I came across a stack of my father’s old books recently, and one called out to me immediately. Men’s Rights: A Handbook for the 80’s sat there just crying out to be mocked, scorned, and possibly even peed upon if my bladder felt up to it.
I scoffed like I’ve never scoffed before as I read the back cover quote declaring it: “A book that every man should own . . . an encyclopedia of useful information about the male condition.” I then scoffed the loudest upon seeing who that quote was attributed to. One word: PLAYBOY.
My scoff-apalooza began to simmer down as I skimmed the first few pages, and my judgment quieted to a slow rumble once I actually started reading. I’m as surprised as you are, but yes. I read it. And even worse, I understand.
The title, the strangely passive picket sign imagery of the cover art — hell, even the font annoyed me right away. “Men’s Rights”??? Here in 2015 we’ve learned a thing or three about the Men’s Rights movement, and I certainly didn’t initially set out to seriously entertain over 250 hard-covered pages on the topic. Figuring (correctly) that my father would never notice, I spirited the book away with me for amusement and possible Twitter screenshot punchline purposes.
I pulled it from my shelf here and there looking for a laugh, and each time I found myself sucked in more and more. This was not only a total shock, but I’ll take it as a nice reminder that going into something with negative intentions is not a good idea and/or rarely works out as planned. In this case, I found myself feeling empathy for the book’s authors and the men’s rights movement pioneers.
My empathy never became nor could it become sincere acceptance of this movement, though. (It took everything in me to not put that word in quotes just now, but I don’t want to burn through the empathy I just mentioned quite so swiftly.) Whether in this tome from 1980 or the Internet of today, the MRAs display a fundamental lack of comprehension and acceptance when it comes to patriarchal privilege that I just cannot abide.
What I did feel swung between genuine empathy and its disdainful cousin, pity. Men’s Rights: A Handbook for the 80’s was written by William Wishard and Laurie Wishard, a father-and-daughter team. An early chapter indicates that Bill was born “in the good old days,” and Laurie in “the brave new world,” but this doesn’t lead to the balance in tone that one might hope for or even a hint of duality. Instead, it comes across as one voice, trumpeting such statements as “Women’s rights cannot mean that women are the only beneficiaries of equality.”
Hmmmm, what was that I was saying about acceptance of systemic patriarchal privilege?
Of course, that particular contemporary social justice language wasn’t bandied about with such ease in 1980, which is part of what I found creepily endearing as I read on. I wanted to pat this poor, tired man on the back and say, “But you know that when it comes to equality we were never all lined up at the same societal starting line, right?”
I want to say similar things to the MRAs and related misogynist Gamergaters of today, and in equally quiet and soothing tones, except that I hesitate to get close enough to whisper because they’re so frequently hurling serious threats. Emboldened by Internet fame and/or Internet anonymity, so many of today’s MRAs do harm in ways that make me turn away in disgust instead of engage at all. Ironically, if some of them could simply state that they feel exactly the same way about many feminists, maybe we could meet in the middle or at least have a conversation. However, in my experience, they come out of the gate on the offensive with insults and attacks, which I file under the category of What We Won’t Do.
The Handbook for the 80’s begins on general, theoretical men’s rights and goes into great detail over specific legal issues. The problem is that when clearly definable courtroom scenarios are predicated upon amorphous notions like the men’s “battle” for equal rights, (quotes , sorry), even the most well-defined legalese is infused with emotions that are often misplaced.
The thing is, there are emotions involved! I completely understand that. But it’s hard to feel for the hypothetical men in the book’s many, many italicized stories of somehow losing everything because their woman took a job outside the home or some other such thing. I felt for the emotional state that it would have benefitted them to explore instead of placing blame and whining.
I’m sure my father was in quite an emotional state when he woke up one morning to find his family gone, my mother having taken my brother and me to my grandmother’s in the middle of the night one night when I was seven. As I held this book, his book, in my hands all these decades later, I wondered how he had come to acquire it and if he had read it at all. I remembered the hideous custody battle and having to appear in family court and understanding even then that the system is set up to generally favor the mother in custody cases.
My mother has significant mental illness and had frequent hospitalizations at that time and should not have had custody of us. My father, an immigrant, decided that the American justice system was too much for him, so he pretty much bowed out and started a new family. They later left him too.
I found whatever shred of sympathy I can muster for my father bubbling up as I read this book. I get that there were loads of men who woke up like my father did that day, and that they needed help and support just like the women who left. But if any of them could, at any point, understand that their wants and needs have traditionally come first, and how entitled they were being, maybe more progress could have been made sooner instead of just deepening the trench between us.
I also wouldn’t have minded if the book had gone all in on the chauvinistic dust sprinkled throughout. I could imagine reading something like “Okay, it’s wild that we’re in a position to lose out to a silly lady type, but here we are, so let’s talk about how to get through it with your bank account and your manhood intact so you can get another lady type to do your laundry and suck your dick . . .” Distasteful, sure. But at least then we would have fewer of the hurt feelings that the authors seem unaware they’re immersing into every other sentence, since emotions are not going to be directly addressed anyway.
Instead, the earnestness of the hurt feelings coupled with the sense of confusion, multiplied by utter cluelessness about privilege and how pouty they sound just comes off as sad.
To bemoan the state of “the discouraged male job seeker reading work applications that encourage women and minorities to apply” is almost so pathetic as to be quaint.
We can read pretty much anything from 30 years ago through today’s enlightened eyes and poke fun or marvel, but in the case of the MRAs, this movement has actually gotten stronger, and not everyone’s eyes are enlightened. I felt at times like I was reading the words of an exhausted father whose sons are the guys who harass me on Twitter today.
Divorce and custody can be gnarly in many ways, and I can only speak to my own experience as part of the conflict. As opposed to many more straightforward custody fights, my father had a legitimate and provable claim. Instead of handling his emotions and adding logic, he came from a place of How dare she?! and created fractures in his life that will never heal.
I realize it may be foolish to essentially look at a caveman and expect poetry, and that would be a far more palatable concept if there weren’t books and organizations like this one to provide snacks for the MRA pity party.
I eventually asked my father if he had ever read the book. He looked at it quizzically, flipped through a few pages, shrugged, and said “No.” I doubt it would’ve helped.