This role can be imagined as men forming a kind of defensive outer circle or wall, within which the more vulnerable qualities of women are able to flourish.
Such a concept only works, of course, if men highly regard what they are protecting; in other words, it implies a respect by men for the more feminine life that exists within the realm they are defending.
The male protector role operated firstly at the family level. Men, whether as husbands, brothers or fathers, were expected to provide material comfort and security; to physically defend the family from attack; and to be a source of emotional reassurance.
The role operated also at a larger social level. Men physically defended the larger community from foreign armies and they upheld the formal public structures needed to support a human community.
A dying role?
The American actress Meg Ryan recently had this to say about modern men:
Why are men confused? Is it because they have this role to play and women don't need them to play that role any more? Because women are more self-reliant. I don't understand why it's so mystifying for men.
Meg Ryan is expressing here the modern attitude in which women are no longer supposed to need male protection, because they aim to be independent and self-reliant. The male protector role is supposed to be redundant.
How did this change of attitude come about? Primarily, it's due to the political philosophy which Western intellectuals have adopted en masse. Western intellectuals follow an ideal of liberal individualism, in which human dignity requires that we be self-created by our own individual will and reason.
The aim is that we become unimpeded, autonomous individuals. It's hardly surprising, given this aim, that it should be considered wrong for women to be dependent on male protection. According to this philosophy it is more correct for a woman to aim at independence.
A young man of today will grow up in a world which can be demoralising to his protective instincts. He is likely to see endless images of kick-boxing women, of women in the army and the police force, and of female body-builders. He is likely also to observe the intense careerism of women in their 20s and an ever-rising number of single mothers.
He will often hear women like Meg Ryan talk of the redundancy of the male role in society and of the need for men to take on a more feminine role in relationships and in society.
Most of all, he is likely to have a sense that it is useless to try and protect what no longer exists. If women join men on the outer defensive wall, then what exactly is it at the centre of life that is being protected? What is all the effort of society for?
Should a young man give in to all this? I don't think so. If you look carefully, the protector role still has its place, even within a radically liberal society.
In what ways has the male protector role survived?
Firstly, many women haven't lost the general psychological need for masculine protection. For instance, journalist Jane Freeman notes the complaints of some of her female friends regarding their husbands,
Like my friend Anna ... who has just had her first baby. "I guess every so often when I was pregnant I thought it would be nice if he was taking heavy boxes out of my arms or insisting that I stop work at six months and have a nice rest ..."
Similar experience for Belinda ... "When I was hugely pregnant, I was still staggering around lugging all the groceries in. And even when we go on holidays now he expects me to pack the car, whereas I remember when I was a kid that was always Dad's job. I guess it's a sign that he sees me as competent but ..."
Caroline, the capable businesswoman, was lamenting the disappearance of chivalry when she had to join her husband in Sydney ... "He was already up there so he told me I should just lob into the airport, grab a cab and join him at the hotel. It did occur to me that my dad would never have dreamed of letting my mum walk into the airport alone, wrestle with her own bags and then queue for a taxi while he sat around in a hotel room. I know it's because my partner thinks of me as so independent and self-sufficient, which is true, but ..."
But what? Women are perfectly capable of doing all those traditionally "male" jobs ... But where does this odd yearning for the occasional piece of male protection come from? ... maybe it's human nature." (The Age, 8/3/98)
In fact the three women quoted above aren't alone. A 1997 Australian survey asked whether it was a husband's role to provide protection for his wife. 75% overall agreed with this statement (although amongst younger people the figure dropped to 68%).
Nor is this surviving support for masculine protection simply a psychological leftover from an earlier age. It still has its practical benefits for women.
For instance, a woman is still likely to feel more physically secure in the company of her husband. Deborah Forster gives a glimpse into this when she writes,
The other night I went for a walk in Melbourne just before the sun set. I walked with my husband through the inner city streets ... We walked through the cold air in our coats. It's not something you'd want to do alone; people swim towards you out of the dark and somehow these days we seem to fear so much, but with my tall companion beside me, it was all right. (Age, 12/7/96)
Men can also still help to protect women by providing emotional strength, stability and reassurance. The American comedienne Ruby Wax has paid tribute to her husband Ed Bye in this regard, calling him her "human Valium".
It's important to remember also that even in modern life a woman needs some amount of protection if her softer, feminine nature is to survive. Kate Fischer, the Australian model and actress, has spoken of this when describing her efforts to forge a film career. She has admitted that,
The people in Hollywood can be very pushy and will walk over you unless you have very strong boundaries.
I've found I've had to become a bit pushy in return, and sometimes a bit tough, and I don't like that.
I don't want to become a hard woman. (Herald Sun, 15/11/ 2000)
Similarly, there is Juanita Plas, married to an American farmer, who admits that she has been hardened by the struggle to survive on the land. She says, "He married me because I was soft and sensitive but I would not have survived the last few years if I was so soft and sensitive as I was then." (Age 3/2/200)
It's still the case, then, that a man can help the more feminine qualities of his wife to unfold if he is able to shield her from some of the harsher aspects of making a living.
Finally, male protectiveness is still an important part of creating stable relationships between men and women.
The independent modern girl ethos tries to make sex appeal alone the basis of relationships. That's why there's so much emphasis in magazines like Cleo and Cosmo on sexual technique, and it's also why films like Charlie's Angels combine a high level of female independence (women who can more than take care of themselves in physical combat) with a high level of sex appeal.
But there's a flaw to this. If relationships are based on sex appeal alone, then the more self-confident men will go from one relationship to another, taking their pleasure with many different women. This isn't what most women want to happen.
Those men, though, who choose to follow not only the sex instinct, but the protector instinct as well, are more likely to prefer monogamy. These men will want to set up their own family life, through which they can exercise their protective instincts, and they will be reluctant to harm through infidelity what they have sworn to protect.
Making it work
It's true that it would be unwise for men with wives or girlfriends in their 20s to be too open about male protectiveness. Women in this age group often believe fervently in the independent modern girl ethos.
By the early 30s, though, many women don't want to do it alone anymore. If men can fulfil the protector role intelligently at this time, it can be well-received.
In the meantime, we need to work to overturn the underlying liberal principle of individualism which creates the ideal of autonomy in the first place. Rather than seeking an atomistic independence, we need to return to the goal of a balanced interdependence of men and women.
(First published at Conservative Central 09/11/2003)