Why Manhood? Or, what exactly is gender history?

Visitors to this exhibit may quite reasonably ask, Why a history of manhood and not a history of men? Or, in the alternative, they may wonder why it does not focus on the history of women and womanhood at Sewanee. Haven’t Sewanee men had more than their fair share of the attention?

These questions and the confusion they may reflect are understandable.

This exhibit presents a history of gender, and that concept may need elaboration. In today’s common usage we often speak of the “male and female genders,” by which we mean the biologically male and female of any species, including the human. Scholars use the word “gender” differently, distinguishing between the conventional biological designations of sex – male or female – and the socially and culturally derived designations of gender – man and woman, masculine and feminine. Although most of us behave in our everyday lives as if being a man or woman comes naturally to us, scholars argue that gender is anything but natural. Our beliefs about how women and men are and ought to be different are invented, or constructed, and we learn them from the world around us. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation, one is not born, but rather becomes, a man or woman.

In examining the history of what it is and means to be a man at Sewanee, this exhibit shows that the meanings attached to “manhood,” in the world at large no less than on top of this mountain, have not been rooted in an unchanging biological nature, but produced through dynamic social and cultural relations that have a history. They have changed over time – though, it is important to note, “being a man” has always been important at Sewanee, an institution that was Founded to Make Men.

Another reason for concern may arise because an exhibit on Sewanee manhood appears unnecessary at an institution that educated only men for the first century of its history and, after nearly a half-century of enrolling women, still reflects that male-dominated past. Will an exhibit such as this one simply restate the obvious masculinity-centered history and image of the University of the South and, what is worse, perpetuate the institution’s long record as a bastion of male privilege? 

Founded to Make Men aims not to reinscribe the historic legacy of the “men who made Sewanee,” vital as their contributions and devotion to the University have been in building its stature and, what is more important, fulfilling its mission to educate the whole person – a reference that for the last fifty years has increasingly incorporated women no less than men, diverse religions, ethnicities, and nationalities, and an ever-expanding variety of perspectives on gender and sexual identities. To explore the history of manhood requires taking a critical look at the long record of beliefs about the primacy of the “Sewanee Man.” Investigating this history, centered as it is on the experiences and ideals of men, is essential to ensuring that all persons who enter its gates may become makers of Sewanee’s future.



Why Manhood? Or, what exactly is gender history?