WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The fatherhood movement has gained significant footing inside the Beltway since George W. Bush moved into the White House.
On June 7, President Bush, citing the fact that 24.7 million–or one third–of American children live apart from their fathers, pledged $64 million for grants to groups that help absentee fathers with employment, parenting and marriage skills. He also wants $300 million to fund existing state programs that try to keep families together. Many states already have fatherhood promotion programs.
Bush has further highlighted the fatherhood movement by nominating National Fatherhood Institute President Wade F. Horn to a post as assistant secretary for family support in the Department of Health and Human Services. Don Eberly, founder of the National Fatherhood Institute, is already director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The fatherhood movement’s stated aims would seem to be a welcome development. Feminists and women’s advocates have consistently argued that women can only be equal economically when men take on an equal portion of child rearing responsibilities.
But to many women’s groups, the fatherhood movement’s warm and fuzzy message cloaks a harsher agenda–one that aims to punish poor, unmarried mothers and families that don’t resemble the traditional two-parent family model.
And fewer and fewer U.S. households resemble that nuclear family. According to the 2000 census data, for the first time, less than a quarter of the nation’s households are made up of married couples with children. Moreover, the number of families headed by women who have children grew nearly five times faster in the 1990s and comprise 7 percent of all households.
Some in Movement Promote Marriage as Poverty’s Cure
Many women’s groups become alarmed when the fatherhood movement talks about using the upcoming welfare reform authorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, to promote marriage. Women’s advocates are also uncomfortable when those in the fatherhood movement call for doing away with no-fault divorce and promoting covenant marriages.
Tim Casey, senior staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, has been an articulate opponent of linking marital status to government benefits and building barriers to divorce. (NOW Legal Defense is the publisher of Women’s Enews.)
"We certainly support responsible fathering," says Casey, "but some of the policies coming under that banner would suggest we no longer need programs to address the real needs of low-income families because everybody will get married."
Casey says that some in the fatherhood movement argue that children without fathers in their lives are at higher risk for drug abuse, violence and a variety of emotional problems, but then want to enact policies that would deny government benefits to those living with mothers alone. Casey adds that marriage might not be in the best interests of victims of domestic violence and their children.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, criticizes the fatherhood movement’s citing of studies showing that children without fathers in their lives have emotional problems and are more likely to commit crimes and abuse alcohol and drugs.
"There are so many other ways of approaching the problem," Smeal says. "There’s this whole myth that’s created by the movement that it’s the woman’s fault. From the very beginning, feminists wanted to share child rearing, diapering, taking kids on picnics, to the park. This is not about that. This is about saying ‘I’m going to be the social engineer by coupling up women with men, whether they want to be or not."
In the end, Smeal says, "The easiest answer to poverty for women is to pay women more."
And she believes that solving the problem of children without live-in fathers requires a top down approach that would include reforming the American justice system so that African American men aren’t jailed as readily as they are now.
"It’s a real problem," she says. "So many African American men are in the penal system. We have a race discriminatory justice system."
As the debate rages, organizations that question whether the federal government should be promoting marriage say it is difficult to raise their concerns without appearing to be against involved fatherhood.
"We’re very concerned about this," says Dorian Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston, which supports couples and individuals who choose not to marry. "There is no anti-fatherhood movement, but the people who are promoting fatherhood are often promoting one very narrow definition of fatherhood."
Diversity Exists Among Dads Too
The responsible fatherhood movement is less an organized coalition and more a loose association of scholars, psychologists, policy makers and other men who have a wide variety of approaches to increasing the involvement of fathers in kids’ lives.
A look at the multitude of fatherhood-related organizations turns up everything from groups that advocate repealing women’s constitutional right to vote to one that works to dispel negative images of women in the media and help fathers raise daughters with positive body images.
Horn and the National Fatherhood Institute occupy a center position in the movement, advocating for marriage and traditional family structures and making claims that children raised without fathers in the home are more prone to a host of problems.
The more politically progressive Dads and Daughters, is a Duluth, Minn.-based non-profit that helps fathers communicate with their daughters on issues of self-esteem and body image.
Turning its attention to fathers and not public policy, the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo., provides information and training for fathers and gives awards to real fathers around the country, encouraging them to be creative and spend more time with their kids.
Intense Criticism of Family Courts, Child Support Laws
Many other fatherhood organizations claim that the family court system too often favors mothers and that men must reform divorce and child custody laws in order to promote fatherhood.
For example, Dr. Gerald L. Rowles is an Iowa therapist and the president of Dads Against the Divorce Industry, an organization that promotes marriage and the nuclear family, emphasizing the role of fathers. Rowles supports the presumption of joint physical custody in all divorce cases as well as reform of child support laws. His website also contains an essay by Rowles entitled "A Culture Dissolving In a Bog of Feminist Hysteria" that blames "hysterical feminism" for most of society’s problems.
"Yes I believe that to qualify for welfare benefits recipients should be married or attempting to solidify their relationship," writes Rowles. "And certainly, any recipient that has a child while participating under the auspices of such a mandate should be immediately disqualified from further benefits. Whether married or unmarried, poverty is not a sensible environment for conception and indicates that such individuals are acting irresponsibly."
Dads Against Discrimination believes in "Empowering fathers to take charge of their families through father custody options," according to the organization’s mission statement.
Stephen Baskerville, a professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has been acclaimed by groups that share his view that the family court system is corrupt, too powerful and largely responsible for the lack of two-parent families. He serves as a spokesman for Men, Fathers and Children International and writes about the family court system and "false domestic violence."
But Baskerville has also questioned the focus of groups like the National Fatherhood Initiative that advocate the use of government economic benefits as an incentive for marriage. The fatherhood movement has been too quick to blame fathers for living apart from their children, he says.
"You have to be very careful about how you exert the power of the state over private families," says Baskerville.
Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer based in Washington.
For more information, visit:
Alternatives to Marriage Project: http://www.unmarried.org
The Feminist Majority: http://www.feminist.org
Dads Against the Divorce Industry: http://www.dadi.org
National Fatherhood Initiative: http://www.fatherhood.org
National Congress for Fathers and Children: http://www.ncfc.net
Dads and Daughters: http://www.dadsanddaughters.org
National Center for Fathering: http://www.fathers.com
Dads Against Discrimination: http://www.dadsusa.com