As the landscape of gender equality continues to evolve, the role fathers are playing in the divorced family has changed. The “fathers’ rights” movement, as it’s come to be called, grew out of these social changes. That much is certain.
But attempting to clearly define the movement is an invitation into a labyrinth of competing ideologies and goals. One strain of the fathers’ rights movement seeks greater custody rights for divorced dads and increased maternal child-support responsibilities when the divorced mom is employed. But there is an angrier, more strident side to the fathers’ rights movement espoused by men’s rights activists (MRAs), rooted in reactionary dialog about gender roles and the declining power of men in general.
The history of fathers’ rights
Organized attempts at a unified, national fathers’ rights movement have been riddled with failure since the 1970s. Successes have occurred at the state level: just this year, over 20 states have seen a strong effort to pass equal custody laws, and most states now have some system of child support debt forgiveness for men who fail to pay.
But their tactics have not always been within the boundaries of the law—far from it, in fact. Rudy Johnson, famous in the movement for overturning the tender years doctrine in Alaska to win custody of his children, was previously jailed numerous times for removing his children from their home and hiding them with his supporters in other states.
In the 1970s, this process of collaborative “child snatching” was widely utilized, most notoriously by Eugene “Mean Gene” Austin, founder of the Missouri Council on Family Law, who claimed to have stolen more than 500 children, mostly from mothers.
Radicalized and misogynist elements still hamper efforts to achieve wider acceptance, but the fathers’ rights movement has come a long way in opening the discourse on what a father’s role in raising children and supporting a family actually is.
Separating the good from the bad
Social changes in the 1960s and 1970s—notably the emergence of no-fault divorce and a sharp rise in divorce rates—gave rise to a kind of divorce bargain: more custody rights to the father in return for increased financial responsibility for child support.
But the 1970s also saw the rise of the women’s liberation movement and greater employment opportunities for women, including divorced mothers. While some divorced fathers cheered their ex-wives’ employment as a means to offset their own financial responsibilities, others began to question the divorce bargain altogether, condemning their ex-wives as opportunists who wished to multiply their new incomes by stealing theirs.
Further fragmenting the movement is a breed of activist that exploits anger among fathers as a recruitment tactic. “The Men’s rights movement is often dismissed as a ‘bunch of angry men.’ Of course they‘re angry—justifiably so, just as Blacks were/are angry about their treatment at the hands of slaveholders,” writes Richard Doyle, an influential voice in MRA.
Sound extreme? Doyle’s rhetoric is tame compared to much of what’s on Men Going Their Own Way, an influential MRA website. Consider this, one of the site’s less egregious passages: “[Sons] have to pick up the tab for dad’s dinner, because his [sic] going broke trying to support mom, her new live-in boyfriend, and a 12 year old he’s not certain is even his.”
Fathers’ rights: who are they for?
Given its troubled history and more extreme elements, it’s not surprising that a persistent criticism of the fathers’ rights movement is that it’s fueled by a disjointed mob of middle class, reactionary white men who cannot agree on a common vision. But too often, the media fails to differentiate between the rage of the MRA and the valid concerns of activists who wish to change laws so they better reflect a changing society. And then there is the (not entirely fictional) narrative of the low income man, struggling to make ends meet, who finds himself perpetually in and out of jail because he cannot make his child support payments.
With the changing role of fathers in 21st century America, the movement has gained new, less militant proponents wishing to redefine fatherhood in the eyes of the law, and help low income fathers become more economically independent. At the same time, the stage is flooded with loud voices that claim solidarity with anti-woman, MSA rhetoric. If the former wish to be heard and make positive changes to family law, the latter must be shown the door.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.
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