Book Review: Dowd’s The Man Question

Nancy Dowd, The Man Question: Male Subordination and Privilege (NYU Press 2010).

Nancy Dowd’s interest in masculinities has developed organically from her past scholarship examining the cultural barriers to men becoming more involved fathers.  Much of her research seeks to decenter and challenge masculinity as the norm for measuring both men and women’s behaviours, and thus to deconstruct masculinities.   This book provides a primer on the development of masculinities scholarship, explores the relationship between masculinities theory and feminist analysis, and provides practical analysis of various topics concerning issues of manhood and masculinity for boys and men, ultimately advancing feminist jurisprudence.

 A note on terminology and substance.  In the first section of the book, which is focused on theory (and is almost half of the book),  Professor Dowd writes that masculinities scholarship  has developed out of feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer theory.  While men have, of course, been studied throughout history, it is only recently that men have been studied explicitly and specifically as “gendered subjects.”  The “man question” of the title refers to “how gender functions to subordinate some or all or most men, as well as how men consciously and unconsciously accept privilege with its patriarchal dividend as well as its costs”  (p. 1). (For Kate Bartlett’s 1990 groundbreaking article on Feminist Legal Method, including her discussion of “’the woman question’”, see here.)  Dowd dates use of the term masculinities, as a self-conscious reference to research about men, to the mid-1980s, and the term itself has multiple meanings and objects of study. First, it involves analysis of a set of socially constructed concepts that give men as a group power over women as a group.   These translate into practices that are defined as masculine which are designed to maintain group power.

Second, it examines multiple masculinities with the recognition that, within the male world, there is a hierarchy of privilege. As feminist legal theorists have shown through their analysis of essentialism (all women are not the same, and circumstances, including race and class, affect how femininity is defined and experienced), this same analysis applies to men.  Masculinities theory explores the multiplicity of constructions of manhood and masculinity, showing how varying circumstances affect the experiences of masculinity.  For example, hegemonic masculinity  defines a dominant conception of masculinity for men at the top, with the most power (p. 27). Understanding hegemonic masculinity is critical to seeing how the manifestation of manhood in multiple societal settings reinforces the power that some men maintain over women and other men. That hegemonic masculinities are embedded in multiple sites and practices emphasizes their pervasive influence upon social interaction between groups of men, within familial and communal settings for men, and between men and women.  Beyond hegemonic masculinities, there is a range of both subordinate and subversive masculinities, with race, class, and sexual orientation as critical pieces in constructing these different forms of masculinities.  She ultimately demonstrates how both subordination and privilege are constructed for men and boys through her intertwined analysis of masculinities and feminist theory, and argues that incorporating masculinities theory will greatly benefit feminist jurisprudence.

In the last two sections of the book, Dowd focuses on how boys and men have been subordinated by gender, and applies the analysis she developed in the first section.  For boys, she addresses the position of boys in education (including all of the attention to the crisis of boys – for perspectives on that issue, see here and here), and juvenile justice (where boys are the focus of the system);  for men, she explores fatherhood and the barriers to full participation in parenthood, and then, with the psychologist Ted Shaw, she focuses on how masculinities analysis might help in developing a more effective approach to male survivors of child sexual abuse. Professor Dowd has extensively explored fatherhood in her past work (e.g., Redefining Fatherhood (2000)),  and has shown how the constraints of the masculine role have acted as a barrier to men assuming more nurturant roles. In this book, she suggests that masculinities theory enhances this analysis by showing that, because masculinity is not monolithic and unchanged, fatherhood norms can be changed, such as through providing additional support to both marital and nonmarital fathers when their children are born.  As children become increasingly likely to  live apart from their fathers – 27% in 2010 compared to 11% in 1960 – and as research makes us more aware of how the gap between paternal involvement varies by income  — this issue is assuming even greater significance.

Indeed, calling attention to how gender affects men is particularly important at a time when  expectations about masculinity are changing.  While public opinion polls show that men are still expected to be breadwinners, the share of husbands whose wives outearn them has increased more than fivefold since 1970, from 4% to 22%.     Women now outnumber men at all levels of higher education.  Indeed, as a recent survey noted, in 2009, 36% of  women ages 25-29 had at least a bachelor’s degree compared with only 28% of men in the same age group.   Masculinities theory might help in understanding the disconnect between reality and role.

At the same time, as Professor Dowd discusses, masculinities theory has the potential risk of  displacing and replacing the primary focus on women’s inequality that is at the core of much gender theory.  In response, defending the use of masculinities theory, she argues that the theory’s greatest promises involve providing a more comprehensive understanding and analysis of gender symmetry and asymmetry.   The discussion of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in programs that receive federal funding, provides a nice example of this promise.  She suggests that Title IX could be applied much more broadly to address gender bias that affects both boys and girls not just with respect to the more typical contexts of sports and sexual harassment but also in the academic context, where it is far less frequently used.  While she could have expanded her discussion of more concrete strategies (here and in other places in the book), the book suggests a framework for moving forward.

Masculinities theories and feminist analysis have not always worked in tandem, and only relatively recently have feminist scholars sought to address what masculinities studies has to offer feminist theorizing.  Nancy Dowd has been at the forefront of that effort, and this book provides a good grounding for further developments.


 Naomi Cahn is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford Univ. Press 2010) (with June Carbone).

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1 Response

  1. rhi says:

    Among the many important tools feminist legal theorists have given scholars is that of anti-essentialism: all women are not created equal, and privilege varies greatly by circumstances, particularly that of race and class. Yet at the same time, feminist legal theory tends to view men through an essentialist lens, in which men are created equal. The study of masculinities, inspired by feminist theory to explore the construction of manhood and masculinity, questions the real circumstances of men, not in order to deny men’s privilege but to explore in particular how privilege is constructed, and what price is paid for it.