Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism.
Although in our time fraternal orders don't get much respect think of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton tromping off to the Loyal Order of Raccoons Lodge), they were serious business in the second half of the nineteenth century. Writing in the North American Review in 1897, W.S. Harwood calculated that fraternal orders boasted 5.5 million members out of a total adult male population of roughly 19 million. Why did so many American men join fraternal orders? What were they looking for and what did they find? And what should we postmoderns make of a bunch of small-town salesmen with painted faces and loincloths dancing ceremoniously around a bonfire?
According to Mary Ann Clawson in Constructing Brotherhood Class, Gender and Fraternalism, the answers lie in the vortex of class, race and gender in the history of American capitalism. Clawson takes fraternal orders to be windows into the hidden recesses of the American white male psyche; peeking through, she sees a contested terrain, plagued by self doubts and the terror of humiliation.
In a sense, studies of fraternal orders at the turn of the century are the flip side of recent feminist inquiries into what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg called the "female world of love and ritual"-that elaborate culture women created to cope with the isolation and oppression engendered by the separation of spheres. If that separation isolated women in the home, it also exiled men from domestic life. Fraternal orders were, in part, men's effort to re-create a domestic sanctuary where they might experience fellowship without the "feminizing" influence of women.
Late-nineteenth-century capitalism meant rapid social mobility, economic instability, urban anonymity, aggressive individualism-the marketplace was a "site of humiliation:' as Thoreau called it earlier in the century. And within the lodges, middle-class men found refuge, a self consciously male "haven in a heartless world." One Pythian address captures this eloquently: "The wealth and pleasure of the outside world are but tinsel when compared with the pure gold of brotherly love."
The business of this brotherhood consisted of participation in civic and charity events as well as developing rudimentary life insurance and funeral schemes to benefit the members. But the most common activity was initiation; some orders had upward of thirty different ranks. Nearly all initiation rituals were modeled on baptism-the symbolic death of the old profane man and his rebirth into the community of believers, a new family. it also seems theoretically plausible to me that these men were more interested in mothering than fathering, and that initiation rituals were a way for men to appropriate women's reproductive capacity. Within the fraternal lodges, week after week, groups of men were symbolically giving birth to one another. If women now controlled the sphere of reproduction, they seemed to say, men could reinvent that sphere in a private men-only club. The fraternal order reinvented the family, as the band of brothers replaced mother as the center of men's lives. (This at the same moment that male obstetricians and gynecologists were inventing their medical specialty by pathologizing pregnancy and childbirth.) Clawson makes no such theoretical leap. For her, the profound internal fraternal equality is an instrument the better to reproduce the outside world's traditional social hierarchies. And she is certain that the exclusion of women was central to the effort to re-create masculinity. So contemporary feminist observers saw it; the real purpose of fraternal orders, according to suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage in the late nineteenth century, was to "set one sex against another," to exaggerate the differences between women and men and minimize the differences among men. In the decades following the Civil War (recall that the war's ruling metaphor was fratricide), fraternal rituals provided a means by which the rift could be healed and men could become brothers again. But it was an extremely politicized brotherhood. On the one hand, fraternal orders offered a critique of late nineteenth-century capitalism. Central to fraternal orders was the idealization of an artisanal masculinity that was gradually disappearing in the wake of the factory system. What men lost in the sphere of production they reinvented in the leisure realm of consumption. On the other hand, the artisanal hero celebrated in fraternal orders was "based as much upon a process of exclusion as it was upon a ritual of unification," Clawson writes. To her, this was a defensive reactionary effort to reconstitute the power of white, middle-class, native-born American men against all challengers: new European immigrants, the industrial working class, post-bellum blacks migrating to Northern and Midwestern cities, as well as uppity women who seemed to be taking over the private realm as well as demanding entry into the public realm.
The decline of fraternal orders into civic charity groups or pathetic caricature in the decades after 1920 was due, Clawson argues, to the partial success of those groups that the fraternal orders excluded. Women, blacks, immigrants and the working class were politically enfranchised and incorporated, at least nominally, into the public arena of American life. In addition, the appearance of places where men and women could socialize together lessened the appeal of all-male, cross-class institutions. Like their collegiate counterparts and contemporary men's retreats, late-nineteenth-century fraternal orders were a defensive effort to maintain clan, race and gender privilege. A reactionary brotherhood, the egalite contained within their version of fratemite extended to none but themselves.
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|Author:||Kimmel, Michael S.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 23, 1990|
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