The men's-rights movement is gaining momentum in the nineties by extolling the virtues and rewards of marriage, fatherhood and responsibility.
Richard Doyle, who in 1971 founded the Men's Defense Association, or MDA, says "for years we kept a sad-stories file" until it got too unwieldy. Its contents, he adds "would have sobered a judge."
Doyle had undergone a bitter divorce and lost custody of his three children to his former wife. That's what led him to create the MDA, which he still heads, and take up the cause of men's rights. His group is now the "oldest men's-movement organization in America," the retired air-traffic controller says, somewhat amazed.
The sad stories contained in his file were tales of marital woe involving fathers separated from their sons and daughters by court order, similar to Doyle's own story They were proof of the deep "antimale prejudice" of American courts and society, according to Doyle -- prejudice the MDA hopes to turn around and which he sees as a root cause of America's social problems, from high teenage crime to the disappearance of the nuclear family as society's basic unit.
The Minnesota-based MDA is not alone. Other groups, including Men International, headquartered in Florida, and the New York City-based National Organization of Men, among others, devote themselves to what Doyle calls a fair shake for men -- "real equality with women" -- in a society they think systematically denies them that equality.
Why do judges regularly turn custody of children over to mothers, whatever that mother's character might be? asks Doyle. He calls it a "perversion of chivalry" in which judges suffer from a "Galahad complex" that assumes, out of gallantry, that a woman never could do anything that should separate her from her children. What this misplaced gallantry does, however, is encourage women to seek divorce since they know the courts will side with them. And it keeps from their kids those fathers who are more worthy to parent than the mothers.
But Doyle cautions that the men's movement seeks more than reform of the courts. His group -- which has counseled more than 10,000 men since its founding -- seeks "to restore the dignity of males" and "enhance marriage and the family," subjects Doyle speaks about with a passion similar to the tens of thousands of fathers who regularly attend the mass meetings of the Promise Keepers (or last year's Million Man March in Washington) to extol fatherhood and male responsibility.
The largest of the men's-rights groups -- the 13,000-man National Organization of Men -- was founded in 1983 by Sidney Siller, a New York attorney who writes a column on "Men's Rights" for Penthouse. Like Doyle, Siller experienced a bitter divorce. "Men in this country have become wimpified, emasculated," he says. "They're afraid to speak out."
Why? Because, according to Siller, the "radical feminists have the ear of the medial" which men do not, and "they [the feminists] are effective. They've destroyed male initiative and," most significantly, according to Siller, "they are able to define the terms of the whole game."
Kenneth Pangborn, who heads Men International, hopes to alter the terms of that game. Pangborn was a radio news anchor in Salt Lake City when he heard from a social worker in Wisconsin that his divorced wife was mistreating their three daughters. He went to court and won custody of the girls after a battle that left him financially wrecked.
What Pangborn seeks to do is debunk "the fables" told about men, "the constant venom spread by feminists and picked up by the media." The myths include stories long since proved erroneous but still held as true by the media, such as the notion that on Superbowl Sunday abuse of wives and girlfriends becomes pandemic because men are prone to violence as they engage in masculine ritual.
How should society be changed? Siller would like courts to require mothers to account for how they spend child-support money, to make sure it gets to the kids. And like almost every leader of the men's movement, he argues that no-fault divorce should be abolished.
MDA's Doyle speculates that "fairness to fathers would make a dramatic change in society." If they knew custody of the children wouldn't automatically be given to them, women would be less eager to seek divorce, he says. "With fewer children orphaned from their fathers, the crime rate would go down," he predicts.
Back in 1976, Pangborn was surprised at the number of calls that followed the first time he took up the subject of the men's movement on his program. "What was interesting was the number of men who were as perplexed as I was," he concludes. "They're still out there." The only difference, he says, is that there are more of them. "The system is still broke."