It started out that I was just reading this silly piece about some show called Duck Dynasty, and then I followed a link to “Power is on the side of the beard”: Masculinity and Facial Hair in Nineteenth-Century America. Well, yes, I thought. Power. Obviously power. But wait…
…the measures American men took to distinguish themselves from women politically, socially, and visually make sense: boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.
Uh, actually, true confession: I grew a beard because I’m kind of a homely guy, and something that would cover more of my face would be a plus. I dreamed of achieving the Cousin It look, but alas, my eyebrows never quite took off.
It gets worse:
By the second half of the nineteenth century, American men had made it clear what it meant for a man to have a beard: it gave him power, it conferred authority, and it allowed him to demonstrate his masculinity. In other words, facial hair turned a man into a “true man.”
“Radical revolt against nature”: Barefaced Women and Masculine Power
Bare chins, on the other hand, were obvious markers of effeminacy and inferiority. Many beard histories pointed out that bare chins were historically used to indicate servitude, and that prisoners were often forcibly shaved to disgrace them further. But despite the looming presence of chattel slavery on American soil until 1865, beard historians were far more interested in demonstrating that women were not supposed to have facial hair.
Perhaps the most passionate argument about why women should not wear beards came from Horace Bushnell, a prominent theologian and preacher who, in 1869, published the brashly titled book, Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature.
Bushnell’s argument was quite simple: women’s rights advocates argued that they should have the same rights as men because they were equal to men, but no claim of gender equality could be valid, Bushnell believed, because “men and women are, to some very large extent, unlike in kind.” A person merely needed to glance at the two sexes, he said, for the differences between them were so immediately obvious.
The man is taller and more muscular, has a larger brain, and a longer stride in his walk. The woman is lighter and shorter, and moves more gracefully. In physical strength the man is greatly superior, and the base in his voice and the shag on his face, and the wing and sway of his shoulders, represent a personality in him that has some attribute of thunder. But there is no look of thunder in the woman. Her skin is too finely woven, too wonderfully delicate to be the rugged housing of thunder… Glancing thus upon man, his look says, Force, Authority, Decision, Self-asserting Counsel, Victory.
Oh, no, that’s not a view I’m trying to promote! Maybe I need to shave and start wearing a bag on my head instead.
Although now I’m really curious about the mindset that would compel people to write arguments about why women shouldn’t grow beards. Isn’t that kind of unnecessary?