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Sen. Josh Hawley claims masculinity is under attack. This historian disagrees

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. He he said last week he will make masculinity a signature political issue.
Tom Williams
Pool/Getty Images
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. He he said last week he will make masculinity a signature political issue.

Updated November 11, 2021 at 12:39 PM ET

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley was the first lawmaker to publicly vow to challenge the 2020 presidential election results, and memorably raised his fist in solidarity with protesters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Now he has a new focus: defending the men of America.

In a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference last month, Hawley accused the political left of seeking to redefine traditional masculinity as toxic, and called for a "revival of strong and healthy manhood in America."

"This is an effort that the left has been at for years now and they have had alarming success," he said. "American men are working less, they are getting married in fewer numbers, they're fathering fewer children, they're suffering more anxiety and depression, they're engaging in more substance abuse."

Hawley said he did not want to paint all men as victims. But he blamed the left for wanting to define "traditional masculine virtues" like courage, independence and assertiveness as "a danger to society."

"Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?" he said at one point.

In a TV interview with Axios last week, Hawley again accused liberals of telling men that their masculinity is "inherently problematic." And he said he'll make masculinity a signature political issue.

When pressed on whether any of his claims are supported by data, Hawley said millions of men are idle in part because of liberal policies. He pointed to a lack of jobs, fatherlessness and the "social messages we teach our kids in school."

Others disagree — like Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a gender studies professor at Calvin University and author of the book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

"I think there are many challenges that the younger generation is facing right now, women and men," Du Mez said. "But there are a lot of assumptions that Hawley's making that the problems are caused by some sort of destruction of manhood or destruction of masculinity, when we could look at: What are the expectations of masculinity that might be inappropriate, that might be outmoded, that are perhaps exacerbating this crisis?"

There are many ways in which liberals are actually working to strengthen fathers, she added, pointing to things like paid paternity leave and broader family leave policies.

"There can be ways to find common ground here rather than pitting half of America against the other half," she said. "And I think that white men actually have a really critical role to play in that respect."

Du Mez spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about what she makes of Hawley's recent comments (NPR has invited him on the program too, Inskeep notes).

Hawley doesn't offer many specifics

So what is exactly is the ideal man, in Hawley's view?

"A man is a father. A man is a husband. A man is somebody who takes responsibility," he told Axios.

In his keynote speech, Hawley said society needs "the kind of men who make republics possible."

Hawley doesn't exactly define masculinity in his remarks, Du Mez said, though she noted a call to action.

"He is calling on conservative men to step up to their roles as providers and protectors — protectors of faith, family and nation and to protect what he calls 'our culture,'" she said.

Traditional gender roles and white Christian nationalism

Du Mez notes that Hawley's keynote remarks drew on the notion that God created men and women as distinct and even opposite, with men as more assertive and women as more submissive.

Though his speech focused on masculinity, Hawley did take a moment to acknowledge the role of women and to describe their virtues as "every bit as necessary to the success of our republic." (He also slammed liberal lawmakers and advocates for using the phrase "birthing people" instead of "mother" and "trying to destroy women's sports, as if women and men are somehow interchangeable.")

"Men are protectors, women are designed to be protected," Du Mez said. "This vision of gender difference really runs through conservative Christianity and through American conservatism more generally."

She cautioned that she was not speaking to Hawley's personal beliefs, but noted this line of thinking is a widespread religious belief that would "resonate powerfully" with conservatives, especially conservative evangelicals.

Traditional masculine virtues are in the service of white Christian nationalism, Du Mez argues. She described Hawley's language as "militant" and said militancy does sanction violence, something that would also resonate with much of his base.

She cited survey data that shows the majority of white evangelicals believe the 2020 election was stolen, with 39% of those believing political violence may be necessary to save the country. NPR reported on those findings earlier this year.

A note on race

Inskeep asked Du Mez why she is using the term "white Christian nationalism," anticipating that Hawley might point out he didn't bring up race himself.

Du Mez answered that it's important to understand how Hawley's words might resonate with this base in particular ways.

"With this calling on men to defend our 'shared culture,' in his words, he really does seem to be tapping into a distinctive notion of who real Americans are," she said. "And those are Americans who share his conservative values, not just around gender but arguably also around what this country is supposed to be, what this country is supposed to look like."

The audio version of this story was edited by Steve Mullis and produced by Barry Gordemer.

The digital version of this story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.