Manliness talk incites debate

Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Harvey Mansfield sparked controversy among students Thursday afternoon when he outlined his beliefs about “manliness.”

Mansfield, a professor of political science at Harvard University, discussed the concept of manliness in front of roughly 30 people in the Pierson College master’s house. In the talk, which was hosted by the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, Mansfield described the various components of manliness, how these have evolved over time, and what the different stereotypes of men and women are today.

Before Mansfield’s talk began, Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt asked audience members to respect the speaker, reminding them that the “hallmark of Yale has been free exchange of ideas and civil discourses.” Earlier that day, Goldblatt had also emailed members of his college asking them in all-capital lettering to “hear somebody else’s views, no matter how distasteful.”

Mansfield published a book entitled “Manliness” with the Yale University Press in 2006. Previous drafts of his work had been rejected for their controversial content at Harvard University Press and the University of Chicago Press, among other publishers, Mansfield said.

At the start of his talk, Mansfield described the “philosophical implications” of the term “manliness.” He argued that although traditional gender roles no longer exist in today’s society, the two main traits of manliness — confidence and command — are still considered attractive. He also praised the idea of “gentlemen,” arguing that these men are not weak, but rather “gentle” by choice.

In addition to advancing his concept of manliness, Mansfield also acknowledged its flaws. He cited Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer as an example of excessive manliness, which he said often leads to pettiness, arguments and boasting. When applied to politics and international relations, Mansfield said excessive manliness can even result in war.

“War is central to politics because manliness serves as the inspiration for both,” he said. “Without war, though, what is the future of patriarchy, the rule of males?”

As he traced the historical development of manliness, Mansfield said the concept has traditionally carried an aristocratic connotation. But he highlighted Alexis de Tocqueville’s depiction of “democratic manliness,” which emphasizes equality and freedom of expression, as an example of how manliness has evolved to be compatible with both aristocratic and democratic societies. Today, Mansfield said he considers “modern manliness” to be the ability to show confidence when confronting risks.

Mansfield also discussed stereotypical traits of men and women. Men are often considered rational, abstract and idealistic, he said, while women are thought to be emotional, empirical and realistic.

Students in the audience had strong reactions to Mansfield’s comments.

Andreas Kolombos ’14 said he was frustrated by the talk and found it offensive.

“He’s a buffoon, and he made a mockery of Pierson College and Yale University,” Kolombos said. “His views are destructive, appalling and horrifying.”

Emily Poirier ’15 said Mansfield’s claims were not academically rigorous or objective. Poirier said she thought Manfield’s comments were “misguided” and based on personal opinion rather than scholarly work.

But Harry Graver ’14 said he thought Mansfield’s talk opened up Yale to discussing gender-related issues.

“The issue of gender at Yale is not evaluated often,” Graver, also a staff columnist for the News, said. “He was able to provide an intellectual, thoughtful opinion that is often not heard on campus.”

In addition to his book on manliness, Mansfield has also published on Aristotle, Machiavelli and other political philosophers.


  • Boogs

    Really? A Yale sophomore calling a Harvard prof a baffoon? Yeah. Classy, Yale. Let’s expand this place indeed. Most of the complaints here come from an inability among young students as these to historicize a topic. It is like accusing an historian of American slavery of supporting slavery because she or he can discuss its development and historical importance. This mentality will only get more intense among Yale undergrads as the administration guts the humanities in coming years.

  • percula

    “The issue of gender at Yale is not evaluated often”

    Hmmm… not true. We’ve got whole departments for that “issue.”

    Also, was the perception that the talk was distasteful, offensive, “destructive, appalling and horrifying” because the attributes he linked with “manliness” (confidence, command, acting like a gentleman) were somehow denied to women? That’s not the sense I got from reading this article. It seems to me like he delivered a historically-sensitive subjective analysis of a cultural pattern related to gender(ed) norms. If there’s a problem here, it lies in the danger of reifying hurtful categories of societal division. The categories we take for granted when we begin research predetermine, to a great extent, the outcome of that research. They also point to assumptions we have about the world (in this case, the assumption that manliness is a “fact of nature” or something along those lines). One role of the academy (including the undergrads who attend Master’s Teas) is to challenge not just the research findings, but to probe the assumptions about humanity that led to Mansfield’s questions in the first place.

  • Mish90

    Wow. These sentiments from the students come off as really churlish. I wasn’t at the talk but am pretty certain that a Harvard faculty member wouldn’t be so careless as to fail to put his comments in some historical or theoretical perspective. I also guffawed at the insertion of objectivity. There’s a time and place for objectivity, but it isn’t a universal standard. There’s room for subjectivity in discussing cultural constructs like gender. I mean, students still learn that there’s a distinction between sex and gender, right? I couldn’t agree more with percula’s observation about “The issue of gender at Yale is not evaluated often.” It’s evaluated in pretty much every department at Yale, including the sciences.

  • lakia

    If the comments in the article are truly reflective of the thinking by Yale students, then THAT is what is offensive, frustrating, destructive, appalling, horrifying, misguided and buffoonish. The photo paints an entirely different narrative, by the way.

  • strauss1

    Mansfield has made some controversial remarks in the past (e.g. saying that a woman can resist rape only with “a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment”), of which the students quoted above may or may not be aware.

    See Martha Nussbaum’s review of Manliness for more:

  • eli1

    You Andreas Kolombos are a buffoon. Why don’t you take two seconds to open up that mind of yours instead of being part of the majority of people on this campus who is offended by everything. Isn’t the point of college to listen and open up to new ideas, even if you disagree with them? I’m so sick of 99% of this campus being so offended by literally everything.

  • RexMottram08

    Mansfield is a man among boys. His work on Tocqueville should be required reading for Am-Studies majors.

  • yayasisterhood

    Some sophomore (Andreas Kolombos ’14) calls one of the leading academics in the world a “buffoon” because he doesn’t find him adequately politically correct? He may want to check his overblown ego before he embarrasses himself or his school any further.