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War of the wounds

What's wrong with the father's rights movement

Commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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As someone who cares very much about the social and economic welfare of mothers, I’ve been keeping tabs on the father’s "rights" movement for several years. Although the movement and its most aggressive advocates come across as little more than a fringe element in a society that's still trying to figure out the meaning of manhood and fatherhood in a half-changed world, the legislative activism of fathers’ rights and "shared parenting" proponents could limit the power of family courts to award custody based on the best interests of the child. The movement's more moderate adherents complain that the inalienable rights of divorced and never-married dads -- particularly their right to due process and equal access to their kids -- are routinely trampled by vindictive custodial mothers and the family court system. Less image-conscious supporters are fond of the kind of hateful misogynist invective that makes me want to double-check the locks on my doors and windows at night.

Friends of father’s rights typically interact through an expansive network of personal and organizational web sites, blogs, and discussion forums, although local groups also meet face to face. National membership organizations, such as Fathers 4 Justice -- which was the subject of a May 8 cover story by Susan Dominus for the New York Times Magazine -- organize protests and guerrilla theater to call attention to the grievances of non-custodial dads. Most pro-dad groups are pushing for family law reform, particularly for the legal standard of presumptive joint custody, which, with few exceptions, would require judges to favor joint legal and/or physical custody in all child custody disputes. In my own state of New Hampshire, representatives of the National Congress of Fathers and Children (which promotes “equal opportunities for fathers and children” -- apparently mothers don't rate inclusion in the family equality scheme) are endorsing a bill to cut state guidelines for minimum child support payments to the bone and exempt fathers from paying child support when joint custody is awarded -- even though under the terms of split or shared custody, children may reside in their father's home as little as 35 percent of the time.

One of the most striking characteristics of American society in the late 20th and early 21st century is that fathers and mothers have been forced, sometimes reluctantly, to negotiate dramatically changed attitudes about gender, work and family with virtually no support from the public or private sector. Male and female roles in marriage and parenting have become, if not completely transformed, at least more pliant. New educational and employment opportunities for women -- and their desire for lives that include more than being someone's wife, or someone's mother -- contributed to skyrocketing divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s, and continue to reverberate through contemporary family life. A national focus on the hardships encountered by "fatherless" children has heightened cultural sensitivity to the socioeconomic benefits of involved fathers (although research has yet to isolate the negative consequences of fatherlessness from the effects of poverty). What’s often left out of the fatherhood discussion is that men who truly care for and about their children usually express their commitment by maintaining a supportive, if not deeply caring, relationship with their children’s mother. In an October 2001 commentary for Women's eNews, Robert Okun, a specialist in men's issues and domestic violence, pointed out that many of today’s dads, whether married, never-married or divorced, are doing their best to stay actively involved in their children’s lives. But of men in the organized father’s rights movement, who typically represent themselves as the innocent victims of gender discrimination and manipulative ex-wives, Okun writes: "Some may very well be getting a raw deal. If so, it is essential that divorce lawyers, psychotherapists, family service court officers, mediators, guardians ad litem and judges educate themselves about those circumstances and take steps to intervene when a man has been erroneously targeted as part of a strategy in a contentious custody complaint. However, in a dangerously high number of cases, many of these fathers have a documented history of abuse."

Most family law and domestic violence experts have reached the same conclusion, as have concerned citizens who've taken the time to investigate the activities of father's rights groups in greater depth -- notably Trish Wilson, a freelance writer who considers exposing the shady underside of the father's custody movement her part-time job. Ms. Wilson first became curious about the movement when she stumbled into a father's rights message board on AOL ten years ago. When she questioned the accuracy of child support statistics posted on the board, Ms. Wilson reports she was "attacked by the regulars there. The woman who had posted the original out-of-context quotes told me that I believed all women should have custody of their children because they had uteruses, which is nonsense. There were similar, ugly flames thrown at me by others. I was taken aback at how nasty they were." Since then, Ms. Wilson has conducted extensive research reviews and produced a series of articles disputing the studies and data father's rights advocates use to justify their intention to overhaul child custody and support laws. Although her work has appeared in Off Our Backs and AlterNet, Ms. Wilson publishes most of her analyses and commentaries on her blog and a bare-bones personal web site. Although NOW adopted a resolution opposing the father's rights agenda in 1996, Ms. Wilson notes there hasn't been much interest from mainstream women's organizations in fomenting a counter movement. "From the beginning there were no active organizations that worked for mothers who were going through contested divorces," she says. "I'm one of the few people who actually works on these issues, which disappoints me greatly. Feminist groups have not taken much interest in divorce and custody and how both affect women."

feminism is not the problem

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