Father and son sharpen shooting skills at a farm in Maryland. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
It is a great time to be an American dad. Never in our nation’s history has it been so socially accepted, and even encouraged, for men to be involved, emotionally available and committed fathers. Never have men spent so much time with their children. And never have men been so readily afforded joint custody of their children in contentious divorces.
These gains are largely to the credit of the feminist movement, including the activists who shook up our assumptions about appropriate gender roles, the women who encouraged men to participate more fully in the home and the men who chose to be more active fathers and partners. Many men joined with feminist activists to promote policies like parental leave for both fathers and mothers and worked in their communities to combat violence against women and children.
But there is a small and increasingly influential group of men who want to walk these gains back, and take increased gender equality and progress in combating domestic violence along with them.
They call themselves fathers’ rights activists (FRAs), and they are a politically conservative offshoot of the more feminist-minded men’s movements of the 1960s and ’70s. A Google search may lead you to believe no one could take these guys seriously — FRAs have a strange propensity for exclamation points and websites designed with a late-’90s MS Paint aesthetic. But through family court victories, organized legal attacks and online activism, they are slowly but surely influencing the American legal landscape. While their stated ideals — that fathers have rights to their children and courts make fair custody decisions — sound harmless or even positive on their face, FRAs are not looking for equality; they are promoting a regressive, starkly patriarchal ideology. FRAs are overwhelmingly white and male, and their central belief is that men are the victims not only of feminism but of an entire society that pampers women and is prejudiced against men. They claim that the family court system is biased in favor of women; that women routinely make up claims of domestic violence and child sexual abuse in order to win custody battles; that fathers are more fit parents than mothers; and that American men are systematically stripped of their fatherhood rights by hyperpowerful feminists. And they are angry.
One of the most lauded activists within the FRA community is Thomas James Ball. Ball, a divorced father of three, was a believer in corporal punishment and admitted that on one occasion, after his 4-year-old daughter licked his hand, he slapped her in the face three times, until “she belched out a mouthful of blood.” He was criminally charged, and his wife filed for divorce three days later. Ball was not a serial abuser, and in the course of the divorce proceedings, the court made a reasonable demand: that in light of the slapping incident, he receive some parenting counseling. He refused on principle, which meant he did not get custody of his kids and did not have visitation rights with his daughters. He spent 10 years filing frivolous motions and was eventually brought in for not paying child support, all the while missing out on seeing his children grow up because he was too stubborn to admit he had done anything wrong. At the end of his ordeal, Ball concluded that “the legal community was in fear of these feminist groups and their crusade against Domestic Violence.” He became the leader of his local FRA-affiliated Fatherhood Coalition chapter. And then, in June 2011, he set himself on fire outside a Massachusetts courthouse.
Ball is now held up by fathers’ rights groups as a hero: “He Died for Our Children,” proclaims one tribute page. Of course, he could have simply gotten some counseling for the sake of his children, but that is less convenient to the fathers’ rights narrative of white male victimization. And Ball is just one among many.
In Michael Kimmel’s recent book “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” he profiles FRAs, situating them within a broad spectrum of right-of-center, white-male-dominated groups — including white supremacists, gun nuts and men’s rights activists — that are primarily motivated by what they perceive as their shrinking power and influence, which they blame on the ascendance of women and minorities. No longer as easily afforded a series of unearned privileges, lots of white American men feel that something has been taken away from them. That sense of entitlement means that when they do not get what they want out of divorce settlements or child custody battles, they feel deeply wronged.
“The father rights movement emerges at the intersection of two trends,” Kimmel told me. “One is a trend in which men are in fact doing far more child care, are far more involved in their children’s lives and are far more balanced in terms of family life than their parents were. And at the same time, the courts and the laws seem to have been written more in the era of Don Draper or ‘Father Knows Best,’ and these guys are much more modern fathers and are involved in their children’s lives. They feel they’ve put in much more to child care, but when they’re faced with divorce, they feel they get no output. So the court’s view of family and the reality of men’s experience and participation in the family now diverge.”
There are, of course, good dads who are shortchanged by judges who assume mothers are better caregivers than fathers. But statistics simply do not bear out the argument that men are regularly treated unfairly: Overwhelmingly, divorcing couples come to custody agreements that satisfy both parties. Only about 20 percent of custody arrangements are contested. Yet to hear FRAs tell it, men are routinely screwed over by the courts and treated as mere wallets for controlling, conniving wives.
The fathers’ rights movement does not encourage men to be good, involved dads. It banks on resentment and anger about challenges to male entitlement.
“There’s no such thing as a great divorce, so they feel that their divorces tear them away from children to whom they feel incredibly connected as parents, and that that’s terribly unfair,” Kimmel said. “And I think that they have a point.”
There are a number of family court judges who do believe that mothers are inherently better parents than fathers, made clear by the thousands of court cases where the outcome clearly favors the female parent for little reason other than her gender. But the kernel of a point that FRAs have — that men are often involved and loving fathers, a fact that should be reflected in custody arrangements instead of just assuming that Mom is the best parent — is unfortunately buried beneath a pile of misogyny, entitlement, self-righteousness and manipulation of the facts. FRAs have a few hobby horses: The supposedly feminist legal system, false domestic violence accusations and false sexual abuse accusations. Their take on all three makes clear why courts may be hesitant to grant these specific guys custody of their kids. And it does seem to be these specific guys who have trouble getting custody arrangements they are happy with. For all their bluster about the biased legal system, they traffic largely in anecdotes, not facts or statistics. In fact, studies have shown that when men petition for custody of their children, they usually get it. But FRAs encourage us to believe that the American family court system is systemically biased against men because of a handful of egregious stories they post third-hand on their websites, and the conclusions they draw from those anecdotes. For example, according to Fathers for Equal Rights, a national fathers’ rights resource headquartered in Dallas:
Fathers’ organizations now estimate that up to 80% of domestic violence allegations against men are false allegations. Since society offers women so many perks for claiming that they are victims of DV (we call these perks “warm milk and cookies”), false or staged DV allegations now appear to be even more frequent in family court cases than false sex abuse allegations. And they are much easier to fabricate. Mom can simply scratch her arm with her fingernail and claim that dad did it to her!
The group goes on to compare feminists to Nazis and fathers to persecuted Jews being sent to death camps.
The claims that domestic violence accusations are routinely fabricated is factually false, but also reflects the FRA belief that intimate partner violence is a normal part of life. Charles Corry, a fathers’ rights advocate and president of the Equal Justice Foundation, a Colorado-based 501(c)(3) dedicated to combating laws around domestic violence and no-fault divorce, phrases it thus: “Shouting, pushing, shoving, and even some hitting are common in relationships between men and women and, in most cases, should be regarded as normal inasmuch as a large percentage of the population behaves in this manner.”
Women, he says, run the risk of violence simply by living with men: “It takes two to tangle, and the risk is in a woman living with a very dangerous animal, the human male. Provoking a human male, at any time or any place, is always risky, as any man will tell you.”
Unsurprisingly, FRAs oppose anti-violence legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (PDF). The American Coalition for Fathers & Children calls VAWA, first passed in 1994, “one of the most misguided pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress” that creates a “War on Men.” Most FRA groups claim that domestic violence accusations are routinely falsified and that men and women experience domestic violence at similar rates.
FRAs have real friends in the GOP. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has ties to some of the groups, doing legal work for one of their leaders and, as a state senator, introducing FRA-backed custody legislation — he attempted to create legislative barriers to no-fault divorce and was the only senator in the state to vote against raising mandatory child support payments to track with inflation rates. In Minnesota, FRAs succeeded in pushing a bill through the Legislature that would have limited judicial discretion in determining custody arrangements — a piece of legislation that was strongly opposed by battered women’s groups and, in the end, vetoed by the Democratic governor. Similar legislation mandating a presumption of shared custody has cropped up in other states. In the meantime, 31 states already offer custody and visitation rights for rapist fathers.
In fact, the real problem surrounding domestic violence is that it is underreported. And many attorneys counsel their clients not to bring it up in divorce proceedings, especially if the client did not file criminal charges at the time of the assault. While FRAs claim that women and men abuse each other equally, that is not quite true. Women are much more likely to hit, shove or threaten a partner in self-defense, but men are more likely to do actual damage — women are nearly 10 times as likely to be injured by a romantic partner as are men. Of all the women murdered in the United States every year, about a third of them die at the hands of a husband or boyfriend. And it is actually men who have largely benefited from policies combating domestic violence and supporting survivors: The rate at which women kill their intimate partners has decreased by nearly 50 percent (PDF) since 1993, partly attributable to the fact that abused women, rather than feeling trapped and resorting to self-defensive killing, have more resources to leave their situation.
That VAWA and other anti-violence initiatives have actually saved men’s lives is just one aspect of the FRA paradox: They claim to support the rights of fathers and fight back against feminism, but it is actually feminists and their male allies who have secured the greatest gains for dads.
Rights over responsibilities
FRAs exist at an odd space in history and culture. They are mostly middle-aged white men, put off by shifting gender roles and increased female power, feeling that women and people of color cause them to lose many of their basic life entitlements. But embedded in their goals are some rational concerns: They want to spend time with their children and occupy roles within the family that go beyond simple breadwinner status. Both of those positions are ascendant today and are the results of feminist victories.
While equality is not a simple equation wherein one group loses as another gains, it is true that as women make political, economic and social advances, many men see their own long-standing presumptions of power and dominance challenged. The things to which they believe they were entitled — whether those are jobs, college admissions spots or traditionally all-male social and professional networks — now have more people competing for them. Heterosexual men can no longer rely on unpaid female labor, in the form of a doting wife, at home. They can no longer simply bring home a paycheck and be considered a good dad and partner.
The few who fly the fathers’ rights banner are doing good dads a great disservice.
Yet feminist work to broaden gender roles has not only paved pathways for women into the workforce, but reciprocally encouraged (and sometimes cajoled and sometimes begged) men into doing their fair share in the home. That has opened up unprecedented fatherhood space for men. It is far from equitable — women still spend twice as many hours per week caring for their children than do men — but men today spend more time with their children than ever before. Gender-egalitarian marriages are happier and last longer. Men are increasingly emotionally adept and involved partners and parents — and entire families, including dads, benefit greatly.
The courts have been slow to recognize those gains, but they are shifting, largely thanks to feminist activism. Under early English and American law, fathers had absolute rights to their children, but by the beginning of the 1800s judges had carved out the “tender years doctrine,” which was a strong legal presumption that young children were better suited to be raised by their mothers, who were supposedly natural nurturers. Fathers were rarely awarded custody, since to do so they had to prove that the child’s mother was unfit — usually, that she had committed adultery or was otherwise sexually immoral. That did not change until the 1970s, when feminists and equality-minded men pushed back on traditional divisions of labor and gendered assumptions. Courts now look at the best interest of the child, which in most cases is a joint custodial arrangement. Thanks to feminism, fathers are not just more involved with their kids, but they are more likely than they were a few decades ago to get custody of their kids if their marriage dissolves.
Nonetheless, women are still, in practice, more involved parents. Not only do women spend more time on child rearing than their male partners, but in cases where they lose sole physical custody, mothers very rarely fall out of contact with their kids. Fathers who lose custody, on the other hand, lose touch with their children almost half the time.
In other words, there are lots of good, involved dads who remain in their kids’ lives and often have custody of those kids even after a divorce. But there are far more fathers than mothers who decamp entirely if they do not get the custody arrangement they want.
Yet FRAs insist the courts are biased against them, in cahoots with some feminist-driven plot.
What is particularly instructive about the fathers’ rights movement is, as Kimmel highlights, its emphasis on rights rather than on responsibilities. It is not a movement encouraging men to be good, involved dads. It is a movement that banks on resentment and anger about challenges to male entitlement.
“It’s almost always white fathers who are into the father rights movement,” Kimmel said. “There’s another father movement exemplified by Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, which is the father responsibility movement, which encourages men to be responsible fathers and engage with their children even if they aren’t married to the mother. And that’s almost entirely a movement of men of color. And if the idea of democracy, as Jefferson said, is to balance rights and responsibilities, look at the father movements today. You’ll see that the men emphasizing rights are white and the men emphasizing responsibilities are African-American.”
If what fathers’ rights activists really want is a good relationship with their kids, equal rights before the law and the benefits and trials of being an involved and loving parent, they would be best suited to partner with feminists who seek to break down narrow gender roles, as well as with men of color who work to support men across the full spectrum of fatherhood. Most fathers, in fact, are not fathers’ rights activists, and are informally carrying forward the ideals of committed, responsible parenthood. But the few who fly the fathers’ rights banner are doing good dads a great disservice. And they are setting a bad example for kids, too, throwing hissy fits over not getting everything they want exactly when and how they want it. The courts should see through their specious arguments and entitlement narratives. After all, as any parent will tell you, giving into hissy fits sets bad precedent and only encourages more irrational and bratty behavior.