Imagine a black rights activist who does not know who Malcolm X was. Imagine a women’s rights activist who could not rattle off the names of several early leaders of the women’s movement from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now think about the men’s rights movement for a moment. Can you picture at least a vague outline of its early history? Can you name some of its early leaders? (By “early” I mean men whose activities took place well before you were born).
The reason you—with a few exceptions—cannot is not because there are no historically significant events and figures to know about. They exist, but they have been left out of all the history books and consequently have been left out of our cultural conversation—both academic or popular. And so most of us know nothing about the history of men’s rights activism.
A bit odd, don’t you think? Perhaps the explanation for this is that the early history of men’s rights activism is uninteresting, or offensive. Or maybe there were no enduring successes worth remembering and consequently the material is not a top-of-the-list subject for students of history (nor, for that matter, even bottom-of-the-list footnote stuff).
If you don’t have the information available to you, however, then you are not going to get to make up your own mind about it. In fact, one might reasonably assume that since such information has never come before one’s eyes, even after having read extensively in “men’s issues,” that the information simply does not exist: that there is no historic men’s rights movement.
But it does exist—despite the unsettling fact that most of us believe that it does not. And this state of affairs—this obliviousness to our own significant historical past, this collective amnesia—I need not explain, is not conducive to freedom. This amnesia is, in fact, quite blatantly an indication of the censoring of ideas in the cultural marketplace: a state of limited freedom. The situation is that somebody else has decided what you should know and what you should not know—and you never even knew this was going on.
So I thought I’d take a few minutes and, in the spirit of promoting freedom, sketch for The Good Men Project readers the portraits of two bold fellows of times gone by who spoke out boldly and eloquently for the rights of males against a system that had diminished their ability to live as free men.
The Ballad of Alimony Sam
On July 27, 1925 Samuel Reid, World War I veteran, was put in jail in the Genn County jail, in Willow, California. His crime? Not paying alimony. Reid had not “failed” to pay alimony to his ex-wife; he had openly refused to do so. He loved his little daughter, Zada May, he said, and told the court he did not approve of the custodial circumstances decided by the court and wished his views to be considered, and that he would be glad to pay child support monies in excess of the stipulated amount if only his wishes might be considered.
Reid’s bold pronouncements resonated with men across the nation—and even across the seas:
- “I refuse to pay while my child remains in surroundings and environment I consider unfit for her upbringing. Change that environment. Otherwise, I shall never pay even though I remain in jail the rest of my life.”
- “I shall never pay. It’s not the money; it’s the principle. What if I am here for life? I’m the first martyr to a great cause.”
- “I have the money and I can pay, but I still refuse to do so. My case alone is not at stake. The whole alimony system is wrong and I propose to do what I can to right it.”
- “Blackmail, that’s what it amounts to. I’m willing to sacrifice my life if need be to draw attention to the plight of victims of an iniquitous industry which has the sanction of the courts.”
Reid stayed in jail nearly three years, became an internationally known figure—often under the nicknames “Alimony Sam” and “Alimony Martyr”—and was an inspiration for the creation of a number of anti-alimony organizations (a trend which began to flower in 1927 and has continued without cease to this day) throughout the United States. The first of which, it seems, was started by a woman, Mrs. Bessie Cooley, the suffering wife of an alimony slave. The movement and its leading voices was outlined in October of 1929 by the popular psychology “expert” of the day Prof. William M. Marston in an article titled “Why Men Are Organizing To Fight Female Dominance.”
Once Reid got out of jail in October 1928—through the advocacy and assistance of his old army buddies—he decided to set up a popcorn concession at a newly constructed supermarket in Oakland. He told reporters he chose this line of business out of his love for children. Zada, the little daughter he had fought to protect stayed with her mother and her new hubby, and met her death less than three years after her father’s release from jail.
Sigurd the Organization Man
While Alimony Sam stubbornly languished in a California jail, stubbornly growing his famous long beard in protest and issuing provocative statements to an eager press, men’s rights activism was popping up elsewhere far away—in Austria. There, a divorced man by the name of Sigurd Hoeberth was busy setting up the world’s first formal men’s rights organization in Vienna, with the ambition of making it international in scope. The name of the organization translates to League for the Rights of Men (Liga für Menschenrechte). It was launched in May 1926. The group concerned itself with many of the same issues that preoccupy men’s rights activists 80 years later: false accusations, paternity fraud, imprisonment for alimony payment shortfall, and fathers’ rights. It set up a public office in Vienna’s financial district; it published a weekly journal whose name translates as “Self-Defense,” containing “a sort of market report on the state of men’s rights in various parts of the world.” As organizations arose in the United States, such as the Alimony Payers Protective Association, Liga reached out to them in an effort to become an international group. The world’s most famous movie star, alimony-hounded Charlie Chaplin, joined up.
The decade of the 1920s was, like the 2000s, a period of wild market speculation. One can imagine the high expectations of those opportunistic women who, as they expressed it in those days, sought “marriage for alimony only.” The group had struggled for money from its inception and, as Hoeberth told reporters, Liga’s most fervent supporters were women: mothers of young men of marriageable age whose moms worried about their sons’ falling victim to predatory women who has enormous legal advantage over the opposite sex. Hoeberth’s organization, however, was not able to survive the international financial crash of 1929.
Liga (known also “Aequitas,” following a schism which produced the male-members-only offshoot “Justicia”) had to close its doors in October 1930. The lease was taken over by a women’s shoe store. Liga had, in its final days, attracted strong interest from France, from which it received “a deluge of letters,” prompted by a long string of husband-killings in which the killers were all let off lightly—and in most cases with no jail time at all—by chivalrous male juries, unfailingly ready to accede to the teary-eyed claims of the woman on trial: claims that could not be disputed by a mute “other party to the case.”
From the mid-1920s onwards men’s rights organizations continued to flower in the United States, springing up in various locales, under various names, with various focal points: anti-alimony, divorce reform, fathers’ rights. Because academic research on the history of men’s rights activism is non-existent, we do not yet know what activism might have been arising elsewhere—apart from a few glimpses that have recently surfaces identifying organizations arising in the UK in 1927 and in Tibet in 1928.
There is, as you might guess, quite a bit more to these stories. There exists a mountain of until-now ignored historical documentation on not only Reid and Hoeberth’s struggles, but also of the greater, society-wide, context. We can find abundant, and often surprising, reports on the public controversies throughout the first half of the 20th century, in which the activist founders’ stories were played out—reports dealing with, among other topics, chivalry justice and the “woman’s right to kill,” alimony racketeering, and the infamous and widespread gold-digging blackmail scheme known as “the heart balm racket.” Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the strongest and most vocal supporters of the burgeoning men’s rights movement were often female judges, female legislators, and prominent female journalists, including world-famous Dorothy Dix, the “Oprah” of her day. Many of these old newspapers articles are now online courtesy of a new generation of internet liberty activists.
Men’s Rights & Father’s Rights Activism after the 1920s
There has been a continuity of activism in the men’s rights movement up to the present day (with a lull during the Second World War). This activism has sometimes expressed itself in organized fashion, as with Hoeberth, and has also frequently come to the public eye through individuals “with a message,” such as Sam Reid. The 86-year history of men’s rights activism since 1925 can be a bit confusing since the specific forms the issues have manifested themselves, as well as the terms used to describe the issues, have changed over the years.
Until recently, the term “alimony” referred to both spouse support and child support. The various alimony reform organizations that operated in the US from 1927 to the 1970s used “alimony” (with its de facto “debtor’s prison” system that ruined the lives of many men, many of whom had been married only for a period of months before alimony was demanded), as a rallying point, they would also publicly voice criticisms of other “men’s issues”: paternity claims, rights and duties; chivalrous bias in criminal cases; child custody; alimony; and property seizure in divorce (particularly in brief marriages); alimony imprisonment. Alimony activism of the 1920s seems like a strange idea to many today because of the belief that divorcing women, apart from the wealthy, had trouble supporting themselves with employment at a similar wage to a husband before the 1960s. The fact is that by the 1920s it was widely recognized that most divorcing childless women did not have this problem.
Another hot topic for early activists was the chivalrous behavior of all-male juries who habitually acquitted women who had killed husbands or lovers, letting them off scot-free, based oftentimes on the flimsiest excuse (despite evidence contradicting the killer’s claims), an issue taken up by many prominent females in the early 20th century, such as Judge Rhea M. Whitehead and Judge Florence E. Allen, seeking equal treatment for male litigants and equal circumspection toward female defendants and litigants. Yet another central topic for activists from Hoeberth onwards was courts’ non-enforcement of father-child access stipulations, as well as overt parental kidnapping by mothers (and the remedy sought by many fathers of children they were denied access to, when they themselves reluctantly decided to become parental kidnappers), and as time wore on the phenomenon of false child sexual abuse and domestic violence accusations mushroomed as the government built up bureaucacies which operated outside of the aegis of Constitutional law (by virtue of enormous new powers being given to the civil court system and the funding of family intervention businesses).
From the late 1700s onwards it was always understood that there did indeed exist fathers who became, with malicious intent, parental kidnappers in the same way that malicious mothers had whisked children away from their other parent. The myth that divorcing fathers only started to fight for custody and access starting with the divorce boom of the 1970s is completely and demonstrably false. Likewise it has always been recognized that there were indeed “wife-beaters” out there, and, despite today’s widely-believed myth, whose origin seems to date from the mid-1980s, that asserts the contrary, these brutal men have long been roundly condemned by society, by the courts, by police and by ordinary men and women. Consequences for male domestic violence offenders in the 19th to mid-20th centuries were frequently harsh, including public whipping and sentencing to chain gangs. Yet before the rise of cultural Marxism in the 1960s, it was not fashionable to judge human behavior in terms of “group justice” or “power politics theory,” but rather in terms of the behavior of specific individuals responsible for their own character (their flaws and virtues alike) and responsible for their consequent behavior and actions. The old terms of chivalry have been replaced by new terms of chivalry.
An inaccurate belief often expressed today is that the divorce reform idea known as “no-fault divorce” of the late 1960s was the specific product of feminist activism. In reality “no-fault divorce” reform efforts were the result of several interest groups (in addition to any feminist influence): well-meaning lawyers and reformers, including organized men’s rights activists, who had not the least idea of the law of unforseen consequences. Prominent among this push was Divorce Racket Busters, Inc.(later U.S. Divorce Reform, Inc., founded in 1960), whose leader, Reuben Kidd, was located in the first state to adopt the “no-fault” system, California. The goal was to reduce acrimony. The result was increased acrimony, and, importantly, increased problems for divorced fathers’ access to their children, through both physical access denial (including parental kidnapping) and the psychological manipulation of children (known as “poisoning the child’s mind,” “alienation of the child’s affections,” or simply “alienation,” a phenomenon noted in divorce cases as early as the first decades of the 1800s).
Organizations, many score of them, devoted to helping parents of either sex (called “left-behind parents” or “left behinds,” for short), sprang up beginning in the 1967 with Kidnap Finders, Inc., based in California, 1967. One of the more vocal of these anti-parental kidnapping groups was Children’s Rights Inc. based in New York, started in 1977 by left-behind father John Edward Gill, author of the book Stolen Children. After laws against parental kidnapping came on the scene the courtroom tactic of false accusations became a more practical and risk-free option for those among the separating parents who were acrimonious and sought to deny parental access and to gain financial advantage.
It was not until the year 1970, with the inception of Baltimore’s Fathers United for Equal Rights, and the associated Second Wives Committee, that men’s rights groups came into existence which specifically defining themselves as “father’s rights” organizations. From that point onwards father’s rights organizations in great numbers sprang up around the US and the idea spread on to the rest of the world.
Every single one of the issues brought up by the 1920s men’s rights activists is still very much in play in present-day men’s rights activism. Yet the early history of the controversies and reform efforts surrounding the men’s rights movement, and even the very existence of the organizations that addressed these issues, have been completely forgotten, or, more properly stated, they have been, quite scandalously, swept under the rug.
Are We Free Men?
Having read this article you are, I am the first to admit, not more free. Not one iota more free. Yet what you decide to do with what you have read here just might serve to promote your personal freedom. Spreading this long-obscured information about male history to others, looking more deeply into the material outlined here—and, perhaps even more importantly, discussing with others your opinion why this information is absent from our collective memory in this age of ceaseless discussion of the relations between the sexes—just might lead to the liberation of mind that is the prerequisite to real freedom. It might lead to the forging of authentic community, populated by honest, thoughtful, freedom-loving souls.
(FOOTNOTE: The earliest use of the phrase “men’s rights” in the sense of the rights of the male sex, is as far I know, is to be found in a long article titled “A Word for Men’s Rights,” by an anonymous writer, which appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in February 1856. Savvy readers will note that I have not dubbed Belfort Bax the “first men’s rights activist.” This is because Bax, a lawyer was a writer and thinker, but was not, like Hoeberth, an activist who set up an organization, nor was he a protestor or an agitator, like Reid, who publicly stated a mission to influence change.)
—Photo credit: Tobyotter/Flickr