The Lonely Existence of Mel Feit, Men's-Rights Advocate

For decades, he has tried to expose the ways society discriminates against men. Will feminists ever see him as anything but an enemy?

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Mel Feit in the early '90s, when he was promoting his "consensual sex contract" (Courtesy of Mel Feit)

Last year, on November 7, the inaugural editorial staff of Ms. celebrated the publication's 40th anniversary in New York City. Co-founding editors Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin took a moment to bask in the success of their revolutionary magazine and the strides women have made since its founding in 1972.

As the bash ensued, somewhere on Port Jefferson, Long Island, the leader of a different—one might say, decidedly oppositional—movement reflected on the far-less-starry successes his movement's had since its founding 25 years earlier on November 17, 1987.

His name is Mel Feit and he's the founder of the National Center for Men, a men's rights group based in Coram, New York.

"Men's rights," may sound oxymoronic—and perverse, something akin to "white rights"—but to Mel and his band of brothers it's no joke. They believe men's equal rights are challenged by unfair child support obligations, a family law system that privileges mothers in child custody cases, the trivialization of female-on-male domestic violence, the cultural vilification of male sexuality, and social customs that impose an outdated (and crippling) expectation of masculinity on men.

The NCM has advanced its many causes through counseling services, helping men find family law experts, staging protests at women-only establishments, and using the media to trumpet their movement.

While "movement" might overstate the influence these groups have—they comprise only a handful of organizations—the idea of them nonetheless riles some feminists. Amanda Marcotte, author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, offered these scorching words, which pretty much sum up feminism's response to these guys:

MRAs may have a handful of semi-accurate observations, but the fact that they blame feminists for men's problems and not patriarchy shows that they are not interested in real solutions. 'Men's rights,' a term that resembles 'white power' in its belligerence and pseudo-victimization, is a reactionary movement, and the propping up of a few pseudo-liberal leaders doesn't change that. There is already a movement for people of both genders who want to end stifling gender roles: It's called feminism.

As sympathetic as I am to Marcotte's points, my conversations with Mel over the years tell me that the story of men's rights is a bit more complicated and nuanced than my fellow feminists allow.

I interviewed Mel several times from 2007 through 2010 when I profiled him in a story I wrote for the June 2010 issue of Elle magazine. In it, I contemplated the idea of whether or not men should have a legal means of refusing to support children born from unwanted pregnancies, especially if they'd told their partners that they do not want children. At the time, the NCM had just sponsored a lawsuit, cleverly titled "Roe vs. Wade for Men," in which they argued that Planned Parenthood's motto, "Every Child a Wanted Child," should apply to men too. The plaintiffs did not think that men should have the power to override a woman's decision to have or not have a baby, but rather that men should not have to live with the financial consequences of a woman's decision to have a baby. The NCM proposed a "Reproductive Rights Affidavit," where men could explicitly state their willingness to relinquish all rights and responsibilities in the event of a surprise pregnancy.

The arguments against this solution are manifold, but mostly hinge on the interests of the child—and, of course, biology. When I broach the idea of men's reproductive rights with Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, she scoffs: "When men can get pregnant, they will have the right to determine whether or not to become parents."

But I agreed with Mel when he countered at the time that "our different biologies should not define or limit our rights and responsibilities." I recognized how problematic it is for women to use biology to justify denying men the opportunity to reject parenthood by disavowing involvement in their children's lives when women have the freedom to abort unwanted pregnancies. My trouble with Feldt's biology-based argument is that it cements the centrality of motherhood, heaping the bulk of parenting duties on women. So when Mel called to invite me to the 25th anniversary party of the NCM at Friends of A Farmer in New York's Gramercy Park, I happily accepted.

I arrive at the gathering at 4 p.m. on December 17 to a group of about ten men, casually dressed, imbibing tea and coffee and chatting around a long wooden table. My entrance is met with restrained courtesy—and a perceptible cloud of suspicion. Why, they must wonder, would I, a lesbian feminist, want to break bread at their masculinist table? As cautiously as I tread their terrain and as much as I disagree with most of their politics, I believe that some of their views are in the interest of feminism.

As Mel introduces his troops, who feel their movement has failed, the reason they eye me with self-protective skepticism becomes clear. Some of the men claim they have lost jobs and relationships over their men's rights activism; hence, a few request that I use a pseudonym when referring to them, like "Charles," the loquacious intellectual to my right, who believes that men today are paralyzed with confusion as to how to behave toward the opposite sex. "A man is guilty if he opens the door for a woman," he says, "but he's also guilty if he doesn't, so he's always wrong." The way Charles sees it "men have all the disadvantages of the old and new systems and women have all the advantages."

To my left sits Tony Nazarro, a former deputy director of NCM, who produces a cable access show called Mens Net. The arch conservative compares the men's movement to Vietnam, calling it a "no-win situation." He calls for "gender sanity," which he believes means: "As a female, don't push to change a law that will make you a cop walking a beat in Bedford Stuyvesant. You don't have the physicality to do that." He bristles at the New York City Police Department for "lowering its height standard to accommodate women."

At the other end of the table, a tall, robust man named Roy also reflects back on Vietnam and bemoans all the jobs vets lost to women upon returning to a thankless country. "A lot of us at this table," the fiery activist insists, "are victims of affirmative action. We suffer in silence. Nobody gives a fuck about us. It's reverse discrimination gone amok."

Next to Roy is a tall, handsome father's rights advocate named Stephen Metzger. Metzger believes that courts are still partial to mothers, usually awarding them primary custody. Progress for him would be "a universal shared parenting law from the federal level—a presumption of joint physical custody."

The leader of this weary clan, Mel, who's miraculously kept the NCM and himself financially afloat the last 25 years as a paid men's rights pundit and counselor, sits next to me, opposite Roy, at the other end of the table. Unlike most MRAs, Mel's a liberal democrat who supports a woman's right to choose and equal rights for LGBT people.

He came into his masculinist consciousness sometime in 1959 when he was eight years old. "I became aware of the sexism of the draft in conversation with my father," the long-haired, bespeckled 62-year-old remembers. "The realization that society can draft and kill only men, do anything it wants to men," he emphasizes, "and not be required to atone for that sex discrimination has remained at the center of my activism all these years."

What Mel's reasoning misses is that underlying the laws that require only men to register for the draft (and policies that, until recently, banned women from serving in combat) is the sexist assumption that women are too powerless—too fragile, too victimizable—to occupy the role of protector because of their need of protection. The draft is less a measure of how expendable or undervalued men's lives are, as Mel would have us believe, than a gender bias that depends upon an understanding of women as feeble to secure men's power.

That said, I can still sympathize with how crushing the weight of the draft burden might be. During the Vietnam War, his lottery number was 56. He recalls the harrowing images of death and destruction that daily flashed across television screens and the cruel lingering possibility that he and his friends would be forced to fight in a war they didn't believe in on the mere fact of their sex.

Throughout his coming-of-age, the ways in which society short-shrifts males—the stiff-upper-lip and courage-at-all-costs ethos; the closed-off, constricted, utilitarian banality of men's clothing; the dating rituals that perpetually put men in a position of aggressor and rejectee—permeated his entire consciousness. Including the night of junior prom, which turned out to be the first and last date he'd ever pay for. "Men and women are absolutely equal," he asserts, "and my paying for a first date implies that her sexuality is more valuable than mine and that would feel to me like prostitution."

After high school, he earned his B.S. from Penn State and a master's in broadcasting from Boston University. His first careers included a stint as an actor and a public communications professional, both of which cultivated his media savvy and flair for the theatrical. By the time he reached his mid-30s, his gender politics culminated in a lecture he put together titled "A Militant View of Men's Liberation," a two-hour talk he delivered at various colleges. It delved into his thoughts on the military draft, the skirt he famously wore (a comment on women getting to wear the pants and freely express masculine and feminine qualities without social repercussions), and the dating rituals between the sexes.

Soon, invitations for guest appearances on talk shows—Donahue, Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo—started pouring in. As a teen, I remember seeing Mel sitting on stage in his subversive skirt with his orange mane flowing and eyes blazing with righteous fury. He's battled some of the country's biggest feminists—the late Bella Abzug, Naomi Wolf, Gloria Allred, Patricia Ireland—who vehemently opposed his brand of gender politics.

As a feminist, it's hard not to wince at some of the assertions Mel and his fellow MRAs make. For one thing, they continually err in thinking that feminism's ongoing quest to remedy the injustices and imbalance of power between the sexes are meant to disempower them. And they often draw pat conclusions from skewed observations.

Take Charles, for example. He thinks it's a "trick" of feminism that "if there are more women than men in a profession, women are blazing the way; but if there are more men than women in a given field, men are oppressors." How's that for reductionism?! Then there's Roy. He recalls an incident from the 1970s that made him realize that "something is going wrong" in this country: A relative returned from the war, and on his first day back in the job force, he asked a woman on a date and was fired for sexual harassment. Narratives like these—and they abound in the men's movement—lack historical context and philosophical nuance and seem chillingly misogynistic.

Roy and Charles seem blind to the vast power differential that has historically positioned men above women—and continues to in much of the world, including in our own country. They also seem unfamiliar with the innumerable ways men have deployed their greater power to enslave, exploit, demean, limit, and hurt women. That's not to say that some women don't manipulate or abuse the laws and policies that are meant to protect them, but those women are the exception, not the rule.

While Mel might disagree with this analysis, his sensibilities often don't line up with the typical MRA script, which is how a queer person like me finds herself oddly (and uncomfortably) in sync with some of his core beliefs. For example, I agree with him that women are allowed to travel the gender spectrum more freely, while men are still held to a stifling, retrograde notion of masculinity. I also share his belief that traditional expectations of men and masculinity (as well as conventional assumptions about femininity and women) inform many of our cultural customs, as well as the laws that privilege mothers above fathers in child custody cases and cast reproductive rights as a woman-only affair. These gendered manifestations, in my view, place motherhood at the top of the parental pyramid and fatherhood at the bottom, which hurts both sexes and thwarts the goals of feminism.

With all the recent books chronicling and analyzing the plight of men and boys—The End of Men, The Richer Sex, Manning Up, Save the Males—I wonder if feminists today are becoming more sympathetic to Mel's understanding of gender equality.

My first call is to Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s and the forthcoming Intimate Revolutions. Both of these books grapple with the social consequences of what she calls "the masculine mystique." "The masculine mystique is the flip side of the feminine mystique," she tells me from her vacation home in Hawaii. She continues: TFM promised women security, protection, and fulfillment if they rejected any individualistic aspirations and embraced their supposedly natural traits of passivity and emotional dependence. TMM promises men success, power, and admiration if they reject all forms of dependence and embrace their supposedly natural ambitious and competitive drives. TFM made women ashamed if they had any feelings or desires that were supposedly "masculine"; TMM makes men ashamed if they have any feelings or desires that are supposedly "feminine," compelling men to constantly assert and defend their masculinity.

A few months ago, Coontz published an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that "women's progress by itself is not a panacea for America's inequities," and called for men's liberation from "the pressure to prove their masculinity." Citing three new studies in the Journal of Social Issues, her article observes that men who flout traditional gender role expectations by prioritizing family, taking paternity leave, and making childcare and housework central to their lives experience professional discrimination and social stigma.

Liza Mundy, whose book The Richer Sex explores how women are outpacing men in ever-growing numbers in a knowledge-based economy, adds that men who fail to make as much money as their wives also face social contempt: "I found that men in families with breadwinning women are stigmatized by friends and family especially in-laws, who send the message that they're inadequate and lesser."

Similarly, Hanna Rosin shows how the service and information economy privileges traits cultivated in women (i.e. social intelligence, open communication), enabling them to blow past men in abounding numbers. The new economic structure, she explains, is wiping out jobs that relied on qualities nurtured in men (strength, courage, risk taking), upending men's traditional roles, but then punishing them for not measuring up. Rosin agrees that women are granted a greater level of gender flexibility that allows for their adaptability in our fast-changing world, while stricter notions of masculinity have held men back.

"[Men] lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new ones," she writes in The End of Men. In the concluding chapter of her book, she argues that we need to adopt laws, policies, and cultural sensitivities that support evolving definitions of what it means to be a man.

But society resists challenges to the old-fashioned ideals of manliness, especially when it comes to men co-opting roles traditionally meant for women, like childcare—ground zero of gender inequality in America.

"Women need to be a little more sympathetic to the mixed messages men receive," Kay Hymowitz, who recently wrote Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, tells me from her office in Brooklyn. "The way things are structured men are made to feel secondary and not essential to family life."

Not all feminists, of course, are sympathetic to dude (or daddy) drama. The Nation's Katha Pollitt isn't quite buying it. She argues that part of the reason guys who assume traditionally feminine roles experience social disapprobation is because "feminine traits are perceived as a loss of status and MRAs aren't interested in that bit at all." While Pollitt grants that "masculinity is a particularly rigid concept," an observation feminists, she says, have pointed out for decades, she contends that "the price of transgressing feminine norms is very high," maybe even higher. She reminds me of all the blowback women who break from gender conventions receive: "Think of the policing of weight and looks (much more severe for women), the shaming of rape victims versus the comparative impunity for rapists, and the impossible ideals of motherhood (NOT fatherhood!)."

But I wonder if feminism's assumption that being male necessarily situates men at an advantage makes it harder for feminism to address the struggles unique to men. By diminishing male-specific challenges, feminists fail to recognize that women's progress hinges on understanding that antiquated standards of masculinity hurt both sexes and are linked to men's unstable relationship with the family.

Despite all the negative consequences of maintaining a fundamentalist's belief to his cause—alienation from his siblings; rejection from girlfriends who scoffed at his proclivity for skirts or ridiculed his masculinism; frequent harassment from T.V. producers for his appearance; the habitual trivialization or misapprehension of his values and ideas—Feit doesn't mourn his losses or his struggles: "I'm sometimes sorry that I didn't marry and have children," he tells me at the end of the NCM shindig, "but I have never regretted my work." He's even optimistic about the future: "Some young and progressive women," he says on my way out the door, "realize that their long-term self-interest lies in an honest gender equality that includes the concerns of men. My vision of equality contemplates a wonderful intimacy between the sexes. Maybe women will someday agree with me."