Alumna Stein discusses race, masculinity during Women’s Center talk

Erin Moyer || Senior Editor

On Wednesday, Melissa Stein ’99 delivered a lecture entitled “Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830-1934” in Stahr Auditorium in Stager Hall. Stein, a professor at the University of Kentucky, examined how race and masculinity were constructed and conceptualized in the 19th and early 20th century based on what was at stake in that moment. 

Stein was introduced by Maria Mitchell, Professor of History and Chair of Africana Studies. In her introduction, Mitchell touched on Stein’s time as a student at F&M, joking that they were keeping her just as busy as a guest speaker– speaking in several classes, speaking at this event itself, attending several events the next day– as she was when she was a student. Mitchell also spoke to the “organic interdisciplinary” bent to Stein’s work: Stein’s book, Mitchell said, seamlessly incorporates American Studies, Biology, Biological Foundations of Behavior, Scientific and Philosophical Studies of the Mind, History, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Science in Society, and more, into its analytical framework. The intersectionality of Stein’s work, Mitchell continued, is perhaps both proof that she attended a liberal arts college, and is further evidenced by all of the on-campus organizations who came together to bring her back to F&M. Organizations like HIVE, the Alice Drum Women’s Center, the Black Student Union, and the Biology Department, among others, worked in tandem to host Stein as a speaker.

After Mitchell’s introduction, Stein then began her lecture by discussing two recent examples of genetic shortcomings being attributed to women and minorities from two men in higher education: a dean at Rutgers, and a dean at Harvard. These comments, Stein argued, are eerily similar to arguments made 100 years ago against minorities earning full citizenship, or against women attending college for fear it would “redirect the blood away from their womb and into their brain.” It just goes to show, Stein said, how mainstream biological determinism is in relation to race and gender. Stein said that this belief that race and gender are biological has never entirely disappeared; on the contrary, it has arguably resurged.

Stein then turned her attentio to the crux of her research, the ways in which race was conceived by scientists to institutionalize a hierarchy of political difference. Stein argued that in the mid-19th century, scientists positioned other races as neither male nor female to justify their exclusion. These gendered ideas of race took root. Her work, Stein said, seeks to unpack how this scientific racism is still embedded in our history, with headline news surrounding discoveries like “the female brain” and “the gay gene.” Some cases of this nineteenth century biological determinism may seem bizarre and clearly biased today, Stein said, but they have clearly had an impact on American consciousness.

Stein cited the work of John van Evrie, a 19th-century man who self-published material revolving around beards as a sign of manhood. Evrie felt it was no accident that white men could grow full, lustrous facial hair, and black men could not. Since non-Caucasian bodies failed to conform to white definitions of sex, as one can interpret Evrie’s designation, they therefore could not be part of gender. Since Caucasians were the only bearded race, they could be assured of total intellectual superiority. White men were the standard by which others were measured. This attention to beards, Stein said, was not an aesthetic preference; on the contrary, paying such close attention to a secondary sex characteristic as evidence of manhood was a political move.

One’s manhood was closely tied to their capacity for citizenship. Manhood and citizenship went hand-in-hand, Stein said, and Evrie grounded his claims in “other” bodies themselves by putting them forward as evidencing total, intellectual failures. According to Stein, scientists like Evrie presented Black men and women as sharing similar intellectual inadequacies, thus removing them from any remote inclusion in citizenship or politics. The binary of the era was that if you were a man, you were a citizen. 

After the Civil War, continued Stein, this binary was presented with a challenge: if Black men were no longer slaves, did that mean they were citizens? White ethnologists thus rallied to the cause of maintaining a racialized definition of citizenship; though Black Americans were no longer slaves in the wake of the Civil War, ethnologists and scientists marshalled several arguments proving why newly-free African Americans shouldn’t get the vote. Post-bellum ethnologists put African Americans in a physiological middle-ground to keep them from becoming full citizens, Stein argued. Stein concluded that race, gender, sex, and sexuality mutually informed the construction of citizenship. Non-Caucasian bodies were the site for socio-political exclusion.

Senior Erin Moyer is a Senior Editor. Her email is emoyer1@fandm.edu.

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