Feminism's worldwide daddy issues | HBR Talk 63
The feminist crusade against fatherhood is not a new topic to HBR Talk, but one that keeps coming up over and over due to current events. Its history begins with a backlash against the custody and property rights that accompanied men’s responsibilities to their families. Prior to the 19th century, it was a man’s openly-legally-bound duty as a husband and father to fill the provider and protector role, right down to being responsible for any crimes his wife committed. He was responsible not only for the full financial welfare of their children, but also of his wife, even if she had an income of her own, and she had legal recourse if he failed to provide.

As part of that role, should there be a divorce without a finding of fault against him, he was entitled to retain custody of all children from his marriage, and any property he deemed necessary for provision for their needs. A wife who voluntarily left her husband without legal cause was abandoning the family and was not entitled to support. She had no legal recourse.

When 19th century feminist Caroline Norton separated from her husband, she could not divorce him without ruining herself socially and financially. She found herself in the situation many men experience today; he had complete control of all marital property and her ability to see their children, and he abused that control. Norton looked for legal means to counter her husband’s alienation of her from her children, and found none. With no legal recourse, she began fighting to change the law.

She penned two items, the bill which would become The Custody of Infants Act of 1839, followed by her “plain” letter to the Lord Chancellor regarding the bill, with the goal of justifying making maternal custody the legal standard when parents with young children separate. The Custody of Infants Act was the original version of what is now referred to as the Tender Years Doctrine, the basis upon which it became traditional in systems influenced by English Common Law to place custody of children in divorcing families with the mother.

Throughout the 20th century, this was the norm in divorcing families, with fathers only retaining custody in rare cases of maternal abandonment, or where a mother’s unfitness for custody was so blatant and obvious the court could not ignore it. American feminists pushed against the control men had over their families’ finances, taking great pains to ensure that any change they achieved that reduced or eliminated that control didn’t reduce the responsibilities it existed to facilitate. They also pushed for changes in the way divorce was handled, leading to no-fault divorce, wherein a couple can separate without the reasons why the marriage ended having any impact on custody or property division, so that when the at-fault party is the wife, it does not reduce her advantage in the courtroom.

In the latter half of the 20th century they added their domestic violence narrative to divorce cases, fighting for greater legal recourse in divorce proceedings if the wife leveled accusations of abuse against her husband as part of her case. In the US, this climaxed in 1994 with the adoption of the Violence Against Women act, which influenced state law all over the country and enabled women to use accusations as leverage to obtain full custody, the lion’s share of marital property, and hefty, even punitive support obligations. Women abused this power, leveraging their control over their ex-husbands’ access to their children for control over their lives, many even simply refusing them any contact and alienating their children from their fathers. Even joint custody arrangements typically make the mother the primary residential caregiver, with the father’s time limited to pretty much the same schedule he’d have if she had full custody and he merely had visitation rights.

In the United States, custody is awarded to mothers over 80% of the time, despite being less financially equipped to support their children. This also results in mothers receiving child support awards much more often. Even when fathers receive support, they receive less.

U.S. men began fighting back as feminist leadership tightened its grip on family law, with fathers’ rights groups emerging and growing throughout the 80s and 90s in response to mothers’ abuse of these laws and of prevailing social attitudes. As more men became aware of the situation they faced, online forums began growing for discussion of the plight of divorced fathers and their children, as well as strategizing on how to handle issues like alienation, maintaining child visitation around an ex’s frivolous restraining order, navigating the increasingly abusive child support system, and avoiding homelessness and jail while trying to support their ex’s household along with their own.

As the 20th century ended and the 21st began, fathers began pushing for custody reform, with the concept of equally shared parenting arrangements beginning to gain popularity. At first, with states applying such arrangements at parents’ request and only until the child was school age, feminists didn’t address the idea. Soon, however, fathers’ groups began pushing for 50/50 shared custody to be the default arrangement in uncontested divorce cases, with parents being able to opt for a different arrangement if that didn’t suit their situation, or either parent being able to contest the arrangement if they felt it was unfair to their situation. Support obligation would naturally be affected.

That sent feminists into a panic. They fought it, and of course, they did so dishonestly.

In 1996, the National Organization for Women had released an “action alert” on fathers’ rights groups, their statement labeling mothers entitled to the presumption that they’re better caregivers and more important to their children, labeling dads deadbeats and abusers, essentially claiming divorced fathers only want to maintain their relationships with their kids to get out of their child support obligations and use them as a weapons against their ex-wives. As fathers’ groups began pushing for equally shared custody, feminists used those same arguments to oppose it, while also lying about the nature of any bills that were introduced. Their main claim was that if passed, bills that would make equally shared parenting rights the default in uncontested cases would “force judges” to place children with abusive fathers. 

The men’s rights movement has been watching feminists use this strategy in opposition to equal parenting rights in the U.S. and Canada for 15-20 years now. It’s becoming obvious that it’s an international issue, possibly organized, with feminists in Spain using the same narratives to pretty much deny fathers’ post-divorce relationships with their kids, UK feminists employing it against paternal rights, French feminists going so far as to label fathers’ interest in ensuring their kids are actually biologically their children “abuse,” and as we were alerted to most recently, Italian feminists using it to attack equally shared parenting legislation in their country.

The bill addresses parental alienation. It will replace default maternal residential custody and paternal child support obligation with equally shared parenting and calculation of child support based on parents’ incomes and time with the kids. Fathers will no longer be arbitrarily excluded from their children’s lives at the mother’s request. The bill requires mediation prior to divorce, giving parents the opportunity to come to an agreement without having it imposed by a judge. It repeals the article of the country’s Penal Code which criminalizes failure to pay alimony following divorce.

For these reasons the bill stands accused of attempting to “cancel” years of social advancement. Feminists have claimed it would be a disincentive for women in abusive relationships to leave the relationship. Another complaint: The proposal to require adequate living accomodations for children of divorced parents in order for a parent to keep their children in their home for overnight visits would penalize the lower-income parents, and yep - you guessed it… women most affected!

This portrayal of women as victims of equal legal consideration for fathers on the false basis of presuming fathers deadbeats and abusers is essentially a worldwide feminist strategy, one that father’s groups will have to confront anywhere they fight for equal consideration in family court. 

But feminism is totally not about hating men… right?