Guest columnist Rob Okun: Wanted: More fathers on the front lines of social change

By ROB OKUN

Published: 06-19-2023 4:06 PM

Women’s activism, including mothers in leadership roles, is legendary. Moms have long employed their moral authority as parents to advance the social good.

Where are the fathers and grandfathers?

We care about our children and grandchildren, too. As parents, we have plenty of moral authority, right? Yes, but … Too often, we squander our identity as male role models, failing to leverage our unique perspective as men to advance issues of social justice.

Why are so many fathers and father figures standing mute on the sidelines of change?

Moms Rising, Moms Demand Action, and Mothers Out Front are among the most well-known groups, but there are countless other mother-led organizations across the country. Where are Dads Rising, Dads Demand Action, Dads Out Front? I don’t care where Waldo is; I want to know “Where’s Dad-o?”

In part, the answer can be found by looking at the decades of women-led efforts to challenge gender inequality. In the modern era, it began to take shape following the publication of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, “The Feminine Mystique” 60 years ago. Nothing like a mountain of laundry, diapers to change, and supper to cook to raise your consciousness about gender injustice.

From the start of the women’s movement, women intrinsically understood the connection between nurturing and activism. After all, it was that very liberation movement that gave us the iconic phrase ”the personal is political.” (Carol Hanisch coined the expression in 1968.)

Meanwhile, activist men in the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s rarely, if ever, considered gender. Of course, we were fervently committed to those struggles, but often more in our heads than our hearts. That disconnect may explain our dilemma today — why males have been unsuccessful organizing ourselves as fathers and men.

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Women in those movements understood the connections, integrating questions of sexual politics, motherhood, and marriage into a wide-ranging intersectional examination of identity that included equality, financial independence, and gender equity. Not us guys. If the term mansplaining had existed back then, we would have been called out for it regularly.

It was men’s intransigence — and our obtuseness — failing to recognize how badly we were treating our activist sisters that hastened the birth of the women’s movement. For men, especially fathers and father figures, to fully join women as activist parents will require a lot of self-reflection on our part. I’m hardly exempt.

So how do we get men to leverage our gender identity to advance social justice goals? Mothers and other parenting partners are healthier and happier when fathers are highly engaged with their kids. That’s according to research conducted by Kevin Shafer, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, and Scott Easton, a sociologist and associate professor in the mental health department at Boston College.

They say that men who care for their kids benefit too; they have improved self-image, sense of purpose, and healthy relationships. And communities gain increased trust and safety from the relationships built when fathers positively participate in their kids’ activities, schooling, and social networks.

These are all essential if men and fathers are to integrate nurturing at home and social justice activism in the community.

To ensure that emotional openness and respect for women is widespread among future generations of men and fathers, researchers Shafer and Easton say we must value loving, supportive, engaged fathering. That means more support for fathers in public policy, workplaces and institutions. Paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and including dads in both pre- and postnatal care are all essential to encourage more father involvement. More involvement in family life will aid men in gaining confidence to use our gender identity as a foundation for activism.

There are many routes to transformative fathering; each leads to men finding a way for activist dads to join moms on the front lines of social change. All fathers and father figures, not only biological ones.

All men who actively care for children have a critical role to play in instilling positive social values across generations, including addressing pressing social issues. Like mothers, we can parlay caring for children into caring for the future, from gun violence to the climate crisis.

When that happens, we’ll begin hearing about groups like Dads Demand Action for Gun Sense and Fathers Out Front. Then it will only be a matter of time before we see intersectional dads organizing a Father’s Day march in the morning and firing up the grill in the afternoon.

Rob Okun (rob@voicemalemagazine.org), syndicated by Peace Voice, is editor of Voice Male magazine, which has been chronicling the antisexist, profeminist men’s movement for three decades. He writes about politics and culture.

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