Is the Fathers' Rights Movement the Next Big Threat to Women's Equality? Two Reasons the Answer May Be Yes
San Gabriel Valley/Whittier NOW (Calif.) activists successfully rallied to keep a local domestic violence courtroom open to help survivors of abuse and their children stop the cycle. The fathers' rights and marriage movements pose serious threats to the well-being of women attempting to end violent relationships.
The next serious threat to women's rights in the United States may come from the respectable-sounding movements to protect fathers' rights and promote marriage. NOW and other feminist groups are following closely the efforts of these advocates in the government, the courts and the culture.
"Look below the surface of the growing pro-marriage and pro-fathers' rights sentiment in this country and you will see a very anti-woman, anti-equality message," says NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy.
The following two stories illustrate some of these movements' new tactics
for controlling women.
"The marriage movement is giving women the message that a bad husband and father is better than none at all. Single moms are being demonized," says NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "NOW is committed to exposing and organizing against this deliberate return to the days of unchallenged male control."
An outgrowth of the fatherhood movement and the conservative agenda, the current marriage movement has declared its cultural, social and political goals in a document titled "The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles." Released on June 29, 2000, at the Smart Marriages conference in Denver, Colo., the Statement pledges that "in this decade we will turn the tide on marriage and reduce divorce and unmarried childbearing, so that each year more children will grow up protected by their own two happily married parents and more adults' marriage dreams will come true."
The statement's approximately 100 signers, including the conference sponsors (The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education; Institute for American Values; Religion, Culture, and Family Project), claim that their support for marriage does not require "turning back the clock on desirable social change, promoting male tyranny or tolerating domestic violence." But the values they are promoting are sometimes in direct conflict with goals such as ending domestic violence and winning gender equality. In recommending public policy to promote marriage, the signers offer no way to reconcile these conflicts.
The marriage movement makes no effort to conceal its connection with the extremist fathers' rights agenda; in fact, supporters consider it one of their strengths. The Statement of Principles claims, "The empirical evidence is quite clear: Marriage is our best hope of fostering involved, effective, nurturing fathers." It goes on to cite the same faulty research used in both Congressional fatherhood bills that suggests that "fatherlessness" is at the root of myriad social problems, ignoring evidence that the presence of consistent, loving caregivers is more important in a child's development than the number, sex or marital status of the caregiver(s).
The message is clear: the pro-marriage, anti-divorce, pro-fatherhood advocates see the progess women have made toward equality as a feminist-instigated culture of family destruction. They value only one type of family: one man, one woman, married for life, with children born in wedlock. They intend to encourage marriage by poor mothers through financial and other incentives that will be denied to them and their children if they stay single, and discourage divorce by repealing no-fault divorce laws.
These advocates argue that this can end poverty, juvenile delinquency and the need for child support agencies. The notion of marriage as a solution to poverty is closely tied to right-wing initiatives in Congress to cut social spending drastically and eventually dismantle what remains of the safety net.
However, as NOW's Action Vice President Loretta Kane says, "If marriage
were the solution to poverty, it wouldn't take an act of Congress to promote
it." See www.marriagemovement.org for more information on the "Statement
of Principles." These movements can be tracked on the web sites of
various right-wing think tanks, like the Family Research Council, the Heritage
Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
In 1998, Missouri passed a law decreeing that divorced parents must seek permission from each other when planning to move, even across the street. Legislators promoted the law as a means to prevent one parent from moving so far away that a relationship between the children and the other parent becomes difficult to preserve. Although the law seems well-meaning, feminists warn that in cases of abusive or controlling ex-spouses and sexist judges, it can have devastating consequences. The real stories of women and children affected by this law are proof of its danger. One such story involves Jane Hicks.
In December 1999, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Judge Randolph Puchta's decision to prevent Hicks, a custodial parent, from moving with her children 95 miles to her new husband's home in Illinois. Hicks offered her ex-husband more time with the children in the summer, even though she noted that he had rarely exercised his existing visitation rights, and she agreed to assume full responsibility for transporting the children to him on his weekends. But he refused, and Hicks had to hire a lawyer.
Throughout the protracted legal proceedings, Hicks has been charged with contempt several times as a result of the children's refusal to visit their father, and she said recently she was threatened by the judge that if the children did not visit their father and "have a good time," she would go to jail.
Instead of listening to the expert witnesses who advised against forced visitation, the judge affirmed the father's attorney's unsubstantiated claims of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a condition supposedly brought about by parents-usually mothers-who alienate their children from the other parent.
PAS, which is not recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association, is being used in court by fathers' rights groups attempting to switch custody to fathers, eliminate or reduce child support payments and discredit charges of abuse. A national PAS Foundation has been established in Washington, D.C., with an advisory board of people connected to the men's custody/fathers' rights movement. The Foundation's board boasts that they will get a $5 million grant from the proposed federal Fathers Count Act.
Hicks has been forced by court order to live with her parents and her request to move has been denied. Meanwhile, Judge Puchta has allowed her ex-husband to circumvent the same relocation law by letting him spend his weekends with the children in a trailer that is not his official residence.
NOW activists have been monitoring this case and Hicks herself has written to and spoken with both legislators and the media. Executive Vice President Kim Gandy traveled to St. Louis in May to appear at a news conference and demonstration in support of Hicks, and yet another court hearing.
The Missouri legislature is currently working on a new bill to amend the "permission to move" law. The proposed legislation, however, merely redefines "relocation" as a change in the principal residence of a child "thirty miles or greater from the child's current principal residence" and will do little to change the abuse of the law by domineering, non-custodial fathers whose primary goal is to make their wives or ex-wives suffer.
Feminists vow to educate legislators and judges that ex-husbands are sometimes more interested in exerting control over and making life difficult for their former wives than in maintaining beneficial relationships with their children and that the needs of the children and custodial parent must be given priority.
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