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Fathers 4 Feminism

2010 October 6
by Sarah Cook

This is a bit of wishful thinking really, but I was inspired by a conversation with my own father after I’d told him I was writing for this website.

“Feminism? Does that mean you hate men now?” My father is a master of both dry wit and directness, you can’t foil him with flannel, so what I say next can’t be fluffy or theory-wanking.

“No, it’s more about equality.” At this point I have to pause, because realistically my dad does not need to know the entire history of the feminist movement over tea and scones at the South Bank. He is taking an interest in my interests. Which means I should at least have the grace to be interesting.

“We’ve theoretically got legal equality, but there’s still a lot of inequality in society. A lack of respect for women as people…” He’s still got his eyes open and therefore so far, so good. “Like when men call out to women on the streets if they are wearing dresses. Makes me feel uncomfortable to wear a dress, and that’s not on.”

I can tell that I’ve got him right there. He starts to tell me about a time he was out with my brother and two men were “effing and blinding” (my father rarely swears) at a young woman across the street.

“I might read up on this, on the internet, when I get home to your mum.”

We return to our cups of tea, but internally, ideas are brewing.

Why aren’t more fathers involved in the feminist movement? On the surface, it seems an obvious partnership. Surely no father would want his daughter to grow up in a world where she had less respect, less equality and less room to succeed than her brothers? Yet the link between “feminism” and “making life better for your daughter” seems to be feeble to the point of invisibility. Instead, there is a jump to the fear of the unfamiliar, the media-generated whispers of what evil feminists are like – man-haters to quote my dad, who is neither a sexist nor easily swayed by the opinions of the papers. He was just recounting what he understood the term to mean.

I want to take a little time to unpick the relationship between feminism and fatherhood, with the hope of encouraging more people to think about feminism in a more positive light, to give them the tools to talk to their parents about feminism, and to (finally) get our dads on board.

There is a lot of prejudice surrounding feminism and the family. This can range from the (in)famous Pat Robinson quote that “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” to the somewhat outre thinking (not to mention strange definitions) of a divorce campaigner in America. A quick google for references to “feminism and the family” or “fathers and feminism” reveals heartbreaking commonalities mostly centered around the idea that the feminist movement is somehow trying to extract men from the entire family process.

You can see how a wrong-headed reading of women’s rights might have picked up that impression. The longstanding assumption that an increase in freedom for women must naturally lead to a decrease in freedom for men (as if there were only a certain amount of freedom in the world). Changes in legislation over the past eighty years or so, from the vote, through to divorce laws, inheritance, mortgage rights (yesterday I was talking to a lady who told me when she was my age women couldn’t apply for a mortgage by herself) and so on have all enabled women to move from being reliant on men to being more self-reliant. However, this move is all too often read as a move away from men rather than being a move toward engaging with men on equal, independent terms.

The stock figures often quoted as examples of how feminism is destroying the family unit are the rising divorce rate. Personally I take issue with the idea that relationship status is indicative of a strong family unit – I would much rather that parents were happy with each other and unwed than unhappily married. However, that aside it’s important to note that  it is almost impossible to gauge what, if any, influence feminism has had on these numbers. Frankly, if feminists could somehow cause such vast social change, then it’s unclear why we still have such crappy rape prevention or why little girls are forever dressed in pink. More is at issue here – starting with the lessening of religious influence in our daily lives (if marriage is not a sacrament, then divorce is no longer a sin), the decline in different social status for married versus unmarried people (there is less incentive to remain within an unhappy marriage) and the lowering stigma of the single parent (although I would argue that single mums are still pilloried by society whilst single dads put on pedestals, but that’s another article). This is social change, perhaps influenced in part by feminism, but just as equally influenced by all the changes that have occured in the last century. The world has changed.

It is easy to sneer at those who think that feminism is damaging to the family.

But before we sneer, we must understand what we are looking at. The truth is that what feminism wants is deeply challenging to a traditionalist and parts of what feminism is hoping to achieve can also be somewhat difficult to swallow by almost anyone raised in the modern UK: it involves a complete step change in our understanding of the family unit which has massive knock-on effects in most areas of society – work, education, retirement, marriage and relationships. If we wanted a truly equal setting for the family, in which neither gender is assumed to have a “natural” role in parenting – and I think we do – then all of these things must change both in theory and practice.  And that is mindblowing. Here’s how: try and think about it. Picture, in your mind, if you can (and I find it quite hard), a world in which mums and dads are given exactly the same weight and priority by society. Have exactly the same expectations placed upon them. Are communicated to by the media and advertising in the same fashion.

In other words, that parents are treated as parents, rather than isolated and grouped according to gender. And we aren’t surprised by it. Dads change nappies. Mums go out to work. Dads do the dishes. Mums do the school run. Parents Evening is exactly that. There’s no assumption or hierarchy in who might be better at doing what beyond what each individual is able and willing to do. People with ovaries teach children to throw and kick balls in the playground. People with Y chromosomes make chocolate crispy cakes (and mostly mess) in the kitchen. Maternity and paternity leave cease to exist and we have parental leave. No-one bats an eyelid.

It’s a strange place, isn’t it? But wonderful.

And it’s a place I think we can get to, if we try to break down the barriers that exist between perceptions of what feminism could really mean to fatherhood.

In the UK there are a number of dad centered internet institutions (nowhere near as many as for mothers – mumsnet, for example, is  a huge and generally positive and useful resource, but despite the claims to be “by parents for parents” is still in name and deed more focused on women than men). These include Fathers 4 Justice and other similarly named organisations that fight for changes in family law, including the website Dads UK which again focuses on access, divorce and children. As far as I’m aware, neither of these organisations have strong links to UK feminists, and in some cases a scan of their pages reveals the same sort of prejudices that are repeated over and over and over again – that the feminist movement took their children away. It’s a little bit like 21st century witchhunting. Scapegoating is easier than finding the real solution – especially when the real solution involves complicated individuals and their lives rather than a nice easy public target.

So how do we change this for the better?

10 Responses leave one →
  1. October 6, 2010

    My dad is lovely. He freely admits that he’s not au fait with modern social movements and that some of them make him feel a bit uncomfortable. We’ve talked before about how he agrees, generally, with most of what feminism is about. But he’s got this guilt complex because he’s a married white male who for most of his life has been the sole breadwinner in a “traditional” family – as if he’s somehow not allowed to agree if he’s not, himself, radical in his life.

    For me, these are some of the people who it’s most important to convince that feminism is not this dirty word that some other people do. That things they care about are feminist issues; and even if they don’t want to be a part of that movement, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that they’re a feminist sympathiser. I would put the people in such dad-centric organisations into this too. Because really we’re all arguing for the same thing, and should be arguing with the society that permits it rather than at each other. That, frankly, is just pretty tiring.

  2. Michael permalink
    October 6, 2010

    Hmmm, my upbringing sounds quite close to what you’re looking for.

    Although it was Mum who got the maternity leave when I arrived afterwards she went back to work and Dad stayed at home and cooked the meals and so on (he enjoys cooking) so the thought of either parent doing housework or that the male partner should be the prime breadwinner never seemed strange to me.

    As my Dad is a musician he was able to compose from home whilst I was at school. Flexible working patterns also meant he could do bits and bobs around childcare especially once the kids were older. This is probably why (as far as I’m aware) Dad didn’t encounter the kind of social stigma that other ‘house husbands’ would have. Of course, it could down to the fact that my parents’ social circle comprises socially liberal, moderately to extremely leftwing types!

    I think you’re on the right track in indentifying ‘Parental Leave’ as a way forward (funnily enough, I’ll be trying to improve our contract’s paternity provisions shortly) but we need to go further in the way our economic models of employment can dictate family structures. What we need is a world where, to paraphrase the Big KM, a person can:
    ‘do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, parent in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, read a bedtime story after dinner’

    Sorry, but it was only a matter of time before I posted something about economics!

    • Michael permalink
      October 6, 2010

      Sorry, that was written a little too hastily earlier so:

      “…so the thought … that the male partner should be the prime breadwinner never seemed strange to me.”

      Should of course read:

      “…so the thought that the male partner WOULD NOT be the prime breadwinner never seemed strange to me.”

      And on reflection ‘bits and bobs’ is hideously belittling of what either of my parents achieved whilst I was growing up (and still continue to achive).

  3. October 7, 2010

    I could not agree with this more. And this blog is awesome, I am subscribing.

    I found you via a thread on, which is ironic, because I generally read reddit until the men’s rights activists on that site send me into an incapacitating feminist rage and then have to force myself to close my computer and seethe in anger the rest of the morning.

    Finding ‘Bad Reputation’ is probably the only good thing to ever come from my reading that site.

  4. wererogue permalink
    October 7, 2010

    I was mostly raised by my Mother, but my Dad and Stepdad (and my Stepmum, although less so) were fairly heavily involved. As such, growing up I saw my Mum taking the lead on Parent’s Night, and maybe it’s just us, but at both my Mum and my Dad’s house, whoever didn’t cook washed the dishes. (In mine, I do the dishes unless time completely gets away from us.)

    As a (pro-)feminist father-to-be, your description of a perfect world almost like the one I live in – but only due to the efforts of my wife and I. I’ll be taking as much of my paternity leave as I can get, including my fair share of the “parental leave” offered in Canada. We divided up household chores. I do have a lesser share of the housework, because I work full-time while she works part-time (which is a whole different matter, and one which is clearly not ideal for us.)

    There’s one rather good article on Feminism for Fathers on the front page of google (lower down): which is another argument for equal roles in parenting. But I haven’t seen any reasonable groups or organisations for it.

    Incidentally, I don’t recommend Fathers4Justice as a group. While their stated original aims are admirable, they’ve come out against concepts like single motherhood and gay parents, because “Children need BOTH parents” and “Kids need real Dads, not […] lesbo dads”.

    I love the concept of this article – so often the approach taken is “the older generation will stop fighting progressive ideas when they’re dead, and then everything will be ok.” I’s refreshing to see suggestions on how to show our loved ones why we hold our values.

  5. October 7, 2010

    Sarah, I think it’s helpful to start with more basic questions. You’re a feminist who believes in a future without gendered parenting roles. Of all the things to believe in, why choose this one?

    The reason is that feminism follows a much larger modern orthodoxy. One in which the highest good is held to be autonomy, i.e. the capacity to self-determine or self-define.

    If we are to self-determine, then two things follow. First, a predetermined quality like our sex can’t be allowed to matter, hence family roles can’t be gendered. Second, careers (which are uniquely self-selected) will appear more autonomous and therefore superior to the “biological destiny” of motherhood.

    What are some of the problems with this approach to life?

    First, if autonomy is what matters, then the emphasis will be on an independent lifestyle rather than on stable family commitments. Marriage will be increasingly delayed, which then changes what we select for in the opposite sex (i.e. if we are looking for casual, uncommitted relationships, we’re much more likely to value “hotness” in the opposite sex).

    That’s why it’s odd that you made the pitch to your father that feminism would stop women being sexualised. A feminist culture is highly sexualised, as young men know that they are not needed for many, many years as husbands and so tend to select on hotness alone – and women respond.

    If autonomy is what matters, then the state will act to maximise female autonomy. It does so, in part, by making it possible for women to raise children without men – the state becomes the substitute husband. A woman can raise her children without a husband through welfare payments, through alimony, through paid maternal leave schemes and so on.

    This does, indeed, make women less dependent on men, but it does have a cost. It decreases the value to women of men’s efforts to earn a wage, especially amongst the lower paid, thereby increasing family instability. It means that some women are able to leave decent husbands for relatively flippant reasons (being bored with the relationship, thinking they can do better) and yet still claim the benefits of that husband’s labour – something that many men deeply resent. It also helps to change what women select for in men; qualities of loyalty and stability are less valued in favour of more exciting bad boy attributes.

    If autonomy is what matters, and autonomy is measured by a traditionally masculine role of careers, then why haven’t women been equal in careers throughout history? There are many feminists who answer that men structured society to deprive women of this good. In other words, men throughout history oppressed women.

    This then does lead a large number of feminists to hold a hostile attitude to men: men are thought, as a class of people, to have used domestic violence and sexual violence to subjugate women; men are thought to have had easy lives of privilege at the expense of women; even male sexuality has been thought of negatively as oppressive and harmful to women.

    These attitudes sour relationships between men and women, breeding resentments on both sides. Men are expected to make sacrifices for women whilst being portrayed as their oppressors. And a feeling is bred up that men and women are set against each other, jealously competing for the good of autonomy – and this is not what men instinctively look for in their relationships with women.

    Sarah, have you considered what would happen if men ditched their traditional commitments in favour of their own version of autonomy? What would maximise male independence and freedom to self-define? Possibly not a lifelong commitment to monogamy, marriage or career. How will women fare in a society in which the family guy qualities in men have been killed off in favour of doing your own thing? Will society be as prosperous? Will young men live orderly, productive lives? Will older women retain the loyalty of their men in competition with younger women?

    Which is simply to say that feminism errs in thinking that autonomy can be the long-term basis of a functioning society.

    • Sam Wood permalink
      October 7, 2010

      Although she may disagree with me, I don’t think Sarah’s initial post suggested that her view of feminism was necessarily anti-sexualisation. As she said, feminism means respect and I don’t think respect and sexualisation are mutually exclusive. A casual, uncommitted relationship based around mutual sexual attraction works fine as long as the thoughts and emotions of all involved are respected. It’s when there’s a lack of respect that such a situation becomes destructive – sexual objectification over sexualisation.

    • Michael permalink
      October 7, 2010

      Dear Mark,

      It’s refreshing to see someone respond to a post like this is such a polite and measured manner. If everyone on the internet (and day to day life) took the same approach I think we’d all be a lot further on.

      However, I can’t see how a discussion on the benefits of non-gendered parenting is somehow arguing for a selfish form of autonomy to be the norm. In fact, I would argue it is the opposite in that in the society Sarah’s piece envisages, human beings would be more likely to be able to grow up knowing that they all have potential and opportunity and worth. If gender isn’t an issue in upbringing, the kind of gender resentment you describe surely ceases to be something anyone would remotely think about?

      The piece doesn’t envisage men ditiching “… their traditional commitments in favour of their own version of autonomy…” because it’s (please correct me if I’m wrong someone) about ‘traditional commitments’ towards upbringing being focussed on human beings treating each other as equals and caring for each other, working with and for each other.

      I would point you towards my initial reply (and correction/clarification) to this post as evidence in favour of this argument. Notwithstanding the ‘left-liberal social circle it’ it is fair to say that the environment I grew up in didn’t in any way engender any resentment issues in my parents nor did it do so in me.

      Why is it that you assume that parents sharing parental and work commitments without stigma attached would somehow fuel ‘gender competition’ and a breakdown of society?

  6. Sarah Cook permalink
    October 7, 2010

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the comment and for the debate, appreciated.

    I think it’s fair to say that from a quick skim of your website we are unlikely to come to any shared ground on this topic given our outlooks and beliefs are quite different. Some of the arguments you make stem from assumptions that I just don’t share – monogamy is not the One True Way. Marriage is not an essential bedrock of society, I don’t think that there is such a thing as biological determinism vis a vis gender nor that “tradition” is a good enough reason to carry on doing something.

    Questions over the validity of my beliefs are not really fruitful. How can I believe in a future with non-gendered parenting roles? Because they reflect my worldview and outlook. Because I think they are right and a good thing to do. Because they will make the world a better place.

    There are a couple of points I do want to pick you up on:

    I can’t really see how feminism is “sexualised”, part of my feminism centres around constructive criticism of sexualisation within UK society (I can’t speak for Australia, I’ve never been – we redheads do badly in the sunshine).

    I think it is unfortunate that you chose to discuss men as potential husbands rather than people in their own right – I would challenge that assumption and offer that my view of how we should restructure family relationships would give both men and women the freedom to decide how they wanted to be parents or parnters, rather than having to ram themselves into socially constructed boxes.

    These boxes create just the situation you describe – men and women feeling jealous and antagonistic towards each other and resentful of these expectations. Both men and women have been harmed by gendered ideology on how they *should* behave Therefore wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch can surely only be helpful?

    Part of what we’re trying to do here is to overcome the weight of resentment against feminism, and throwing off some terrible assumptions, including the myth of feminists as being automatically hostile to men – I think that there might be some women who call themselves feminists who have that view, but they aren’t my kind of feminist!

    I think there’s a gulf of difference between stating that women have been oppressed by men in the past and stating that this is the fault of all men equally and that all men are bastards. The better thing to do is to look at what is happening, unpick why it is happening and work towards improving everyone’s lot.

    As for the whole “autonomy as the longterm basis for a functioning society” I didn’t say that, so can’t comment, except to note that I think that’s a rather simplisic viewpoint, whoever said it.

  7. Raven permalink
    October 10, 2010

    For years I didn’t think I was a feminist, or that I agreed with feminist principles, just because it’s the F Word and a bit of a scary thing to align oneself too. But now I’m out of the angsty teenage years, I don’t care what people think.

    This is relevant only because it’s my Dad who made me this way. My Mum stayed at home, so I’m told, for a while when I was very little (so little I honestly don’t remember it at all). After my brother was born and sufficiently old enough, Dad took over until I was 12. He stayed at home and raised the both of us, did some work from home while we were at school, picked us up, cooked dinner, went through several adult college courses at the same time and then got a job. Even then, because he worked in a school, he came home and cooked us dinner every evening. Now my brother and I are both adults (and at university) he still cooks when we visit; especially if you make an interesting suggestion that he’s never tried making before!

    So to me, for years, this wasn’t feminism; it was just my life. No one parent had more authority when it came to discipline, Mum earned more, Dad cooked more etc etc. So, I’m quite thankful they sat down before having kids and made the decisions they made: including the ‘no pink for a girl’.

    Peculiarly, now I’m an adult, it’s still my Dad who is more keen on equality (without even realising it). According to him it’s perfectly fine if my (male) partner follows me if I get a job in Outer Nowhereshire, but according to my Mum it should only ever be me who follows my partner. Lame.

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