Sep 1 1997

Life Without Father

Feminists' exclusion skews debate on dads

In July, the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum scored a double win worthy of the Women’s National Basketball Association: IWF representatives published op-ed articles in the New York Times (7/10/97) and the Wall Street Journal (7/11/97) on consecutive days with the very same message. And the message was repeated a third time on CBS Evening News (7/13/97), where Laura Ingraham, an IWF founder, has a regular soapbox slot to “comment,” unchallenged, on the news. (Ingraham is now misleadingly identified by the New York Times as a “news analyst.” CBS tags her as a “commentator,” airing no feminist to “comment” back.)

The subject was the National Organization for Women (NOW) , whose leaders, for reasons unfathomable to the IWF, have a problem with the fun­damentalist men-only group Promise Keepers (PK). Ingraham’s New York Times column, “Men Who Can Do Nothing Right,” repeated the Times‘ canard (9/22/96) that PK is “a group of men of all races and religions [who] gather to pledge to become better hus­bands and fathers.” PK aims to “pro­mote racial healing,” added Ingraham, glossing over the distinction between “healing” and giving people of color equal opportunity—like access to the same good schools she attended. (For more on PK, see Extra!, 1-2/97.) Sally Satel in the Journal trivialized NOW’s anti-sexism agenda, then called it “trivial.” “[NOW] is paranoid about acknowledging that men also have needs,” wrote Satel.

These paeans to PK were provoked by NOW’s national convention pledge “to raise awareness of the Promise Keepers’ intentions” and to be present at PK events, specifically their march on Washington, D.C. in October 1997. Ingraham feigned mystification: “How can feminists, who worked so hard for women to be treated equitably by society….proclaim that a group like the Promise Keepers poses any kind of real threat to their well-being?”

Bemoaning Fatherlessness

How indeed–if one gleans the facts only from the overwhelmingly gushy media attention given to PK and other men’s groups. Anti-feminist columnists have been bemoaning fatherlessness and praising “responsible fatherhood” for months. “Children need fathers,” preached Mona Charen in a syndicat­ed column (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7/11/97) that blamed “feminist hostility to female dependency” and “male irre­sponsibility” for rising rates of unwed childbearing.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher (Sacra­mento Bee, 6/14/97) applauded the June launch of a “Call To Fatherhood” to which she herself had signed her name. The national “call” declares fatherlessness “one of the greatest social evils of our generation” and an “engine driving our worst social prob­lems.” Quoting Christina Hoff Sommers, Gallagher wrote that today’s boys are far more likely than girls to “succumb to crime, alcohol and drugs; six times as many boys as girls kill them­selves.” And those age-old facts she attributes to a “sex- and rights-crazed culture” that she blames for “the loss of flesh and blood fathers . . . the loss of the idea of fatherhood [and] a culture that seems afraid to offer [boys] a mas­culine role.”

In conjunction with the National Fatherhood Initiative (co-authors of the “call”) , House Speaker Newt Gingrich cuddled a fellow lawmaker’s twin toddlers and announced a con­gressional Task Force on Fatherhood on Father’s Day. Reporters covered the event (AP; Washington Times, 6/13/97) by citing only its participants and regur­gitating their claims—for example, that “fathers are missing for two reasons: divorce and children born out of wed­lock”; the word “abandonment” didn’t appear. Nor did Speaker Gingrich’s own history as a deadbeat dad.

A few days earlier, the Washington Times (6/10/97) dedicated 3,000 words to how Hollywood “disses” fathers, or what the author called the “Homerization of Dad.” Among other conservatives quoted was the National Fatherhood Initiative’s president Wade Horn: “Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver.”

Answering Absurdities

The women’s rights movement has no daily or weekly publication that femi­nist owners subsidize (the way conservative owners subsidize the Washington Times and The Weekly Standard) to promote their cause. And few pundits are as outspoken in advocating for women’s rights as Ingraham or Charen (and many others) are for the anti-fem­inist right. So it’s no surprise the “fatherhood” debate is skewed.

Feminists have never been against fathers, just abusive ones; they’ve never been in favor of women struggling through poverty to raise their kids alone. But that’s exactly the charge that women’s advocates now have to answer when, once in a blue moon, they’re invited into the media’s debate about dads, as Kim Gandy of NOW was on Crossfire (CNN, 7/6/97). And while feminists have to spend the few minutes they have on-air to defend themselves against absurd attacks, what’s missing from the feel-good picture of “respon­sible” fatherhood is informed political analysis, or reports from the local level, about what is actually going on.

More vigorous journalism might probe, for example, the “father’s rights” movement’s efforts to change family law. The rhetoric of responsibili­ty sounds safe enough—not unlike what feminists have called for for years, to little applause—but, as the repeal of welfare shows, such talk has far more sway when it’s aimed at moms alone. The discussion is now moving into the courts, with the goal of changing divorce and custody law to protect abu­sive men—for starters.

Proponents of the “fatherlessness is next to lawlessness” theory love to quote a 25-year study of the children of 60 divorced families that found them to be troubled as adults (New York Times, 6/24/97). But reporters rarely scruti­nize the research. The author, Judith Wallerstein, makes no bones about the fact that she did not assess the children before the divorce (they could have been troubled earlier) and did not compare them to a control group of children whose parents stayed in mar­riages that were similarly stressed. Worth a mention might be the fact that Wallerstein herself opposes toughening marriage and divorce laws.

Meanwhile, signers of the “Call to Fatherhood” say that leaders in efforts to roll back or repeal no-fault divorce laws are their colleagues. In its earliest form, Louisiana’s “covenant marriage” law would have prohibited immediate divorce except in cases of adultery, abandonment or imprisonment. Only after some dilution did the covenant law, which went into effect this August, include physical or sexual abuse as grounds. (Though the “covenant mar­riages” are supposed to be just an option, Episcopal and Catholic church­es are considering offering church wed­dings only to those who approach the altar with these new licenses in their hands—New Orleans Times-Picayune, 6/29/97.)

Batterers as Slaves

National Fatherhood Initiative’s Wade Horn told CNN (6/18/95) that “dads can’t be moms and moms can’t be dads,” but the reporter didn’t ask about the political implications–for same-sex couples, for example. Horn has acknowledged that he supports legally limiting artificial insemination to married couples only (Fatherhood Today, Summer/96). Horn told CNN that courts should do away with any presumptions about custody in divorce cases. The court’s priority should be to “ensure that despite a divorce, both parents stay involved,” he said, but the reporter didn’t ask what that means for kids with a violent mom or dad.

In several states, anti-domestic violence workers are finding themselves up against apparently well-funded groups claiming to represent men accused of violence. In Massachusetts, the Coalition for the Preservation of Fatherhood (CPF) lobbied this year against a tame piece of legislation that would make it more difficult for convicted batterers to receive custody of a child. Reporters for local papers regu­larly quoted CPF leaders without refer­ring to their histories.

One CPF spokesman on the custody debate, who has placed several opinion pieces on the subject in local papers, is himself a divorcee with a history of domestic assault and violating his own custody agreements. In 1993, he was barred from seeing his son after his for­mer wife testified in custody hearings that among other problems, he’d bought their son a toy sword—which he told him to use to “slit his mother’s throat and decapitate her attorney.” (North Shore Sunday, 10/24/93) CPF harbors men facing charges of violating restraining orders, comparing men accused of domestic violence to “slaves who dared to seek their freedom.” (Boston Herald, 12/15/96)

In the real world, this is what some women’s advocates are grappling with; in the media, powerful female pundits keep complaining about feminist man- haters. This gap is convenient for the Promise Keepers and their friends: They can rally this October, safe in the knowl­edge that to many of those who might oppose them, their message remains largely unclear and unscrutinized.

Research assistance: Nicky Beer