Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Gender at Stake: The Role of Eighteenth-Century London Clubs in Shaping a New Model of English Masculinity

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Gender at Stake: The Role of Eighteenth-Century London Clubs in Shaping a New Model of English Masculinity

Article excerpt

The English club, as an arena of exclusive male sociability, contributed to the refashioning of a new model of politeness, which did not posit refinement and masculinity as opposites. Some of the main aims of clubs were to preserve their members' masculine identity and to reinforce their cohesion by developing a strong male affiliation network. The success of clubs in England enabled to establish a unique model of male sociability, proving that being an Englishman did not imply being unsociable and rough. The club was an exclusive social space, where a man can perform his masculinity through his activities, his conversations and his behaviour. The visibility of gender and social performance induced the respect and support of his fellow clubmen and could determine a man's future social and political success. The eighteenth-century club thus played a crucial role in the process of gender identification and of social recognition. This article shows that masculinity was a social construction as well as a social performance. Being a man obeyed gendered norms, which corresponded to gendered social manners and practices. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the ideal of the gentleman served as a means to shape the Englishman's masculine identity, but it revealed the limits and the paradoxes of politeness, thus questioning the French model.

Keywords: eighteenth-century London clubs, masculinity, male sociability

Sociologist Scott Coltrane defined gender as "the socially constructed ideal of what it means to be a woman or man," stating that our everyday activities provided "opportunities for expressing, and perhaps transforming, the meaning of gender."1 Therefore, masculinity is considered as a social construction, but also as a social performance that is expressed through the manners and behaviour of men themselves.

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, masculinity has been confronted to challenging cultural influences. Indeed, the concept of masculinity has matured through its conflictual relationship with politeness. The dynamics of attraction-repulsion for the French model helped redefine English masculinity. Moreover, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the influence of a new 'urban culture' with the flourishing of sociability in England influenced its very definition.2 The ideal of the gentleman through politeness and refined conversation, which prevailed among the exclusive circles of London society, corresponded to a desire to shape a new model of masculinity.3 Yet, a paradox existed between a normative refined and "feminine" sociable model, as performed in French salon culture, and that of the gentleman's club.4 This tension highlighted the danger of excessive refinement and effeminacy, epitomised by the fop figure.5 This may be a reason for the exclusion of women from those private institutions, added to the fact that club sociability and conversation were simply thought inappropriate for the female sex. In a society highly preoccupied with social visibility, gender representation and performance through gender-specific pastimes and manners were crucial. What then, in a gentleman's reactions or attributes, should be displayed and what should remain invisible?

Homosociality seemed to be the best way for men to preserve their virility and identity.6 Thus, club sociability provided the perfect medium for redefining male sociability and offering a new model of English masculinity. To what extent did London clubs question and replace a model inspired from French 'feminine' sociability with a model of English sociability, reconciling politeness and refinement with masculinity?


A definition of 'masculinities' which perfectly applies to club sociability in eighteenth-century London is to be found in The Masculinities Reader, edited by Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett in 2001: "Masculinities are those behaviours, languages and practices, existing in specific cultural and organizational locations, which are commonly associated with males and thus culturally defined as not feminine. …

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