Mansfield’s Myth of Manliness

Harvey Mansfield, distinguished Harvard faculty member and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, wants us to know that “men can spit, cuss, tell dirty jokes, read porn, and drink beer.” Mansfield wonders whether teaching women this “manliness” is “like teaching a cat to bark.” In fact, throughout his book “Manliness” and a more recent article in the Weekly Standard entitled “Manliness and Morality,” Harvey Mansfield propagates outdated, demeaning, and utterly unsubstantiated views on women.

Professor Mansfield notes that “manliness” is rooted in aggression and assertiveness. Substantiating this with statistics that reveal that men perpetrate far more crimes than women do, Mansfield goes on to conclude that women inherently lack aggression and assertiveness. He cites this as an explanation for women’s absence in the professional sphere.

Unfortunately, Professor Mansfield also claims scientific substantiation for misogynistic portrayals of femininity and masculinity. In “Manliness,” he writes that “studies say that men think about sex more often than women do, and what they think about is not marital bliss but ‘an active sex life.’” He provides no other scientific evidence for supposedly incontrovertible gender differences with respect to sexual activity, making no effort to divorce socialized gender roles from biological predispositions. Mansfield goes on to conclude that the fact “that men are more promiscuous than women in both attitude and behavior is perhaps the oldest common-sense fact there is... It is good to have it confirmed by science.” Again, he makes no distinction between nature and nurture, misinterpreting our culture’s gender roles as scientific facts. Indeed, Mansfield would have us know that “a wiser, more open-minded science...would not be suspicious of exaggeration and anecdote.” (Happily, Mansfield is a professor of government and not of science).

In “Manliness and Morality,” Mansfield advances other degrading theories about women, concluding that women are more childlike than men and cannot “be independent, or ‘autonomous,’ certainly not as much as modern women want to be.”

However, Mansfield’s writing is not simply misogynistic. Statements throughout “Manliness and Morality” demonstrate Professor Mansfield’s skewed and distressing perspective on rape. For example, he opines that the “home truth” of male aggression is “vindicated” by the actions of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer. Mansfield thus implies that men’s propensity to rape is a natural consequence of their aggressiveness, just as women’s susceptibility to rape is a natural consequence of their vulnerability. Most shockingly of all, he makes the claim that “it certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true.”

Mansfield’s analysis casts rape as a natural interaction between man and woman, implying that it is just a “home truth” that men want to molest women. This type of rhetoric is used to excuse the sexual violence experienced by hundreds of thousands of women each year in the United States. It is troubling that Mansfield, as a Harvard professor, implicitly affirms the misogynistic rhetoric of gender-based violence.

FAS recently voted to cancel former Harvard Summer School instructor Subramanian Swamy’s courses in light of the Islamophobic views expressed in a recent op-ed. In the same way that Swamy’s undeniably Islamophobic rhetoric alienates Muslim students at Harvard, Mansfield’s incontrovertibly sexist claims alienate female students as well as students of other genders. Though Mansfield’s views are not as blatantly hateful as Swamy’s, both professors perpetuate unsubstantiated and destructive stereotypes.

Given the implications of Mansfield’s assertions about manliness, we are distressed that he interacts with students at all, let alone teaches at our university. Like Swamy, Mansfield has used his platform as a Harvard professor to publish harmful absurdities on a topic in which he has no expertise.

Professor Mansfield’s views on gender inevitably influence his performance as a Harvard faculty member. For example, any faculty member that has opposed the very existence of the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies should not advise freshmen on courses or concentrations. Perhaps Harvard should consider whether a man who has asserted that “men are more imaginative, more poetic, and more sublime” than woman is qualified to serve as an academic advisor to both male and female students.

Harvey Mansfield claims that women’s possession of “a more specialized vocabulary for female tasks, such as cooking” is a natural extension of their biological predisposition to servility and passivity. As students of history, social theory, and science, we posit that women possess a specialized vocabulary for female tasks because they fill roles that have been socially branded female. This and other unfounded assertions about sex and gender call into question Mansfield’s ability to fulfill his obligations as a Harvard faculty member.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14 is a South Asian studies concentrator in Eliot House, and Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14 is a joint history of science and women, gender, and sexuality studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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