Historians say the time 'when men were men' never really existed.

Who decided "big boys don't cry"?

It's not rare to see powerful and high profile men overcome with emotion at times, but when they do, it's usually met with some form of criticism or seen as a display of weakness. Simply put, in today's world boys and men are simply not expected to display vulnerable emotions like sadness and grief. (But anger is usually A-OK!)

When we think of the founding pillars of "manliness," we think of strength, bravery, and stoicism, and we often assume that it's just always been that way. After all, ancient Greek warriors didn't cry! Medieval knights didn't cry! Men just don't cry! It's, like, biology or something! Right? Right?


Well, actually...

A couple of historians recently took to Reddit to debunk this myth once and for all.

A user named Sassenacho prompted the thread on the r/AskHistorians subreddit with a simple question: "Today, there are voices that call for (much needed) acceptance of men's emotionality, but it is still kind of taboo. I was wondering when and why this changed in western society."

The explanations that ensued were fascinating.

Cassidy Percoco, a curator and historian at the St. Lawrence County Historical Association and author of "Regency Women's Dress" kicked things off, explaining that "masculinity and tears have not always been at odds."

Those rough and tumble medieval knights with their shiny armor and big swords? Percoco says they were actually expected to weep on occasion.

"In the Middle Ages there was a trope of masculine weeping being a mark of religious devotion and knightly chivalry; by the sixteenth century it was well-established that a masculine man was supposed to have deep emotions and to show them — in some cases, through tears."

It was a part of the whole chivalry thing and a sign of religious devotion.

As far back as Biblical times and in the age of Greek and Roman heroes, crying out of grief or sadness was just something men were expected to do.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From there, Percoco jumped forward to 17th and 18th century England. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, men crying and sharing their feelings — a gentlemanly trait known as "sensibility" — still hadn't gone out of style.

"A gentleman was to be courteous to women and other men, to talk problems out, to keep from bursting into loud displays of anger or drunkenness. You might think that that would also put the kibosh on weeping — giving way to feelings of all sorts — but this was not the case. Another gentlemanly trait of the eighteenth century was sensibility, which today sounds like it ought to mean "rationality" but is actually being aware of and susceptible to one's finer emotions."

Alex Wetmore, assistant professor in the English department at University of the Fraser Valley, chimed in as well to explain that in the mid-to-late 1700s, popular fiction often celebrated male leads who cried "a lot"!

"People are often interested to hear that there was a period of time of a few decades (1740s to 1770s) where fiction devoted to men who cry (a lot!) was not only acceptable, but, in fact, tremendously popular and widely celebrated."

Wetmore identified an archetype, which he calls "The Man of Feeling," who appears in a ton of novels from that era. (Wetmore even wrote a book on the subject.)

"When I try to explain this recurring character type to students, I usually describe him as like a comic book superhero ... BUT with the notable exception that the 'superpower' of men of feeling is an ability to spontaneously shed copious amounts of tears."

It's quite the contrast to the unflinching action heroes we see today.

It wasn't until the early 1800s that things began to change, and men started feeling the pressure to hold those tears in.

Percoco and Wetmore were both hesitant to prescribe a definite cause and effect relationship, but they do suspect the Industrial Revolution played a big part in turning the tide. (Reportedly, some factory managers actually trained workers, usually men, to suppress their emotions in order to keep productivity high.)

The age of the stoic and emotionless cowboy (a la John Wayne, who most people agree never cried in a movie) wasn't far behind, followed by the gun-wielding "Die Hard"-ian action heroes of modern cinema.

But ... while fictional macho men may have been suppressing their tears, the real men of the real world were doing the same thing they'd always done: wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

For instance: General Ulysses S. Grant cried when the Civil War finally ended. President Eisenhower cried on the eve of D-Day. And baseball legend Lou Gehrig cried when the Yankees retired his number.

And, yet, since it took hold about 200 years ago, the expectation that "boys don't cry" persists.

Today's world is certainly not one that celebrates open displays of emotion from men, often to their detriment.

Research shows that these repressed feelings can often come out in unhealthy and harmful ways, and it's all so we can meet a standard of masculinity that, likely, never truly existed.

Next time you catch someone bemoaning the "wussification of American boys" and yearning for a time "when men were men," it might be worth asking them when, exactly, they think that was.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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