Maria Shriver, California’s First Lady, has issued the new report “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” The Shriver Report, which was written for the think-tank the Center for American Progress, begins:
This report describes how a woman”s nation changes everything about how we live and work today. Now for the first time in our nation”s history, women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. This is a dramatic shift…It fundamentally changes how we all work and live, not just women but also their families, their co-workers, their bosses, their faith institutions, and their communities.
The Shriver Report has a section about men and fathers called “Has a Man”s World Become a Woman”s Nation?” written by feminist sociologist Michael Kimmel (pictured).
I’ve interacted with Kimmel a few times over the past several years and he’s seemed like a sincere individual, albeit misguided. I had hoped that Kimmel’s perspectives had broadened a bit over the years but if they have, there’s no sign of it in his chapter. “Has a Man”s World Become a Woman”s Nation?” is a hatchet job on fathers and the fatherhood movement.
Kimmel ignores altogether the many legal, social and cultural barriers between fathers and children. For Kimmel, the separation of children from fathers is all about men”s “irresponsibility.’ If men just cared about their children, so the story goes, all would be well. There are some men who avoid their parental responsibilities. Some women do, too. But Kimmel never mentions the crucial issues today’s fathers face. These include: maternal gatekeeping; visitation interference; the use of fraudulent restraining orders as a tool to separate fathers from their children in divorce/custody; unrealistic child support orders; and parental alienation.
In discussing fathers’ complaints about being separated from their children after divorce, Kimmel actually writes “In reality, the fathers” rights groups are tapping into a problem that very few men report having.”
“Very few”? A wealth of research shows how common these problems are, including the largest federally-funded study of divorced fathers ever done. And speaking personally, it never fails to amaze me just how many fathers have these problems.
For other men, mostly white and middle class, the stroke of the pen finalizing divorce turns hordes of doting daddies into furious fathers who feel aggrieved by a process they believe denies them the access to their children to which they feel entitled.
Here are several sleights of hand often used by opponents of the fatherhood/family court reform movement. These include:
1) Portray fathers wanting more time with their children as patriarchs demanding what they are (not) “entitled to.” This comes on the heels of Kimmel criticizing fathers for allegedly not spending enough time with their kids. So in Kimmel’s view, dads are wrong for wanting to spend time with their kids and also for not wanting to–is it any surprise that in his world men always seem to be wrong?
2) Kimmel wraps divorced dads’ grievances around being white–aka the privileged white male. Yet all of these problems affect black and Latino fathers too, often worse, since they on average have fewer resources to defend themselves against the forces that stand between them and their children.
3) Kimmel plays on the anti-dad stereotype of the divorced dad as “furious” or “angry.” Well, Michael, I’ve never been divorced nor had any family law problems of any sort but I think many divorced dads have damn good reason to be angry. I certainly would be if I were unwillingly separated from my children–wouldn’t you be, too? And if we’re unwillingly separated from our children, shouldn’t we be angry?
I don’t know how many times while reading my email in the evenings I’ve been horrified by what fathers endure and have gone over to my son or daughter as they sleep and hugged them, just to remind myself that they’re here with me, and to remember how lucky I am.
In one nationally representative sample of 11-to-16-year-old children living with their mothers, almost half had not seen their fathers in the previous 12 months. Indeed, we see a widespread “masculinization of irresponsibility’–the refusal of fathers to provide economically for their children, which has led to the “feminization of poverty,’ with excruciatingly high poverty among single-mother families.
Re: the study, a couple points:
1) To pretend that simply not seeing one’s children is the same as paternal abandonment and “irresponsibility” is contradicted by a wealth of research, as well as the personal experiences of millions of divorced and separated fathers. There’s no doubt that there are fathers who voluntarily withdraw from their children’s lives, but there can be no doubt that there are many fathers who are driven out of the children’s lives. Linking this study to male irresponsibility is meaningless without seriously examining why the kids haven’t seen their fathers.
2) The multi-billion dollar divorce industry is funded more than anything by custody battles. Arguments over division of assets, alimony, etc. are a significant part of it, but the industry is driven by fathers wanting to see their kids and mothers trying to limit their role in their children’s lives. If most fathers didn’t want to see their kids, how could this exist?
Kimmel blames men for single mothers living in poverty, but again this is a huge oversimplification:
1) When a couple breaks up, both the mother’s and the father’s standard of living inevitably declines, because the incomes that once supported one home are now supporting two. Much of this drop in living standard has been mistakenly blamed on fathers, when it has nothing to do with them.
2) According to US Census data, noncustodial mothers are 20% more likely to default on their child support obligations than noncustodial fathers. This is despite the fact that noncustodial mothers are less likely to be required to pay child support, and those with support obligations are asked to pay a smaller percentage of their income in child support than noncustodial fathers.
3) The vast majority of divorces are initiated by women, not by men. Research shows that most of these do not involve a serious transgression by the men, such as violence or adultery, but instead because the women feel unappreciated or emotionally unfulfilled.
From a man”s perspective, this often means that his wife: ended the marriage against his will; took his children out of his everyday life; and harmed his kids by breaking up the stable, two-parent home they once enjoyed. Then she demanded that he dramatically lower his standard of living in order to finance her decision.
It’s not hard to see why men who once worked hard to support their families may be too disheartened to make the same sacrifices under these new conditions. And while there certainly are women who are mistreated in marriage and for whom divorce is a liberation, most divorced women aren’t victims.
4) What has always surprised me is not how many fathers don’t pay child support but that so many do. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s own data shows that the overwhelming majority of so-called “deadbeat dads” earn poverty level wages. Most dads who can pay their child support do so, despite often being unfairly cut off from their children.
I had Kimmel on my radio show several years ago and he made the point that wives, husbands, and children benefit when fathers are more involved in parenting. He’s correct, yet his opposition to shared parenting indicates that he feels this benefit disappears as soon as a couple breaks up.
In reality, post-divorce father-involvement benefits not only fathers, but mothers, children, and society generally. Social science overwhelmingly finds that children do better with actively involved fathers in their lives.
While many women’s advocates have taken a misguided stand against shared parenting, there is a significant, outspoken minority which recognizes its benefits for women. For example, feminist attorney Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977, says:
“If there is a divorce in the family, I urge a presumption of joint custody of the children…it is the best option for women. After observing women’s rights and responsibilities for more than a quarter of a century of feminist activism, I conclude that shared parenting is great for women, giving time and opportunity for female parents to pursue education, training, jobs, careers, profession and leisure.”
Martha Burk, the Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations who led the effort to open the Augusta National Golf Club to women, concurs. Burk, who was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 2003, explains that shared parenting provides women with greater economic freedoms and opportunities. She calls the current child custody system “mother ownership of children” and says that under this “harmful societal norm” judges “mindlessly award [sole] custody to the mother,” to the detriment of all parties.
Kimmel denigrates the importance of fathers, writing that the idea that fatherlessness harms children is based on “a catalog of specious correlations masquerading as causal arguments.’ This ignores a mountain of responsible research that shows beyond a doubt the value of fathers to children, including that of Sarah McLanahan, Rebekah Levine Coley, Irwin Garfinkel, Kathryn Edin, Ross Parke, Armin Brott, Ronald Mincey, and numerous others.
For Kimmel, the men and women who promote equal treatment of fathers by family laws and courts “use the language of equality to exact revenge against their ex-wives…demanding mandatory joint custody and an end to alimony and child support payments.’
“Mandatory joint custody’ is a common feminist misrepresentation. Our movement never has and never will advocate “mandatory joint custody.” Nor is there a single shared parenting law in any country, state or province that contains such a thing. All make reasonable exceptions for unfit or violent parents, as they should. What we advocate is a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting.
The family court reform movement doesn’t favor “an end to alimony”–alimony is appropriate under certain circumstances, such as when one parent has made substantial career sacrifices in order to be the primary caregiver for the couple’s children, and upon divorce their incomes are very unequal because of these sacrifices. Too often, however, alimony is abused.
Nor does the family court reform movement favor “an end to child support.” Child support is sometimes appropriate, but it should be set at levels that can be paid and there must be an end to the abusive method by which it is enforced. And when a couple with similar incomes divorces, they should share custody equally and there should be no child support. What too often happens is that when that couple with similar incomes divorces, courts declare her to be the real parent, him to be a visitor who can see his kids a few days a month, and then hand him the bill.
Kimmel spends a lot of time flogging the Promise Keepers–the early 1990s religious group that called upon men to take charge of the spiritual lives of their families. The group has been endlessly vilified by feminists as evil patriarchs plotting to put women back in their place. Yet whatever their other virtues and faults, the Promise Keepers consistently and inaccurately placed all blame for familial problems on men. They absolved women of any and all blame for divorce and other family conflict. On this key point they are not Kimmel’s opponents but instead his co-thinkers.
Flogging the Promise Keepers is one of the many ways Kimmel engages in what I’ve long called the “Feminist Intentional Walk.” In baseball, a pitcher will sometimes intentionally walk a strong hitter in order to face a weaker hitter. In political debates on gender issues, feminists often “intentionally walk” strong opponents in order to deal with weaker ones. The purpose is to avoid arguing with articulate, reasonable advocates and instead get easy wins by counterposing feminist views with the web-based extremists who inhabit the nether regions of the fatherhood movement.
Nowhere in Kimmel’s piece does he quote any of the major figures of the modern fatherhood/family court reform movement. Instead, we’re given Richard Haddad (a “champion of men”s rights”) and Jon Conine. Whatever Haddad’s and Conine’s other virtues, their quotes are 20 years old and I’ve never heard of either one of them. Many leading figures in this movement have written and said much, but you won’t find it referenced in Kimmel’s piece.
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Many thanks to my Fathers & Families colleague Robert Franklin, Esq., who helped prepare this article.