Mad Men or Good Men: Defending the American Men of Pre-Feminist America

By Mark Judge Published on March 6, 2024

The Last Men on Top is a small book that should be on the reading list of students at every American university. Written by journalist Susan Jacoby — a secular feminist, but I’ll get to that — The Last Men on Top makes an argument that is long overdue. The thesis: The generations of American men born between 1910 and 1935, the so-called “last men on top” celebrated as the greatest generation and mocked as 1950s company men, have been robbed of their true nature and humanity. Liberals, pop culture and established historians are all guilty of this.

The Last Men on Top

In the Age of Wokeness, the guys who built the cities and sacrificed everything for their families are not as important as campy transgender activists. The last men in top should not, in the language of the academic left, be marginalized and erased. I watched a video of the life story of James Robison, the founder of LIFE Outreach International and publisher of The Stream, and I saw what I often do in men of his generation — a tough, loving, faithful, and compassionate man who endured a lot of trauma and made a lot of sacrifices for his family, his community, and God.

Humane and Vulnerable

Jacoby argues men born between 1910 and 1935 — that is, both the men who fought and won world War II and those who missed that war but came of age in the 1950s — were far more humane and vulnerable than they have been depicted in history, politics, and popular culture. Jacoby went to work as a journalist for the Washington Post in the 1960s. She is clear in her recounting of what women’s worlds were often like in those days. In her early working years — and for decades before — men would openly comment on their female colleagues’ looks and what they were wearing. A woman who stayed at home to raise children was only a divorce away from being completely destitute. If a family had male and female children, the males were encouraged to be lawyers and doctors, and the females taught to be homemakers.

They Deserved Better

This kind of atmosphere is easy to satirize, but as Jacoby argues, “the last men on top deserve better than they are receiving from popular culture today.” She explores the dashed dreams and frustrations of the men of the era who sacrificed to provide for their families. Jacoby’s father, an accountant who once went broke from a gambling debt, wrote her a note saying he envied her because she had a job she loved — indicating that he did not like his job but had no choice but to do it.

By seeing the last men on top as fully complex human beings, including the weakness and sorrow that goes with being human, as well as the self-sacrifice that is usually only attributed to women, we can stop claiming there is nothing from that era worth saving.

Mr. Jacoby, like many other men of the first half of the 20th century, was not able to follow his heart’s desire. The Depression made it impossible and World War II made it unthinkable. Even during the prosperous and so-called “boring” 1950s, many men were under tremendous pressure to provide for large families, all while doing jobs they may have hated. Jacoby writes:

I would like to see just one scene in Mad Men in which a hard-working husband and father, whatever his job, is gulping coffee in his kitchen at 4:30 on an icy January or February morning. This man warms up his car and then heads for work, while his wife, children, and dog snuggle under their blankets.

Their Tenderness and Selflessness

They also — and to me this is the most poignant part of The Last Men on Top — were capable of great tenderness and selflessness toward the women they loved. It was in these passages that I most recognized my own father, who came of age in the 1950s and would have done anything to make sure my mother was happy. Jacoby remembers her father bringing her mother little presents when he couldn’t afford to give her more, something I witnessed my own father do. “My nieces need to know more about that side of the last men on top,” she writes, “and those of us old enough and young enough to remember are best equipped to tell the story.” 

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Jacoby thinks that’s unlikely, however, arguing that the mockery modern cultural elites heap upon older generations of men is partly fueled by their own resentment and frustration that the sexual revolution has turned many men into selfish bums. Still, the idea that men were better in the bad old days is just too much to bear. Admitting that would mean “turning back the clock.”

They Were Fully Complex Human Beings

Except, it wouldn’t. By seeing “the last men on top” as fully complex human beings, including the weakness and sorrow that goes with being human, as well as the self-sacrifice that is usually only attributed to women, we can stop claiming there is nothing from that era worth saving. Of course women were not as free back then. Jacoby notes that as a young women she learned about “trying to avoid those guys who delivered lascivious critiques of your clothes and the body beneath them when you walked into the office.” But there’s more to the story than that.

Another Side of the Coin

Jacoby is a secular feminist — her books and writings make that clear — yet unlike most liberals, she acknowledges another side to the coin. Men could be jerks back in the Stone Age. “But you also remember,” she observes, that

if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, men of the same generation who went out of their way to help you, to serve as mentors, to show you the ropes, even to warn you about which men in the office hated ambitious women and would try and trip you up. These members of the war generation were not looking for any sexual favors in return, and they got no points from their own bosses for extending the hand of professional friendship to women.

These good men should not be erased.

 

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.

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