By Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Cornell University Press 2008
Book Review by Matt Krogh
“Defiant Dads,” by Dr. Crowley of Rutgers University, could have been an important and useful analysis of what is right and wrong about this growing movement of divorced and divorcing. Unfortunately, while the book provides excellent background data, the author’s analysis is marred by her refusal to acknowledge that fathers’ rights activists’ primary political interest—encouraging equal-time parenting—could ever be a good idea.
The sheer volume of Crowley’s research is impressive: 158 in-person interviews and attendance at many meetings may be more research than any other academic has done on fathers’ rights groups. To her great credit, she includes many and lengthy quotes from interviewees, allowing the reader to understand the perspectives of group members in their own words.
Crowley organized the book around three key themes:
The unique nature of fathers’ rights groups (among men’s organizations) in trying to both make political change and improve family relationships between fathers, ex-spouses, and children;
The anti-state strategies the groups use to try to impact custody laws; and
The author’s opinion that she can support their family relationship goals, while believing their policy goals (if achieved) would be problematic for mothers, children, and families generally.
Crowley is able to maintain some level of academic distance while writing about the history of the movement, membership and leadership, custody, support issues, inter-parent relationships, and fathers’ ties to their children. But while she allows the movement may be a reasonable response to losing parental rights because of post-WWII increases in divorce rates and single motherhood, Crowley doesn’t disguise her dislike for what she sees as the conservative political agenda of the groups’ leaders.
She writes, “The neoconservative view of the minimal role for the state is, therefore, unsettling to many women who have viewed the government as the agent of progress. In the area of family policy, these fears are not misplaced.”
While later stating that the “reality is more complex,” she continues to oppose reforms of custody law, asserting that sought-after reforms would change if the political climate changed—without acknowledging that joint custody might be a reasonable policy response in the minds of disenfranchised fathers, regardless of political beliefs.
This bias is clear from the first when she writes that “The political goals of fathers’ rights movements, therefore, are fundamentally flawed in content.”
What could drive an academic to such a powerful, fundamental, and negative conclusion? Apparently, fathers’ rights groups fail to devote equal time to improving childcare facilities and equal economic opportunity for women in the workplace. In Crowley’s final analysis, only when men work for more unpaid family leave, share more in child rearing during marriage, advocate for equal economic opportunity, and start taking up low-paying jobs traditionally held by women, only then will she agree that fathers have a legitimate grievance about custody decisions.
All that, even though she acknowledges the courts are biased: “Mothers in American society today retain primary physical custody of their children in the overwhelming percentage of family dissolution cases, either by mutual parental consent or, to the consternation of fathers’ rights activists, by judicial decree.”
In contrast with her concerns about their politics and policy ideas, Crowley’s book is very supportive of the support-group functions of the fathers’ rights groups. She acknowledges the efforts they make to keep fathers involved in kids’ lives, and the trouble they take to share experiences with one another. Crowley is also kind enough to point out that, on an individual level, the men attending fathers’ rights meetings have compelling stories, while simultaneously suggesting that helping those dads’ political struggle for more time for all divorced dads would be damaging to society at large.
But she fails to show why those political changes would be so damaging. Instead, she focuses on historical data that show why the custody system became so biased, without discussing whether or not the system’s bias still addresses societal inequities in a meaningful way.
Fundamentally, the fathers’ rights movement is based on the idea that dads should have an equal part in their kids’ lives. Crowley clearly honors and respects the work the groups have done to improve parenting, inter-parent relationships, father/child interactions, and fathers’ understanding of their own responsibilities. But in no way does she seem to support legal remedies that might help make it easier for fathers to gain more or equal time with their kids.
Overall, Crowley’s book is valuable for the many recitations of facts and quotes, as befits an academic text; when it comes to analysis, however, her constant focus on women’s issues to the exclusion of non-gendered interests prevents her from supporting the political goals of the fathers’ rights groups.
It is clear that to some extent the fathers’ rights groups are an overreaction to the court system, just as the court system appears to have overcompensated for mother’s needs at the expense of fathers. Perhaps soon the pendulum will stop swinging in a place where parents really do truly have equal rights. And maybe it won’t be as catastrophic as Crowley seems to think.
Matt Krogh is a freelance writer in Bellingham, WA, focused on issues of environment, energy, geography, relationships, and integrity.