Fathers' Rights Movement:
Backlash or Birthright?
1995 Troy A. McGinnis
SOC 396 Family and Kinship
Professor Norval D. Glenn
The Fathers' Rights Movement:
Troy A. McGinnis
The appearance of small "fathers' rights" groups in the United States seems to be an anomaly. While "fathers' rights" advocates claim the goal of the movement is equality in parenting after divorce, numerous studies point to a general unwillingness of men to remain involved with or provide consistent support to the children of their failed marriages. More often than not, advocacy for stronger fatherhood is casually dismissed as a nostalgia-driven patriarchal backlash against the advances made by women in recent years. This paper examines an alternative explanation for the emergence of this particular kind of men's rights activism: that most fathers' rights activists are motivated less by nostalgia and patriarchal traditionalism than by (1) a heightened sensitivity to gender-based social inequality and (2) a commitment to correction of inequities in family matters. It is intriguing that both these motivators could be at least partly attributable to the enduring success of feminism and the women's movement in changing traditional ideas about male gender roles in families. Using an original survey distributed in November, 1995, to more than 4,000 men associated with fathers' rights activism, I examine men's attitudes toward women and about manhood; child rearing and divorce; and definitions of fatherhood in the American family system. Very tentatively, the data suggest that while men in the movement strongly claim to be anti-feminist, they nevertheless do not appear to adhere very strongly to traditional attitudes regarding marriage or divorce, nor is it evident that these men highly value traditional gender roles for men or women, either at home or work. The possibility exists that the fathers' rights movement, though embryonic at this point, signals a realignment of men's perceptions of parental rights, responsibilities and relative status that more closely parallels women's perceptions, a precondition that could herald the entry of some but not all men into the realm of identity politics on the basis of their commitment to paternity.
The Fathers' Rights Movement:
1995 Troy A. McGinnis
TABLE 1. TOWARD GENDER EQUALITY
TABLE 2. THE RETREAT FROM TRADITIONAL MANHOOD
TABLE 3. RETREAT FROM TRADITIONALISM IN MARRIAGE
TABLE 4. DEFINING FATHERHOOD
TABLE 5. THE POLITICS OF MANHOOD
THE FATHERS' RIGHTS MOVEMENT:
Troy A. McGinnis
In 1949, Margaret Mead wrote, "Only if we perpetuate the habit of speaking about the `position of women' in a vacuum will we fail to recognize that where one sex suffers, the other sex suffers also."[1
Her words, writ large on the dawn of the era sometimes called the "deviant decade," ushered in the 1950's--the benchmark from which sociologists measure the changes in the American social fabric that have ultimately shaped contemporary debates on the future of the family (Skolnick, 1993). It was the era in which the development of the modern nuclear family reached its apogee. Having evolved in step with industrial capitalism, the family of the 1950s no less than its Victorian predecessors was characterized by a sharp and at least in hindsight unfair division of work and family roles between men and women, respectively; a shift toward an individualistic, love-centered approach to marriage; isolation of the family unit from other social structures and actors under a "doctrine of privacy;" and elevation of the mother-child bond to primacy among family relationships as women at home invested more of their personal resources in fewer children while men enjoyed the broad social privileges afforded the family "breadwinner" (Stacey, 1990: 8; Gerson, 1993).
By the end of the 1950's, the "habit" of separating the social worlds of men and women had reached a critical juncture, a point where the demands of social life came into conflict with desires for personal happiness. It became obvious, most especially to suburb-bound housewives, that separate lives meant differential privilege for men and women, a fact which awoke what had been a dormant women's movement (Skolnick, 1993). Dissatisfaction with the traditional and institutional constraints placed on women's lives exploded in the 1960s, resulting in the sociocultural shock wave that would forever alter the trajectory of marital negotiation and family development: a revived feminism that forcefully prodded women and men to seriously question the assumptions by which gendered norms had been established. No longer do we speak of the position of women in a vacuum. The sustained momentum of feminism over the last thirty years has steadily driven the runaway separate spheres of social, economic, and political life toward a more synchronous orbit around concepts of social equality and egalitarian family arrangements between men and women.
But where one sex suffers, so does the other. Men and women are staying in marriages for shorter periods of time, despite trends toward delaying marriage (ostensibly to avoid mistakes of immaturity, or to assess risk). One of many explanations for the decline of marital stability is offered by sociologist Scott South (1995), who has linked marital dissolution trends with women's increased mobility and subsequent opportunities to encounter alternative spouses, arguing that unmarried women in the work force increase the probability that a man will divorce. It logically follows that married women in the work force will also encounter alternatives, and that some of these encounters will lead to divorce. Despite increased social acceptability of the practice, divorce, along with out-of-wedlock childbearing, appears to be the significant driving force behind a two-pronged trend: the feminization of poverty and the alarming number of children who are living in poverty (Blankenhorn, 1995; Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991; Garfinkel and McLanahan, 1986). Contrary to early expectations, the retreat from traditionalism has come at an unreasonably high cost for today's women. Is the same true for men?
Margaret Mead's words might be as telling today as they were almost 40 years ago, only now, the vacuum is caused by the absence of fathers and their economic resources, and we are failing to acknowledge changes in the position of men. While fathers' rights advocates claim the primary goal of the movement is equality in parenting after divorce, studies habitually point to a general unwillingness of men to remain involved with or provide consistent support to the children of their failed marriages (Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991). Fatherlessness, then, is associated with the largely negative impact of family change since the 1960s on the quality of life of American women, even in the face of improved access to educational and economic opportunities, easier access to divorce, legal safeguards that protect women from unwanted pregnancy, increased access to contraception and lower fertility overall, and social policy and welfare programs (however ultimately inadequate) designed to mitigate social and economic burdens of divorce, and childrearing when fathers are not present in the household.
No one can deny that while fathers might once have enjoyed privileges not extended to their wives, maintaining the advantage has become difficult if not impossible, and that privilege is more "subject to public challenge and renegotiation than in the past" (Goode, 1992:146). The point is well taken. The proportion of young men who earned enough to keep a family of four above the poverty line fell nine percent between 1967 and 1987 in the United States, while the number of dual-earner families doubled from 34 to 68 percent in roughly the same time period. As women's contributions to household finances rise, so does the divorce rate ]as well as the rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing among employed women. As divorced fathers age, they are increasingly more likely to live alone, and "adult children spend less time and money on an elderly father if they had infrequent contact with him when young" (Riche, 1991). Kathleen Gerson is dispassionate when she writes, "Fathers who wish to sustain strong parental attachments may find that they have to work harder than they anticipated to keep their children in their lives" (1993: 273), apparently failing to grasp the implication: that if a man's opportunities to interact with his young children have been restricted or permanently disrupted by divorce, it has become almost reasonable to assume that he will die alone.
The latent appearance of fathers' rights organizations in the United States seems to conflict with the contemporary goals of gender equality in family relations and responsibilities. In this paper, my goal is to examine fathers' rights activism from the perspective of individual activists, and identify the personal, social, and political contexts from which it is slowly emerging. This approach contrasts with currently fashionable approaches to the study of family change, especially when gender is a factor. Feminist scholars and others have consistently characterized any organized response by men to shifting family norms as collective knee-jerk reactions to women's gains in social status and power. The generalized charge that "the rise in divorce, nonmarital sexual partnerships, and out-of-wedlock childbearing has given men an escape hatch from the demands of primary breadwinning" (Gerson, 1993: 22, italics added) is subjective language that reflects a tendency in the literature to promote a monolithic male stereotype--the man who shies from commitment (see Stacey, 1990; Gerson, 1993; and Skolnick, 1993). The implication is that without the social privilege and advantage that accompany the "breadwinner" role historically associated with familial responsibility, "men can rely only on previous tradition, on power, or on their attempts to socialize their children to shore up their faltering advantages" (Goode, 1992: 145). Such a perspective overdetermines the causes of male resistance to the emergence of a post-modern or post-nuclear family system, reducing explanations of discrete phenomena to general rationalizations about male behavior. The result is an epistemological blind spot which hides the possibility that within its own unique strata, the male sex-class is undergoing transformation to assimilate a new social reality in which men and women have equal stake and power. One such transformation is manifest in the fathers' rights movement.
To call a fathers' rights movement a knee-jerk reaction is to engage in intellectual traditionalism, to apply a myopic interpretation of gender dynamics that assumes the position of men is immutable. In this study, the question at issue is whether the fathers' rights movement signals a realignment of men's perceptions of parental rights, responsibilities and relative status, or if it is simply the latest example of ideological backlash against feminism by angry patriarchal traditionalists who no longer have the power to constrain the social order in their favor. If the former is true, I argue, then the enduring success of feminism and the women's movement in changing traditional ideas about male gender roles has itself provided at least a partial ideological foundation from which a legitimate fathers' rights movement is being launched within the male sex-class. I hypothesize that this is in fact the case: within the fathers' rights movement, we should find men who are motivated less by nostalgia and patriarchal traditionalism than by (1) a heightened sensitivity to gender-based social inequality and (2) a commitment to correction of inequities in family matters. Fatherhood, for these men, is the defining characteristic of self, and is the vehicle by which they enter the fray of gender and identity politics that dominates post-modern family policy debates.
The fathers' rights movement is a history-making movement, in that it marks the first entrance of the so-called "angry white male" into the societal debate on civil rights. What must be clarified, however, is the nature and goal of the movement, which I suspect we can only begin to uncover through qualitative research on contemporary fatherhood in an environment of extreme instability. For purposes of this paper, I wish to know if the fathers' rights movement is a backlash against family change, or a consequence of it. I want to know how, if at all, fathers' rights activists are different from other fathers, past and present.
Unfortunately, the question is framed incorrectly by many researchers: "Are men changing, or are they remaining steadfastly traditional despite the shift in women's lives? If some men are changing, then how? Are they becoming more egalitarian in response to women's insistent demands, or are they rejecting their historical responsibilities in a continual search for unbridled freedom?" (Gerson, 1993: 5). There are two problems here. The first is the assumption that the shift in women's lives is causal. If patriarchy exists, then we can hardly expect men to consider women's lives to have relevance to men prima facie. The real question is whether the shift in men's lives that occurs when social equality is approached leads to acceptance of more egalitarianism and increased rejection of traditionalism. The second problem is the implication that for men, change is considered positive when responsibility to women increases, and personal autonomy is minimized. The opposite is true when we are discussing changes in women's lives, which may reflect an inappropriate bias. This seems to be a contradiction to the individual rights movement that drove the revolt against the family and other traditionally authoritarian institutions in the 1960s, and established personal autonomy as a guiding cultural and legal assumption in gender relations (Hafen, 1990).
Men involved in fathers' rights activism present a unique dilemma, in that they are fighting for rights that in the parlance of the women's movement are not rights at all, but privileges. Why are these men, who are committed to their children, who want to share parenting, who want to be a part of their children's lives even after an emotionally devastating event like divorce, treated so indifferently by social science, and feminist social science in particular? On the face, it appears that fathers' rights activists might be the kind of men feminist activists have wanted to see all along; the ideal men that social progress was supposed to produce. Yet these men remain ignored by policy-makers, ostracized by social activists, and marginalized by the popular press because they claim parenthood as a collection of personal rights. Even pro-feminist male writers recognize the inadequacy of this treatment. "To pretend that men's pain is irrelevant to women in understandable, but unwise," writes Mark Gerzon (1992: 129). "It will not result in equality, much less in intimacy."
If indeed such rights are privileges, we should expect these men to hold conservative, nonprogressive values. We should expect them to exhibit a high degree of commitment to traditional gender roles and household arrangements. We should expect them to conform to traditional models of manhood and masculinity. We should expect them to see women as inferior to men. In short, if fathers' rights are nothing but patriarchal privileges restated, then we should see a rejection of progressive ideas about gender, marriage and family. We should see attitudinal stances that signal a backlash.
A "Survey of Fathers' Rights Activists" was developed to measure commitment to traditional or patriarchal roles in men who are active or have a compelling interest in their rights and responsibilities as parents. The 228-item self-administered survey was used to examine men's attitudes toward women and about manhood; their marital expectations and behaviors; shifts in political views over the course of marriage; approaches to childrearing and divorce; and men's definitions of modern fatherhood. A partial review of the general findings is presented in this paper.
The survey was distributed October 31, 1995, and responses were accepted until November 15, 1995. Time constraints and limited financial resources made the Internet the only avenue by which data could be gathered inexpensively and relatively rapidly, so the survey was designed for delivery via electronic mail. Respondents received the survey as a text document, answered the questions on screen, then returned the completed survey directly to the researcher.
Most questions were built on a Likert scale with five response categories to record the character and strength of respondents' commitment to a particular idea about gender, masculinity, equality, or family life. The scale represents a rough continuum between "traditional" and "egalitarian" beliefs, and a number of questions are reversed to provide validity checks and to control as much as possible the tendency of these men to respond in a socially-desirable way. A strong commitment to traditionalism would be indicative of the kind of "patriarchal backlash" against feminism described by critics of fatherhood and fathers' rights activism.
Working under the assumption that patriarchal or traditional values would be the norm among fathers' activists, I identified an activist distribution list on the Internet whose membership had expressly endorsed an anti-feminist agenda for activism: the Father's Manifesto. In August, this document was circulated to various discussion groups on the Internet, including fathers' rights and men's rights newsgroups. The document solicited support for equal rights for men in parenting, and assigned the responsibility for American family decline and its associated detriments to government over-involvement in family matters and to feminism, particularly. Signatories to the Fathers' Manifesto were drawn from several bona fide fathers' rights organizations, and by October, the Fathers' Manifesto reported that more than 3,000 individuals had signed the document.
"Signing" the document in this case involves returning a mail message to the distributor stating support, meaning that the e-mail address of each signatory was added to the Fathers' Manifesto news distribution list. When contacted, the distributor agreed to circulate the "Survey of Fathers' Rights Activists" to the signatories of the original document. As a result, this survey was transmitted at the end of October to approximately 4,000 individual Internet addresses. Although the final sample probably does not reflect the actual population of divorced men with children (which is not the intent), it does identify a group of mostly white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class men with estranged wives and/or children, who according to popular ideological assumptions would be most likely to report a strong commitment to patriarchal traditionalism.
In total, 48 responses were received. Two responses were invalidated, leaving a total sample of 46. Respondents ranged from 27 to 59 years of age with a mean (and median) age of 40 years. Seventy percent of the men surveyed hold a bachelor's or higher degree. Average annual income in the sample approaches $40,000. About 65% of the men married for the first time when they were 25 years old or younger, and about 54% had divorced by the time they were 31. Ten percent of these first marriages lasted 20 years or more, but fully 75% of all first marriages in this survey lasted 10 years or less, and more than half of those marriages (45% of the total number of first marriages) had dissolved by the 5-year mark.[2
Currently, 58% of the respondents are divorced and living single, while 30% are currently in second or subsequent marriages. The remaining 12% are cohabiting with a romantic interest or are still in their first marriages.
The overwhelming determinant of character for the survey was the fact that it was delivered via the Internet. For the most part, ethnic composition of the sample reflects current census data and market research on ethnicity of Internet users, with 82% white, 4.4% Hispanic, 4.4% Native American, 2.2% Asian American, and 6.7% other/non-identified. Interestingly enough, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans are slightly over-represented in the sample, yet African American men are not represented at all. Despite black fathers' under-representation in the sample, however, 42% of respondents reported that the "crisis of fatherhood" is most acute for African Americans while 30% believe the crisis is most acute in the white population. More telling, perhaps, is that 20% of respondents said the crisis was most severe in the "Other" category, which was universally specified as "all" segments of the population.
The preliminary findings do not support the characterization of the fathers' rights movement as a mobilization of traditionalists. In the absence of this so-called "backlash," what becomes salient in the data is a marked level of egalitarian thinking among these men, and a tendency to describe their views about marriage, manhood, and family in individualistic terms. The data suggest that while men in the movement strongly claim to be anti-feminist, they nevertheless do not appear to adhere very strongly to traditional attitudes regarding marriage or divorce, nor is it evident that these men highly value traditional gender roles for men or women, either at home or work. They are less concerned with having power over women than with having power over the events and experiences that shape their own lives, which suggests that the fathers' rights movement might in fact be the newest manifestation of the civil rights movement.
In this paper, five general trends are identified in the data. Three lend support to the hypothesis that fathers' activists tend to exhibit a heightened sensitivity to gender-based social inequality, while the other two are indicative of a sense of alienation among these men that might motivate them to collectively act on perceptions of current structural inequalities between men and women.
Are men in this movement sensitive to gender inequality? Table 1 shows survey items that measure commitment to traditional female gender stereotypes, and items that measure commitment to or acceptance of expanded social roles for women. The trend is clear: in almost every category, these men appear to take the egalitarian view of women as equal participants in society. The indicators in the social and political areas are particularly strong. There is no infantilization here: women are perceived as intelligent, capable, and equal contributors to civic life. In moderate contrast, however, it must be noted that related to women's employment, the tendency toward egalitarianism appears to be weaker. In particular, the responses to "No job is too dangerous for a woman" reflects a lingering paternalism on the part of these men. Unfortunately, this deviation cannot be explained by the data. Given less strongly paternalistic responses on other questions regarding employment, however, one explanation that might be offered is that these men see some jobs as dangerous for both men and women, but such conjecture cannot be confirmed from these data.
The three sex-oriented questions in Table 1 suggest that sexual negotiation between men and women is seen much less from the dominant-male perspective. These men recognize, for instance, that modern women are subject to the same temptations as men, and perceive that women might be as likely to act on them. The reported reluctance to end a marriage after a single extramarital affair might result from two factors. The first could be that men are covering for their own marital misdeeds after the fact. The second might be that these men are or have been more likely to believe that renegotiation of their primary relationships after sexual transgressions is an acceptable alternative to divorce.
Most interesting in this group of questions are those regarding respondents' attitudes toward feminism. More than half the respondents reported that they had supported the goals of feminism at one time, but no longer do. Instead, these men apparently see feminism as a divisive ideology. Given the age and level of education of most of these men, coupled with their relatively liberal perceptions of women, it is unlikely that they have formed their opinions out of ignorance. They clearly perceive feminism today as being exclusionary, and contradictory to the achievement of equality between men and women. It must be emphasized here that the negative response to feminism does not translate into a negative view of women.
Table 1. Toward Gender Equality
Strongl Agree Neither Disagree Strongly y agree agree disagree nor disagree Women are as smart as men 26.1 43.5 21.7 4.3 4.3 If the ERA were on the ballot at 28.3 26.1 19.6 8.7 17.4 the next election, I would vote for it. If I had my way, women would not 13.0 4.3 2.2 23.9 56.5 be allowed to vote The contributions of women are at 30.4 37.0 10.9 17.4 4.3 least as important as the contributions of men to human social history and culture. No job is too dangerous for a 15.2 19.6 13.0 34.8 17.4 woman. There is no such thing as a 15.2 17.4 37.0 26.1 4.3 "glass ceiling" for women in the workplace. I have more problems at work when 13.0 17.4 41.3 19.6 8.7 my boss is a woman than when my boss is a man. Most employers penalize women for 6.7 22.2 24.4 31.1 15.6 having children. My daughter will have to work 2.2 23.9 26.1 32.6 15.2 harder than my son to achieve the same success at work. Women control men's sexuality. 30.4 37.0 28.3 4.3 0.0 Women are not as willing as men 6.5 10.9 13.0 26.1 43.5 to cheat on their partners A marriage need not end in 22.2 51.1 13.3 11.1 2.2 divorce because of a single extramarital affair. Feminism is the same thing as 0.0 10.9 6.5 21.7 60.9 women's rights. The goal of feminism is equality 4.3 2.2 2.2 26.1 65.2 for men and women. I used to be supportive of 34.8 32.6 19.6 10.9 2.2 feminism, but I no longer am.
The second observed trend in the data is a retreat from traditional male stereotypes and a general rejection of rigid definitions of masculinity. Measures of commitment to traditional male gender and family roles are shown in Table 2. Many measures were constructed from the assumption that traditional masculinity is "toxic" (Pittman, 1992a) or damaging to men themselves (Rotundo, 1993). This set of questions also attempts to clarify the role of "nostalgia" (Skolnick, 1993) in the fathers' rights movement.
Once again, the data reflect a strong tendency away from traditionalism, and an awareness of gender as a basis of social inequality. Patriarchy is recognized as an organizing principle, but its privileges are rejected. Nostalgia for the 1950s would not seem to be particularly strong, although the responses in the neutral category suggest that men are ambivalent about current social conditions.
How these men see manhood, and themselves, is telling. Notably, much of the work of feminist historians and sociologists turns on the designation of gender as the decisive variable, the key to a rich understanding of the social order both historically and contemporarily. It has been suggested that such an approach is a way of "seeing the formerly unseen" (Cott, 1990: 208). Respondents' reports that gender is important to the formation of personal identity suggests agreement with this viewpoint, that gender is in fact decisive. Interestingly, the stereotype of "aggressive male" is retained, and the perception of higher expectations for men is also expressed, yet these men report that they themselves are not quite "typical" men. In other words, they are aware of dangerous stereotypes, and tend to avoid them; they are seeing the formerly unseen.
Respondents strongly reject traditional models of manhood, preferring a more fluid definition of the masculine self. Tenderness, nurturance, and other traditionally "feminine" predispositions are viewed as positive aspects of manhood. Although these men see masculinity as distinct from femininity, it is not clear how that distinction is drawn. The data suggest that masculinity and femininity are not distinguished by traditional stereotypes, e.g. women as emotional, and men as hardened or insensitive. In fact, the men in this sample endorse expressiveness and emotionality. Unlike the men of the 1950s, these men know when to cry.
Table 2. The Retreat from Traditional Manhood
Strongl Agree Neither Disagree Strongly y agree agree disagree nor disagree I am a typical man. 8.7 37.0 21.7 23.9 8.7 Men are naturally more aggressive 8.7 45.7 13.0 19.6 13.0 than women. Patriarchy is real. 17.4 21.7 39.1 13.0 8.7 Real men don't do housework. 6.5 0.0 10.9 30.4 52.2 A man's job is to earn money 8.7 17.4 23.9 26.1 23.9 outside the home, and a woman's job is to manage the home and raise the children. I would like to have been a man 13.0 8.7 52.2 13.0 13.0 in the 1950s. Being a man is better than being 2.2 10.9 63.0 8.9 13.3 a woman. I feel like people expect more of 48.9 35.6 13.3 2.2 0.0 me because of my gender. A person's sex is important to 32.6 50.0 6.5 6.5 4.3% his or her personal identity. Men want the same things out of 0.0 34.8 21.7 26.1 17.4 life as women. Unless a man is in touch with his 6.5 15.2 23.9 32.6 21.7 feminine side, he cannot grow emotionally. It is naive to think that grown 10.9 4.3 8.7 39.1 37.0 men can be raped or sexually assaulted. Heterosexual men and homosexual 6.5 10.9 37.0 32.6 13.0 men are more alike then they are different. Masculinity means different 28.3 52.2 4.3 13.0 2.2 things to different people. There is no universal definition of manhood. Traditional masculine stereotypes 60.9 26.1 4.3 6.5 2.2 that depict men as insensitive, tough and domineering are harmful. Tenderness, nurturance, the 2.2 6.5 4.3 43.5 43.5 desire for connection, and cooperation skills are not very masculine. When a person is hurting 26.1 52.2 13.0 8.7 0.0 emotionally, it often helps to cry. Sons in this society generally 4.4 15.6 28.9 40.0 11.1 have had a better chance of becoming successful adults than daughters.
So far, the data have consistently described fathers' rights activists as anything but traditional, under the strict definition of the word. It was expected that even if other measures failed to uncover a strong commitment to traditional arrangements, the responses to questions regarding marriage would. This has not been the case. Instead, respondents appear to be highly distrustful of the marital union, and do not appear to be interested in restoring traditional marital arrangements or in engaging traditional roles in marriage. In fact, this departure from traditional attitudes about marriage is contradictory to the values reportedly instilled by their parents.[3
Table 3 shows the response patterns to questions regarding marriage. Almost 90 percent report that they were taught that males were dominant in the household, yet they also report that husbands have no more decision-making power than wives. Marital values also show signs of change. "Love" is the most important element of an equal partnership in which men care for and spend time with their children, and husbands and wives have more or less equal opportunities for personal fulfillment. Although there is evidence of a slightly pro-father bias, these men do not see men or women as having an innate ability to parent, a sign that these men are embracing a more liberal or environmentalist view of parenting within marriage, which is hardly what a patriarchal backlash model would predict.
In viewing this data, however, we cannot forget that we are dealing with divorced fathers: men who feel that their rights as parents have been stripped from them. Divorce is viewed very negatively. These men believed that marriage would be a one-time event, a singular opportunity to have the children they report to have always wanted. When we describe divorced fathers as angry, we might consider the possibility that increasing social pressure to abandon traditionalism has encouraged men to believe that by giving up "power" or "privilege," their relationships might be more secure. A cursory review of the literature debunks this myth, and provides a possible explanation for male anger in the face of divorce that is richer than the predicted patriarchal tantrum. The relative ease with which divorce is obtained might seem to them symbolic of a breach of good faith: despite their liberal views on marital arrangements and parenting, equality oriented gender expectations, and retreat from traditional manhood, they were still unable to avoid divorce. In other words, they were not part of a relationship in which power was shared equally; rather, they were made powerless. Again, the changes in ]men's lives are more relevant than those in women's lives when assessing trends in the male sex-class.
Table 3. Retreat from traditionalism in Marriage
Strongl Agree Neither Disagree Strongly y agree agree disagree nor disagree I was taught to believe that when 47.8 41.3 8.7 0.0 2.2 a man and woman married, the man was ultimately responsible for the family. A husband has more say over 0.0 19.6 21.7 37.0 21.7 family decisions than a wife does. Marriage is an equal partnership 50.0 32.6 6.5 6.5 4.3 between two individuals. The love between a man and a 41.3 23.9 2.2 28.3 4.3 woman is the single most important component of marriage. Men care more about their wives 0.0 8.7 37.0 39.1 15.2 than they do about their children. Men should spend more time with 47.8 34.8 10.9 2.2 4.3 their children than they do. I married too young. 17.8 24.4 8.9 35.6 13.3 I always believed that I would 50.0 38.6 9.1 2.3 0.0 only marry one time. I have always wanted to have 39.5 30.2 2.3 27.9 0.0 children. Divorce is too easy to get now. 63.6 20.5 4.5 11.4 0.0 Getting a divorce was the best 13.3 24.4 22.2 24.4 15.6 thing that ever happened to me. A wife has the right to work 29.5 47.7 13.6 6.8 2.3 outside the home even if her husband's income is sufficient to maintain the household. I trust my spouse/partner with my 22.2 42.2 20.0 13.3 2.2 money A husband has the right to stay 43.5 34.8 15.2 4.3 0.0 home to care for children if his wife's income is high enough to maintain the household. Women know innately how to be 4.3 19.6 15.2 39.1 21.7 good mothers. Men know innately how to be good 11.1 15.6 20.0 46.7 6.7 fathers. I sympathize with the problems 11.4 40.9 13.6 18.2 15.9 single mothers have in society today.
Chances are, men will not be fooled a second time. In the sample, only 44.4 percent reported that they had cohabited for more than six months with their first spouses. In sharp contrast, 86.7 percent reported that if he were currently single, he would cohabit with a prospective spouse or romantic partner before marriage. The tendency toward cohabitation, for whatever reason, is indicative of the continual decline of marriage and further retreat from traditionalism. Given that studies have shown that premarital cohabitation can multiply the risk of marital dissolution by as much as a factor of 80 (Bennett, et. al., 1988), it is reasonable to assume that adherence to traditional marital values--and expectations for marital success--is falling among men. Marriage is losing its power to define men in terms of parenting, and as will be shown, ultimately in terms of belonging .
The debate over the future contours of the male parental role is among the hottest in family studies, yet the academic discourse on the subject is remarkably shallow. The general consensus is simply that fatherhood is not what it used to be. But what was it in the first place? How has it changed? What is it becoming? An inability to somehow anchor masculinity in the discourse on family has given rise to the ironical "problem with no name" of the 1990s: fatherlessness (Blankenhorn, 1995: 1), a term which speaks as much to family structural change as it does to the vacuous superficiality of the academic debate. Attempts to answer pressing questions about fatherlessness--"why so many children have been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers" (Blankenhorn, 1995), why fathers withdraw support from their children shortly after divorce (Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991), and how policy can be developed to ensure that children in mother-headed or single-mother households will not suffer chronic disadvantage (Angel and Angel)--are most often, and notably most easily, framed in terms of lost income for single or divorced women and their children. What fatherlessness--or fatherhood, for that matter--means to men appears to be of little or no concern.
No doubt the substantive definition of fatherhood has changed, largely as the result of shifting cultural values and norms regarding marriage, divorce and childbearing. In an environment of marital instability, fatherhood is an uncertain occupation. Divorce attenuates men's financial and emotional commitments to estranged children (see Seltzer, 1994, for a recent review), and renders practical parenting meaningless and probably impossible for most divorced men. Nonmarital childbearing both within and outside cohabitational unions has doubled among whites of all ages in the last 20 years (Bumpass and Raley, 1995), which suggests that while the children of these unions might have fathers in a biological sense, the roles ascribed to these men do not necessarily constitute an institutional definition of fatherhood. It has been argued recently that the decline of marriage and the rapid decay of the male breadwinner role have "decultured" fatherhood, and transformed well-defined male social roles like "husband," "father," and "provider" into negative stereotypes, i.e. abusers, deadbeats, and philanderers easily targeted as the source of the very real social problems facing the American family (Blankenhorn, 1995).[4 This may or may not be true, but it does point to an inevitable circular conclusion: the structural conditions under which fatherlessness and its concomitant problems exist are the ]same conditions under which fatherhood in its traditional form does not or cannot exist. The change in fatherhood, then, is measured in terms of its absence, while the absence of fatherhood has come to prescribe the role of fathers in family and civic life.
In this study, fathers' rights activism is assumed to take issue with this post-modern prescription, and reject definitions of fatherhood that do not rely on traditionally sound institutional forces. Marriage is hypothesized to be the most powerful of such institutional forces, so the relative importance of marriage to fatherhood is specifically examined across the measures. Forced-choice questions were developed based on a dichotomous conceptualization of fatherhood as either "social" or "biological" (see Hiatt, 1990, for a review of relevant literature). Social fatherhood implies that men's relationships to children are governed by cultural norms and institutional constraints, and are characteristically transitive and context-dependent. Biological fatherhood, in contrast, is intransitive, and implies unavoidable commitment to children mandated by biological ties. Respondents were required to identify the qualitative aspects of the father role in these narrow terms.
Eighty-seven percent of the respondents reported that marriage is important to fatherhood, and almost half of those reported that it was "very important," a response pattern that tends to confirm the hypothesis that fathers' rights activists would reject a definition of fatherhood that did not include the institution of marriage. At first glance, response distributions in Table 4 also support the hypothesis. The sample is almost evenly divided over whether fatherhood is defined by biological relatedness in two distinct measures, but a clear majority see the level of social support provided by men to their offspring as definitive of what makes a father a father.
Table 4. Defining Fatherhood
Strongl Agree Neither Disagree Strongly y agree agree disagree nor disagree Men choose to be fathers the 0.0 4.3 4.3 45.7 45.7 moment they have sex with a woman. Fatherhood is not dependent on a 15.2 28.3 13.0 13.0 30.4 biological relationship, nor should it be. Fatherhood is defined by the 34.8 30.4 13.0 15.2 6.5 level of social support a man provides to his offspring. Fatherhood is defined by the 21.7 21.7 6.5 28.3 21.7 biological connection between a man and his offspring. Biological fathers who live apart 2.2 2.2 21.7 30.4 43.5 from their children should have less responsibility for them if the children are living with their mother and a stepfather. A biological father whose 60.9 23.9 8.7 2.2 4.3 offspring is conceived before, but born after the mother marries another man has a right to claim paternity and all the privileges associated with it. A biological father whose 4.4 26.7 40.0 8.9 20.0 offspring is conceived before, but born after the mother marries another man should pay child support to the married couple caring for his child. Married fathers are better 6.5 17.4 30.4 21.7 23.9 fathers. Never-married fathers should have 58.7 32.6 4.3 4.3 0.0 the same rights with respect to their children as divorced fathers. The man who is married to the 4.3 10.9 15.2 19.6 50.0 child(ren)'s mother is the father. The man who lives with the 2.2 4.3 21.7 23.9 47.8 child(ren) is the father. Single men should be allowed to 39.1 37.0 8.7 15.2 0.0 adopt children. When I have sex, I always assume 13.3 28.9 26.7 26.7 4.4 that I am responsible for birth control. Homosexual male couples in 6.5 13.0 19.6 10.9 50.0 committed relationships should be allowed to adopt children.
A closer inspection of the data, however, reveals contradictions. In the three situational questions in Table 4, respondents rejected the notion that non-resident fathers have reduced responsibility for their biological children, were uncertain whether fathers should be responsible for biological children born into other men's marriages, and strongly endorsed the notion that fathers have rights to their biological children no matter their own marital status or the marital status of the mother at the time of birth. Responses to these questions seriously challenge the notion that "institutional forces" like marriage define fatherhood, at least for these men.
Responses to questions that indirectly measure the relative importance of marriage to fatherhood do not explain respondents' commitment to defining it in social rather than biological terms. The idea of transitivity of the father role is soundly rejected, and marriage does not appear to condition fatherhood in this data. While this development is inconsistent with the hypothesis that marriage is the institutional force that shapes social fatherhood, and offer both challenge and support to recent research urging definition of single-parent families by living arrangements rather than marital status (Bumpass and Raley, 1995), these findings are probably most parsimoniously explained by the retreat from marriage observed in previous sections of this paper. In any event, in order to establish fathers' rights activism as patriarchal backlash, a commitment to marriage as an institutional norm that preconditions fatherhood must be explicit. No such commitment is evident in this data.
An alternative interpretation of the ambiguity in this section of the study might be that the effects of family change on the cultural construction of the "social father" have been underestimated. The rise of individualism and the prevalence of environmental interpretations of social roles predicts ascendance of the social father to pre-eminence over the biological father. Paradoxically, the retreat from marriage stymies this trend, since social fatherhood has traditionally relied upon marriage to derive its legitimacy. In an era during which social roles are increasingly underdetermined by marital status, marriage alone no longer makes a man a father. In the absence of this transitive power of marriage, society has turned to biological paternity as the point of departure for discourse. Lawmakers and activists consistently rely on physical paternity as the lynchpin of the body of public policy designed to ameliorate the deleterious effects of divorce and nonmarital childbearing on women and children. Social fatherhood is caught in a cultural feedback loop between societal reliance on biological paternity as the guiding condition for policy development and men's increasing commitment to individual rights and personal autonomy.
The trends in the data suggest that fathers' rights activists are engaging a new model for fatherhood that excludes marriage, drawing instead upon the biological connection between men and their children to form the basis of a new kind of male social commitment to their offspring. The data here so far have consistently indicated a reluctance, perhaps even an unwillingness, on the part of men to return to traditional family and role structures, and the strong trends toward egalitarianism in family and parental functions, increased recognition of women's rights to access opportunity structures, and general denunciation of traditional ideas about gender and family lead one to suspect that fathers' rights activism is an individual-rights movement centered around an entirely novel, not nostalgic, blueprint for post-modern fatherhood. The trends in the data suggest that this new fatherhood is progressive, individualistic, egalitarian, yet inextricably tied to biological relatedness. Backlash it is not, but given that more than half of the respondents reported that they considered fatherhood more a right than a duty, birthright it just might be.
Had the "Survey of Fathers' Rights Activists" revealed strong commitment to traditional beliefs about family and adherence to the gender stereotypes that buttressed inequality between men and women until the 1960s, I could have nonchalantly dismissed "fathers' rights" as an insidious euphemism for patriarchal backlash, and the individual activists in the movement as fossilized representations of the kind of man progress has long since laid to rest. Instead, my research urges a closer, more in-depth look at what is happening within the largely unexplored world of the post-modern family man. What I see are the outlines of an emergent social movement.
If 75 percent of the women in a sample reported a lack of control over their personal lives that could be corrected by switching genders, social researchers would rightly begin looking for structural or systematic explanations of the finding, and indeed history informs us that a social movement would arise to deal with the problem. In accordance with the assumption that gender is a decisive factor in the interpretation of the social experience, respondents were asked whether they thought that they would have more control over their lives if they were women. Almost half, or 46.7 percent, responded in the affirmative. Half again of the remaining 53.3 percent reported they were unsure, and only one quarter of the entire sample simply responded "no." The survey included a number of questions to gauge perceptions of alienation, discrimination or injustice perpetrated against men, and response patterns are recorded in Table 5.
Table 5. The Politics of Manhood
Strongl Agree Neither Disagree Strongly y agree agree disagree nor disagree I enjoy freedoms and privileges 4.3 19.6 23.9 26.1 26.1 that people of the opposite sex do not. Laws are equally applied to men 0.0 0.0 0.0 17.4 82.6 and women. There are different rules of 47.8 39.1 4.3 8.7 0.0 conduct for men than for women in the workplace. Funding resources for higher 6.5 13.0 23.9 30.4 26.1 education are as available to men as to women. Single dads receive the same 0.0 2.2 0.0 8.7 89.1 social support as single moms. My representative in congress is 0.0 4.3 13.0 30.4 52.2 concerned about fathers' rights. Joint custody is the only way to 52.2 21.7 6.5 19.6 0.0 make divorce fair where children are involved. Men are denied custody of their 78.3 19.6 0.0 2.2 0.0 children in most divorce cases solely on the basis of their sex. Would you support a law that 6.5 15.2 32.6 19.6 26.1 established a legal relationship--but not adoption--between your children and a stepparent, or between you and your stepchildren?* The right to an abortion is a 13.0 15.2 21.7 13.0 37.0 basic human right. Married women should never be 0.0 6.5 2.2 17.4 73.9 required to notify their husbands that they intend to terminate a pregnancy. To ensure that social equality is 6.5 4.3 10.9 32.6 45.7 maintained, it is necessary to provide special legal protections for women against male aggression. Men are discriminated against 69.6 23.9 2.2 2.2 2.2 solely on the basis of their sex.
* See Fine, 1995.
The observed trend in Table 5 is a tendency of respondents to report an association between their gender and structural inequality. In light of the body of research that highlights male privilege, and male resistance to change, the individual measures would seem to have little face validity. However, a crucial point must be reiterated: The men in this sample are not representative of all men, and as the previously discussed trends show, their responses are not necessarily reflective of paradigmatic patriarchy. Admittedly, the responses in Table 5 are the meat and potatoes of backlash, but it might be premature to discount accusations of bias or discrimination from the fathers' rights movement. Given that the minimum attitudinal conditions for backlash have not been met, it would be irresponsible to dismiss the fathers' rights movement based on these measures alone. What is more, such dismissal would seem to be an example of the kind of glib discrimination these response patterns imply. I am inclined to suspect that fathers' perceptions of inequality have some basis in reality, in the actual experience of post-modern manhood, that has yet to be captured adequately by sociological research.
The survey included only one open-ended question, a single qualitative measure, that was expected to provide a a bully pulpit from which a 300-word anti-woman, pro-marriage, men-are-better tirade could be delivered, if the respondents were indeed committed to turning back the clock on family change. Once again, the respondents failed to confirm the null. Instead of anger at women, we see anger at structural impediments to effective, self-defined, autonomous fatherhood. No qualitative analysis of these responses was performed, but I am inclined to extract a case response to summarize and conclude this section of this paper:
I am a custodial father. But that took a two year custody fight, including once I received custody, I was arrested on suspicion of Child sexual abuse. I fortunately fought these charges and retained custody. I no longer fear the charges because of the age of my son, but when he was 4-5 is was very scary. I also feared that she would flee to Mexico with her second husband. This never occurred but he (after his divorce) said she constantly wnted to. Why are men angry. Because regardless of the situation they are treated like second class citizens. I have had police come to my house twice when I was seen picking my son up after school (potential kidnapping, i.e. dad at school) I have had to fight the schols, which finally I won and was accepted. The burden of proof for a single father is so much more than for a mother. You have to prove that you are a superman. In middle school this year, my son wrote about his family and living with his dad. The teacher questioned him several times that he `really lived with his father". My son's mother won't pay child support, in fact she's over 12,000 behing, of which he will never see a dime of it. I pursued her for 4 years and was able to collect about $6,000 (all of which now resides in mutual funds for his college). But the rest? Can you imagine if the sexes were reversed and I still saw him on a regular basis? Thats why men are angry. Win or loose of their children, they are labled deadbeats (even if they have full custody!!)
Taking into account the five observed trends in the descriptive analysis of the survey data, I find no reason to believe that fathers' rights activism is merely an angry reaction to lost privilege. Instead, the trends paint the fathers' rights movement as an extremely young social movement slowly coalescing around the very concepts of egalitarianism and equality which have driven the women's movement for the past three decades. Assuming this to be true, then I hazard to say that social change since the 1960s, in addition to empowering women and freeing them from the constraints of traditional roles and gender stereotypes, has produced men whose most compelling claim to personal and social identity lies in their biological ties to children whose lives they feel powerless to share or shape. In the absence of marriages that work, family roles that are meaningful and fair, and social acknowledgment of their value as people in families, these men have turned to activism as a means of affirming their commitment to correcting inequities in the legal and political systems that are increasingly hostile to the people we call "dads."
If my data are accurate, fathers' rights activists are in effect a different breed of men. They are certainly not the angry traditionalists they have been assumed to be. They appear to be politically progressive and sensitive to social inequalities. They possess a sense of fairness, tempered with a fierce desire to be recognized as individuals with real and equal rights. These men seem to root their claim to identity in biological paternity, but remain committed to the idea that fatherhood is shaped by social responsibility rather than genetic contribution. There is a tendency among respondents to be more conservative only when a more liberal view would threaten their legal and social relationships to their biological children.
Qualitative research would serve to illuminate what many of us might initially consider impossible charges of discrimination, powerlessness, and hopelessness leveled by the fathers in this study. The fathers' rights movement provides especially fertile ground for analyzing changes in the ways in which men see themselves, each other, women, children, and the responsibilities and rights that bind them together within the current social order. In my view, the social alienation of fathers cannot begin to be understood until more careful qualitative research on the emerging characteristics of male social roles is carried out. Until then, sociology and other social sciences will continue to speak of the position of men in a vacuum created by ideological myths and sociological apocrypha that detract from rather than add to our collective understanding of the ultimate outcomes of family change for all individuals.
New social movement theories might provide a theoretical framework for future qualitative research on fathers' rights and other forms of men's activism. Such theories tend to frame collective action in terms of a non-structurally defined group identity pursuing the goal of individual autonomy through culture-based activism that complements motivated political action. These theories might be particularly useful in the study of movements in which gender is the cornerstone of group identity, since the designation of gender as the requisite characteristic allows the movement to transcend class and ethnic demarcations as it organizes around emergent social or political issues that impact the group (see Buechler, 1995, for a detailed review of these perspectives).
Also useful, but potentially controversial, could be the application of race theories to the fathers' rights movement. If claims that men are denied rights (not privileges) or suffer systematic discrimination in the courts or other structures were to be substantiated, then it could argued that a new form of segregation is taking shape in the post-modern industrial society. "Segregation is at the same time an interlocking system of economic institutions, social practices and customs, political power, law, and ideology," writes one analyst, "all of which function both as means and as ends in one group's efforts to keep another (or others) in their place within a society that is actually becoming unified" (Cell, 1986:14). The suggestion here is that as a society or competing segments of society approach equality, the tendency of one group to flex its superior social muscle--whether such muscle is economic, political or cultural--to protect its relative position becomes stronger. Women's history is riddled with pockets of both de facto and de jure segregation; is it really unreasonable to assume that at least where family, marriage and childbearing are concerned, women's social muscle is superior to men's, and might be flexed in such a way as to retain dominance in key arenas of social action? The resultant system of sex-based segregation might not include separate water fountains, but it might include separate sets of parental rights for men and women. The critical variable would be the determination of whether men and women are actually converging on new social norms of gender equality and parity in economic, political, and family spheres. As this study of activist fathers suggests, men in the fathers' rights movement are not traditionalists, nor is there a strong indication of a desire to achieve dominion over women or reverse the social advances women have made. In fact, overall it would appear that the emergence of the fathers' rights movement is a sign that the successful establishment of equality between men and women is ever closer at hand, a trend which according to Cell predicts the rise of segregation, not its demise.
As stated earlier in this paper, the male sex-class is undergoing transformation within its ranks in response to shifts in the cultural and social values associated with family formation and dissolution, the roles of men and women in marriage, and the responsibilities of parents whether they be mothers or fathers. In any meaningful discussion of the future of the family, consideration must be given to how men are affected by change, and how they respond to change. Consistently high divorce rates, tendencies to delay or avoid marriage altogether, and increasing rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing all suggest that the number of men who might potentially be attracted to fathers' rights activism is bound to grow. While it is unclear what will ultimately emerge from such activism--a new kind of fatherhood, a completely revamped model for masculinity, or perhaps nothing at all--the results of this survey appear to challenge assumptive predictions of static, non-progressive backlash on the part of fathers working for equal parenting rights.
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