New Perspectives on Masculinity: Race, Class, and the Performance of Manhood in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction

AHA Session 235
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 109 (Hynes Convention Center)
Nina Silber, Boston University
Eleanor Hannah, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne

Session Abstract

Over the past several decades historians and cultural critics have worked to illuminate the various ways that gender identities have been constructed discursively. Their work has shown us that gender truly is a “useful category of historical analysis” and that maleness is just as variable and contested an identity as femaleness. This panel seeks to extend that discussion and explore the ways in which masculinity was constructed and performed in the years surrounding the American Civil War. The three papers examine how different groups used military spaces as sites to construct and contest the meanings of manhood during the post-emancipation period. While the military has traditionally been gendered as a masculine domain, the panelists argue that within these spaces the definition of manhood was far from fixed. Instead, the category was always contingent and always in the process of redefinition. In fact, because the “maleness” of the soldier seemed self-evident, these spaces often allowed men to challenge and subvert traditional gender norms. In her paper on transgressive behavior in the post-Civil War western army Robin Conner argues that enlisted men used subversive gender identities to challenge military discipline and break the monotony of frontier service. But their fluid definitions of gender and sexual identity also had a class component and their transgressions ran into opposition from an officer corps that adhered to more rigid standards of masculinity. Michael DeGruccio also addresses conflict within the military service, though he focuses on the narratives of self-making produced by white officers who commanded African American regiments. Their ability to portray themselves as self-made men was central to their identity but among the USCTs these officers collided with ex-slaves who calibrated manhood to a different worldview. Ehren Foley picks up the theme of African American masculinity and suggests that black men who served in the Reconstruction-era militia used military service as an opportunity to flout traditional gender norms and challenge dominant conceptions of the proper expression of black manhood. Black militiamen donned colorful uniforms, wore elaborately embellished hats, and rode astride festooned horses in bold displays of their identity as men and as citizens. In so doing, they used sartorial performance as one means of marking themselves as significant individuals within society, worthy of inclusion within the body politic. Each of the panelists is careful to consider how the construction and performance of masculinity was always fluid and temporal, which is to say historical. In each instance factors of race and class inflected the particular definition of manhood applied by the various groups under discussion. Circumstances and political needs dictated how masculinity was represented and performed, and at the heart of each case study lay questions of power and how it would be distributed within society. In highlighting the multiplicity and contingency of masculinity in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction the panel hopes to communicate with a wide audience, including both specialists of the period and scholars interested in the broader themes of gender and identity discussed by each panelist.

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