The National Organization for Women turned 40 this summer, and formally celebrated its anniversary at its national conference in July. NOW President Kim Gandy has proudly recounted her organization’s successes in opening up opportunities for women, and says they are "never giving up the dream of full equality for all."
Unfortunately, on some issues – particularly in family law and child custody – NOW’s policies and actions contradict its ideals of "full equality for all." This is most evident in the group’s dogged opposition to joint custody and shared parenting.
The logic behind shared parenting is hard to dispute. Kids love, want and need both their parents. When divorcing parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, as long as both parents are fit, they should both be allowed to share in parenting their children. Not surprisingly, research shows that children of divorce fare better under joint custody – where they spend significant amounts of time with each parent – than under sole custody.
NOW and its co-thinkers, to their credit, once encouraged fathers, fathering and shared parenting. In 1971 Gloria Steinem wrote that children suffer from having "too little father" in their lives, and that a more equal balance of parenting was needed. Karen DeCrow, president of NOW from 1974 to 1977, says "it was clear from the feminist writings and ideas of the ’60s and ’70s that joint custody was what we supported after a divorce."
Fathers have embraced the call for more father involvement. Despite an ever-expanding work week, children today benefit from receiving more hands-on fathering than ever before. The Families and Work Institute found that fathers now provide three-fourths as much child care as mothers do – 50 percent more than 30 years ago.
Paradoxically, while fathers are more directly involved in their children’s lives than ever, their bonds with their children are also more fragile. In the late 1970s NOW reversed itself and began promoting sole custody in divorce cases. In most divorces mothers are awarded sole (or de facto sole) custody of the children, and most post-divorce parenting time schedules offer fathers and children less than 20 percent physical time together.
Men who don’t provide for their families are not respected, yet family courts treat fathers who have worked hard to support their families like absent parents whose bonds with their children merit limited consideration. DeCrow rightly denounces this practice as "sexist" and "inhuman."
Along with divorce attorneys, NOW is the largest organized group fighting shared parenting legislation. It has issued numerous warnings, including one that says fathers’ groups seeking joint custody laws are "using the abuse of power in order to control in the same fashion as do batterers." In their statements the words "husband" and "father" are generally preceded by the word "abusive."
Using these scare tactics, NOW has blocked shared parenting bills in several states this year, including New York and Michigan. Yet as even feminist firebrand Martha Burk notes, "With close to half of all marriages ending in divorce, it’s impossible to believe that the majority of divorcing fathers are violent, and it would be wrong to base public policy on the notion that they are."
Over the past four decades America has come a long way in redressing the grievances of disadvantaged groups, including women, African-Americans, Latinos and gays. The most glaring civil rights violations in America today are those suffered by divorced dads, many of whom have been pushed out of their children’s lives without justification. It’s time for NOW to re-examine its misguided stand against shared parenting, and to bring its policies into line with its stated ideals.