It’s fairly easy to dismiss the men’s rights movement (so-called) as a bunch of angry middle-aged men in kilts who couldn’t afford the sports car when the midlife crisis hit (hear me, Nathan?). How can one really argue that men are an aggrieved population within society that needs a movement to protect its rights?
Which is why I read articles like this one, from the Good Men Project, entitled “How Feminists Get the Men’s Movement Wrong,” with a fair amount of skepticism:
Men’s rights and feminism are not incompatible aims. I’ve seen wrestling programs defunded as a result of Title IX, have heard feminist professors attack anthropologists not for unsound research but for the “dangerous implications” of their findings, and I’ve seen bad decisions in family court make a good father weep. And none of this made me any less thankful for Lily Ledbetter, or less outraged by the proposal to defund Planned Parenthood.
Gender politics is not a subscription service. You don’t just pick a team to root for and then disregard arguments from every other angle. If our interest is equality, we must also examine issues where the paradigm is counterintuitive or unclear.
All fair, but again, not entirely compelling. But here comes the part where I’m a hypocrite: I have had my own moment when I felt that I was discriminated against as a man, and it was in this context that much of the men’s rights movement functions: the divorce and family courts.
During the period of open confrontation between my ex-wife and me, there was significant tension over how our shared custody was going to work. It was never outright war, exactly, but there were times when I thought we might end up in front of a judge fighting for custody.
In New York, and perhaps other places (I’ve only been divorced in one state so far), there is no such thing as joint custody in a contested divorce. If you can’t resolve issues on your own, a judge will do it for you—by awarding full custody to one parent. This makes custody disputes a very high-stakes game, one in which women have a tremendous advantage.
Now, this is a blog, so of course I’ve done liitle research on the outcomes of contesting custody with young children in New York. I leave those efforts to paid reporters. But I do know this: my attorney always told me that no matter what happened I would have to compromise with JP’s mother, because if we went to court I would lose.
Judges, she said, rarely award custody to men when children are in the “tender years,” that is, under 5. Our merits as parents were irrelevant. If we went to court I would lose. (The tender years doctrine, as it is known, supposedly no longer exists, as it’s a fairly obvious instance of gender discrimination; but I’ve yet to meet a divorce attorney who believes it’s really no longer a factor.)
Again, I’m not entirely making the argument that men are in a truly disadvantaged position, or at least not all men: I’ve read that 80 percent of custody cases are resolved without dispute and with custody awarded to the mother. That is, eight times out of ten the man thinks it’s best for his children to be with the mother rather than with him.
Fortunately, in my case, I didn’t end up in that 80 percent, and I never tested the tender years doctrine. My ex and I made an arrangement in JP’s best interest. But I often think about what could have happened. Which I guess makes me an advocate for men’s rights after all.