Suzanne Venker became a standard bearer for the Men’s Rights movement in 2013, when she published a provocative op-ed on Fox News to promote her book The War on Men and started receiving invitations to inveigh against feminism on TV. Her public stances, ranging from suggesting sexual assault allegations are largely exaggerated to arguing that stay-at-home dads are fighting their natural instincts, can be collected under the umbrella of one idea, that there is a shortage of good, masculine men and that this is the fault of women who, in a blind charge toward gender equality, have tilted the playing field to the disadvantage of their fathers, husbands, and sons. Venker believes that women are — hyperbolized sexual harassment, disproportionately small political representation, and poor pay aside — the privileged sex. And she also believes that it’s her duty as a mother to advocate on behalf of her son. Despite or perhaps because she’s been lampooned by Stephen Colbert (“Single gals will finally be able to live out every woman’s wildest dream: Marrying a man who doesn’t want you to achieve anything,” he quipped) and speared by the liberal commentariat, Venker has found a growing audience for her anti-feminist jeremiads.
“When I got involved on an activist level, one of the things we stress is that it’s really the mothers of sons who are going to make a difference,” Venker told Fatherly. “They’re the ones you really have to get hear about this because immediately when they hear about boys issues, they’re obviously going to envision their child. That’s so critical.”
Venker is not alone. Known as “Honey Badgers,” a reference to the 2011 viral video of a particularly vicious mellivora capensis destroying a beehive, many women and particularly mothers are joining the men’s rights movement. Mother’s of sons have taken on a specific significance in the movement because they bring a sort of righteousness that men advocating in their own self-interest cannot. Unlike the second-wave feminists, who focus on sexual politics, or fourth-wave, who focus on issues of sexual harassment and violence, men’s rights mothers almost invariably rally around the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong about the way American boys are being raised. They believe there is a disconnect between the masculine qualities instilled in boys and the emotional intelligence and occasionally deference required of modern men. They lay much of the blame for this at the feet of feminism despite the fact that prominent feminists took up arms against similar problems decades ago. Are the movements flip sides of the same coin? Not exactly, but they both believe that boys are being hurt and want to make it stop.
Politically, Venker comes from a long line of staunch conservatives, including her famous and famously anti-feminist aunt Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned relentlessly against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. But it would be wrong to believe that Venker’s stance — her inheritance in a sense — makes her an outlier. Political dilettantes are given to assume that women generally lean towards progress and pro gender equality despite significant evidence — the ignominious end of the Hillary Clinton campaign provides ample evidence — that isn’t so. Historically, white women have tended not to vote for female candidates even when male candidates vow to limit access birth control or, as in the case of Roy Moore, who received 63 percent of the white female vote, been dogged by reports that they sexually harassed young girls. Why is this? Research suggests that marriage makes some women more economically dependent on men, making it logical for them to vote in the long-term interest of their partners. Scholars further suggest that women often understand the push for sexual equality in the workplace as a threat to male breadwinners. (Obviously, wedge issues also factor in. If you believe abortion to be murder, voting for Moore makes some sense regardless of his documented misdeeds.)
For militant men’s rights activists, the public support of a woman and mother like Venker is deeply meaningful. It legitimizes the movement as being about a broad cultural concern, not the outright and explicit subjugation of women. Activists like Venker can also appeal to women, who — no matter what you deem their rightful place in society to be — constitute more than half of the population.
If marriage seems to push white women (anecdotally, it would appear that the vast majority of female MRAs are white) away from feminism and toward a more conservative worldview, the birth of a son seems to be increasingly radicalizing them further into the fringe of the men’s rights movement.
“I didn’t think a lot about men’s rights until I had a son, and of course that brings it right home,” Janet Bloomfield, a men’s rights activist mother of a son and daughter told Fatherly. “The disadvantages your child might face are of interest to all parents, especially when those disadvantages are based on gender.”
Bloomfield, who grew up on a farm and always thought being a girl was a privilege because her chores were easier, worries about her kids in different ways. She says she worries for her daughter, but fundamentally trusts the system to take care of her. When it comes to her son, she has little faith that he’ll get more than one strike. She articulates this concern in terms of what she calls the “Empathy Gap,” a lack of understanding and investment in the development of young boys. She worries that she’ll raise a good man whose life will be shattered by false accusations of domestic violence or harassment. She worries that the “Believe All Women” sentiment that has echoed as celebrity sexual predators have been exposed over the last few months, might be weaponized against her son. She also just worries that he’ll have limited recourse and minimal access to understanding if he is hurt — either physically or emotionally — by a woman.
“People think little boys are tougher but they’re not, they’re more fragile,” she says, adding that her mother was abusive toward her as a child.
Bloomfield’s concern about her son being falsely accused is not supported by evidence. The numbers show that between 2 and 10 percent of rape allegations are false and out of the 52 cases recorded in the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989 of men wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, none involved scorned woman (interestingly, one involved a scorned man).
But worries about the emotional wellbeing of boys are far from baseless. Bloomfield appears to be absolutely right about fragility and absolutely right that there could be downstream effects of boys being ignored. By the time American kids reach 8th grade, nearly half of girls receive As and Bs in school compared to 31 percent of boys. There’s further evidence that boys are more at risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as early-onset schizophrenia, ADHD, and conduct disorders. The number of young men either incarcerated or not working has increased 45 percent since 1980 according to the Congressional Budget Office and of the 121 people who commit suicide every day, 93 of them are men. Only 17 percent of divorced men get to see their kids once a week.
“I don’t want my daughter to look around and see a bunch of men who are ground down by the system. I want her to be able to find a partner,” Karen Straughan, a men’s rights activist and mother of two boys and a girl, told Fatherly. “I don’t think that wanting men to be treated fairly and justly in society is in conflict with what’s best for her at all.”
Custodial issues were partially what brought Straughan into the men’s rights space. When she was going through a divorce, she found herself unable to waive certain custodial rights as a mother to do what she thought was fair for her children and their father. This worried her for her son.
Straughan, who comes across as unrelentingly kind and empathetic, later became an MRA when she embarked on a relationship with a man who had lost a custody dispute over a non-biological daughter he had raised. He has not been able to see this child for eight years because multiple lawyers advised him he couldn’t afford the fight. Having been through a divorce — she and her ex-husband came to an arrangement out of court — Straughan is highly sympathetic to her boyfriend and highly wary of the family court system, which she believes represents the anti-male bias of a broader social and economic system.
There is a reason that one of the most prominent “martyrs” to the Men’s Rights movement was and is Thomas Ball who, after a decade-long divorce battle, committed suicide by lighting himself on fire outside of the courthouse where he was denied custody in 2011.
“I had always seen breakups where the woman was absolutely vindictive and use the apparatus of the system to essentially to destroy her ex,” Straughan says. “I went in[to my divorce] knowing I could do that.”
It’s difficult to discern where MRAs like Straughan think feminism ends and “the system” begins. What’s absolutely clear is that, like feminists, MRAs understand the system more as a set of social norms from which legal and political decisions are derived than vice versa. The critical difference is that where MRAs see little light between feminism and “the system,” feminists are more likely to equate patriarchy and “the system” (though “system” is not a particularly common term in the milieu). The MRA mothers I spoke to for this article were particularly hostile to the use of the term “patriarchy,” suggesting that it is a sort of shibboleth for those who would do harm to men. They were largely unaware that when early feminists spoke out explicitly against the patriarchy, they often did so on behalf of boys, who they felt were unfairly subjected to gendered expectations that prepared them poorly to operate in a post-gender equality society.
In the seminal tract “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” the feminist scholar bell hooks blamed patriarchal thinking for the default belief that women are better suited to raising children. hooks argued that this indoctrination began early, when girls boys were dissuaded from acting out the role of caring parent with dolls in the same manner as girls. In other words, hooks theorizes that some of the prejudices against men described by MRA mothers are both real and a product of a system that is unfeeling towards boys. She calls that system “patriarchy.” Today’s MRA mothers call it “feminism.” Are they describing exactly the same thing? Likely not, but they certainly share concerns and they definitely share empathy for boys.
It’s also worth noting that hooks, who is still working, would go on to express ambivalence and even concern about the more modern, work-focused iterations of the feminist movement and specifically so-called with second and third wave feminists less interested in the politics of the home. Still, though their views are far from homogenous, advocates of gender equality are broadly dismissive of the idea that feminism represents a status quo. And for good reason. The numbers don’t bear that out.
Though boys are being left behind at school, research shows that they’re still far ahead in the workplace and in the halls of power. Only about one in five members of Congress are women, who remain a minority in political office across the board. Despite more women obtaining college degrees than men, they’re underrepresented in math and sciences, particularly in high-earning engineering roles. In 2016, women only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women and some figures suggest that men are 85 percent more likely to be VPs or top executives by mid-career and 171 percent more likely later in their careers. Statistically, the idea of feminism as status quo is, in short, a non-starter. So is the reasoning behind Venker’s statement that she worries more about her son being falsely accused of rape than her daughter being attacked is easily dismissed. But the fact is that Venker’s is an emotional sentiment — and a credible one coming from a caring mother expressing concern for a child.
“Boys are suffering, yet we incessantly favor girls,” Venker says. “They have every opportunity, anything they want. It’s boys who don’t.”
Listening to Venker and other MRA mothers, it becomes clear that the point of their advocacy is largely advocacy, not the advancement of a concrete agenda. Fundamentally, they are concerned that no one is speaking up for boys while many people — a loud chorus of feminists, in particular — are speaking up for girls (or, to twist it slightly, against boys). And, in a sense, they are right. The patriarchy may stand, but lip service is paid by celebrities and politicians to feminism as a matter of course. Explicit advocacy for boys and men is more rare in the public space — arguably because, where white men are concerned, it is not needed. For some mothers, that’s a deafening silence. This is why the tendency of family courts to award custody to women is such a prominent talking point: It confirms an unspoken cultural bias towards the wants of women.
“They’re not entirely wrong,” Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and founder of the journal Men and Masculinities, says. “The court does treat the family as if men were absent landlords. And many of these men were very involved with their kids.”
Kimmel, who wrote Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era and has studied both masculinity and men’s rights groups for decades, does note it’s a slippery slope from fathers’ rights. According to Kimmel, the transition into men’s rights relies on perceived injury and the belief that it’s helpful to politicize that injury. Simply put, men who feel they’ve been victims of reverse discrimination seek to make it everyone’s problem. For MRA mothers of young boys, this means pushing for redress before their sons are hired over.
“These men are hurting and I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t feel bad,” Kimmel says. “But their analysis of why they’re hurting is flawed. It’s not feminist women’s fault. Just as feminists women have understood that women’s roles are oppressive, some of these guys believe that men’s roles are oppressive.”
Many of the legitimate concerns about the wellbeing of men have to do with exploitative labor: Men are overrepresented in dangerous blue-collar jobs and in the military, a situation exacerbated by poverty and complicated by racism, Michael Messner, a sociologist who studies masculinity and men’s rights, told Fatherly. He also confirms that none of these issues have anything to do with feminism. Kimmel and Messner, and much of the social science agrees that the systems that hurt men are the same ones that hurt women, and the most effective way to rectify that would be to share notes with each other. Instead, MRAs get caught up arguing if there’s enough oppression to go around.
While Kimmel has not studied women MRAs specifically, he can’t make sense of why they would be a part of it, regardless of if they have kids. “It’s like being a Jewish neo-nazi,” he says. However, Kimmel is clear that there’s likely no harm in women raising their kids with MRA beliefs. As the father of an 18-year-old son, he just doesn’t see these flawed premises sticking with young people.
Since the men’s rights space is made up of mostly men in their 40s and up, Kimmel also doesn’t think it will gain traction going forward. Given that men’s rights appeals largely to the working class, as opposed to the very wealthy or very poor, the shrinkage of that demographic will also shrink the MRA base. And even if it doesn’t, the men’s rights agenda will remain too radical and unpredictable to gain much of a handhold in mainstream politics.
“They’re not going to change the system. The deal is done,” Kimmel says. “Everyday our country is going to get more and more gender equal and more women are going to be more empowered.”
In absence of the prospect of real change, men’s rights extremists are left to lash out. Paul Elam, the founder of the MRA site A Voice for Men called October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month.” This call to violence was not unusual. On a macro level, men’s rights activism may flirt increasingly with extremism, but, on a personal level, MRA mothers are acting out of genuine concern for their sons. They are, fundamentally, motivated by love. But can they get what they want for their sons? Can they ensure a fair hearing and support?
The answer is likely yes, but not by challenging the system. They can protect their sons — to a profound extent according to all research on the subject — by being present in their lives and making sure supportive men are present as well.
When Venker became involved in the men’s rights movement and started to see worrying statistics about the academic achievements of boys, she decided to invest time and money to make sure her boy got needed attention. She enrolled him in an all-boys private school with the motto “Where boys come to be men.” This may be good news for him. Boys particularly seem thrive in single-gender classrooms both academically and in extracurricular activities, studies cited by the National Education Association say. For him, there has been some upside to men’s rights.
If Kimmel and the bulk of academic research is correct, Venker’s son is likely to succeed and then to shed his mother’s extreme views on gender. This is good for Venker, who is ultimately concerned for her boy’s wellbeing, and good for those who believe in gender equality, but ultimately bad for men’s rights movement, which will likely become a victim of its mothers’ success.