Exploring masculinity interactively online

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.

Fathers, football and perinatal loss

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.

Image via https://www.sands.org.uk/sands-united

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

Video tutorial on sensitive research with men

I’ve recorded a video tutorial for Sage Research Methods, on ‘researching sensitive issues with men’. The video is now live on the Sage website. You’ll need to subscribe to watch the whole thing, which lasts about 20 minutes, but you can view a brief preview, and get a sense of the main issues covered by the video, here. I’m waiting for Sage to send me a longer clip that I can post as a taster.

Sage Research Methods is a website run by the academic publisher of the same name, aiming to support research by providing material to guide users through every step of the research process. As the website states:

Nearly everyone at a university is involved in research, from students learning how to conduct research to faculty conducting research for publication to librarians delivering research skills training and doing research on the efficacy of library services. Sage Research Methods has the answer for each of these user groups, from a quick dictionary definition, a case study example from a researcher in the field, a downloadable teaching dataset, a full-text title from the Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences series, or a video tutorial showing research in action.

I was approached by Sage about a year ago, following the publication of my article ‘“Men, we just deal with it differently”: researching sensitive issues with young men’ in a special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, which was later included as a chapter in an edited collection. As I wrote in a blog post at the time:

[The article] reflects on my personal experience, as a male researcher, of discussing gender identity and relationships with young male participants. Using examples from two of the research studies in which I’ve been involved, the article argues that the nature of masculine identities, and the way that masculinity ‘works’ in the research process, mean that research with young men on issues of this kind is always inherently sensitive and brings with it considerable challenges for researchers. 

Adopting a psychosocial approach to issues of gender identity, and to conceptualising the research process, I also contend that it’s important to understand the research encounter as an intersubjective process in which the identities of both researcher and researched influence each other in dynamic though often hidden ways. The article discusses these challenges in detail and makes some practical suggestions as to how researchers might respond to them.

I drew on some of this material in my video tutorial for Sage, though I widened the scope to discuss research with men generally, rather than just young men. 

Screenshot via methods.sagepub.com

The process of recording the video was interesting. At the time (June 2022), Sage were still working mostly online and asked me to record the video at home, rather than in the studio. This entailed sending me some simple recording equipment and, on the day, connecting with me online to provide instructions. I had to record the video on my phone and then send a copy to the Sage recording engineers, who checked it for sound and vision quality. We had to do a few ‘takes’: as you’ll see if you watch the final product, I found it difficult to simultaneously refer to my approved script (I’m not capable of doing a twenty-minute recorded talk from memory – at least, not one that will be viewed potentially by hundreds of people) and at the same time maintain eye contact with an imagined viewer. 

I think the final product is OK. I hope the video will be useful to other researchers who are thinking about exploring sensitive issues of gender, identity and relationships, with men.

‘Of Boys and Men’

I first came across Richard Reeves’ writing on boys and men last year, via Bari Weiss’ excellent Honestly podcast, and then suddenly he seemed to be popping up everywhere, on media sites and all over social media, discussing his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. I decided to get hold of a copy and find out why the book was attracting so much attention.

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. 

Serena Sigillito (via thepublicdiscourse.com)

This criticism of Reeves’ argument has been set out much more coherently in a fascinating dialogue between him and Serena Sigillito, editor of the new online journal Fairer Disputations, which I wrote about in this post. I’d recommend reading the whole of their conversation, but here’s an extract from Sigillito’s critique, focusing on precisely this issue of the relationship between fathers, mothers and children, which incidentally references Erika Bachiochi’s excellent recent book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I wrote about in an earlier post:

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.


The Child, Law and Policy Network has published an interview with me on their website, about my book Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities. Here’s a taster:

Q: What made you write this book?

I’ve been researching and writing about men, masculinity, and care for the past twenty years or so, beginning with small-scale studies of hands-on fathers and male nursery workers and leading eventually to major studies of young masculinities and caring relationships. Although the field of fatherhood studies has expanded enormously during that period and there have been a number of important recent studies of men as childcare workers, I believed there was an urgent need for a book that brought together these two topics and at the same time explored the underlying questions surrounding men’s role in caring for children more generally.

The book also grew out of my dissatisfaction with some of the ways in which the topic of men’s care for children is currently theorised, and a wish to move beyond existing orthodoxies to develop a perspective that was true to my own personal experience and to the findings from the research in which I’ve been involved. So the book represents my own search for a better understanding of issues that continue to be of concern to me as a parent and researcher and could be viewed as an ongoing debate with myself. The conclusions reached at the end of the book should be regarded as tentative, at best, and as work in progress, rather than anything resembling a final and definitive word on the subject.

Man up – or open up?

There’s now a direct link available to the animation that we produced, in partnership with Kong Studio, as part of the support material for the BBC / Open University documentary, ‘James Arthur – Out of Our Minds’ (see this post). I’ve also embedded a copy of the video at the end of this post. Entitled ‘Man Up or Open Up?’ the short video explores the topic of men’s mental and emotional wellbeing, and the ways in which men experiencing mental health issues can best be supported. You can read an account of how the animation was developed on the Kong Studio website .

In the UK, three times as many men as women die by suicide and men are nearly three times as likely to become dependent on alcohol and to indulge in frequent drug use, with men also reporting lower levels of life satisfaction than women. However, men are much less likely than women to seek professional help for mental health issues, with only around a third of referrals to the NHS for talking therapies coming from men.

Why is it that men are more likely to experience certain mental and emotional problems than women, and why are they less likely to seek help for those problems? One theory is that certain aspects of traditional masculinity are partly to blame, on the one hand contributing to the loneliness and absence of emotionally fulfilling relationships experienced by many men, and on the other hand creating a sense that asking for help is somehow ‘unmanly’. This theory certainly found some support in the study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing that we carried out in partnership with Promundo a few years ago (see this post), with participants claiming that if they had mental or emotional problems, they would prefer to ‘bottle it up and just get on with it’, rather than sharing their feelings with those close to them, or seeking professional help.

However, it has also been suggested that many conventional therapies are not well adapted to the needs of men. As the James Arthur programme demonstrated, with its excellent coverage of a football team set up to support men who had experienced mental health problems, initiatives that are focused on shared activity, and which build on men’s existing interests and passions, may have more success than those that involve sitting in a room, talking to a therapist or counsellor. This is also borne out by the research that my colleagues and I have undertaken recently with members of football teams set up by bereaves fathers (see this post). The work of Alright, Mate, which takes participatory arts projects into locations where men gather, in order to facilitate conversations about mental health, is another excellent example of this kind of development. You can hear Cally Hayes, the founder and director of Alright, Mate, talking about their work in the video.

Understanding boys

Last week ‘The State of UK Boys’ report was launched at an event in London which was also streamed online. The report, which can be downloaded here, summarises the findings of a research project led by Dr Sara Bragg and Professor Jessica Ringrose of University College London. The project was part of the Global Boyhood Initiative, co-founded in 2020 by the Kering Foundation and Equimundo.

In the words of the report’s Introduction:

From education and achievement to mental health and well-being to violence and aggression, the ‘state of boys’ has long been a feature of UK (and global) educational, societal and political debate. Against this backdrop, a raft of evidence-based research has not only contested the notion of a singular ‘state’ of boys, but also complicated the category of ‘boy’ and, therefore, what it means to be a boy today…Understanding the multiple ways that boys, boyhoods and masculinities are constructed and produced in contemporary societies, and how these relate to other gender formations, is fundamental if we are to support and respond meaningfully to the diverse experiences of boys.  

Work on the project consisted of two streams: a literature review, drawing on a database of more than 400 sources, and 15 key informant interviews with ‘experts on gender, masculinities and boyhood’. I was pleased to be asked to participate in the project, as one of the key informants. 

This wasn’t my first experience of working with Equimundo – or Promundo as it used to be known. In 2016 I was invited to attend a seminar in Vienna to discuss Promundo’s IMAGES (International Men and Gender Equality) survey (see this post), and arising out of that discussion, Gary Barker, the founder and CEO of Promundo (and now of Equimundo) invited Sandy Ruxton and me to lead the UK strand of what came to be known as the ‘Man Box’ study, a three-country project (in the US, Mexico and the UK) on young men’s attitudes and understandings of manhood and masculinity. Together with our co-researcher David Bartlett (who was also one of the researchers for ‘The State of UK Boys’), Sandy and I organised a series of focus groups with young men and published our findings in a report on ‘Young men, masculinity and wellbeing’ in 2017. Sandy and I also wrote a chapter about our research for an edited book, as well as an article for The Conversation, which you can read here,

I drew on the experience of that Promundo research, as well as our earlier ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ study with young men using social care services, when I was interviewed for ‘The State of UK Boys’ project. A couple of direct quotations from my interview were included in the final report:

The launch event itself featured a compelling line-up of speakers, including academics, campaigners, representatives from the main sponsoring organisations, and practitioners working directly with boys around issues of gender equality. You can watch the recording of the whole event below:

Bringing it all back home

Last Sunday saw the first transmission of a new documentary, James Arthur – Out of Our Minds, on BBC3. The programme will be shown again soon and can be viewed at any time via BBC iPlayer. Made by Summer Films, the documentary was a collaborative production by the BBC and The Open University. I was the academic consultant on the programme.

For those who don’t know, James Arthur is a British singer-songwriter who shot to fame when he won The X Factor in 2012. However, James’ success has done little to alleviate the mental health problems that he has experienced since he was a teenager, and which in some ways the pressures of fame have intensified. The documentary is a highly personal story which follows James as he moves back to his home town of Redcar in the North-East of England, searching for the roots of his anxiety and depression. In addition to confronting family members about the traumatic childhood experiences which he believes contributed to his problems, James also meets other young men who have experienced mental health difficulties and talks with them about how they have found help through communication, connection and by developing mutually supportive relationships with other men going through tough times.

The relationship between the BBC and The Open University which lies behind this and other co-productions is quite unique. It can be traced back to the foundation of the OU as the ‘university of the air’ in the late 1960s, when the original vision was that television and radio would be the principal media through which students would access their study materials. When I joined the university in the early 1990s, there were still television and radio studios on the campus in Milton Keynes, and I was involved in the production of a number of radio programmes which were broadcast in a dedicated Open University slot on Radio 4 on Sunday evenings.

However, the relationship between the two organisations evolved over time and eventually a new, more arms-length partnership developed. The campus studios were closed in the early 2000s, and production staff either transferred to other BBC centres or were hired back on a sub-contracting basis. Instead of regular BBC/OU programmes, there are now more occasional collaborative ventures on both TV and radio, for which The Open University provides academic input. For example, the OU’s School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, where I’m based, has provided support for BBC television series such as Hospital and for Radio 4’s All in the Mind.  

The James Arthur programme has been a long time in the making. It was some time in the summer of 2021 that I was first asked, by our then Media Fellow Mathijs Lucassen, if I would take on the role of academic consultant for the production. Mathijs said he thought of me for the role, principally because of my research on young men, masculinity and wellbeing (see this post), but also because of the insight into the music industry that I’d gained through the involvement of my son (also named James) in another TV talent show, The Voice (see this post). (In fact, some time before this, our James had also been a contestant on The X Factor, gaining unanimous approval from Simon Cowell and the other judges at his audition and getting through to the ‘boot camp’ stage, before being knocked out, so that his original audition was never actually televised.)

I was keen to be involved in the production, not just because I thought the topic on which the programme intended to focus – young men’s mental health and wellbeing – was important and often overlooked – but also because a number of members of our own family, and others close to us, have experienced mental health issues of their own. In following James Arthur’s journey of discovery, I thought I might gain some insight into why so many young men (and indeed young women) that we know have suffered from anxiety and depression.

The role of the academic consultant, and the extent of their involvement, in these BBC/OU collaborations varies enormously. In the case of the James Arthur documentary, it required a certain amount of flexibility, since the structure and direction of the film were very much determined by James’ ongoing exploration of his personal story, and the precise themes on which he chose to focus evolved as work on the production progressed. I had a number of online meetings with the director and his team, in the early stages of the production, at which we discussed the findings of my research on young men and mental health and I shared some sources of information and the names of academic experts who could provide additional insights into the topics covered by the programme. There were then a series of catch-up calls during filming, at which the team let me know how the programme was developing, and at which I gave feedback on how some key issues were being handled. Later in the process, I was shown a rough cut of the film, and was then asked to give my approval to an almost final version. 

Watching the broadcast version last night, I was struck once again by what a powerful and indeed moving and beautiful piece of film-making it is. I’m proud to have played even a small part in its development. James Arthur comes across as admirably honest and open in reflecting on his own struggles, and also extremely sensitive and sympathetic in his encounters with other young men who have faced similar difficulties. The heart of the programme is James’ exploration of his troubled relationships with his mother and father, which led to the devastating experience of being placed in foster care as a teenager, and both he and they should be applauded for their honesty in discussing these experiences on national television. However, from my perspective as a researcher on men, masculinity and wellbeing, some of the most powerful scenes in the film are those in which James talks with members of a local football team, formed by men who have experienced serious mental health issues as a means of supporting each other. There were resonances here with my own recent research, together with my colleagues Kerry Jones and Sam Murphy, with members of the SANDS United football teams for men who have experienced perinatal bereavement (see these posts). 

Image from the new Open University animation ‘Man Up or Open Up’ (see below)

The development of initiatives of this kind, which attract men by engaging them in shared activities that encourage the formation of bonds of friendship and mutual support, is one of the hopeful messages to emerge from the documentary. We explored this theme further in the support materials which we developed to go alongside the programme, which can be found on the OU Connect website. Some time ago I made contact with Cally Hayes, the founder of Alright Mate, a Devon-based initiative which engages men in conversations about their mental health by developing participatory arts-based projects, which they take into the places where men can be found, including gyms, barbershops and building sites. When Chris Belson of the OU’s Broadcast and Partnerships team suggested making an animated film about men and mental health, to run alongside the James Arthur programme, I immediately thought of Cally, and it was great to have a chance to work with her on the final product, animated by KongStudio, which we’ve called ‘Man Up or Open Up’. You can watch it here.

For me, perhaps the most moving sequence in the James Arthur documentary comes towards the end, when James goes for a drive with one of the members of the football team, a man who once attempted suicide but whose involvement in the team has helped to turn his life around. He turns out to be a huge James Arthur fan, and as they drive through the countryside around Redcar, the two men sing along to James’ warmly nostalgic – but in the context gently ironic – song, ‘Quite Miss Home’. It’s immensely affecting, since as viewers we know the pain that both men have experienced and how problematic the whole idea of ‘home’ has been for them. However, as their singing rises to a joyful crescendo, we realise that, despite what they have been through, and by finding hope in vulnerability, openness and the support of others, both men have in a way finally come ‘home’, both to themselves and to those they love.

Clip from BBC/Open University programme, ‘James Arthur: Out of Our Minds’ (2022)

New book chapter on masculinity, faith and care

I’ve contributed a chapter to a new book on Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions, edited by Inge van Nistelrooij, Maureen Sander-Staudt and Maurice Hamington, and published by Peeters of Leuven.  

According to the publisher’s blurb, the book is ‘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

Arguing with Edith Stein

OK, so the title of this post may be somewhat provocative, not to say presumptuous. After all, Edith Stein was an eminent philosopher, a brilliant writer, and an actual saint. And I’m…none of those things. She’s also a heroine of mine, someone whose life story has been an inspiration to me, especially since my return to faith. Indeed, I started writing this post on 9th August, Edith Stein’s feast day in the Church calendar. So, in a sense, this post feels a little bit like arguing with family.

A more accurate – but less eye-catching – title for this post might have been ‘Reflections on reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman as a man.’ And specifically, as a man who researches and writes about men and care. As for ‘arguing with’: it might be more appropriate to describe this post as an attempt to make sense of some of Stein’s key ideas about sexual difference – ideas to which I responded negatively on first coming across them – and their implications for thinking about men and masculinity.

Edith Stein as a young woman

But before going any further, perhaps there’s a need for some background information about Stein, for those who are not familiar with her biography or her work. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, in what was then Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw in Poland. For a vivid account of her early life, I’d recommend her autobiographical account Life in a Jewish Family, though with the caveat that some details have been challenged by members of her family: see, for example her niece Susanne M. Batzdorff’s Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint.

Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, and worked for a time as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1922, she was received into the Catholic Church, then spent some years as a teacher and lecturer before becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1939, in the face of the growing threat to Jews from the Nazi regime, she was transferred to a monastery in the Netherlands. However, following the Nazi occupation of that country, and the public condemnation of anti-Jewish policies by the Catholic Church, Jewish converts to Christianity, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were deported to Auschwitz, where Edith was murdered on 9th August 1942. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s contributions to philosophy include her influential thesis On the Problem of Empathy and her attempt to reconcile phenomenology and Thomist ideas in her major work Finite and Eternal Being. However, it was in her lectures and articles on women’s education and vocation, published after her death as Essays on Woman, that Stein set out her central ideas about sexual difference, particularly in the two essays entitled ‘The ethos of women’s professions’ and ‘The separate vocations of man and woman according to nature and grace’. These are the essays I’ll be referring to in this post.

So why should contemporary researchers, interested in issues of gender and care, take seriously the writings of an early twentieth-century Catholic nun? Well, firstly because those ideas might be helpful in developing an alternative, faith-based feminism (and male pro-feminism), and a way of thinking about sex and gender that’s compatible with a consistent life ethic, of the kind that I’ve been exploring in recent posts. But also because Stein is regarded by a number of modern feminist commentators as a feminist pioneer, someone who argued for women’s suffrage and promoted women’s education at a time when support for such ideas was by no means universal. In addition, there have been claims that her philosophical work, particularly in her writings on empathy, represents a potentially significant contribution to contemporary care theory. US care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2004) suggests that Stein’s work on empathy is helpful in understanding the part played by imagination in care, while the Czech philosopher and ethicist Petr Urban (2022) argues that Stein’s ‘ethical thought makes her a forerunner of some recent developments in feminist ethics, particularly ethics of care’.

Petr Urban (via ethicsofcare.org)

In fact, it was coming across articles by Petr Urban about Stein’s ideas on sexual difference, as well as conference papers of his discussing her thought as a resource for an ethic of care, that first alerted me to her work in these fields. Incidentally, it was Petr’s articles that also introduced me to the work of Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa on sexual difference, ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful in my own recent thinking. Reading Petr’s papers, and the essays by Stein to which they referred, I was intrigued, but also somewhat disconcerted, as a male reader, and as someone with a firm belief in men’s capacity for care. It wasn’t so much what Stein wrote about women that perturbed me, so much as the implications of what she wrote for men, or rather what they implied about men by default.

For example, in her essay on ‘The ethos of women’s professions’, Stein argues that, although women and men share ‘a basic human nature’, a woman’s ‘faculties’ differ from those of men,‘therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well’. She continues:

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.

Stein elaborates on these distinctive feminine qualities elsewhere in the essay, and also in her essay on ‘The separate vocations of man and woman’, where she writes:

True feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other.

According to Stein, these ‘natural’ feminine qualities equip a woman not only for motherhood, but also for her additional vocation as a ‘companion’. 

To grasp what Stein believes about men’s ‘natural’ qualities, one has to read what she says about women as if in a mirror. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication of what she writes is surely that men do not possess these innate qualities: they (we) do not have an instinctive feel for all that is ‘living, personal and whole’, they are not characterised by ‘feeling, intuition, empathy and adaptability’. And they don’t have an innate capacity for activities which involve the ‘total person’, such as caring for others.

Stein doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about men’s innate qualities (perhaps not surprisingly, given that her focus is on women’s vocation), except for one or two brief sentences. For example, in the first essay she writes:

Man is consumed by ‘his enterprise’, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.

And in the second essay we read that ‘masculine vocations’ tend to require not only ‘bodily strength’ but also ‘the ability for predominantly abstract thought, and independent creativity’.

As I read these lines, they just didn’t seem to align with my own experience, or the experiences of men I knew, or those of the ‘hands on’ fathers and male care professionals whom I’d interviewed as part of my research. Didn’t these men have an innate regard for what is ‘living, personal and whole’? Were they constitutionally, because of their sex, unable to respond as a ‘total person’ in their caring? And in their care for others, did these men (did we) find it difficult to ‘become involved in other beings and their concerns’? Speaking personally, as I read these essays by Stein I felt put into a box that didn’t feel at all comfortable or familiar.

Nancy Dallavalle (via nancydallavalle.com)

While I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered the work of the Catholic feminist writer Nancy Dallavalle,  an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In a 1998 article, Dallavalle criticised Pope John Paul II’s 1988 text, Mulieris dignitatem (‘The dignity of women’) – which is heavily influenced by Edith Stein’s ideas – in which he describes women’s innate capacity for ‘community’, but in Dallavalle’s opinion fails to present ‘any positive description of a male psycho-physical structure’, except to assert men’s deficiency in this capacity: ‘Men, in other words do not “naturally” care for others’. This omission, and the implicitly negative picture of masculinity, Dallavalle believes, significantly weakens John Paul’s account of sexual difference, and I suggest something similar could be said about Edith Stein’s account.

This is not the only criticism that could be, or indeed has been made, of Edith Stein’s notions of sexual difference. Sarah Borden (2007) sums up the criticisms of some later feminists as follows:

The claim that women’s ‘genius’…lies in their personal and relational capacities, as an orientation toward concrete, actual persons and their holistic development, is precisely the view of women that has caused trouble all these years. This view is, in fact, the reason the women’s movement and feminism were born. The critics might insist that, although Stein might claim that she is not limiting women to the nursery and home, yet that would be precisely the effect. In arguing that women’s genius lies in persons and attention to persons, Stein they would say has in essence put women back in children’s wards and the low-paying jobs and blocked their path to higher education or positions of leadership. One might argue that no matter what Stein may say about not limiting roles or jobs, this will be the inevitable result of allowing such gender distinctions into our discussion. The objectors might further argue that Stein’s descriptions also play into the hands of the worst stereotypes about women—seeing women as submissive, as secondary, simply the assistants to the more important work, and the ones who clean up all the dirty work when the day is done. Women care about people, so let them be the martyrs for all the men.

In her defence, it should be said that Edith Stein was writing at a time when women were still defined largely by negative traits, and by the ways in which they didn’t measure up to the positive qualities that were associated with men. For example, women’s supposed emotionality was generally seen as a weakness, not as the kind of strength and resource described by Stein. Her writings could be seen as an attempt to reclaim the positive value of these traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities.

Moreover, in the very essays from which I’ve been quoting, Edith Stein anticipates these later criticisms and makes it clear that she is certainly not arguing for women’s exclusion from certain professions or their confinement to ‘traditional’ roles. In fact, quite the opposite. On the one hand, she argues that ‘certain abiding attitudes are unique to the feminine soul and form a woman’s professional life from within’ and that ‘the very nature of woman draws her to certain professions’. But in the same essay she also suggests that ‘there is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman’:

Indeed no woman is only woman; like a man, she has her individual specificity and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.

Furthermore, she explicitly challenges the traditionalist view that a woman’s ‘natural’ place is in the home:

Obviously now, because of the development of the last decades and of recent years, we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of the sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and the man the struggle for a livelihood.

Elsewhere, she elaborates:

Should certain positions be reserved for only men, others for only women, and perhaps a few open for both? I believe that this question…must be answered negatively. The strong individual differences existing within both sexes must be taken into account. Many women have masculine characteristics just as many men share feminine ones. Consequently, every so-called ‘masculine’ occupation may be exercised by man women as well as many ‘feminine’ occupations by certain men.

I have to admit that this last passage left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Doesn’t this contradict Stein’s earlier argument to the effect that women and men possess distinctive, innate qualities that fit them for different kinds of activity? Don’t those statements become meaningless if you then go on to say that, in fact, men can display ‘feminine’ characteristics and women ‘masculine’ ones?  Are these different qualities innate in men and women – or aren’t they?  And although Stein uses the term ‘so-called’ to describe masculine and feminine occupations, there is still an underlying sense that she thinks of care work (for example) as ‘feminine’, even when it’s undertaken by a man.

I tried to articulate some of this sense of confusion, as well as my initially negative response to Stein’s ideas about sexual difference, in an email to Petr Urban, back in 2017. He was kind enough to reply, and we entered into a brief email discussion, which we continued in person when we met in the following year at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to summarise Petr’s response to my queries by referring to a recent paper of his which makes many of the same points that he made in our conversation. In this paper, he argues that it is on the ‘experiential, phenomenal level that [Stein] finds the core differences between man and woman.’ He continues:

Stein obviously does not think of ‘woman’s peculiarity’ in terms of exclusive traits and faculties. The personal traits in question are primarily human ones, and all faculties that are present in woman’s personality are also present in man’s personality. Nonetheless, Stein argues, the human traits may generally appear in different degrees and relationships in man and woman.

This makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure about that ‘obviously’, or that the casual, as opposed to the philosophically sophisticated reader, would pick up this more nuanced meaning from Stein’s own writings. I find Petr’s interpretation of Stein’s thinking to mean that the same qualities exist in ‘different degrees and relationships’ in men and women a helpful one, and certainly one that I find sympathetic, but I’m not sure how explicit it is in Stein’s work.

Later in the same article, Petr refers to an earlier paper of his, in which he provided ‘a detailed argument in favour of a phenomenological reading of Stein’s “dual anthropology” by stressing that Stein conceives of the sexual difference as a difference between two related styles of intentional life rather than a difference between two separate essences (regardless of if it is ontologically or biologically defined).’ He continues: ‘From the phenomenological perspective it seems plausible to read Stein’s descriptions of woman’s specific capacities and attitudes as describing a particular life form that can be shared by women and men alike’ (my emphases).

Sara Heinämaa (via britishphenomenology.org.uk)

This is somewhat similar to the distinction made by Sara Heinämaa, when she argues (2013) that a phenomenological account of sexual difference offers an alternative to both ‘naturalist’ (i.e. essentialist) and ‘constructivist’ (or social constructionist) theories of gender. Heinämaa writes:

Whereas gender-theories aim at explaining observed differences between men’s and women’s behaviours, dispositions, accomplishments, and positions, by the interplay of social, cultural, and biological forces, phenomenology studies how the sense of sexual difference is established in personal and interpersonal experiences in the first place.

I have to admit that, as a non-philosopher, I still struggle to understand what this means, just as I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend Petr’s description of gender identity as a ‘style of intentional life’.  I’m still waiting for the lightbulb moment when all of this begins to make sense. In my simplistic way, I still want to know whether these authors (and indeed Edith Stein) believe that the differences between men and women are innate, or learned, or somehow both, or neither?

In conclusion, I should make it clear that I’m not at all averse to the notion that there are innate differences between the sexes. As I’ve tried to suggest in my recent posts, I’ve moved from a position of believing that gender differences, particularly in relation to the capacity to care, are wholly socially constructed, to an acceptance that significant differences between men’s and women’s care might exist, and to trying to find ways to articulate those differences in a way that is compatible with my unchanged belief in gender equality. I suppose I wish that, instead of claiming that women have an innate and exclusive propensity for ‘caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other’, which by implication men don’t have, Edith Stein had asserted that women and men both care, but care differently – because we are different.

I’m prepared to accept that this difference may well derive, at least in part, from what Stein calls woman’s ‘primary’ maternal vocation. As she writes: ‘Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose.’ I’m certainly willing to agree (in a way that I wasn’t in my social constructionist days) that, in Stein’s words, ‘because of the close bodily tie between child and mother, because of woman’s specific tendency to sympathise and to serve another life’, women’s care – particularly for children – will tend to have a distinctive quality that men’s care lacks. But this doesn’t mean that men have no capacity for care, or that their caring is somehow deficient: it’s just different. Just as, according to Stein, women have a ‘natural, maternal yearning’ which inclines them to ‘cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth’, so surely men can have a natural paternal yearning, a yearning that may express itself in different ways, but which ‘inclines’ them (us) towards the same things.

To end on a more positive note. Needless to say, my quarrel (if that’s what it is) with some of Edith Stein’s ideas doesn’t take away from my enormous admiration for her as a philosopher (not to mention as a spiritual model and guide). I’m already finding her work on empathy a valuable resource in my ongoing project exploring personalist thinking as a resource for an ethic of care, and I plan to write more on this in future posts.

A personal postscript

One of my side projects over the past few years, unrelated to my academic work, has been researching the life and work of Theodor Kern (1900-1969), a painter and sculptor who was born in Salzburg, Austria but spent the second half of his life in Hitchin, the English market town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years or so. My website about Kern can be found here. In addition to my intererest in his art, and the way it expresses his Catholic faith, I was intrigued to discover that, when living in Vienna, Kern had been a close friend of the philosopher and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, and indeed had helped him (and others) to escape from Austria following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, activities which eventually led to Kern’s own flight to England. I’ve long been an admirer of von Hildebrand’s writings and in the past few years have enjoyed attending (virtually) the lectures and seminars organised by the Hildebrand Project, based in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the project’s leading lights is Professor John F Crosby, a former student of von Hildebrand and himself an eminent exponent of personalism, whose writings I’ve found immensely helpful in framing my own thinking in recent years. 

Stephen Schwarz (via https://web.uri.edu)

One of the pleasures of researching Theodor Kern has been making contact with people who knew him, people who were also part of the circle around von Hildebrand – including John Crosby, who kindly shared with me his own reminiscences of meeting the artist at the annual meetings of a religious community to which they both belonged. I had a particularly helpful exchange with another US-based philosophy professor, Stephen Schwarz, whose German-born father Balduin Schwarz was also a student and associate of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and also a vociferous opponent of Nazism who was forced to flee his native country. 

In one of his emails to me, Stephen shared the following story:

My father and Edith Stein were colleagues in the philosophy department at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, in the Spring Semester 1933.  They were also close personal friends.  She came to visit my parents at regular intervals, for extensive talks with my father over tea, about Christ, philosophy and the current horrible political situation.  But before the serious discussions she always made it a point to go to the baby room and hold little baby Stephen, born November 8th of the previous year...This is surely one of the greatest blessings of my life.


Borden, S. (2007) ‘Foreword’, in Padua, M.M., Contemplating woman in the philosophy of Edith Stein, Manila: Far Eastern University.

Dallavalle, N. (1998) ‘Neither idolatry nor iconoclasm: A critical essentialism for Catholic feminist theology’, Horizons, 25 (1).

Hamington, M. (2004) Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Care Ethics, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Heinämaa, S. (2013) ‘Sex, gender and embodiment’, in Zahavi, D. (ed.) Handbook in Contemporary Phenomenology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 216-242

Stein, E. (2017) Essays on Woman, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications

Urban, P. (2016) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Woman’s Personality and Value’, in Alles Wesentliche Lässt Sich Nicht Schreiben’: Leben und Denken Edith Steins im Spiegel Ihres Gesamtwerks‘, Regh, S., Speer, A., eds., Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder 2016; 538–555.

Urban, P. (2022) ‘Care Ethics and the Feminist Personalism of Edith Stein’, Philosophies, 7:60