Saturday, March 21, 2009

Masculinity in the British Empire

This chapter focuses on how conceptions of masculinity drove British imperialism in the period from 1880-1900. Professor Tosh asserts that "empire was man's business" in a literal sense. This is true in two ways. First, empire's "acquisition and control depended disproportionately on the energy and ruthlessness of me," and second, "its place in the popular imagination was mediated through literary and visual images which consistently emphasized positive male attributes." Since the chapter uses many examples of the effects of the man-making empire on labor patterns and also class considerations, I include this reading under the themes of gender, categories of difference (certain classes were more affected by the imperial propaganda program), and employment and work.

The author himself is not guilty of being caught up in the glorification of either empire or masculinity. He in fact seeks to undermine the role of increased masculinization by claiming that this last flourish of British ultra-masculinity was actually a symptom of weakness. While Britain--except between the years 1899-1902--was not at war during this period, they saw their international holdings as increasingly threatened by a hostile international environment. The saber-rattling and rhetoric about the need to defend the empire was therefore subsequent to fears about the instability of the empire.

I do not necessarily agree with Tosh on this point. The correlation of Britain's relative decline and increased masculine rhetoric is interesting, but it is difficult to establish causation here. During the allied bombings of Germany in WWII, German production in war materials actually doubled as the people became more resolved to survive, more angry, etc. For late 19th century British men, increased international competition from Germany, France and Belgium may well have initiated more "struggle, duty, action, will and 'character.'" Whether an increase in these traits results in greater masculinity is a matter of semantics.

Image: The Colonization of Africa.


  1. I think the correlation between masculinity and the decline of the british empire are interesting as well, and I agree they are had to directly correlate with one another. Though not all evidence supports this, I believe that many British women gained power from this situation. Maybe not directly or quickly thereafter, but eventually. I believe that when the British empire declined, many women's roles publicly increased and they knew they could have a firm place in society. Tosh may or may not support such a theory, but in a nutshell, I believe increased masculinity leads to increased femininity because the two cannot survive without the other (despite the hardships they often inflict on one another).

  2. Although I disagree that the role of masculinity in the increase of traits like "struggle, duty, action, will and 'character.'" is a question of semantics on the grounds that (as multiple primary documents and books, for example Jane Austen's Pursuation have demonstrated) words like these had specific gender connotations that survived into the 20th century and carried an immerse amount of cultural and social weight, I do agree with Austin that causality between masculinity and aggressive imperialism is hard, if not impossible, to securely establish. Not simply because of the abstract nature of masculinity or the subjective semantics surrounding the era, but because there are too many other, more clearly identifiable explanations for British imperial action. The unification of Germany is the primary event which, in my opinion, explains British action. The unclear but powerful destiny of Germany and their obvious desire to “find a place in the sun” along with other imperial European powers seems like it would be motivation enough for the actions Tosh describes.

  3. I think Hartman would agree with Tosh’s assertion about the rise of masculinity being directly related to the decline of the British empire. She continually argues that when there is social upheaval men reestablish gender roles. Therefore according to Hartman, it would make sense that as the British Empire was declining and the masculine power associated with government was diminishing that men would do all they could to reaffirm and emphasize their masculinity. So what Tosh considers a paradox (Tosh 194) Hartman would consider a normal reaction. I thought Elisabeth’s comment on the increase of femininity in response to the increase of masculinity provided a unique perspective and I think it would be interesting to look at some of the examples that Hartman discusses and look at how women react to major social change in regards to femininity.