In Defense of Masculinity: A Portrait of my Father, Jeff Bell

There’s a rising clamor for the death of masculinity as we know it. The label of “toxic” has expanded and now even traditional masculinity is not safe. The American Psychological Association released its first-ever guideline for dealing with men and boys, asserting that traditional masculinity is actually psychologically harmful.  A Gillette ad demands men “be better,” and uses men barbecuing -- which once evoked wholesome family fun -- as a symbol of the insidiousness of the American father.

I hope masculinity is not dead because, well, my father is -- and he sure was a man. My father was Jeff Bell, and he died a year ago this week.

He is perhaps best known as an early advocate of the ideas that have become central to the conservative movement today. In 1978, he ran for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, making national headlines by upsetting the sitting senator in the primary. Although he lost in the general election, he went on to help persuade Ronald Reagan to adopt the notion that deep tax cuts for the middle class would ignite the economy, an idea that bewildered elites of the day.

By the time I knew him as my dad, he had been a leader in the conservative movement for decades. To me, he was my dad -- my first view of masculinity: what a man is and should be.

This is what I saw.

A man takes action. My dad had a brilliant mind and knew the philosophy, history, and literature of Western Civilization backwards and forwards. He wrote two prescient books about American politics, but was never content to be a man of ideas. He was first and foremost a man of action.   

My dad made an unusual career move at age 70. He moved back to New Jersey to run for Senate against Cory Booker. He did it because, as he said, he couldn’t find someone younger or richer to campaign on the issue he cared most about: returning our currency to the Gold Standard to stop the government’s manipulation of money that is destroying the American middle class. He certainly was the underdog, but that didn’t intimidate him. He relished it. In fact, he had contempt for people, and especially politicians, who were afraid of bold action and cared more about their status than truth.

His campaign inspired me to take a leave of absence from my job to move to New Jersey and get to work. Throughout the challenges he remained optimistic, giving his all and letting the chips fall where they may. If a GOP donor rejected a fundraising petition or a national reporter wouldn’t cover the campaign, it didn’t get him down. He would tell me, “You have to get to no and move on.” 

A man doesn’t fear rejection -- it can be clarifying. And it certainly can never stop a man on a mission.

A man works to help others, and does not care who gets the credit. My dad was a populist. He believed people, not elites, know best how to run their own lives. And it was his vocation to use public policy to free them to do so.

He was constantly reading and thinking about human trends and the direction in which our society was moving. This wasn’t so that he could drop the latest research at dinner parties or position himself to reap the benefits in revolving-door Washington. It was so he could adjust his work to help solve what he felt were the most pressing challenges of real people. He was always generous with his mind and his time, each week spending hours mentoring young staffers and advising his experienced peers, sharing his ideas, theories, and reactions to current events. If he felt it would help advance the goal of empowering Americans in any small way, he would do it.

And because of this instinctive humility, it took me a long time -- even until after his death -- to fully understand the breadth of his legacy. 

A man doesn’t care if he gets the credit if real good is being done.

A man is romantic. My dad spent five years convincing my mom, Rosalie, to marry him. He said repeatedly it was the biggest achievement of his life, and he called her “my bride” for the entirety of their 34-year marriage. No, they did not divide chores equally. (The only thing I ever saw him cook was hard-boiled eggs.) But our house was frequently filled with the scent of the roses he brought home for her, and he never missed a chance to brag about her accomplishments.

I witnessed them having countless deep discussions, dissecting people, politics, and literature. I saw them laugh a lot. I learned about love.

My dad was constantly telling our friends and young people he mentored to get married and get married soon. As he said at my wedding, “A good marriage is more than checking the box of one of the categories of life. A good marriage is more like completing yourself -- the rest of your life becomes clearer and the mission that you have is much more doable.” This wasn’t some theoretical view shaped by sociological research alone. It was most of all a deeply personal belief shaped by his life with my mom.

A man leads his family. My dad was the north star of our family. My brother remarked recently that his absence at the dinner table is deeply felt not because of an empty chair but because he himself -- with his moral clarity and sharp intellect -- was the guide to our navigation of the world. He made us feel safe and bold: my three brothers and I were on our own journey but he was the guardrail that kept us on the path of truth.

My dad was the first person I called to get advice, from career goals (“Don’t go to law school”) to relationship dynamics (“Choose the one that prioritizes you”). He loved babies and never thought of them as impediments to a woman’s career. He was overjoyed at both of my pregnancies and never stopped encouraging me to achieve more professionally. One of the things I will miss most is how proud he always was of me, how loved I always felt.

A man is disciplined and loves God. It seems impossible that one man can have all of this -- a supreme intellect, a mission-driven career, and a rich family life. Then again, my dad woke up at 4:30 every morning. It wasn’t to work out or scour the news. He woke before dawn to start his day in prayer, do spiritual reading, and attend the 6:30 mass. A Catholic convert, he was deeply devout and brought many people to the faith.

Ultimately what I saw growing up was that a man gives God what He asks of all of us -- our whole heart. And when God called his heart back to Himself a year ago, my dad began his last day on earth as he began every normal day of his life: by going to Mass and worshiping God. 

So what can one man’s portrait show us? Sure, social norms and traditional expectations can be respectfully discussed and debated. Sexual aggression and violence should be exposed and eradicated. But I believe those things can be achieved without an end to masculinity itself.

We shouldn’t be so quick to kill off masculinity in the next generation because we may find we’ve killed off a lot of the things masculinity fosters -- boldness, service, leadership, discipline, romance and love. Do we really want to end a way of life in which good men lead and stand tall?

Let’s keep masculinity alive for our dead men, and for the little girls who loved them.

Julia Slingsby was until recently communications director for the House Committee on Ways and Means

There’s a rising clamor for the death of masculinity as we know it. The label of “toxic” has expanded and now even traditional masculinity is not safe. The American Psychological Association released its first-ever guideline for dealing with men and boys, asserting that traditional masculinity is actually psychologically harmful.  A Gillette ad demands men “be better,” and uses men barbecuing -- which once evoked wholesome family fun -- as a symbol of the insidiousness of the American father.

I hope masculinity is not dead because, well, my father is -- and he sure was a man. My father was Jeff Bell, and he died a year ago this week.

He is perhaps best known as an early advocate of the ideas that have become central to the conservative movement today. In 1978, he ran for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, making national headlines by upsetting the sitting senator in the primary. Although he lost in the general election, he went on to help persuade Ronald Reagan to adopt the notion that deep tax cuts for the middle class would ignite the economy, an idea that bewildered elites of the day.

By the time I knew him as my dad, he had been a leader in the conservative movement for decades. To me, he was my dad -- my first view of masculinity: what a man is and should be.

This is what I saw.

A man takes action. My dad had a brilliant mind and knew the philosophy, history, and literature of Western Civilization backwards and forwards. He wrote two prescient books about American politics, but was never content to be a man of ideas. He was first and foremost a man of action.   

My dad made an unusual career move at age 70. He moved back to New Jersey to run for Senate against Cory Booker. He did it because, as he said, he couldn’t find someone younger or richer to campaign on the issue he cared most about: returning our currency to the Gold Standard to stop the government’s manipulation of money that is destroying the American middle class. He certainly was the underdog, but that didn’t intimidate him. He relished it. In fact, he had contempt for people, and especially politicians, who were afraid of bold action and cared more about their status than truth.

His campaign inspired me to take a leave of absence from my job to move to New Jersey and get to work. Throughout the challenges he remained optimistic, giving his all and letting the chips fall where they may. If a GOP donor rejected a fundraising petition or a national reporter wouldn’t cover the campaign, it didn’t get him down. He would tell me, “You have to get to no and move on.” 

A man doesn’t fear rejection -- it can be clarifying. And it certainly can never stop a man on a mission.

A man works to help others, and does not care who gets the credit. My dad was a populist. He believed people, not elites, know best how to run their own lives. And it was his vocation to use public policy to free them to do so.

He was constantly reading and thinking about human trends and the direction in which our society was moving. This wasn’t so that he could drop the latest research at dinner parties or position himself to reap the benefits in revolving-door Washington. It was so he could adjust his work to help solve what he felt were the most pressing challenges of real people. He was always generous with his mind and his time, each week spending hours mentoring young staffers and advising his experienced peers, sharing his ideas, theories, and reactions to current events. If he felt it would help advance the goal of empowering Americans in any small way, he would do it.

And because of this instinctive humility, it took me a long time -- even until after his death -- to fully understand the breadth of his legacy. 

A man doesn’t care if he gets the credit if real good is being done.

A man is romantic. My dad spent five years convincing my mom, Rosalie, to marry him. He said repeatedly it was the biggest achievement of his life, and he called her “my bride” for the entirety of their 34-year marriage. No, they did not divide chores equally. (The only thing I ever saw him cook was hard-boiled eggs.) But our house was frequently filled with the scent of the roses he brought home for her, and he never missed a chance to brag about her accomplishments.

I witnessed them having countless deep discussions, dissecting people, politics, and literature. I saw them laugh a lot. I learned about love.

My dad was constantly telling our friends and young people he mentored to get married and get married soon. As he said at my wedding, “A good marriage is more than checking the box of one of the categories of life. A good marriage is more like completing yourself -- the rest of your life becomes clearer and the mission that you have is much more doable.” This wasn’t some theoretical view shaped by sociological research alone. It was most of all a deeply personal belief shaped by his life with my mom.

A man leads his family. My dad was the north star of our family. My brother remarked recently that his absence at the dinner table is deeply felt not because of an empty chair but because he himself -- with his moral clarity and sharp intellect -- was the guide to our navigation of the world. He made us feel safe and bold: my three brothers and I were on our own journey but he was the guardrail that kept us on the path of truth.

My dad was the first person I called to get advice, from career goals (“Don’t go to law school”) to relationship dynamics (“Choose the one that prioritizes you”). He loved babies and never thought of them as impediments to a woman’s career. He was overjoyed at both of my pregnancies and never stopped encouraging me to achieve more professionally. One of the things I will miss most is how proud he always was of me, how loved I always felt.

A man is disciplined and loves God. It seems impossible that one man can have all of this -- a supreme intellect, a mission-driven career, and a rich family life. Then again, my dad woke up at 4:30 every morning. It wasn’t to work out or scour the news. He woke before dawn to start his day in prayer, do spiritual reading, and attend the 6:30 mass. A Catholic convert, he was deeply devout and brought many people to the faith.

Ultimately what I saw growing up was that a man gives God what He asks of all of us -- our whole heart. And when God called his heart back to Himself a year ago, my dad began his last day on earth as he began every normal day of his life: by going to Mass and worshiping God. 

So what can one man’s portrait show us? Sure, social norms and traditional expectations can be respectfully discussed and debated. Sexual aggression and violence should be exposed and eradicated. But I believe those things can be achieved without an end to masculinity itself.

We shouldn’t be so quick to kill off masculinity in the next generation because we may find we’ve killed off a lot of the things masculinity fosters -- boldness, service, leadership, discipline, romance and love. Do we really want to end a way of life in which good men lead and stand tall?

Let’s keep masculinity alive for our dead men, and for the little girls who loved them.

Julia Slingsby was until recently communications director for the House Committee on Ways and Means