns were even more aggressive than what we might think of as anti-male campaigns today. 

Prohibition, after all, and the entire political milieu surrounding it, was often premised on attacking men. Indeed, for Victorian and Progressive reformers around the turn of the twentieth century, the only thing worse than an American male was an immigrant male. A working-class, immigrant Catholic male was perhaps the worst of all. These people were — to use a word recently given new meaning — the "deplorables" of American society 100 years ago. 

The Progressive Attack on Men  

Among Victorians in the late nineteenth century, and among the later Progressives in the twentieth century, men were singled out as the primary cause of a multitude of social ills ranging from child abuse to poverty. A chief factor  in of all these threats to civilization was alcoholism. The fact that only some men caused such misfortune for their families was not necessarily emphasized. 

This overall attitude grew out of a social environment in which women were slowly gaining in influence in cultural institutions, that set the standard for correct moral behavior. In their book Replacing Misandry, researchers Paul Nathanson and Katherine K Young note:

Though seldom ordained as religious leaders, moreover, women set the agenda also at church. They took their morality into public space with various reform movements, continuing crusades (which had begun with abolitionists in the North) against the evils that they associated with men: prostitution, intemperance, and secularism. Moreover, they were demanding more influence in all spheres of public life. At least partly on the cases of their own self-proclaimed moral and spiritual superiority to men... they demanded the right to vote, the prohibition of "demon rum," and many other changes...

In her appropriately titled book The Feminization of American Culture Ann Douglas examines these trends and how Victorian women in the late nineteenth century — having been denied the vote — turned to increasing their influence in American institutions through other means: through literature, through churches, and through family connections. 

In many cases, the goal was to "civilize" men through what the reformers' opponents might have described as excessive "domestication." 

Thus, for many of the prohibitionists, the abolition of alcohol was not a matter of blandly taking away a threat to public health. Prohibition offered an important step in keeping men at home, out of the saloons, and away from many of their vices. 

Saloon culture, a thoroughly masculine affair at the time, was seen by reformers as both a threat to the family and to a decent political order. Murray Rothbard explains:

The men would repair at night to the saloon for chitchat, discussions, and argument — and they would generally take their political views from the saloonkeeper, who thus became the political powerhouse in his particular ward. 

This institutional framework was especially troubling since it confirmed male Catholics, immigrants, and other undesirables in their ways, thus making them less likely to be converted into the ranks of the Progressives and other reformers. 

Moreover, saloons were incubators for male vices since they enabled men who presumably went home from saloons nightly to beat their wives and children — but only after losing the family's income on gambling and prostitutes. 


Carrie Nation smashes a saloon with her hatchet. Source: Saturday Evening Post.

But, if alcohol could be prohibited, then the saloons would disappear also. Robbed of their saloons, men would finally be forced to go home to their wives and perhaps become reasonably productive members of society in the process. 

So evident was the need to separate men from their booze that when confronted with the fact that some women opposed prohibition, at least one newspaper editorial concluded the only reason anyone could oppose such a measure was because he or she did not know of the “agony and heartbreak of mothers and wives, the chief sufferers from the liquor traffic.”1  The unstated participant in this equation was males, without whom alcohol could not be transformed into agony for women.  

A Failed Attempt to Regulate the Family 

Nor did this anti-male reformist impulse stop with the success of the eighteenth amendment banning alcohol in 1920. 

As Bill Kauffman explains in his history of the failed Constitutional amendment against child labor in the 1920's, the drive to ban child labor encompassed far more than just the issue of children working for wages in factories. 

The text of the Amendment directly paved the way for this by stating the federal government shall have the power to "prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age." The use of the word "labor" was significant, and thus extended the power of Congress far beyond employment for people under the age of eighteen. Both supporters and critics of the amendment interpreted "labor" to mean all labor, including chores performed within the home at the service of the family. Thus, the amendment was interpreted as allowing federal agents to regulate a parent's ability to require a seventeen-year-old-child to darn a sock, milk a cow, or help in the fields. 

The underlying idea was that families were exploiting children by requiring household chores, and that modern "science" would tell us how to better raise our children instead: "if science determined that sewing buttons was bad for Susie, then Susie's mom must be prevented [by federal regulators] from passing on seamstress work to the poor girl."

The fact that these activities could be regulated or prohibited by the state right up until the child was eighteen years old, merely added insult to injury from the parents' perspective. 

As Kauffman confirms, the cultural undercurrent beneath the Amendment was the fact that it was a continuation of the drive to prohibition:

First — and no one disputed this — the Child Labor Amendment was cousin­-germain to Prohibition. Drunkard fathers had necessitated the Eighteenth Amendment; indolent dads would force the Twentieth. American men, it was implied, were dissolute bums whose failings cried out for Washington's remedies.

Were men not so unreliable as providers for their families, the thinking went, they wouldn't need their children to work to make up for it. That is, if men adopted more productive ways — perhaps by eschewing their deplorable masculine vices — their children wouldn't have to trudge to factories at the cost of their educations. 

There was, of course, plenty of opposition to this rhetoric at the time — even within reformist circles. In 1920, a female Party official at the GOP convention that year felt the need to clarify that "I most emphatically do not believe in the aggressive, antagonistic, anti-man spirit in politics." At the time, the Republican party was the home of the most aggressive reformers, and many party officials felt the need to separate themselves from these activists, just as some Democratic Party officials today must announce that they don't support Antifa. The interviewer, a writer for Good Housekeeping, informs the reader that by 1920 "the anti-man period of the woman movement is past. The day of sex-antagonism is past." The article, which apparently takes an anti-reformist position, may have drifted into some wishful thinking.2  

Indeed, in her updated 1998 preface to The Feminization of American Culture, Douglas suspects that "Amid faux-feminist standards of sexual impropriety, proliferating lawsuits, and a tyrannical pop psychology of victimology, we are now conducting a series of cultural campaigns remarkably like the drives for Purity and Prohibition in which the reform impulses of my [Victorian] subjects culminated in the late nineteenth century."

So, while the age of "sex-antagonism" is not exactly past — thanks to all parties involved, by the way — there is a difference in the public policy landscape today. No crusade equal in power and scope to the 1920s movement to regulate every aspect of family life is viable — for now. Moreover, drug and alcohol prohibitions, if anything, are going in the opposite direction of what prohibitionists would like to see. Even the gun-abolition movement — which the Kiesel article connects to masculinity — appears to have presently fallen on hard times. In any case, the habit of connecting various social ills to the problem of "men" has a long and well-established history in American politics. Time will tell where the current phase leads. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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