Mansfield Maps Out Manliness

Manliness is confidence in times of risk and an exercise of freedom, professor says

Unnamed photo
Amy M. Sutherland

Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 expounded his theories on manliness, also the topic of his new book, in the Kirkland JCR last night.

Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 reopened debate on gender differences in a presentation on his new book, “Manliness,” at Kirkland House last night.

Kirkland House Co-Master Tom Conley set the mood for the evening when he introduced Mansfield to the roughly 50 attendees of the Senior Common Room (SCR) event.

“Our guest does not have the habit of leaving people indifferent,” Conley said—and Mansfield did not disappoint.

Mansfield discussed the elements of manliness, which he identified as an important force in today’s gender-neutral society.

“Manliness is confidence in the face of risk,” he said. “Women have confidence, too, but don’t seek out situations of risk to display it.”

To describe manliness, Mansfield ventured where President of the University Lawrence H. Summers has tread unsuccessfully—into the psychology of sex stereotypes and evolutionary biology.

Dubbing them “heroines of science,” Mansfield praised the female scientists of the 1970s who identified, against the perceived interests of women, significant differences between men and women.

But Mansfield also warned of the limitations of empirical evidence.

“It’s hard for science to study manly men because science doesn’t make value judgments but manly men love to make them left and right,” Mansfield said.

“Psychologists don’t reason about their results. I do,” he added.

While men are often associated with aggression, Mansfield said empirical research does not analyze the meaning of aggression, concluding that it is more accurate to say men are assertive.

When a male student mentioned Sojourner Truth as an example of a woman demonstrating courage and freedom, qualities Mansfield ascribed to manliness, the professor asked, “Have you noticed how much more assertive you have been than any woman in the room who has asked me a question?”

A woman who had previously spoken responded loudly, “I beg to differ!”

“That’s right, you BEG to differ,” said Mansfield, without missing a beat.

Mansfield said that women are more contextual and observant, though they sometimes over-interpret, while men are oblivious.

Mansfield added that women have much more difficulty thinking abstractly and mathematically—a comparison that has gotten Summers into trouble.

“I think in general [Summers] was correct to suggest what he did,” Mansfield said.

“I’m not saying that abstract thought is the best—women are much closer to reality,” he said, adding that a great thinker combines both abstract and realistic thought.

In order to illustrate his points, Mansfield referred to John Wayne movies frequently throughout his talk.

In Wayne’s movies, manly men look down on men who are effeminate, Mansfield said.

Mansfield described manliness as excessive behavior, a “special exercise of human freedom.”

“Men do a lot of dumb things such as extreme sports,” he said.

Manliness, Mansfield asserted, is a quality that can be made into a virtue, and listed the jihadists and firemen of the Sept. 11 tragedy as evidence that manliness can be good or evil.

Maggie E. Klein ’08 pointed out that manliness has historically been associated with war, to which Mansfield responded, “Who protects you from war? Other manly men.”

Students were wary of Manfield’s singular attribution of manliness to men.

“‘Manliness’ in its earliest meaning actually had the broader sense of ‘being humane,’ not being virile, and both men and women are capable of acting with great courage and compassion in the service of humanity,” said Kirkland Resident Tutor Yi-Ping Ong.

One audience member went further than criticism of Mansfield’s arguments.

“He’s a heretic and if Harvard was still in the 17th century, he’d probably be burned at the stake,” said Alfred Alcorn ’64, an SCR member.

Mansfield, who ignited arguments but staved off flames last night, remained mum on whether he is a manly man.

“That’s for others to decide,” he said.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.