Father Figures


Excerpts from Ms. Magazine by Martha Burk who is president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington, DC. 10-11/00

"Juan Miguel Gonzalez would never have risen to national prominence had he not been the father of an elfin, jug-eared little castaway named Elian, who floated into Florida waters on an inner tube. His mother drowned trying to escape with him from Cuba on a leaky little power boat. You know the story, and it's one so overexposed that we would all be happy to consign it to the graveyard of media overkill, except for one thing: the story provides a cautionary tale for feminists. One of the core tenets of feminism is that women can never achieve equality with men until men to their part in the family. And that means doing what we can to encourage responsible fatherhood, in and out of marriage.

Elian Gonzalez's father - who was eventually allowed to take his son back to Cuba - certainly seemed responsible and involved. Yet as Elian's Miami relatives continued to fight for custody of the boy, the silence from feminists was deafening. Fathers' right organizations - which range from reasonable men wanting to share their children's lives to militant feminist-haters - showed vocal and visible support for Gonzalez in his custody battle with the Miami relatives. Why weren't we more vocal in our support of the father?  To use one of our own techniques, turn the situation around. If Elian's mother were left in Cuba fighting for her son after the father had taken him out of the country, we'd be screaming from the rooftops.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a man, by law, owned his wife and children. Feminists at the first women's right convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 petitioned for shared domain over children - joint custody, if you will. But somewhere on the path to equity in the family, many feminists bought into the polar opposite of father ownership, presuming mothers to be the rightful caretakers of kids. Though both sides claim bias in the courts, mothers get custody 85 percent of the time - probably because men do not assume equal responsibility for child rearing. However, when men do challenge custody orders, the patchy studies that are available suggest that fathers get custody or joint custody 50 to 55 percent of the time. In the case of custody disputes, feminists revert to the mother-caretaker/father-provider stereotype all too readily. If more men did share custody, women would have more time to pull themselves up economically after divorce. In fact, it's all the more reason for feminists to try to erase the sexism against men found in family courts. Too often judges hand out visitation agreements that don't work for fathers, and we look the other way when the father is denied time with the kids or the mother moves them far away, effectively ending contact. But we're the first off the block when that same father misses a child-support payment. Is it any wonder that some men join militant fathers' rights groups whose purpose is to bash feminists and duck child support?

The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is trying to shape ill-conceived fatherhood initiatives into something positive for women, as well as men. Promoting marriage as a cure-all - as these initiatives do - is just as wrongheaded as a belief in mother ownership, which is not only antifeminist but harmful to the cause of women's equality. Until feminist groups and fathers' rights groups reach an understanding, women, men and children all will be the losers."

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