Author and scholar Andrea Doucet suggests a new way to understand the often overheated debate between men’s rights groups and feminists.
Ten years ago when I was listening to, and writing about, the stories of stay-at-home dads and single fathers, many men asked me why it was that I—a woman, a feminist—was so interested in the lives of fathers. I was continually asked: Don’t feminists typically study mothers? What does feminism have to do with fatherhood? Isn’t feminism about women, after all?
My belief that men’s stories matter to feminism goes back at least 20 years, to when I was writing my doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. Politically and theoretically, I came to the view that fathering and feminism fit together through the work of many excellent feminist scholars, most notably philosopher Sara Ruddick, whose writing moved me towards believing that fathering was an incredibly important focus for feminist scholarship. I am thinking especially of her argument that “the most revolutionary change we can make in the institution of motherhood is to include men in every aspect of childcare,” as well as her view that mothering work, when taken up by both women and men, would lead to “radically recasting … the power-gender roles.” Ruddick’s book, Maternal Thinking, and her view that “men could mother” led me directly into my research on men and mothering and my book Do Men Mother?
My story is also informed by that age-old feminist maxim that the personal is political: while I was reading feminist theory in the Cambridge library, my views on feminism and fathering also emerged from the kitchen and “nursery” of the student flat that I shared with my husband and three small children.
The fit between feminism and fathering has become a taken-for-granted part of my work and my life. But I was recently forced to revisit this combination as I followed a recent debate here at the Good Men Project Magazine between men’s rights activists (MRAs), including fathers’ rights groups, and their critics.
What struck me in that debate? Aside from the unbridled anger in some of the blog posts and in many of the comments, I was especially intrigued by the two “F-words” that appeared at the very top of the MRA’s list of their 10 main issues: “Feminism” was #2. “Fathering” was #1.
Yet the “feminism” and “fathering” depicted in that list, and in many of the comments, were framed in such narrow ways. The only fathering referred to was that of separated and divorced fathers (especially non-custodial fathers). Meanwhile, feminism was thinly presented by MRA contributor Zeta Male in his overarching statement that “feminism has harmed men.”
As a professor who has taught gender studies and courses on men and masculinities for over 15 years (and co-authored a recent book on researching gender relations), I know that there are three, or even four, distinct “waves” of feminist theory and activism, as well as infinite manifestations of feminism(s) that cross generations, ethnicity, race, class, culture, sexuality, and a wide range of thematic issues. Feminism remains diverse, complex, and continually evolving.
Yes, there is a small segment of feminism, particularly some strands of radical feminism, that posit women’s interests as separate, or opposed to, those of men. But a great deal of feminist theory and activism does focus on men and masculinity, and the specific gendered challenges that men face, especially in their roles as fathers.
There are, however, particular sites where this relationship is strained—and severely tested. One of the greatest challenges in holding together fathering and feminism occurs when studying divorce, custody issues, and other painful matters that arise when partnerships between women and men turn sour and dissolve. Put simply, it is more difficult for feminists to stand up for men when a “sister” is going through a nasty divorce.
Such conflicts, however, constitute only a small part of the fathering and feminism landscape. Yet, in spite of some thoughtful contributions, much of the debate at the Good Men Project Magazine gave me the distinct impression that fathering and feminism are irreconcilable.
I want to add a corrective to that view. I also want to outline two strategies that I have used in my work to promote active fathering while also keeping a respectful distance from the more extreme fathers’ rights groups.