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The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement: The Centrality of Marriage, Work and Male Sexuality in U.S. Reconstructions of Masculinity and Fatherhood

During the 1990s, U.S. policy debates around single motherhood, “family breakdown” and “family values” shifted into a debate around fatherhoods, masculinities and marriage. The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement, which emerged in the early 1990s, has developed a number of bi-partisan federal initiatives to strengthen fatherhood and points out fatherlessness as “one of the greatest social evils of our generation” and “an engine driving our worst social problems.” With front figures like Al Gore, organizations like the National Fatherhood Initiative and the National Practitioners Network have succeeded to put fatherhood responsibility at the center of the national agenda. (The NPN belongs to a network of organizations such as Partners for Fragile Families, the Ford Foundation Strengthening Fragile Families Initiative and the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership.) In 2001, one of the most prominent leaders within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement, National Fatherhood Initiative’s Wade Horn, was nominated by president G.W. Bush as the assistant secretary for family support in the Department of Health and Human Services. Furthermore, in his 2002 budget proposal, Bush includes $364 million in grants to promote responsible fatherhood (Leonard 2001). However, despite such tremendous success, the fatherhood responsibility movement’s rhetoric around child-wellbeing, families and fatherhood responsibility masks competing perspectives and interests. Based on two years of participant observation and interviews behind the scenes of this powerful movement, my research investigates the racial, sexual and gendered implications of contemporary U.S. fatherhood politics (see Gavanas 2001).

There are a number of mainstream political concerns shared by the organizations involved in the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement: 1) a concern in child well being, 2) a view of “the family” as foundational to society, 3) an attribution of importance to the father, and a subsequent link between his absence and ‘social ills’ (although causes, consequences and the fixedness of that link differs between organizations). 4) an agenda to redefine the role of the father in family, labor market and government policy from primarily a financial provider, disciplinarian and breadwinner to including a notion of fathers as emotionally involved, nurturing mentors. The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement constructs the current fatherhood “crisis” within shifting economic, legal, moral and social conditions for constructions of fatherhood, and reflects men’s multiple responses to these changes. A focus on fathers may appear commonsensical to both liberal and conservative welfare reformers in the face of welfare state cutbacks. However, the internal divisions within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement illustrate how the banner of children and family masks opposing claims, grievances and stakes. Fatherhood politics and family policy can be compared to a minefield where political agents divided by race and socio-economic class are setting off highly charged social, economic and moral issues.

When parties in the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement approach all the social and economic changes that affect the conditions of fathers, they explicitly or indirectly emphasize the perspectives of men who are positioned differently in relation to one another, the State and the labor market. The organizations within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement may be clustered into two wings with competing perspectives on masculinities and fatherhood politics. The fragile families wing represents low-income minority father’s constituencies and emphasizes paternity establishment and equal opportunities for breadwinning. (The term "fragile families" was coined by Ronald Mincy at the Ford Foundation’s Strengthening Fragile Family Initiative, and defined as "composed by children born out of wedlock and their low-skilled biological parents who do not legitimize the birth by marrying or establishing paternity." (Mincy and Pouncy 1999)).

The pro marriage wing (to which Wade Horn and his National Fatherhood Initiative are central) promotes what they call a “culture of marriage” as the key to fatherhood responsibility for all types of men and de-emphasize structural approaches to fatherhood responsibility. Although most of their leaders are white, marriage proponents neither position themselves nor primarily distinguish between men in terms of race/ ethnicity or socio-economic class. When discussing masculinities and fatherhoods, they generally attempt to assume “race-less” perspectives. In public demonstrations, the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement seeks to overcome barriers of income, race and politics and seeks to include men's organizations as diverse as father’s rights groups, pro marriage groups, mythopoetic men’s movements, fatherhood programs for low income minorities and faith based grass roots manifestations such as the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March.

Marriage seems to be the most divisive issue within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement. This is where the pro marriage and fragile families wings strongly disagree while simultaneously sharing similar, sometimes contradictory, principles. Many pro marriage interviewees even look at the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement as the first stage of a marriage movement, and use a reversed minority strategy claiming they have been silenced by ‘politically correct’ liberals and feminists as to even bring up the issue of marriage. The pro marriage wing of the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement overlaps with the marriage movement, who both feature the same leading figures, such as David Popenoe, Harret Dafoe Whitehead, David Blankenhorn, Charles Ballard and Wade Horn. Leaders within both movements quote the same authors and seek to reestablish marriage as a norm in all societal sectors. Most of the fragile families oriented interviewees think that marriage is a good thing but point out that it does not guarantee “positive child outcomes.” Their priority is to work with a range of socio-economic problems for families and communities and in turn increase the marriageability of men. On the other hand, although marriage proponents regard marriage as an ideal, they do not say that less than ideal families necessarily result in “negative child outcomes.”

Whereas marriage is a key issue for the pro marriage wing, work is a key issue within the fragile families wing of the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement, and particularly African American as opposed to white men’s educational opportunities and access to the labor market. Fragile families emphasize the ways the opportunity structures of the labor market determine men’s standing on the marriage market. Thus, from this perspective it makes more sense to focus on men’s financial foundation for responsible fatherhood than their moral commitment to marriage. The pro marriage wing might acknowledge the relevance of employment for certain populations of fathers, but does not bring this up as a primary issue. The causal relation and relative importance between work and fatherhood responsibility is contested within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement. Fragile family oriented interviewees subsequently apply a "money matters approach" and argue that economic and educational possibilities profoundly impact men’s abilities to form and support a family, or be so called “marriage material” (a term used within the fragile families wing).

The discursive approaches of contemporary fatherhood politics emerged out of competing historical struggles. While seeking to present themselves in terms of one social movement, fragile families and pro marriage representatives paint two different pictures and draw upon seemingly incompatible historical and ideological foundations for their masculinity politics. Simply put, the fragile families wing focuses on rights whereas the pro marriage wing focuses on obligations. Within the same "movement" there are contradictory claims for justice, as well as different perceived sources for problems of fatherhood. The African American masculinity politics the fragile families wing draws upon, like for instance the Million Man March and the civil rights movement, primarily revolves around African American men’s rights and recognition as compared to other men. This is to be compared to contemporary white middle-class men’s movements the pro marriage wing draws upon, such as the Promise Keepers and turn-of-the 19th century moral reform movement, which seek to defend notions of gender difference between men and women. Marriage proponents are responding to the perceived feminist advocacy of so called “androgynous” notions of gender and parenting, which they argue are detrimental to family and society according to notions of gendered and sexual order.

Interviewees throughout the whole Fatherhood Responsibility Movement often described the redefinition of masculinity and fatherhood as a response to redefinitions of femininity and motherhood. However, both pro marriage and fragile families spokespersons rarely fail to indicate that their responses are neither defensive to feminist gains, nor anti-feminist. On the contrary, Fatherhood Responsibility Movement representatives often point out that they are fighting for what feminists always have promoted in terms of getting men to take responsibility in caretaking and breadwinning. While the pro marriage wing has received extensive feminist critique (see e.g. Stacey 1996, 1998, 2001, Gillis, 2000) and upon closer inspection do position themselves in opposition to so called “radical” feminist politics, there is a more complex relation between the fragile families wing and feminists politics. The fragile families organizations constitute themselves in strategic dialogue with “women’s organizations,” because they cannot afford to make enemies with such stakeholders within family policy.

Despite that fragile families representatives display more flexible and relatively less essentialist notions of gender and parenting than the marriage proponents do, both wings converge over “loose” essentialist notions of male sexuality. Sociologist Michael Schwalbe defines “loose essentialism” as “…an assumption of an essential, internal difference, yet it is nonspecific or ‘loose,’ with regard to claims about how this difference will be manifested in personality and behavior” (1996:64). Within fatherhood politics, constructions of masculinities and femininities are founded in binary and complementary loose essentialist notions of gender specific heterosexuality. Thus, gendered and sexual notions are inseparable within fatherhood politics. Furthermore, gendered notions of sexuality are manifest by race and socio-economic class within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement. While the pro marriage and fragile families wings both believe masculinity is constituted by innate heterosexual "promiscuity," fragile families representatives tend to frame this as a problem in economic terms, whereas marriage proponents emphasize moral heteronormative imperatives for controlling men’s perceived innate (hetero)sexual urges. The control of conceptions of male sexuality is therefore at the heart of the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement.

Marriage proponents seek to reestablish lifelong, monogamous and heterosexual marriage as the norm in all public and private sectors and believe that the ‘Male Force’ otherwise will turn anti-social. The marriage norm translates hetero-masculinities into “masculine” father characteristics which marriage proponents consider indispensable to family and society. Pro marriage masculinity is constructed primarily in complementary relation to femininity but is rhetorically constituted in opposition to the ”radical” feminist and “liberal” politics they label “androgyny advocacy.” Based on a loose essentialist and androcentric combination of socio-biological, biblical and pop-Freudian arguments, marriage proponents make the case that marriage is the only viable way to harness men to their offspring, and to subsequently reinforce social and moral order. Marriage proponents chose to ignore the ways their heterosexualized notions of masculinity are historically situated and derived within racial, gendered, sexual and socio-economic power relations. Ignoring the whiteness and heteronormativity of their own outlooks, marriage proponents claim to speak from a universalized male perspective and out of “objective” common sense. Ironically, marriage proponents simultaneously appropriate and reverse minority rhetoric to make the case for heteronormative masculinity politics in ‘subversive’ terms by ‘daring’ to spell out “the M-word” (i.e. marriage) in government politics. The constructed silencing of the “M-word” is a rhetorical maneuver that falsely constitutes the hetero-norm as oppressed by what they conceive of as a ‘politically correct’ feminist/ liberal “elite.”

In contrast, the heterosexualized and gendered politics of the fragile families wing is more focused on the structural relations between men. While defeating a range of contradictory historical racist sexual policy and social science stereotypes of African American men as rapacious predator super studs and effeminate ‘mama boys,’ fragile families representatives seek to increase the “marriageability” of poor and minority men. In the fragile families view, men’s marriage potential and fatherhood responsibility depend on their success as breadwinners and “management” of their sexuality. Fragile families representatives are approaching marketplace ideals of breadwinning fatherhood from the standpoint of poor and minority men by constantly illuminating the dissonance between expectations on poor and minority men and their actual labor market conditions.

In conclusion, today’s participants in fatherhood politics are trying to make sense of changing gender relations as well as changing roles and conditions for men and fathers in family, labor market and state policy, although they interpret such processes differently, and approach them from the perspectives of differently positioned men. By making competing gendered, sexualized and racialized claims, the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement thus reshapes U.S. public and policy debates around the positions and roles of men and fathers in marriage and families. The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement’s contradictory attempts to virilize and control the maleness of fatherhood is emerging in both adversarial and ‘friendly’ response to feminist politics while crystallizing racial and socio-economic asymmetries between men. The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement jointly places the control of perceived innately “promiscuous” male heterosexuality at the center of social and moral order and thus differentiates masculinity from women and gay men. Subsequently, the same “indispensable” traits that make men male in this view also constitute a central problem within the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement. Here, the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement runs into a dilemma: how do you domesticate masculinity into ”responsible fatherhood” and at the same time masculinize domesticity?

Artikkelen er et sammendrag av doktorgradsavhandlingen: Masculinizing fatherhood: Sexuality, Marriage and Race in the U.S. Fatherhood Responsibility Movment. Institutt for Sosial Antropologi, Stockholms Universitet 2001.

References cited:

Gavanas, Anna. 2001. The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement: The Centrality of Marriage, Work and Male Sexuality in Reconstructions of Masculinity and Fatherhood. In Making Men into Fathers. Men, Masculinities and the Social Politics of Fatherhood. Edited by Hobson, Barbara London: Cambridge University Press

Gavanas Anna 2001. Masculinizing fatherhood: Sexuality, Marriage and Race in the U.S. Fatherhood Responsibility Movment. Doctoral dissertation, Stockholm University department of Social Anthropology. To be published at either Illinois University Press or Palgrave/ St Martins Press

Gillis, John. 2000. "Marginilization of Fatherhood in Western Countries," Childhood, Vol. 7(2): 225-238. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Horn, Wade F., David Blankenhorn, and Mitchell B. Pearlstein, eds. 1999. The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action. New York: Lexington Books.

Leonard, Mary 2001. Bush Pledges funds for fatherhood. In Boston Globe, June 8

Mincy, Ronald B. and Hillard Pouncy. 1999. There Must Be 50 Ways to Start a Family. In The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action, edited by Wade F. Horn, David Blankenhorn, and Mitchell B. Pearlstein, New York: Lexington Books.

Schwalbe, Michael. 1996. Unlocking the Iron Cage. The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stacey, Judith. 1996. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stacey, Judith. 1998. Dada-ism in the 1990’s: Getting Past Baby Talk about Fatherlessness. In Lost Fathers: the Politics of Fatherlessness in America, edited by Cynthia R. Daniels. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Stacey, Judith 2001. Family Values Forever. In The Nation, July 9.

© viten.com 2001