Last week saw the publication online of the interactive resource ‘Being a boy’, which I had a hand in developing. The resource can be found on OpenLearn, the Open University’s free learning site, whose stated aim is to ‘break down barriers to education by reaching millions of learners each year, through free educational resources.’ Those resources provide bite-sized learning experiences which offer a taster for The Open University’s main programme of courses and qualifications, while also being complete in themselves. They also constitute a channel for showcasing the university’s research and making it accessible to a broad audience. I’ve contributed to the development of a number of these resources during my time with the university, a full list of which you can find here.
‘Being a boy’ is the third in a series of interactive learning resources on the topic of men and masculinity that we’ve developed over the past year. The ideas for the series originated with colleagues in the OpenLearn team, and it was our faculty media fellow at the time, Mathijs Lucassen, who suggested me for the role of academic consultant on the project. The way the process works is that the designated academic sketches out some content ideas, based on their own and others’ research, and the OpenLearn team then organises that content into a basic structure for the interactive resource. In the case of the masculinity series, we decided to begin each episode with a brief animation, followed by an interactive quiz, and then some pages summarising key research on issues related to the topic. The media company Damn Fine Media was commissioned to develop the animations, for which I wrote the scripts, which were then voiced by the actor Sanjeev Kohli.
Sanjeev Kohli (via imdb.com)
The first resource in the series, titled ‘What makes a good father?’ , was launched to coincide with Fathers’ Day in 2022. The animation posed a series of questions about where shared notions of fatherhood come from, while the quiz asked learners to select what they thought were the key characteristics of a good father, the feedback suggesting how these reflected traditional or modern views of fatherhood. There were no ‘right’ answers to the quiz: the aim was to encourage people to think about how ideas about fathers’ roles have changed over time and how they vary between cultures. The web pages that followed the quiz focused on three key issues surrounding contemporary fatherhood: absent fathers, young dads, and identity and loss, each of them drawing either on research we’ve conducted at The Open University, or on prominent studies from elsewhere.
The second resource in the series, ‘What does it mean, to be a man?’ appeared earlier this year and took a broader focus, exploring changing and diverse notions of masculinity. Once again, the animation posed a number of questions, while the interactive quiz asked learners to select the characteristics they associated with being a ‘real’ man, the feedback indicating whether the qualities selected reflected traditional, modern, or even ‘toxic’ notions of masculinity. Despite the controversy that often surrounds the latter term, I was keen to tackle it head-on and to suggest that, although masculinity is not in itself ‘toxic’ (a common misunderstanding of the term), my own research, particularly with young men, suggests that some aspects of male identity can be harmful to women, and indeed to men themselves. Building on this, the topic pages that followed explored men’s mental health and wellbeing, men’s attitudes to gender equality, and the difficult issue of men, abuse and violence, again drawing on recent research in which I’ve been involved, as well as other landmark studies of these topics.
‘Being a boy’ is the third and final resource in the series, the animation taking as its starting-point the media rhetoric around the so-called ‘problem’ of boys. This time the quiz was slightly different, being a test of learners’ knowledge of some of the key facts about boys’ experiences of issues such as education, health, violence and family relationships. The three linked topic pages that followed focussed on boys and education; role models; and boys, sexism and gender equality. This time, I made more use of work by other researchers and writers, including Richard Reeves’ important book Of Boys and Men, which I wrote about in this post.
This latest resource is the one I’m happiest with. It took me a while to get used to the novel way of working that producing this kind of interactive resource entails. I was worried to begin with about the danger of simplifying the findings from research, or giving the impression that there are straightforward answers to the questions we were posing. I also became more confident, as time went on, about suggesting improvements, or highlighting things with which I wasn’t completely happy. Looking back on the first two episodes in the series, I’d certainly want to do a number of things differently now. In the case of ‘Boys will be boys’, I think we got the tone about right and mostly resisted falling into simplistic representations of the issues. Even so, at least one Twitter user has already responded critically to the animation, suggesting that it denies the important role that fathers play in boys’ lives: in fact, the video simply poses the question as to whether positive male role models are essential for boys’ wellbeing. The purpose, once again, is to encourage learners to challenge their own thinking and to consider all the evidence before making up their minds.
Despite my concerns about over-simplification, I believe that interactive resources of this kind can play a useful role, opening up bodies of knowledge and ways of understanding to those who are usually denied access to them, encouraging people to reflect critically on their own beliefs and why they hold them, at the same time hopefully promoting a more nuanced and informed debate about contentious issues such as masculinity, identity and equality.
With my Open University colleagues Kerry Jones and Sam Murphy, I recently carried out a study of the experiences of men who joined football teams for fathers who have lost a child through stillbirth or neonatal death. Supported by SANDS, the UK’s leading neonatal death charity, a number of ‘SANDS United‘ teams have sprung up across the UK in the past five years or so. Key features of these initiatives have been that they are organised by bereaved fathers themselves; that they offer men an opportunity to honour their children’s memory, for example through displaying their names on their football shirts; and that they provide fathers with different avenues for finding support and for sharing their stories with others who have had similar experiences, for example through touchline conversations, social events and WhatsApp groups. You can watch a video (with specially-composed music by Lewis Capaldi) about Rob Allen, who founded the first SANDS United team in Northampton in 2017, here.
As a researcher interested in fatherhood, masculinity and care, I was particularly keen to explore how this kind of shared physical and social activity could provide a way of reaching men who find conventional forms of support and talk-based therapies either inaccessible or inappropriate to their needs. We know that many fathers are deterred from seeking help by social expectations that men should respond to bereavement by being stoical and resilient and getting on with life, while others have been conditioned to see a man’s primary role in such circumstances as being to support his partner, rather than acknowledging his own feelings of grief. I was also intrigued by the men’s need, repeatedly emphasised in the interviews we carried out, to have their children’s brief existence acknowledged by others and to hear their children’s names spoken: to me, this also reflected a broader need to have their own identities as fathers affirmed, when the pressure from the wider society is often to forget, and to move on.
Earlier today, I gave a presentation on the initial findings from our study to the Children, Young People and Families Research Group at The Open University, and I’ve attached my Powerpoint slides from the presentation below:
Kerry, Sam and I are planning to publish our findings in a chapter in the book that Kerry and I are editing on men and loss, which is due out next year, as well as disseminating our research through journal articles, blogs and podcasts. With our colleague Alison Davies, we’ve already published a scoping review of existing research on men and perinatal loss, highlighting the need for further work to understand men’s distinctive experiences of bereavement and their specific needs for support.
Jones, K., Robb, M., Murphy, S. and Davies, A. (2019) ‘New understandings of fathers’ experiences of grief and loss following stillbirth and neonatal death: a scoping review’, Midwifery, 79, pp. 102531–102531
Jones, K. and Robb, M. (eds.) (forthcoming, 2024) Men and Loss: Masculinity, Bereavement and Grief (working title), London: Routledge
Richard Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, but he describes himself as a ‘transplanted Brit’. Before moving to the States, he was director of the think-tank Demos, then director of strategy for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during his tenure as deputy prime minister. In an earlier phase of his career, Reeves was a journalist on The Guardian and The Observer. However, Of Boys and Men is a very American book, not just in the sense that most of its research evidence and many of its policy examples are drawn from the U.S. context, but also because it exemplifies a certain kind of American popular academic text, one that tends to assault the reader with a fusillard of statistics, interspersed with folksy anecdotes from personal experience, and culminating in compelling policy prescriptions, all delivered with a breathless sense of urgency, giving the impression that this is the most important issue of the moment.
Having said that, I believe that Reeves’ book is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the state of boys and men. It sets out very clearly some of the key ways in which boys and men are currently struggling in many western societies, in terms of education, employment, their roles in relation to women and children, and in their general emotional wellbeing. And I think the underlying ambition of the book – to demonstrate that, in the author’s words, ‘one can be both passionate about women’s rights and at the same time compassionate towards vulnerable boys and men’ – is a worthy one, and I’m completely behind his quest to develop what he calls ‘a positive vision of masculinity for a post-feminist world’. Reeves is to be applauded, too, for challenging the tendency to overlook the impact of biological differences on male and female experiences, for example in relation to education. I also think that some of his policy prescriptions are certainly worth considering, such as his suggestion that boys should start school a year later than girls, as well as his support for a more direct role for fathers in the care of children, and his general encouragement for more men to enter the caring professions.
Richard Reeves (via Twitter)
Reeves is very much a man of the centre-left and his own ideological assumptions occasionally show through: annoyingly, especially for those on the Eurosceptic Left, he lumps Brexit together with the election of Donald Trump as examples of right-wing populism supposedly fuelled by white male anger. He also dismisses conservative – and sex-realist feminist – fears about the rise of radical gender identity ideology, on the grounds that it only affects a few people, because ‘at least 99% [of the population] are cis’ (his use of that term perhaps betraying his own bias). However, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is surely to miss the point: it’s not the numbers involved that are the main concern, so much as the impact of the ideology, and the disproportionate influence of a small activist class, in threatening the hard-won rights of women.
However, these quibbles aside, one of the things I like about Reeves’ book is his willingness to be equally critical of progressives and conservatives when it comes to attitudes towards, and policies affecting, men and boys. In fact, reading his chapters on ‘progressive blindness’ and right-wing dreams of ‘turning the clock back’, reminded me (if I may make an immodest comparison) of my own analysis of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of both progressive and conservative thinking, in my recent book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Identities and Experiences (if you’ll forgive the shameless plug).
In his critique of leftist myopia, Reeves takes issue with, among other things, the use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’, arguing that ‘masculinity is not a pathology’ and that suggesting that it is can have a negative effect on the self-perceptions of boys and young men. But I think that here Reeves falls into the error committed by certain sections of the popular press: that is, assuming that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ implies that masculinity as such is ‘toxic’. That’s not the sense in which I understand the term, which is rather that certain kinds of masculinity are decidedly negative in their impact, not only on women, but on men themselves. I remember, at a conference in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, listening to two male ex-offenders performing a rap poem with the title ‘Toxic Masculinity’, which blamed the form of masculine identity in which they had been raised – centred on violence and misogyny – for landing them in prison. They weren’t criticising or rejecting masculinity as such, far from it, but rather a certain twisted and harmful form of male identity.
Noah Schultz and Stephen Fowler performing their poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, September 2018 (author’s photo)
I’ve written elsewhere, with my co-researchers, about how some of the marginalised young men we interviewed for our studies were enabled to exchange the ‘reckless’ masculinity that had got them into various kinds of trouble, for a ‘responsible’ masculinity that helped them to move forward with their lives, the transformation often helped by becoming fathers, or by the intervention of support workers who had themselves walked the same path. What we need here, and what I feel Reeves’ book lacks, is Raewyn Connell’s sense – which has been so influential in academic studies of men and masculinity but hasn’t perhaps filtered out enough into the wider culture – that masculinities are plural and diverse. So, it’s perfectly possible and legitimate to hold that some kinds of masculinity are harmful, without suggesting that masculinity is ‘toxic’ per se.
There’s perhaps a connection between this problem and the tangle I believe Reeves gets into in his critique of what he sees as ‘individualist’ explanations of problems faced by men, together with his insistence that what is needed is a structural explanation and response. But the instances he gives of supposedly individualist explanations don’t quite work. He offers the following examples:
If men are depressed, it’s because they won’t express their feelings. If they get sick, it is because they won’t go to the doctor. If they fail at school, it is because they lack commitment. If they die early, it is because they drink and smoke too much and eat the wrong things. For those on the political Left, then, victim-blaming is permitted when it comes to men.
But this is to run together a number of very different kinds of things. To say that men find it difficult to express their feelings, or tend to be reluctant to visit a doctor, is not to blame individual men. When academics make these claims, based on their empirical research, they – we – are not blaming or stigmatizing individual men. Rather, the argument is that these inhibitions arise precisely out of deep-rooted structural causes – i.e. the dominance of conventional social expectations around ‘being a man’ with which some groups of men are still imbued. As for the third example cited here by Reeves – that boys’ educational failure is due to their laziness– that’s a very different kind of thing and not something one hears much in debates around why boys are falling behind in school. Nor does one often come across the argument that men have poorer health outcomes because of individual lifestyle choices, unless these are the result of the loneliness and depression which, some would argue, are themselves the result of social expectations around masculinity which leave many men bereft of real friendships.
Despite the space devoted in the book to education and employment, Reeves finally puts most emphasis, in his search for a way forward for men, on a new role for fathers: ‘a reinvention of fatherhood based on a more direct relationship to children is the answer’. I’m completely behind Reeves’ vision here, but I think he makes a couple of missteps in arguing for it. Firstly, I believe he underestimates the extent to which fatherhood has changed in the past few decades, and I think he strikes too negative a note in saying that ‘fatherhood remains stuck in the past’. Perhaps he does this for effect, but I don’t think it reflects the enormous changes that have taken place, if only or mainly at the level of ideas. A key finding of my own research around fatherhood, going back to the early 2000s, is that, certainly at the rhetorical level, and at least in the UK, the ideal of the ‘good father’ has changed dramatically, and that both men and women now assume that a good dad will be closely involved in the day-to-day care of his children. Conversely, a man who doesn’t pull his weight with the children, and around the home generally, is now widely thought of as a ‘bad’ or inadequate father.
The second misstep that I believe Reeves makes in his argument for a closer involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is a more significant one. Reeves accepts the feminist critique of traditional marriage, with its inbuilt inequality, and argues that one of the major gains of feminism has been lessening women’s dependence on men and increasing their personal autonomy. Although he believes that, traditionally, marriage had the advantage of binding ‘men to women, and thereby to children’, he argues that in an age of gender equality, reviving marriage as an aspiration for the majority of the population is ‘an unrealistic expectation’. He continues: ‘Rather than looking in the rearview mirror, we need to establish a new basis for fatherhood, one that embraces the huge progress we have made towards gender equality’. However, disappointingly, he assumes that equality can and should be built on the autonomy and independence of the sexes, rather than on the basis of more equal relationships between them. Although Reeves’ policy suggestions for encouraging greater father involvement – such as non-transferable paternity leave and father-friendly workplaces – are admirable, I find something rather depressing about his statement that ‘these policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads’. But surely all the evidence points to a committed, stable relationship between a mother and a father being good, not only for children – but for the wellbeing of the parents too, and especially mothers. Rather than seeing men’s presence as necessarily a constraint on autonomy, it’s possible to see it as creating a partnership – especially around caring for children – which actually facilitates women’s greater equality – and wellbeing.
When talking about fatherhood, you cite data to demonstrate that the quality of a child’s relationship with the father is more important than the physical presence of the father in the home. You then argue that one way to cure this modern male malaise is to restore and elevate fatherhood. That all sounds good, as far as it goes. But you then turn around and do the exact opposite thing with women.
In the past, we had this vision of the role of the husband and father that centered on financial provision and physical protection. With children, you said, “Okay, maybe they don’t need that any more, but they still need something else.” But with women you say, “Okay, they don’t need that anymore. Women can provide for themselves, and therefore, women just don’t need men at all any more.” So it sort of seems like the gist of your argument is, “We can just move on from marriage, accepting that feminism and the sexual revolution are here to stay in their totality. It’s not like we can say there are good parts and bad parts. We have to just accept them wholesale and then do what we can about the consequences.”
I contrast that with the vision that Erika Bachiochi sets out in her book on Mary Wollstonecraft: a feminism that rejects this ideal of unbridled autonomy and sees rights as being linked to duties. She’s totally on board with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom you both cite, in terms of looking at individuals’ unique capacities, nondiscrimination law, encouraging men to be caregivers, and all of these things. But her book elevates a vision of marriage and domestic life as something that should be bringing both men and women to greater virtue. They need each other, and their children need them, and that’s a good thing. It’s an interdependence model.
Whereas your book says, “Okay, well, we’ve accepted this idea of autonomy. Women are autonomous now. Don’t even try to get men and women back together. Instead, we should create a workaround so that men can just have a relationship straight with their children, and cut out the mother as middleman.” And I think that’s a mistake...
To me, this is a social justice issue. We have all of this nice-sounding rhetoric coming from the highly educated upper classes based on the tenets of sexual revolution—that we can uncouple sex and childbearing, that women should be totally independent, all these sorts of things. But the people who are hurt the most by the breakdown of the family over the past half century have been those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. I think devaluing marriage further is just doubling down on that inequality instead of solving that problem.
I tend to agree.
I was interested to read this review of Reeves’ book, by Nicole Penn in American Enterprise. Its two key criticisms of Reeves’ book are remarkably similar to my own. Similar to my own argument that Reeves misunderstands the term ‘toxic masculinity’ as pathologising masculinity per se, Penn contends that ‘Reeves minimizes the destructive effects of certain types of antisocial male behavior in his attempt to rein in progressives’ eagerness to blame men’s problems on “toxic masculinity.”’ She believes, as I do, that ‘it is possible to critique men without pathologizing them’. In taking issue with Reeves’ rejection of marriage, Penn uses language that is reminiscent of my own review. Where I suggested that Reeves had made a ‘misstep’ in this part of his argument, Penn writes that ‘Reeves fundamentally missteps’ in discussing marriage. Needless to say, I agree with her critique, as expressed here:
Coldly characterizing modern marriage as ‘a commitment device for shared investments of time and money in children,’ Reeves discounts the importance of forming men who (in cases of heterosexual unions) can sustain permanent bonds with the mothers of their children, and who are capable of seeing women as lifelong friends and fellow stewards of the small platoons that form society’s foundations.
Exactly four years ago I wrote a post on this blog, bemoaning the absence of fathers from television Christmas advertisements. After running through that year’s crop of ads, highlighting the invisibility of men in their sentimental seasonal narratives, I added the following reflection:
Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway.
Even when Joseph is present in representations of the Nativity, he’s often a peripheral figure, sitting or standing in the background and looking on while all the attention is focused on Mary and her newborn Child. You’d look in vain for images that present Joseph as a model for ‘hands on’ fathering.
So I was really pleased to come across this reproduction of a 15th century French icon, via Scott Hahn’s Facebook page. It shows Joseph caring for baby Jesus while Mary studies the Scriptures: a great example of caring fatherhood and equal parenting!
According to the publisher’s blurb, the bookis ‘a collection of original essays that address the intersection between contemporary feminist care ethics and religious morality’ and it ‘engages theorists from various disciplines in discussing the continuities, discontinuities, and applications of feminist care ethics, spiritual traditions, and religion.’
The book consists of thirteen substantive chapters, divided into three sections, with contributions by authors from across Europe and North America, representing a variety of religious traditions. My own chapter – ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care’ – is in the second section of the book, which explores issues of ‘embodiment, gender and family’. In the chapter, I use the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War as a springboard to discuss the ways in which, contrary to received opinion, certain forms of religious belief can motivate and inform a caring masculinity, and more broadly an ethic of care. (This is the second time I’ve drawn on these family letters in an academic publication: in my article for the special issue of Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’ that I edited in 2020, I used them as a resource for challenging popular assumptions about fathering practices in previous generations.) Here’s a description of my chapter from the book’s Introduction:
Because care ethics developed out of feminist analysis and was rooted in women’s traditionally under-valued experience, understandably, there has not been as much written about care and masculinity. This absence is changing as care ethics grows in popularity across a variety of disciplines. Martin Robb, who has written extensively about masculinity in the context of care, furthers this vital conversation in ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care.’ The chapter begins on a personal note, with Robb sharing excerpts of letters from his great grandfather to his grandfather. He leverages these letters in the context of Christian Methodism to argue for a Christian masculinity compatible with care theory. In particular, Robb challenges the notion that Christian masculinity was handed down as a monolith. On the one hand, he acknowledges that one form of Christian manliness was reinforced as ‘neo-Spartan virility as exemplified by stoicism, hardiness, and endurance’ by Christian and quasi-Christian social institutions. However, that form of masculinity existed in tension with a narrative that Robb finds revealed in his great grandfather’s letters where ‘the emotional spirituality of Methodism offers him a language in which to openly express his love for his son’ as in closing his letters with kisses. Robb concludes with a note about the significance of imagination for care. Although the tendency is to address care theory in the rational and analytic tradition of Western academic theory, he contends there is a need for an ‘imaginative superstructure to inform and motivate care’ that religion can provide.
The new book is published as open access. You can find more details, and download the whole book for free, here.
The main strength of the ‘conservative’ or traditionalist position derives from a belief in clearly differentiated notions of masculinity and femininity, and thus in gender complementarity, providing a powerful argument for men having a distinctive role to play in the upbringing of children and in family life generally. However, the principal weakness of the position, as I see it, is that it has no concept of masculinities as mutable and variable, and therefore little sense that some kinds of masculinity might not be good for children, or for women, and that as a consequence some men’s presence in families – and in children’s lives – might not necessarily be a good thing. Reading some ‘conservative’ accounts of the increasing absence of men from families (and I analysed a couple at length in my book), one sometimes gets the impression that, for these commentators, any man will do.
Male childcare worker (via nurseryworld.co.uk)
Turning to ‘progressive’ arguments for greater involvement by men in children’s lives (which are actually the dominant arguments in current policy debates, certainly in the UK and Europe), I suggested that their key strength is precisely that they are rooted in a social constructionist belief in the mutability of gender roles, making it possible to argue that there are no innate barriers to men being just as caring and nurturing as women. If gender is simply a social construct, which can be altered by a change in social conditioning or social structures, then there’s no essential reason why a man can’t be a stay-at-home dad, or a childcare worker – and be just as good in these roles as a woman – just as (on this view) there’s nothing stopping a woman taking up traditionally ‘masculine’ roles or occupations, such as firefighter, or CEO.
But I also highlighted what I see as a major flaw in the ‘progressive’ position, when it comes to arguing for a greater role for men in caring for children, whether in families or in the caring professions. If men’s care for children is no different – in quality or kind – from that provided by women, then on what basis should we argue for more men to be involved in childcare? Why can’t we be happy for a child to be raised by two mothers, or a single mother, or for a daycare centre, or a primary school, to be staffed entirely by women? What might men bring to the care of children that’s distinctive – or necessary? In short: what are men for, when it comes to care?
Jo Warin(via lancaster.ac.uk)
In my view, most arguments for ‘hands on’ fatherhood, or for recruiting more men to work with children, tend to dodge these questions. Wary of falling back on essentialist ideas of innate differences between the sexes, or of articulating those differences in stereotypical ways, ‘progressive’ advocates tend to resort instead to pedagogic or political arguments. In my book, I quote Jo Warin, Professor of Gender and Social Relationships in Education at Lancaster University, and one of the UK’s leading researchers on gender and childcare, who writes:
The greater involvement of men in the care and education of children has the potential to transform gender relations…The inclusion of more male teachers and carers…can make a vital contribution to the ongoing development of a more gender-egalitarian society.
Elsewhere, Warin argues that ‘the inclusion of more men in early childhood education has the potential to challenge traditional gender roles and…is a small step in the direction of “undoing” gender and moving beyond the gender binary.’ 
Maurice Hamington (via care ethics.com)
The care ethicist Maurice Hamington, Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University, in the course of a beautiful description of his own ‘hands on’ care for his daughter, argues that ‘caregiving in this manner on the part of the father adds significance to the moral education of the child’ and that ‘acts of corporeal care by the father will break down the exclusive connection between motherhood and care.’ 
It’s notable that neither of these writers claims that there is anything substantially different about men’s care, or that the involvement of men will somehow improve children’s experience of being cared for. Instead, the arguments are pedagogic (men’s care will teach children something about the nature of gender) and/or political (men’s care will contribute to social change, including a change in the nature of gender relations). As I concluded (perhaps provocatively) in my book: ‘Thus, it could be argued…that progressives are not campaigning for more men to be recruited to work with children primarily for the good of children themselves, or to enhance the quality of care, but to influence the next generation of men into becoming more caring, and thus to effect social change’.
But is it really the case that there’s no difference between men’s and women’s care for children? Yes, of course, women and men are more alike than they are different, and we’re all individuals, so it’s invidious to generalise about all men or all women. But if you were to ask any mother, watching a husband or partner interacting with their child, or any parent, observing their child’s interactions with a male nursery worker, then surely they would say that yes, there is a difference of some kind, even if they found it difficult to find appropriate words to articulate that difference?
So how do we find the language to describe the difference in men’s caring (if indeed there is a difference) without falling back on sexist language and outdated stereotypes? It’s an issue I continue to struggle with, but one I want to use future posts on this blog to explore. As always, comments and counter-arguments are welcome!
I should make it clear that nothing I’ve written here should be taken as a general criticism of either Jo Warin’s or Maurice Hamington’s work, for which I have the greatest respect. I know and have worked with both of them: Jo and I co-edited, with Yuwei Xu, a journal special issue on gender and childcare, while I recently contributed to a book on care ethics and religion that Maurice is co-editing.
Robb, M. (2020) Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities, New York and London: Routledge
Warin, J. (2018) Men in Early Childhood Education and Care: Gender Balance and Gender Flexibility, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Hamington, M. (2002) ‘A father’s touch: caring embodiment and a moral revolution’, in Tuana, M., Cowling, C., Hamington, M., Johnson, G. and MacMullan, T. (eds.), Revealing Male Bodies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Towards the end of my interview for the Now and Men podcast last year, I was asked whether I considered myself a feminist. I think I dodged the question and gave a fairly wishy-washy, non-committal answer. Why was that? After all, it’s only a few years since I criticised men’s rights activist Glen Poole, on this very blog, for describing himself as a ‘non-feminist’. In response to the podcast interviewer’s question, I offered a couple of excuses for my indecisiveness. Firstly, I suggested that, in common with many other men working on gender equality issues, I’d never been sure if ‘feminist’ was a label that men had any right to claim for themselves, and that instead I’d always preferred to describe myself as ‘pro-feminist’.
More importantly, I also argued that since ‘there are so many debates within feminism at the moment, you’d have to define what you meant by “feminist”’. Which you may think was a weaselly way of avoiding the question. But I think I was right to highlight the ways in which, even since that online spat with Poole back in 2015, significant fissures have opened up within feminism that make it important to be clear which kind of feminism, exactly, you’re aligning yourself with. The most recent division, and the most ferocious in terms of rhetoric, has been between feminists who adhere to the currently fashionable gender identity ideology, and those who believe that same ideology represents a threat to women’s hard-won sex-based rights.
But if feminism has changed in recent years, then I have to be honest and admit that so have I: see my last post for a rather lengthy explanation of how and why. Some time ago, on my political blog Martin In The Margins, I wrote a post setting out my growing discomfort with some aspects of contemporary feminism – and male pro-feminist activism – as my personal political and philosophical views had begun to shift. I’d become increasingly concerned that support for a feminist or pro-feminist agenda had come to mean signing up to positions that clashed both with my new political centrism and, more importantly, with my rediscovered religious faith and support for the ‘consistent ethic of life’ that is central to Catholic social teaching (as well as to some branches of secular humanist thought, it must be said).
Now, I realise that in proposing that there might be any kind of rapprochement between feminism and Catholicism, I’m risking the ridicule of many of my readers – those for whom the Catholic church is the arch-enemy of feminism, the sexist institution par excellence, a major part of the problem, when it comes to women’s oppression, and certainly with nothing useful to contribute to the solution. I get it: after all, this was one of the factors that kept me away from the Church for much of my life. However, I believe passionately that my rediscovered faith – and in particular the Christian personalist philosophy to which I find myself increasingly drawn – demands a radical commitment to the equal dignity and value of women and men, and opposition to all forms of prejudice and discrimination based on sex (as also on ethnicity, class, age, and so forth). But finding a way to connect the two sets of beliefs has often proven difficult, and identifying writers and thinkers who have trodden that same path, without ending up either renouncing their support for feminism on the one hand, or denying or watering down the truths of their faith on the other, has been by no means easy.
So it was with relief and delight that I eventually stumbled on the work of campaigning organisations like New Wave Feminists, whose slogan is ‘consistent non-violence from the womb to the tomb’; Feminists for Life, who claim that their principles are ‘shaped by the core feminist values of justice, non-discrimination, and non-violence’; and Feminists Choosing Life of New York, who state that their campaigning work ‘draws connections between the root causes of violence, inequality and the social forces that dehumanize’; as well as more avowedly secular ‘consistent life ethic’ organisations like Rehumanize International, which campaigns against the death penalty and unjust wars, as well as against abortion and euthanasia.
Meanwhile, on the academic front, I’ve been heartened to discover the work of writers like Erika Bachiochi, who is a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, Massachussetts, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Bachiochi’s book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published in 2021, is a seminal text in the emerging field of what one might term ‘consistent life ethic’ feminism. The book begins by revisiting the legacy of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, uncovering a moral vision in her philosophy which the author argues has been abandoned by contemporary feminism, in favour of the relentless pursuit of individual autonomy. Bachiochi argues for the renewal of a ‘dignitarian’ and communitarian feminism, regarding abortion as a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the social and economic relations that oppress women, and especially poor women. As Bachiochi argues in an article published earlier this month:
The justice we need today would look to both protect and promote the health and well-being of unborn children and their mothers and ensure that all women, especially the poor, have the financial resources, medical support, and workplace accommodations they need to care for their children once they are born…It will demand the father’s participation (which will mean securing good work for working-class men).
Another key figure in the drive to create a faith-informed feminism is Abigail Favale, Dean of Humanities and Professor of English at George Fox University, who, to my mind, has provided some of the clearest and most accessible explanations of the ways in which gender theory has developed and where it may have lost its way. Favale’s much-anticipated book, The Genesis ofGender: a Christian Theory, will be published later this month, but she has already shared her thinking in talks and interviews and has published some incisive articles, including one in which she expertly traces the history of gender theory via the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, suggesting that contemporary gender identity ideology is ‘a trickle-down version of Butlerian performativity’ (though elsewhere I’ve heard Favale argue that this ideology actually involves a misreading of Butler). For Favale, one of the contributions that a Christian, and specifically a Catholic incarnational perspective, can make to thinking about gender, is to reinstate the importance of the body, as a response to the disembodied idealism of gender identity ideology. She argues that ‘we must “reincarnate” gender somehow, reattach gender to its generative, etymological root (gens).’ Favale continues:
Anchoring gender identity in the sexed body not only reaffirms the dignity of the body and the goodness of sexual complementarity—it also arguably expands the confines of “man” and “woman” to lived instantiations beyond stereotypes…. Masculinity is simply the way of being a man in the world, and is thus uniquely inflected by each individual personality… This embodied, personalist understanding of masculinity and femininity reaffirms the meaning of the sexed body, without collapsing cultural stereotypes into natural categories.
A third commentator worth attending to is Leah Libresco Sargeant, who recently launched a Substack under the title Other Feminisms, which sets out to provide a newsletter ‘for women who are an uncomfortable fit within present-day feminism’, and in which she argues that ‘the world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way around’, which will mean ‘valuing interdependence and vulnerability, rather than idealizing autonomy.’
Leah Libresco Sargeant, Abigail Favale and Erika Bachiochi at a panel discussion of ‘The Dignity of the Sexed Body’, University of Notre Dame, 23 November 2021 (via catholicnewsagency.com)
It’s notable that all three of these writers are converts to Catholic Christianity who have refused to renounce the feminism they formerly espoused or to be seduced by traditionalist forms of gender essentialism. Understandably, their priority is to explore the implications of their faith-based feminist vision for women. Nevertheless, they have things of interest to say about men and masculinity along the way. Bachiochi’s recovery of Wollstonecraft’s ‘virtue’ feminism certainly has some stark moral implications for men’s sexual behaviour. But in addition, and refreshingly, from my perspective as a man researching men and care, all three women appear committed to promoting men’s participation in care within families, and in society more generally. For example, in an interview with Favale, Bachiochi argues for generous family leave to encourage fathers’ involvement in caring for their children, while in a conversation between Sargeant and Favale, the former contends that we don’t talk enough about men wanting to take of children, simply because they love being fathers and not just because the mother is working, to which Favale responds by describing her own husband’s work as a stay-at-home dad as ‘one of the most beautiful things about his masculinity’ and as something genuinely counter-cultural. As it happens, Leah Sargeant’s husband Alexi recently published an article about men and fatherhood and, in linking to it on Twitter, Leah shared this lovely photo of him with their two young children:
The suggestions by these writers of the implications for men of a faith-based feminism are necessarily brief and undeveloped, and there’s certainly work to be done in exploring further what Bachiochi’s ‘dignitarian’ feminism, or Favale’s ‘incarnational’ approach to gender, or Sargeant’s embryonic ‘other feminism’ might mean for thinking about masculinity. It’s work that I’d like to contribute to, and I’d be interested to identify others who may be thinking or working along similar lines.
In my quest to find other academics and writers who might have something to contribute in this area, I was pleased recently to make contact with María Guadalupe Rodríguez García, a Mexican-born researcher whose research for her Masters degree in Social Anthropology at Aberdeen University explored the concept of machismo through the lens of Christian personalism. María now works some of the time for the International Institute of Culture and Gender, for whom she recently coordinated an online course, ‘Towards an adequate anthropology of masculinity’.
Me withMaría Guadalupe Rodríguez García in London, 20 June 2022
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Maria in person, when she was passing through London, and I was delighted to discover that our ideas and interests around masculinity, personalism and research methods converged in many respects. We discussed a number of ways of taking things forward, through academic research and writing, and possibly developing a network of researchers working on issues of men and masculinity from the perspective of Christian personalism and a consistent ethic of life. If that includes you, dear reader, then I hope you’ll get in touch.
Back in January I wrote a post calling for expressions of interest in contributing to a new edited collection on men, bereavement and loss, which my Open University colleague Dr. Kerry Jones and I were planning. I’m pleased to report that we were overwhelmed with abstracts for possible chapters and were able to put together a robust book proposal to submit to interested publishers.
I’m also delighted to report that Kerry and I have now signed a contract with Routledge for delivering the book, with the provisional title Men and Loss: men, masculinity and bereavement, in 2023.
Dr Kerry Jones
As we argued in our proposal document, although bereavement and loss are unavoidable events in life and can be challenging experiences for anyone, regardless of sex or gender, in contemporary western cultures, men’s experience of bereavement continues to be framed by socially constructed ideas surrounding masculinity. Men who do not grieve in accepted ‘masculine’ ways can feel judged, alienated or disenfranchised. Men also tend to have fewer informal support networks than women, while formal bereavement support, in its focus on talking therapies, often fails to engage men or meet their needs. In addition, gendered social expectations may hinder men from expressing their feelings openly and from seeking help.
There are currently very few publications that explore men’s experience of bereavement in depth or discuss men’s specific needs for support following loss, and certainly no recent book-length texts on these topics. We argued that there is a need for a book which increases understanding of men’s experience of loss, drawing on recent research and cutting-edge ideas about bereavement on the one hand, and men and masculinities on the other, and at the same time contributing to improving support services to men following bereavement. The increasing focus, in policy and practice, on mental health issues affecting boys and men should also make this publication timely. We believe that our book will fill a definite gap in both the academic and professional literatures on bereavement, at the same time making a significant contribution to the literature on men, masculinities and wellbeing. We also believe it will have a significant appeal to researchers, educators and professionals working in a variety of fields.
Our interdisciplinary and interprofessional edited collection will bring together authors from a wide range of backgrounds in research, teaching and professional practice, many with personal experiences of loss that have informed their thinking and practice. As co-editors, Kerry and I combine academic expertise in teaching and research on end-of-life care, on the one hand, and men, masculinities and care on the other. Our contributors are drawn predominantly from the UK, but also from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The collection will include theoretical analysis, reports of research findings, reviews of support and interventions, and a wealth of personal accounts, with many chapters interweaving the person with the academic or professional.
The book will be loosely structured, beginning with theoretical and research-based chapters, followed by personal accounts and ending with chapters that reflect on practice and consider the implications for supporting bereaved men. However, the considerable overlap between these different categories makes a strict division between discrete sections impossible. The forms of loss discussed will include partner loss, childhood bereavement, perinatal loss and bereavement through suicide, as well as bereavement at all stages of the life course. Although the primary focus is on the ways in which the experience of loss is framed by gender identity, a diversity of experience and practice in terms of social class, ethnicity, culture and geographical location will also be represented in the book.
Image via sands.org.uk
I’ll post more details of the book on this blog, including names of authors and chapter titles, when we’re a little further along in the writing process. However, I can state definitively that one of the chapters will focus on the research that Kerry and I have been undertaking recently, with our colleague Sam Murphy, on the experiences of fathers who have lost a child in the perinatal period, and specifically those who have formed themselves into football teams, under the auspices of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity (SANDS), as a means of providing mutual support. We’ve now completed all the interviews for the study and have just begun the analysis phase: watch this space for further updates.
My article on ‘Boys and Fatherhood’ is now available at the Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. If you have a subscription, either personally or via your institution, you can access it here.
Oxford Bibliographies is an online publication that aims to provide students and academic researchers with what its website describes as ‘a seamless pathway to the most accurate and reliable resources for a variety of academic topics.’ The list of about fifty subject areas takes in everything from African Studies to Victorian Literature, covering the humanities, social sciences and much else besides. As their website explains: ‘Written and reviewed by academic experts, every article in our database is an authoritative guide to the current scholarship, containing original commentary and annotations.’ Each article provides a general overview of the literature on a specific topic, together with critical reviews of a selection (usually around 50) of individual texts (journal articles, book chapters, etc.), grouped together under subheadings.
The Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies, whose chief editor is my Open University colleague Heather Montgomery, currently runs to more than 200 articles, covering topics from Aboriginal Childhoods to Young Carers. My own contribution complements existing articles in the database on ‘Fathers’, ‘Teenage Fathers’ and ‘Masculinities/Boyhood’. When I was invited to write about ‘Boys and Fatherhood’ I was initially puzzled as to how I should go about it. Should the focus be boys’ experiences of being fathered, or boys’ attitudes to fatherhood, or fathers’ interactions with their sons, or all of the above?
In the end I decided to break the topic down and come at it from a number of different angles. In the first few sections of the article, I focus on aspects of boys’ relationships with their fathers, with specific sections on fathers’ influence on their sons’ gender and sexual identities, and on fathers and sons facing specific life challenges. The next two sections tackle an aspect of father-son relationships that, sadly, tends to receive the most attention in popular discourse – absent fathers – reviewing the literature on the impact of father absence on boys and on the supposed lack of male role models in boys’ lives (something that I’ve researched and written about a good deal elsewhere). The final section of the article explores the topic of young fatherhood, under the heading ‘Boys as fathers’ (see also my last post).
As a taster, here’s an extract from the introduction to the article (excuse the US spellings: despite the name, the Oxford Bibliographies are actually published in New York):
The academic study both of boys’ lives and of fatherhood has increased exponentially since the late 20th century, with both fields part of a wider expansion of masculinity studies, itself the product of a renewed focus on issues of gender and identity resulting from the rise of feminist studies in the closing decades of the 20th century. While some studies of fathering have paid attention to the topic of parenting boys, and a few of the growing number of studies of boys’ experiences have focused on relationships with fathers, research that brings the two topics together, exploring either fathers’ experience of raising sons, or boys’ relationships with their fathers, is a relatively new and developing field. This is by contrast with the situation in popular discourse, where a good deal of attention has focused on fathers and sons, often with a negative slant, viewing the so-called problem of boys (whether a supposed decline in educational achievement or a rise in antisocial behavior) as the result of fatherabsence and a lack of positive male role models in the lives of boys in modern society. The topic of boys and fatherhood thus stands at the intersection of a number of important areas both of academic interest and of current policy debates and discourses, and this review seeks to include a cross section of those connected discussions from a range of intersecting disciplinary backgrounds.
The primary focus is on aspects of boys’ relationships with their fathers, including the influence of those relationships on boys’ developing identities, and the role of fathers in responding to specific challenges in their sons’ lives. […] Any review of the academic literature on boys and fatherhood cannot avoid the vexed question of absent fatherhood, which is covered by two sections here: the first attempting to present diverse perspectives on the impact on boys, and the second examining the related debate surrounding the supposed absence of male role models in boys’ lives. The final section reviews the literature on another contentious issue, young fatherhood, and includes a range of perspectives on the implications of boys themselves becoming fathers. […] An attempt has been made throughout this review to present a global perspective and to demonstrate the ways in which the issues under discussion play out for boys and their fathers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.