Between Two F-Words: Fathering and Feminism

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 rethink this combination as I followed a debate between men's rights activists (MRAs) and their critics.
04/02/2011 11:53am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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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." Indeed, 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 University 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 debate at the Good Men Project (GMP) 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 university 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 masculinities, and the specific gendered challenges that men face, especially in their roles as fathers. In my view, some of the best examples of leading scholars who combine feminism with a focus on fathering and men's lives are Stephanie Coontz, Ellen Galinsky, Kathleen Gerson and Joan Williams. Indeed, Williams' recent book on why men matter in reshaping work-family debates is one of the best demonstrations of the close fit between fathering and feminism.

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 Good Men Project debate gave 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 so as to promote active fathering while also keeping a respectful distance from the more extreme fathers' rights groups.

Understanding Angry Debate

One of the first things one notices when entering into a heated conversation between MRAs (and fathers' rights groups) and feminist scholars is that the two sides cannot seem to see eye to eye on anything. A dizzying array of statistics are used by each side, largely in contradiction with one another.

Women have all the power. No, men have all the power.

It's the "end of men." No, it's the end of women.

Reading or listening to this, one can easily get the impression that one is hearing two different languages or seeing two different worlds.

A perfect example of such competing worlds is found in the Good Men Project debate, and especially the exchange between Amanda Marcotte (a feminist contributor in the debate) and Dan Moore (of the MRAs). For Marcotte, the MRAs are "wrong about pretty much everything"; more to the point: "They're so wrong about everything, they're wrong even when they're right."

For the MRAs on the other hand, Dan Moore asked and answered, "Why Do MRAs Hate Feminists So Much?" In a nutshell, because nearly everything they say is a "lie".

So both sides are lying. And both sides are wrong.

Who is to be believed?

My view is that it depends on which "epistemological" or "epistemic community" one joins on any given issue. That is, although there are significant internal differences within each group, fathers' rights activists and feminists can act as different epistemological or epistemic communities on strongly contested issues.

This view in brief, is rooted in the Foucauldian concept of episteme, while the term "epistemological community" was first coined by international relations scholar John Ruggie in 1975 "to refer to dominant ways of looking at a social reality, a set of shared symbols and references, mutual expectations...." One of its most eloquent advocates is Harvard philosopher Catherine Elgin, who points to how epistemic communities are governed by their own sets of "rules" and "criteria." She argues that our investigations, arguments, methods, and results are all "constituted by a cognitive game whose rules and criteria the epistemic community generates and enforces."

In trying to make sense of the arguments and evidence of some fathers' rights groups, I have come to use this framework in my work. Thus, for example, while I agree with many of Amanda Marcotte's points, my personal and epistemological approach is not to hurl stones. I choose not to stand on one side of the road, yelling at the other side. They will simply yell back. And the worst part is that nobody can hear what the other is saying. This is because both epistemological communities are governed by different rules and criteria; they have competing sets of references and expectations and contrary ways of deciding what counts as evidence.

This argument about epistemological communities resonates with some of Thaddeus G. Blanchette's measured contribution to the GMP debate. As Blanchette writes, "Both groups are convinced that they know the truth about gender relations, a priori. They then tend to process evidence regarding the functioning of the sex/gender system in the real world according to these prejudices."

So does this mean that we surrender to the postmodern mire of accepting that all knowledge is relative? No. We move forward not with anger, insults and taunting, but through making solid and convincing arguments. It means respectfully critiquing the other side when one believes that they are wrong. Think Obama (both Barack and Michelle) here rather than Sarah Palin. That is, use solid research rather than taking cheap shots.

Using Two Lenses When Viewing (And Listening To) Fathers

A second strand of my approach to combining feminism with a promotion of active fathering (while also keeping some distance from the more extreme fathers' rights groups) is to use two lenses to observe fathering. Metaphorically speaking, it's like having two pairs of eyeglasses: one pair for making visible the stories that men tell about fathering, and a second pair for locating these stories into wider social, historical and cultural contexts of changing gender relations. Put differently, taking a double lens allows one to appreciate men's pain as set against a larger painted canvas of changing fathering and shifting gender relations.

In a nutshell this is how it works: with one pair of lenses, I see and hear the stories told by fathers when they are separated from their children. Some of these stories are, indeed, painful ones. In my research with single fathers, several fathers wept inconsolably during our interviews. In my six years of work with the Father Involvement Research Alliance (FIRA) -- a Canadian research and activist program that has focused on a diversity of dads and their experiences -- we heard heartbreaking stories from teen dads shut out from their children's lives and stories of grief from dads who were fighting for custody.

These stories are real and common. For separated and divorced fathers, for example, there is ample narrative and statistical evidence to suggest that fathers mourn the loss of their children. FIRA researcher Denise Whitehead, in a forthcoming book chapter, highlights this issue of father mourning, as well as how rates of depression are higher for men than for women following the dissolution of marriage.

So one sees, hears and empathizes with fathers' unique and shared stories. But then one puts on the second pair of glasses (the ones with the long-range and wide-angle vision) and attends to the historical and social changes that have occurred -- or not -- in the social institutions of fatherhood and motherhood.

There has been a lot of social change around involved fathering. Indeed, I have argued that there has been a revolutionary shift in the involvement of fathers in children's lives. For example, stay-at-home fathers and single-father households have increased in Canada and the U.S., and increasing numbers of Canadian men now take (paid) parental leave. More widely, men's participation in domestic work and parenting is increasing toward a point of near gender convergence.

Nevertheless, while much has changed, some things have stayed the same. Most notably, while men have increased their time and emotional investment in parenting, it is still overwhelmingly women who take on the lion's share of the responsibility for the care of others. As Ann Crittenden highlights so well in her book "The Price of Motherhood," it is still women who pay a high social and economic price for taking on most of society's care work.

And this is the main point of enduring gender difference in parenting, and the one consistent finding across my two decades of work on this subject: men and women remain judged, treated and viewed differently as parents. Men are still viewed as primary breadwinners, and women are still viewed as primary caregivers (even in households where the roles are reversed).

Women are judged when they care too little. Men are judged when they care too much.

There is suspicion when men show too much interest in other people's children. The opposite is true for women.

Men still feel some discrimination in playgroups. Women do in boardrooms.

The list goes on.

Perhaps the best current example of how women and men are judged differently in relation to parenting is the media frenzy around the story of a mother who left (and then came back to) her children. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of "Hiroshima in the Morning," has been brutally criticized and even given death threats, and, as she recently noted, "I'm worse than Hitler apparently."

Replace this woman with a man who left his children, and then perhaps came back to be part of their lives. Would anybody blink? Indeed, he would be praised for coming back.

Most women are still held to a social norm -- one that is etched in their everyday lives and in the social institutions (work, family, schools, communities) that make up those lives -- that they must take on the primary responsibility for children. For most men, this remains a choice rather than an obligation.

In Canada and the United States, we are still in a process of transition around the social institutions of mothering and fathering. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that many men are, or desire to be, active and engaged fathers. This is a goal that pro-fathering activists and researchers work towards. It's a goal they share with many feminist scholars and activists who have followed Sara Ruddick's assertion that "includ(ing) men in every aspect of childcare" could lead to "radically recasting the power-gender roles".


I am sad to note that I while I was writing about my debt to Sara (Sally) Ruddick, she passed away March 20 in New York, at the age of 76.

This metaphor of the "two lenses" is part of a co-authored and forthcoming book chapter on fathering and feminism with my FIRA colleague Linda Hawkins.

Note: The conclusion of this post was altered in order to allow for greater clarity of the author's overall position on this issue.