The European man, a hegemonic masculinity

19th-21st centuries

During the nineteenthcentury, no-one questioned the link between power and masculinity, between men and domination of the public sphere. This power took on many forms, ranging from economic and political to military and even religious power. Although military prestige declined with the two world wars and the defeats of decolonization, men still held the reins over politics and the increasingly globalized economy. Nearly a century after the right to vote, and despite mass access to higher education, women still hit against the glass ceiling, which denies them access to responsibility. A small fringe of masculine leaders still concentrates most of the power in the twenty-first century.

The division between the private feminine sphere and the public masculine sphere imposed itself during the nineteenth century. The men possessing the most cultural and financial capital controlled the centres of economic, political, military, and even religious power. Despite the growing role of women in society, the erosion of this age-old domination was slow to come during the twentieth century.


The economic domination of men, from captains of industry to CEOs

Capitalism during the first half of the nineteenth century was family-based. Although spouses assisted their husbands, as in the textile trade in Lille beginning in the 1850s, men managed companies alone. The first tycoons in iron, coal, and textiles, who came from a craft industry or trade background, rapidly extended their influence over territories and politics. For instance Sir Robert Peel (1750-1830), the largest British cotton mill owner before 1840, was made a baronet and elected to the House of Commons. The Schneiders, who were the owners of Le Creusot which began in 1836, dominated the town and their workers from the cradle to the grave until 1960. The longevity of masculine lines is characteristic of the First Industrial Revolution. An exemplary case is that of Friedrich Krupp (1787-1826), who founded the leading German steel company in 1811, which was then developed by his son and then his grandson and only heir. When the latter passed away in 1902, his eldest daughter Bertha (1886-1957) inherited the company, but it was her husband Gustav von Bohlen (1870-1950) who managed the firm for forty years, before obtaining the right by decree to add Krupp to his family name. He even obtained a dispensation from Hitler allowing his eldest son, Alfried Krupp (1907-1967), to become the company’s “Führer,” and to be exonerated from  inheritance tax. The rule of absolute masculinity in Prussian law, which did not recognize successional equality, along with dispensations authorized by German law, explain the resilience of heirs. In twentieth century France, two thirds of leaders in metallurgy were also from founding families, such as the Wendels, who combined money and politics and were able to successfully pull out in 1981 during the nationalization of Sacilor. The same was true of English steelworks and coalmines, which remained in the hands of descendants who jealously protected their authority. The three families that created Imperial Tobacco were still present on the board of directors in 1960 through third parties. For that matter, the resistance of male heirs damaged British capitalism, through a day-to-day management focused on the distribution of dividends that was detrimental to investment. In Germany on the other hand, heirs allowed their companies to prosper by relying on efficient managers, while maintaining power thanks to a dual company structure, with a management board and a supervisory board occupied by heirs.

The Second Industrial Revolution was marked by the rise of engineers and researchers among the founders of companies. The Dutch physicist Gerard Philips (1848-1942) invented the incandescent lamp and marketed it throughout Europe with his brother Anton (1874-1951). The largest German electrical company was founded in 1847 by Georg Halske (1814-1890), an engineer, and Werner von Siemens (1816-1892), an artilleryman with a sound scientific education who invented the dynamo. In the automobile industry, brilliant tinkerers such as Louis Renault (1877-1944) and Georges Bouton (1847-1938) were rare. The passion that the marquis of Dion and Renault had for automobile races played a key role. This sport, which was reserved for a masculine elite, was also behind the creation of Fiat, founded by Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) and two other aristocrats. Émile Levassor (1843-1897), René Panhard (1841-1988) and Armand Peugeot (1849-1915), on the other hand, were all high-level graduates of the École Centrale in Paris. André Citroën (1878-1935), a visionary graduate of the École Polytechnique, was more of an industrialist than an inventor, although he was passionate about technological innovation and was a genius at marketing. The pioneers of aeronautics were also researchers and engineers: Louis (1880-1955) and Jacques Bréguet (1882-1937) were École Polytechnique graduates from a line of Parisian industrialists and scientists, while Henry Potez (1891-1981) and Marcel Dassault (1892-1986) were graduates of SUPAERO. Eugène Schueller (1881-1957), who was trained as a chemical engineer, invented innovative cosmetic products, and in 1909 founded the company behind L’Oréal. Companies also hired engineers and researchers, such as Carl Duisberg (1861-1935), who in 1895 reorganized Bayer, the German leader in chemistry created by two dye merchants in 1863.

The rise of salaried managers beginning in the 1880s demonstrates the growing role played in companies by holders of degrees in higher education. French industry delegated to the grandes écoles d’État the selection of its managers, who are said to “pantoufler” [switch from the public to the private sector]. In Germany, this task fell to the university training the engineers, and later in the 1930s the holders of doctorates, who were increasingly present in the senior management of companies. For instance, the heirs of the leading English glass company Pilkington were ordered to acquire the same knowledge as their managers. These new requirements intensified male domination, as women were excluded from scientific studies and, in France, from grandes écoles in engineering. In Germany, outsider financiers such as Friedrich Flick (1883-1972) or Günther Quandt (1881-1954) took advantage of  inflation during the 1920s to build conglomerates in armament and accumulators. Their close ties to the Nazi regime enabled them to become suppliers for the German army, and to take advantage of the economy’s Aryanization. The world of money also remained the sole preserve of men, as the stock exchange was closed to French women until 1967, and to English women until 1974.

Beginning in 1945, the restructuring of shareholders reshuffled the cards, as nationalizations promoted competent and politically impeccable men. At the SNCF, the Polytechnique graduate Louis Armand, who was director from 1949 to 1958, was a figure from “Résistance-fer” [resistance group during the German occupation]. Similarly, the first director of the Renault public company—which was nationalized in 1945—was Pierre Lefaucheux (1898-1955), who was a graduate of École Centrale and a former member of the resistance, as was his successor from 1955 to 1976, Pierre Dreyfus. The example of Enrico Mattei (1906-1962) in Italy follows the same logic. This antifascist resistance member, who was tasked with dismantling AGIP, the national company created by Mussolini, made ENI into a major oil company. The first director of the National Coal Board in 1947, Lord Hindley (1883-1963), was an insider who had managed a coalmine. In Germany, however, the decartelization and denazification that had been left incomplete because of the Cold War favoured continuity at the head of companies. Sentenced in Nuremberg but quickly freed, Alfried Krupp secretly managed the firm until 1964, while Friedrich Flick took control of Daimler-Benz, the future crown jewel of German industry. However, new skills such as those of legal experts and economists imposed themselves at the head of European companies. At EDF, inspecteurs des Finances replaced École Polytechnique graduates in 1969 with Paul Delouvrier (1914-1995), and later with François Roussely (born in 1945). The intervention of the state in favour of major companies nevertheless continued, and reinforced the influence of men. In Germany, the masculine longevity of the Thyssens or the Siemens until 1981 owed much to legal measures authorizing the ownership of preferred shares, or the payment of dividends to a foundation to avoid the inheritance tax. Similarly, in 2007, 68% of CAC 40 CEOs still come from the “grands corps” of the French state, and often from a ministerial cabinet—educational paths and political functions from which women are largely absent.

During the 1980s, the American form of “management” and the financialization of the economy propelled investors rather than entrepreneurs to the head of major companies; these investors used leverage and the rise of shareholders to take control of powerful companies. Bernard Arnault (born in 1949) bought Financière Agache for 90 million francs and thereby took control of Boussac in 1984, which was worth 8 billion francs on the stock market at the time. He then dismantled the group, while keeping only the prize jewels such as Dior. Next, taking advantage of a disagreement between the founders, he launched a takeover bid for LVMH in 1987, and ousted Vuitton’s artisan for development, Henri Racamier (1912-2003). While globalization gradually loosened the bond between companies and nations—in 2015 28% of CAC 40 and 35% of FTSE CEOs were of foreign nationality—masculine economic domination nevertheless remained intact. In 2016, over 95% of the European Union’s major companies were still presided over by men. A new masculinity is even emerging, a transnational masculinity of business disconnected from patriotic loyalty, leading a symbolic masculine struggle as part of the unhesitating “economic war” of cost killers.

Male domination and political power: from top hats to three-piece suits.

During the nineteenth century, monarchical Europe exclusively had male sovereigns, with the exception of the United Kingdom. What more, the spread of constitutional and parliamentary systems entrenched masculine political domination. In fact, the right to vote was reserved only for men, and even remained based on a poll tax in many countries, as in England where, incidentally, the most powerful suffrage movement in history failed. In 1848, the Second Republic in France declared the granting of universal suffrage, even though it was solely reserved for men, thereby refusing full citizenship for women. Unified Germany did the same in 1870. This masculine exclusivity ended after World War One, as most European countries granted women the right to vote. France was the only exception, as the bill establishing universal suffrage was proposed three times by the Chambre but rejected by the Sénat. It took until the Assemblée d’Alger and the order of April 21, 1944 for French women to be able to vote. Belgian women, who were eligible to vote and to stand for election on a local level, did not obtain the full right to vote until 1948. In Switzerland, the half-canton of Appenzell Inner-Rhodes once again opposed extending the right to vote to women in 1990. Nevertheless, in countries where women are eligible to vote and stand for election, political power has for all that not been feminized.

The situation improved after World War Two, only very gradually. In France, buoyed by the spirit of the Libération, women made up 6.8% of députés in 1946, but the backward surge was rapid. The 1950s and 1960s were even characterized by a defeminization of institutions; for instance, 99% of positions as conseillers généraux and mayors were occupied by men. It was only with the law on gender balance in 2000 that political parties accepted to offer a role to female candidates. In 2012, men represented 62.4% of députés and 85% of mayors. France is somewhere between virtuous Northern Europe and Southern or Eastern Europe. Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands never have more than 50-60% male representatives, while Germany and Spain count two-thirds. However in the United Kingdom and Italy, Parliament is three-quarters male, and in Hungary women make up only 20% of representatives.

The elections to the European Parliament have been more auspicious for female representatives, because the institution has for a long time enjoyed limited powers. The voting system can also play a dissuasive role. Although proportional representation or voting for a ticket both favour women, voting for a single candidate in one round as in England, or in two rounds as in France, constitutes a barrier to their entry. The antiquity of parliamentarism has also slowed down the feminization of political personnel. Masculine self-segregation has entrenched age-old customs excluding women, from smutty jokes to drinking rituals. The glass ceiling is also present in the executive branch. In France, under the Fourth Republic 97% of ministers were men, a figure that rose to 100% from 1962 to 1968, and which has stood at 90 % since 1974. Although men’s share fell to 75 % in 2007, it was only in 2012 that gender balance was maintained. Furthermore, macho jibes welcomed “first comers” from Simone Veil to Édith Cresson, due to the antifeminism of numerous male politicians. In the United Kingdom and Germany, all Prime Ministers since 1945 have been men, with the exception of Angela Merkel (born in 1954) and Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), whose entirely male inner circle was formed from masculine neoliberal think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies, directed by her mentor Keith Joseph (1918-1994). Does the nomination of Theresa May (born in 1956) to implement Brexit signal the spread of feminization at the head of states? By contrast in Northern Europe men have grown accustomed, without conflict, to female ministers and prime ministers.

As a result, for nearly two centuries politics was represented by men in top hats or derbies, and later in three-piece suits. Masculine power is also embodied in the princes of the Church, such as the pope or Anglican bishops, who connect the worldly and the religious. The Catholic priest, however, is an ambiguous figure due to celibacy, which calls his masculinity into question.

Male domination tested by war and colonization

Although soldiers and representatives of the established order had a monopoly on the use of force, weapons—beginning with the knife folded in one’s pocket—constituted an extension of the body for all nineteenth century men. Boys who play with fake weapons and organize petty wars between villages or neighbourhoods from a very young age know this perfectly well. An imitation of combat that can sometimes be deadly, the duel came back into favour in France and England in the 1780s and culminated in the 1810s. Its rapid drop after 1840, however, is linked to the decline in violence.

The professionalization of soldiers during the eighteenth century, along with the formation of a purely military universe from the barracks to the uniform, overcame women’s presence at the front. The army thus became a community founded on gender. Furthermore, the French Revolution represented a major turning point, as citizenship and defence of the homeland were henceforth linked. During the nineteenth century, all European countries introduced military service, which inculcated young recruits in the rule of military masculinity through physical training and discipline. The “class” even represented the last rite of passage that transformed the conscripts into men. However in Italy, it was seen as an unbearable blood tax on soldiers, most of whom were peasants torn from their village who were unfamiliar with the nation. Only England opted for a professional army separate from civil society, one that was led by an aristocratic elite and destined for faraway colonial conquests. Consequently, patriotism took the form of mobilizing citizens. For example in 1914, the country was able to raise an army of volunteers and fight for two years before establishing conscription.

The nineteenth century was a warlike century. Wars of independence drove the Ottoman Empire out of Europe, while Italy and Germany unified through blood and fire. The construction of nations took place through the sacrifice of men, at the cost of bloody battles that led to the creation of the Red Cross after the battle of Solferino in 1859. The century was also dominated by colonial wars. It was a rare colony that did not experience uprisings quelled by force, such as the Sepoy Revolt in India (1857-1858), or the conquest of Aceh in Sumatra, one of the longest and fiercest colonial wars (1873-1903). The building of colonial empires therefore relied on military domination. Wars of conquest even authorized unbridled brutality. Unable to hold the interior of the country, the French resorted to barbaric acts in Algeria: enfumage [suffocation from smoke], summary execution, mutilation. They also forced Algerians to perform humiliating acts of surrender and allegiance. The soldiers, who were subjected to great hardship—cold, illness, retaliation—exalted their hardened bodies and self-control. A new military-virile model was thus built, epitomized by General Bugeaud (1784-1849) and reproduced by Joseph Gallieni (1849-1916) in Madagascar. Herbert Kirchener (1850-1916), who crushed the Mahdi Uprising in Sudan in 1898 and distinguished himself in the Boer war, is their British counterpart. Colonial wars thus produced a more aggressive and “male” masculinity than in the home country. Once the conquest was complete, the development of colonies was also masculine. Members of the military, administrators, and colonists were all men, with women being rare, except in settlement colonies such as Algeria. A society of white men was thus established, exercising their domination over the “natives” of both sexes. The colonized were devirilized through the figures of the soft or homosexual “Arab,” or the “effeminate” Bengali. The character of the “boy,” subjugated to the private space, is a symbol of this. On the other hand, the “savage,” the “primitive,” or the sexual predator had to be trained—even by the chicote [sjambok, a heavy leather whip]—and enlisted in order to ensure colonial prosperity. With regard to women, they represented a pool of servants and sex slaves, from the congaï in Indochina to the “ménagère” in Madagascar or the Belgian Congo.

World War One was an unprecedented shock, for it was the polar opposite of the scenarios imagined by the general staff: a long conflict, a war of trenches and equipment, one that tried men severely. The combatants all shared the same experience of fire, with its daily ordeals of cold, rain, mud, rats, fatigue, and hunger. Yet it was fear that dominated the most: fear of bombardment and machine gun attack, fear of trembling and “colique du feu” that humiliated soldiers who could not conform to the equanimity of the courageous warrior. Finally, death haunted the combatants, theirs of course, but also the sight of decomposing bodies and the moaning of the wounded. The scope of the mobilization was also unprecedented. Great Britain gathered 6 million men beneath the flag, France 8.5 million, and Germany 13 million. The losses were equally vast, as 8.5 million soldiers lost their lives, and another 8 million returned from the front either mutilated or invalid. The price paid for masculinity was exorbitant, and the representation of the male warrior was shaken as a result.

World War Two was even more deadly. Military losses were considerable due to the number of those mobilized: 13 million Soviet soldiers and 4 million German soldiers fell. However, for the first time civilians also paid a heavy toll. The war waged by Nazi Germany against the “Judeo-Bolsheviks” was indeed a “war of annihilation” prepared by the “criminal orders” of the Wehrmacht’s general staff. From the first days of operation Barbarossa (1941), tens of thousands of political commissars, communists, and Jews were massacred by the Einsatzsgruppen and the army. In six months, two million Soviet prisoners also died of hunger, cold, or illness. In August, with the massacre of women and then children, the genocide was underway. It was men—soldiers, members of the SS, the order police—who humiliated, brutalized, and shot civilians who were considered to be subhuman. It was also men who conceived organized and managed extermination camps, although women also dealt with deportees. Although Germans and their local auxiliaries were unleashed on civilian populations, they also engaged in the specifically masculine violence of systematic rape or sexual slavery of the defeated.

The return to civilian life for German and Austrian soldiers and prisoners of war was difficult, amid the wounds, defeat, and especially the questioning of the military-virile model that had been inculcated by Nazism. In France, although members of the resistance saved the nation’s honour, the majority of men had to come to grips with their failure. The tonte [shearing of women’s hair] in fact symbolized the reconstruction of a masculinity that had been defeated in 1940.

Since then, the transformations that began during the nineteenth century have intensified, as the history of men after 1945 is one of the overwhelming erosion of the privileges of masculinity, whether it was the right to vote, to serve in the military, or to have access to higher education. Gender balance has advanced everywhere, particularly in education and the workplace. During the twenty-first century, men and women simultaneously collaborate and compete against one another, although the world of economic and political power still remains a masculine domain that only strong-willed action can weaken.

To quote from this article

Anne-Marie Sohn, « The European man, a hegemonic masculinity », Encyclopédie pour une histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20, consulted on 28/10/2020. Permalink :


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