Women in the Men’s Rights Movement: Researching an Oxymoron

Theresa Iker, Stanford University

When I first came across the term “second wife” in the archives in 2016, I disregarded it. Earlier that year, I had begun my doctoral studies in women’s and gender history, with an emphasis on women. My initial research topic, the implications of twentieth-century divorce reforms for American women, had led me to the state archives of the birthplace of no-fault divorce legislation, California. There I noticed that self-proclaimed second wives wrote to state legislators in the 1980s and 1990s to protest changes to child custody and support laws. Yet I paid them little mind—plenty of Americans got divorced and remarried, I reasoned, and, anyway, I had to write my first-year seminar paper about the 1960s hearings on “domestic relations” in California, which would soon lead to the state’s experiment with no-fault divorce.

Like many graduate students, I soon discovered that my extremely original research paper had actually been written in a far better manner (and decades earlier) by another scholar.[1] But, undeterred, my ensuing years of doctoral research took me deep into the American men’s rights movement. This is a term that pundits used in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s largely unforeseen election to describe the extremist beliefs of many white men in his base. Because I could not uncover an impartial historical account, or even a clear definition of men’s rights activism, I decided to write one myself. My dissertation, tracing the origins, growth, and shifting priorities of men’s rights activists, spearheaded by such men as Richard Doyle, Warren Farrell, and Fredric Hayward, soon took shape.[2]

Redirecting my research toward men, however, soon led me back to women—and second wives. After finding a copy of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario’s 1994 Los Angeles Times article on the “second wives’ crusade” within the men’s rights movement, I realized that I had already met these women in the archive. Second wives, I soon found, were the new partners of previously divorced men who had become politically active in men’s rights circles after their experiences in the family courts. Convinced that divorce practices systematically disadvantaged men by forcing them to pay alimony and child support to their ex-wives while denying ex-husbands equal custody of their children, these men joined divorce support and reform organizations. There they developed a men’s rights ethos, believing that they had uncovered a much more pervasive anti-male bias in American law, politics, and culture. Second wives, who often married male activists following this process of politicization, began to lend their vocal public support for the men’s rights cause.

At first, I struggled to accept the notion of female men’s rights activists, which appeared to be an oxymoron. Why would women champion men’s rights in the 1990s, particularly amid the movement’s overt misogyny and in the midst of the third wave of American feminism? Building on Nazario’s pathbreaking investigation, I interviewed men’s rights leadership, reviewed women’s divorce advice literature, and examined men’s rights organizational papers. Second wives, my research indicated, were not the puppets of male activists, nor were they religiously or politically motivated in the mold of many conservative women of the New Right.[3] They often discovered the men’s rights cause because of their romantic partnerships with men, but they participated in the movement because they believed its objectives met their own needs as women and, most importantly, as mothers.

Echoing the long-held men’s rights belief that divorce financially harmed men, second wives added the critique that child support payments enriched so-called “first wives” and “first children.”

Their own second families, they argued, were disregarded by family court judges and feminist politicians, creating a second-class legal and economic status. While second wives complained about the financial pressures they faced, as well as their need to work outside the home to offset the drain of their husbands’ child support payments, their most poignant critiques related to the treatment of their own children. The children of second families, these female activists argued, benefitted from fewer financial resources because of the allegedly exorbitant child support payments their fathers owed, resided in smaller apartments rather than the family homes awarded in divorce settlements, and received less parental attention because both of their parents were employed full time. Worst still, in the “family values” conservative ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, a sizable minority of second wives reported delaying childbearing or forgoing having children of their own altogether due to the prohibitive expense. Another journalist interested in the second wives’ mobilization, Ann Crittenden, reported that these stepmothers “weren’t hard to figure out—they were lobbying for their own future offspring, as opposed to the other woman’s.”[4]

Whether or not the motivations of second wives are difficult to understand, it is crucial to place them within a broader landscape of men’s rights organizing. While my recent JWH article “‘All Wives are Not Created Equal’: Women Organizing in the Late Twentieth-Century Men’s Rights Movement” examines Californian second wives in particular, women have played and continue to fill an outsized role on the far Right. Second wives have used their symbolic maternal power to shield male men’s rights advocates from being condemned as “a bunch of sniveling men who don’t want to pay child support,” allowing the men’s rights movement to gain credibility on the American political stage.[5] My dissertation demonstrates that key feminist figureheads, including former National Organization for Women president Karen DeCrow, became disillusioned with feminist politics and began instead to promote men’s rights activism as true gender equality.

These patterns of activism are generally true of women in conservative and alt-Right politics in the United States and worldwide. Women sympathetic to the men’s rights cause occupy outsized political influence in such organizations as the Independent Women’s Forum and, as political scientist Ronnee Schreiber demonstrates, they “contest feminist claims of representation” and “give conservative interests more legitimacy.”[6] In another notable example outside of the United States, British feminist and anti-domestic violence advocate Erin Pizzey publicly disavowed feminism and joined the editorial team of the overtly misogynistic website A Voice for Men. “We must stop demonizing men,” she wrote in 2009, “and start healing the rift that feminism has created between men and women.”[7] And despite their relegation to homemaking and reproduction, women continue to join, defend, and sustain white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements. Women “holding babies, schooling children, or serving chicken at buffet tables” within these hate movements, contends sociologist Kathleen Blee, “can to some degree normalize racial politics.”[8] The participation of women in these varied organizations and movements, such scholarship demonstrates, is not tangential, but rather, integral to their success.

Taking seriously the beliefs, objectives, and voting behavior of women in extremist political movements requires us to suspend our assumptions about women as a monolithic, predictable category. So-called women’s issues such as affirmative action, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment have divided, not united, American women throughout the twentieth century. Further, while gender alone is not a strong predictor of partisan political affiliation in the United States, gender combined with race and geographic region much more reliably shape voting behavior.[9] If we set aside the reductionist notions of “the women’s vote” or “women’s interests,” a clearer picture comes into view, one that includes, among many other groups, second wives.

[1] Herbert Jacob, Silent Revolution: The Transformation of Divorce Law in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[2] Theresa Iker, “Before the Red Pill: The Men’s Rights Movement and American Politics, 1960-2005,” PhD diss. (Stanford University, 2023).

[3] See Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Michelle Nickerson, Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); and Emily Suzanne Johnson, This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[4] Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (New York City: Picador, 2001), 172.

[5] California’s Coalition of Parent Support activist Mike Weening, quoted in Sona Nazario, “The Second Wives’ Crusade,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 3, 1995, 52.

[6] Ronnee Schreiber, Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 8.

[7] Erin Pizzey, “Why I loathe feminism…and believe it will ultimately destroy the family,” The Daily Mail, September 24, 2009, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1215464/Why-I-loathe-feminism—believe-ultimately-destroy-family.html; see also Helen Lewis, “Feminism’s Purity Wars,” The Atlantic, February 27, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/02/feminism-mens-rights-activism-cancel-culture/607057/.

[8] Kathleen Blee, Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2002, 132.

[9] 55% of white women and 61% of white men voted for Donald Trump in 2020, creating a negligible “gender gap” among white voters, while over 90% of Black women voted for Joe Biden that year. See “Gender Gap: Voting Choices in Presidential Elections,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/gender-gap-voting-choices-presidential-elections. See also Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 191-192.