Team players or tools of the patriarchy?

Women often are supplying the muscle behind the fathers' rights movement.

Published July 6, 2000 7:20PM (EDT)

When Anne Mitchell talks about her life, it sounds like the kind of "plucky woman succeeds against all odds" story that could get made into an inspirational movie for Lifetime, the women's cable TV channel. At the age of 22, our heroine flees an abusive marriage with a small child in tow. She works in a series of jobs, from selling wholesale pharmaceuticals to managing a dentist's office, while receiving little or no child support. She also goes to college, graduates summa cum laude and gets accepted into Stanford Law School. Upon getting her law degree, she chooses to forgo obscenely lucrative job offers in order to go into family law and become a crusader for those victimized by the system.

There's only one catch: Mitchell's crusade is on behalf of fathers.

Indeed, even the way Mitchell (now 42 and the happily married mother of a 2-year-old boy) tells her own story may be startling to those used to the Lifetime formula. While she says that she was a battered wife, she refuses to cast herself as a victim and her first husband as a villain; in her view, he was a troubled young man with a drinking problem who has since done a great deal to turn his life around. She is careful to point out that she gave up child support voluntarily, because at the time she was doing much better than her ex-husband -- who was remarried with two kids and a third on the way, and had been laid off from his job. Mitchell also stresses that her ex is a loving father who has always had a strong relationship with their daughter, and that she has always encouraged this relationship.

"Many people have asked me, 'Why are you, a divorced mother, an advocate for fathers' rights?'" says Mitchell. "The only answer I can give is that I feel the system is unfair to fathers, and I want to correct it."

Mitchell says she became aware of these issues while completing her degree in legal studies at SUNY Buffalo in the late 1980s, mainly from a woman lawyer working in domestic relations. In 1990, while studying law at Stanford, Mitchell started a group called FREE (Fathers' Rights and Equality Exchange), devoted to providing information and support for noncustodial fathers.

As quirky as her personal and professional trajectory may seem, Mitchell is not the only woman leading the charge for fathers' rights. Her sisters-in-arms run the gamut from veterans of the women's movement to second wives who give a new twist to the feminist slogan "The personal is political." Together with the men of the burgeoning movement, they battle a legal system that they believe not only favors mothers in custody disputes but promotes a winner-take-all approach in which one parent, usually the father, is left with limited access to the children and virtually no say in how they are raised.

Their gender throws people for a loop -- and may make them especially effective advocates for their cause. There is indeed a certain shocking incongruity in hearing women vow to change a cultural mind-set that they say values fathers primarily for their financial contributions to their children and focuses on irresponsible "runaway dads" rather than disenfranchised "throwaway dads" who are cut off from their children through no fault of their own.

The loosely organized fathers' rights movement, thought to involve up to 100,000 people nationwide, is often viewed as part of a backlash against women and feminism. That's certainly how the National Organization for Women sees it. In 1996, NOW issued an "Action Alert on 'Fathers' Rights,'" which accused the movement of "using the abuse of power in order to control in the same fashion as do batterers" and established a national clearinghouse to combat pro-father activism. In 1999, the first of the resolutions passed at NOW's national conference explicitly targeted fathers' rights groups as the enemy in family law issues.

And yet the enemy ranks are filled with women who are not just a ladies' auxiliary but, in some cases, the most dedicated warriors -- many of whom consider themselves feminists.

Women head nearly a third of the state chapters of the Children's Rights Council, which purposely avoids the "father's rights" label but is often tagged with it nonetheless -- with good reason. (The CRC's advocacy of shared parenting regardless of marital status clearly translates into support for an expanded role for noncustodial parents, usually men, and overlaps with the agenda of most fathers' groups.)

The executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, a national umbrella group, is Dianna Thompson, a political consultant in Orange County, Calif. (Full disclosure: I have an unpaid honorary post on the ACFC advisory board.) The ACFC says that women make up about half of its membership. There also is a recently founded group with the self-explanatory name Women for Fatherhood.

At the state level, the picture is much the same. Three of the four active chapters and two of the four currently forming chapters of the Coalition of Parent Support (COPS), a California advocacy group for noncustodial parents, are run by women; so are three of the 10 chapters of Fathers Are Parents Too in Georgia.

How do these women become fathers' rights advocates? Ironically, in many cases, their backgrounds fit the feminist model of activism and public advocacy rooted in personal experience -- in this instance, a close relationship with a man who they believe has been victimized by the divorce courts. No less ironically, some have been inspired by their personal experiences to take action that looks very much like the kind of empowerment feminists have preached: Many, for instance, go to law school.

Thompson was galvanized into activism in 1992 when, as a result of an overhaul of California's child support laws, her husband's support payments for two children from his first marriage were tripled. Thompson, a mother of five, says that as a result of the increase, her family was faced with losing their home.

"This is when I saw firsthand the system's lack of concern for children's best interests," says Thompson, who stresses that she never begrudged child support to her husband's children from his first marriage but considered the new amount to be outrageously excessive. "That is when I said to myself: This is wrong and I can't allow this to continue."

In 1993, she joined COPS, which successfully lobbied for a state law that would exempt the earnings of the noncustodial parent's current spouse from the amount used in calculating child support obligations. (Fathers' advocates point out that in most states, the income of the custodial parent's new spouse is not used in calculating the children's needs.)

The motives of the "second wives crusade" -- which happens to be the name of a Web site that Thompson has built -- are easy to impugn. It would be tempting to dismiss these women either as selfish and greedy (and too shortsighted to realize that someday they too may find themselves dumped and struggling to collect child support) or as vindictive toward their rivals. Some would insist that they are dupes of manipulative men who portray themselves as victims and their ex-wives as bitches from hell.

To many feminists, this is a classic example of the patriarchy's using women to do its dirty work and pitting them against one another. Susan Faludi has compared activist second wives to blacks who criticize affirmative action, implying that both are Uncle Toms ("So many women still depend on men for their financial and social sustenance, there will always be women who are willing to play that role"), while NOW executive vice president Kim Gandy has suggested that the men use their female supporters as a front, just as "a man charged with rape will hire a woman lawyer to represent him."

Yet, listening to the second wives and girlfriends, it is hard to defend that simplistic view. Some of them (Thompson, for one) are all too familiar with the other side of the divorce wars, having been single mothers raising children on their own. Some, such as COPS activist Robin Welch, have stood by husbands who fought to have their children from the first marriage live or at least spend more time with them -- something a wicked stepmother would hardly encourage. And it's hard not to be impressed with the desperate sincerity with which many of these women assert that their real concern is for children who, they say, are visibly suffering from the disruption of the father-child bond.

Gina Pellegrino, a real estate broker in her late 30s who has worked with COPS for about three years and now heads the San Diego chapter, sounds almost tearful talking about her boyfriend's efforts to remain an active father to his son, now 11. "You have no idea what it's like to have a child crying over the phone, 'Please, please, I want to stay with my daddy!' and there's nothing you can do," says Pellegrino. "You have no idea how hard it is to maintain a relationship with a child on one weekend a month."

Pellegrino is especially livid because, last year, her boyfriend was arrested on Father's Day weekend for being behind on some child support as a result of fluctuations in his income as a window tinter -- even though, she says, he was making regular payments. "The father and child didn't even get to see each other that weekend," she says, her voice quavering. "My boyfriend was very upset, but he's an adult, he can get over it. The one that really got hurt was the boy. To choose that weekend to arrest the father was just evil."

Some women feel wounded by anti-father bias in more ways than one. Cindy McNeely, who is involved in Women for Fatherhood and plans someday to start a legal defense fund for "fathers' and children's rights," was 10 when her parents divorced in the early 1970s. She and her sister lived with their mother, who McNeely says was an emotionally unstable alcoholic. Eventually, her father won custody -- but only after a wrenching legal battle in which the children had to testify against their mother in court.

McNeely believes she could have been spared much of this trauma if the system hadn't been corrupted by a bias for mothers. "We might have stood a better chance of being placed with the more stable parent from the beginning," she says.

In 1990, McNeely married a divorced father of two, who she believes unfairly lost custody of his two children. Watching his struggles, she says, "brought back memories of the helplessness and futility my sister and I experienced as children, and I decided to channel my frustrations into something constructive." Both she and her husband went to law school and co-founded a fathers' rights group.

Not all the women who fight for fathers' rights have personal connections to divorced dads. Some are matrimonial lawyers like Sari Friedman, general counsel of the Father's Rights Association of New York State, who says her passion for the cause was inspired by the bias she saw against her male clients. And there are still others whose backgrounds offer no easy way at all to explain their activism.

Take Mitchell, whose life story would seem to make fathers' rights the last cause she would champion. Or take Vicki Tyler, 44, a divorced noncustodial mother who is involved in Women for Fatherhood and the Coalition for the Preservation of Fatherhood, a fathers' group, in Massachusetts.

Tyler, who is also a senior clinical research associate with a pharmaceutical firm in Cambridge, voluntarily gave up custody of her three sons -- then 6-year-old twins and a 4-year-old -- when she and her ex-husband separated 16 years ago and he told her he would fight for custody. No, she says, she was not intimidated, as many feminists would assume, but her husband's threat "opened my eyes to the fact that he was willing to work hard to keep the boys in his life."

Tyler and her husband were able to work out a mutual agreement on their own. A full-time mother before the divorce (by choice, she stresses), Tyler went to college but remained very involved in her sons' lives, even after she moved from Kansas, where her ex-husband has a ranch, to Massachusetts -- both for her career and because that's where her roots were.

Later, some male friends' divorce-related horror stories prompted her to join the fight for fathers' rights. Her dedication, she says, is rooted in the strong belief that "all children deserve to be with both parents if the parents are alive and willing to parent," and that the limits imposed on many noncustodial fathers' time with their children constitute "an atrocity."

Do these women, and the men whose cause they support, have valid complaints? To most people, the claim that child support awards are too high seems transparently absurd: It is, after all, conventional wisdom that divorced men make out like bandits while the women and children are left in the dust. Women's organizations even challenge the view that the courts are biased against fathers in custody decisions, asserting that men who seek child custody usually win and that career-oriented mothers, in particular, are victims of prejudiced judges.

Most family law experts agree that any negativity certain judges may have toward careerist moms is generally outweighed by the sentiment that favors mothers over fathers. The claim that men who seek custody usually succeed is based primarily on cases in which fathers get custody by mutual agreement; in custody disputes, studies show, mothers win at least 80 percent of the time.

In the 1999 book "Divorced Dads," University of Arizona scholar Sanford Braver reports that three-quarters of divorcing men and one in four women in his study thought the system was slanted in favor of mothers -- while one in 10 women and none of the men thought it favored fathers.

The work of Braver and other researchers, such as Joyce Arditti of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, lends credence to some other key claims of the fathers' rights movement: that noncustodial fathers who are economically stable usually have a good record of financial support for their children; that divorced fathers generally don't enjoy higher living standards than mothers; that the lack of opportunity to be regularly involved in their children's lives is a source of severe emotional pain for many of these men, and that many are at least sometimes denied court-ordered access to their children.

Like all advocacy groups, the fathers' rights movement can be somewhat simplistic in its analysis of the problems and in its proposed solutions (a presumption of joint custody unless one parent is unfit; an emphasis on mediation instead of litigation). Nevertheless, there is no question that the movement is raising real issues that affect millions of families.

But is it anti-woman?

There is no question that some of the men in the fathers' rights movement are every bit the woman haters feminists make them out to be -- whether because a nasty divorce left a chip on their shoulder or because of personal propensities. Virtually every woman in the movement has had occasional run-ins with these types. (McNeely recalls being told by a man at a fathers' conference that she ought to be staying home with her children, not going to law school.)

And yet many women in the movement strongly believe that what they are doing is simply the other half of the feminist quest for equality between the sexes. "As women have been struggling to get equality in the workplace, men are struggling to get equality in the home," says matrimonial lawyer Friedman.

These women talk about the stigma faced by noncustodial mothers because of the assumption that a woman would have to be a really terrible mother to lose custody -- or, worse yet, to willingly give up her children. They say that joint custody, just like equal parenting during marriage, can free women to be more successful outside the home.

In her essay "The Maternal Bond," published in the American Journal of Family Law in 1995, Mitchell argues that the belief in the supremacy of the mother-child bond -- which underlies the legal system's anti-father bias, and which, she believes, is being perpetuated by feminist "maternalists" who back mothers in the divorce and custody wars -- also forces women to take on the sole burden of child rearing and holds them back from career achievement and economic self-sufficiency.

McNeely says that in her writings, she is careful to balance "pro-father" points with "pro-woman" ones -- for instance, that the bias many mothers encounter in the workplace, based on the assumption that motherhood makes them less committed to their jobs, is the flip side of the bias fathers encounter in court.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of the intersection between feminism and fathers' rights is Karen De Crow, an attorney who was president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977 and is now the head of the Greater Syracuse chapter of NOW. In the early 1980s, De Crow began to actively champion joint custody and equal rights for fathers, speaking at fathers' rights conferences and joining the board of the Children's Rights Council.

She stresses that, as she wrote in 1994, "shared parenting is great for women, giving time and opportunity for female parents to pursue education, training, jobs, careers, professions and leisure." (De Crow is clearly reluctant to acknowledge the degree to which the opposite view is currently dominant in NOW. When asked about the organization's 1999 anti-fathers' rights resolution, she says that she has heard about it but has not read it and therefore cannot comment -- and then suggests, rather improbably, that it might have been passed "at the 11th hour" by a handful of delegates.)

There is, perhaps, a touch of arrogance in the rhetoric of pro-fathers' rights feminists who want to liberate divorced women from the burden of sole custody of their children regardless of what these women themselves may want. However, some studies show that mothers who have joint custody, even if they initially opposed this arrangement, are equally or more satisfied with their situation than sole custodial mothers. And besides, there is more than a touch of arrogance in suggesting that what women want is the only thing that matters.

One could see the women in the fathers' rights movement as traitors to their sex and unwitting tools of the patriarchy. One could try to psychoanalyze them and attribute their commitment to hidden self-hatred or the desire to please men. Or, maybe, one could see them as a model for a new kind of activism on the gender front -- the kind that promises to bridge the gap between men and women in the pursuit of equality.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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