By Anonymous SJW, April 2018.
On March 2nd, 2018, I attended York University Men’s Issues Inaugural Event, “Growing Up Fatherless,” a talk by Karen Straughan. The poster gave little indication that the event was any different from one of the many feminist-oriented talks about gender on campus. Eager to hear what I thought would be a progressive take on modern fatherhood, I attended the event – I could not have been more wrong.
According to her blog, “Girl Writes What”, Straughan is a “45-year-old divorced mother of three who’s been writing on gender issues and pissing off feminists since 2010.” The waitress-turned-blogger is one of the few prominent women pundits of the Men’s Right’s Activism (MRA) movement. The MRA is an internet-based political movement claiming that males are victims of systemic oppression. Society, they say, strips men of their basic human rights and demasculinizes them. The solution, they argue, involves a reassertionof male superiority and for women to adopt ‘more traditional’ social roles.
Much of the MRA is dedicated to reprehensible tasks – i.e. discrediting rape survivors, sending death threats to female video-game developers, etc. However, In Straughan’s talk, I found certain issues I could engage with as a feminist philosopher. Many of the problems the MRA highlight are the result of a social and legal codified system of gender discrimination. Where we disagree is in the causes and the solutions to these problems. I found it helpful to hear both shared and unshared frustrations that are usually expressed less rigorously.
Many of the problems the MRA highlight are the result of a social and legal codified system of gender discrimination. Where we disagree is in the causes and the solutions to these problems.
Straughn presented two arguments to the effect that men are the most important gender from a sociopolitical standpoint. This is important, since their systematic oppression has led to cultural decay and a halt of progress. The two arguments are unrelated, and might in fact lead to inconsistent conclusions. If the conclusions are irreconcilable, it is due to a larger dissonance in the MRA. The two arguments are “the argument from fatherlessness” and “the argument from male utility.”
The argument from fatherlessness focuses on the issues facing men trying to access their children after divorce. A common thread among the MRA is the perceived legal bias against men. In her speech, Straughan spoke at length about how the legal system favors women in issues of both custody and domestic violence. Fathers are systematically denied paternity and reproductive rights. This has led to a fragmentation of the traditional nuclear family. Children growing up without fathers are more likely to experience teen pregnancy and end up in jail. An epidemic of fatherlessness has led to the growth of ‘man deserts,’ ghettos where single mothers cannot cope.
To combat fatherlessness and ‘man deserts’, men and boys need to be allowed to be who they are. This means reasserting their privileged role in familial relations. Fathers need access to their children. Boys need to grow up around strong adult male role models. Mothers have historically promoted caution, while fathers promote curiosity and boundary pushing. Straughan, a single mother herself, has a privileged position in speaking about the difficulties around raising children. That said, the idea that there are gendered roles in parenting seems a bit counterintuitive. Do children who grow up motherless tend to throw caution to the wind? Tabling concerns about the sexist and homophobic underpinnings of this idea, it seems implausible that the limits of a parents’ insight for their children are carved up by their gender.
Straughan claims, a woman’s word against a man’s is enough to send him to jail. Men, she argued, are often abuse victims, but no one believes them. Yet all woman need to do is to claim abuse, and they are believed. Here, Straughan conflates two different injustices – custody and abuse.
To address the custody injustice, according the Department of Justice, in Canada mothers are about 80% more likely to gain sole-custody of children versus joint or paternal-custody. The fact that mothers receive preferential custody is due to numerous factors rooted in the historic oppression of women. Even so, this reality can be explained by the fact that mothers, in general spend more time with their children, and fathers often don’t seek custody, with over half of parents reaching custody agreements out of court.
To address Straughan’s claims about domestic violence, according to Stats Canada and the Department of Justice, intimate-partner violence makes up about 70% of all assaults reported to the police. It is unfortunately, common. Straughan argues that men often lose custody of their kids because of false claims of abuse. She claims spousal and child abuse is not really a problem. Here she contradicts her true assertion that men do suffer from abuse. She cited a statistic, saying that only 5% of Americans believe domestic violence is acceptable. Anyone with a cursory understanding of how to read statistics, should realize the gap between what people say they support and what they do is a great chasm.
Despite these factual inaccuracies, I can agree with Straughan’s aim in showing the importance of fatherhood. Men ought to be encouraged to take on a more active role in the family. While she makes many points idealizing the role of fathers which minimize the roles of mothers, parental involvement is important regardless of gender. Interestingly, what we agree on stands at odds with the conclusion of Straughan’s second argument.
Instead of seeing a binary, adversarial fight for dominance, as the MRA does, feminism, as I understand it, strives never to reduce the nature of any individual to a false-narrative on the nature of a person’s gender.
The “argument of male utility” goes as follows: men have historically produced more financial value for the economy and thus have superior social utility which translates to greater entitlement. Men, she argued, have historically worked harder, for more hours, with less higher education, and at more dangerous jobs. Women, she claimed, constantly took more than they put in, and that elderly women were the biggest drains on the system.
Even if these claims are accurate, these facts don’t back up the claim that men are more important than women and are entitled to various privileges. Systemic oppression lead to the gender pay gap. And women, who on average live longer than men, do not necessarily equate to unfair burdens on economic growth. Women have historically been denied access to gainful employment.
Moreover, waged labor is not the only kind of work. Housework is hard work. It simply false to say that the only kind of economically valuable work that matters is that which receives higher compensation. Ironically, the argument from fatherlessness emphasizes the importance of unpaid domestic labor.
Straughan equates economic productivity to utility or disutility in a society which carries the implication that utility somehow how corresponds to social worth. When one argues about the utility of people, it objectifies them. A compassionate society should be one that looks to the intrinsic human worth of all people, not just their economic output.
The strangest part is that Straughn tried to make that exact point about men. She advocated for society to treat men as individuals and not try to pigeon-hole them into socially enforced roles based on their gender. We ought to value men for their innate worth. She in a sense takes a Kantian approach to valuing the innate humanity of men, and a consequentialist view of the worth of women equating their value to their output. No matter what value theory is correct, everyone would agree that we should treat men with dignity and respect because of their humanity and not simply their gender. Feminism aims for women and people of all genders to be seen in the same light. It’s not historically novel to see men as people: according to Simone De Beauvoir, it’s what we’ve always done, but personhood has historically been denied to persons of different genders. Instead of seeing a binary, adversarial fight for dominance, as the MRA does, feminism, as I understand it, strives never to reduce the nature of any individual to a false-narrative on the nature of a person’s gender.
Straughan astutely identified a problem with the Patriarchy: fatherhood is undervalued. But the only way to solve this injustice is by valuing care. We must shift away from valuing paid labor over and above compassionate, involved, nurturing parenthood. Parenthood is hard work, and a shift in social attitude combined with closing the pay gap will allow for more equality in child-rearing and economic output. From what I can tell, feminism offers a more appealing solution to the problem of facing men than the MRA.
The author is a philosophy graduate student at York University. She is the proud great-granddaughter of suffragettes and believes in upholding their legacy through advocating intersectional social justice.
She has chosen to remain anonymous due to the threat of violence detractors of the MRA have been victim to such as 2014’s gamer-gate.