Chapter 11



Goodbye Father?

Mark, aged thirteen, was going out for the day with his friends. “Be careful!” said Shirley. “Be good!” said I, under my breath. A small moment, but it summed up one of the deepest differences between traditional mothers and fathers: the emphasis each places on care and control.

It is possible for a man to go through the first quarter of his life without ever really being aware of the existence of children. They are invisible; not a part of his universe at all. The advent of pregnancy changes everything. Suddenly children appear from all directions and their impact is immediate. Partly, of course, this is because he and his partner start seeking out the company of friends or relations who already have children, and partly it is because the changed circumstances have increased his awareness of a part of the world to which he was previously blind.

One thing which usually strikes men very forcefully is how badly most children seem to behave. They are noisy, rude, dirty, uncouth, obtrusive, argumentative, disobedient and desperately in need of discipline. It is at that this point that most of us resolve that our children will not be so naughty; we will insist on proper standards of behaviour. Later on of course, when the reality of having children comes home to us, we may think very differently. We may come to realise the futility of applying adult standards to childish behaviour, or may develop a tolerance and understanding of the child’s point of view which is usually totally lacking in the non-father.

Some men are able to cope adequately with the problems of discipline, but most have great difficulties—either being too ‘heavy’ or else ‘opting out’, as we saw in the last chapter. There is no doubt that discipline is a more loaded issue for men than for women. Men seem to feel a greater need than women to control their children. I think we also feel a greater sense of hurt and rejection when our children rebel and defy us—even though this is often tempered by a kind of perverse pride at the child’s burgeoning independence.

Men certainly tend to react more oppressively than women if faced by a naughty child, insisting on their interpretation, and often seeming unable to accept any compromise. As their children grow up and start to assert themselves, most men are forced to confront a previously undiscovered dark side of the soul. In the cold light of day it can be very painful to think back on the quite unreasonable anger you showed when your child stepped over some trivial and often arbitrary boundary. Indeed, your reaction is often most harsh when the infringement is least serious in real terms.

Why do men have these problems with discipline and control? It appears that there is a universal tendency for men to want to dominate others: women, children, and weaker men—but especially women. In culture after culture we find that women and children have to defer to a male authority figure. This is usually the man who by right of biology or ritual or marriage is identified as their father/husband, but even where the ‘father’ in this sense has little authority, it will not be the mother who has control but another man—often one of her brothers. There are always individual exceptions where a forceful woman will dominate her less forceful husband, but the general social pattern in every culture is of male control.

Some feminist writers have denied that male control, patriarchy, is universal. They claim that there are now, or have been in the past, matriarchal societies in which women were pre-eminent. When subjected to critical analysis these claims do not stand up in any meaningful sense. The historical record is uncertain, and the evidence quoted consists largely of legends such as those about the Amazons, a mythical race of warrior women. As far as the present day is concerned, it is true that there are some societies in which women are accorded a revered and important place, but even in these the majority of positions of power and prestige are held by men.

The reason for this universal male dominance is unclear. Some argue that it has a biological basis, others that it is social in origin. The debate about patriarchy and male dominance is itself part of the wider debate about gender roles, and whether these are innate or learned. The evidence is conflicting and often contradictory, and it is hard to be objective about it. People often adopt a position because it suits their own outlook on life, rather than because the evidence is really overwhelming.

My own view is that the evidence suggests that there are definite biologically based differences between the sexes, which express themselves in tendencies towards different kinds of behaviour (males tend to be dominant, females tend to be nurturant, for instance) but that there is scope for moderating these tendencies by upbringing, and by structuring society in appropriate ways. This middle position is held by most people; the key unanswered question concerns the relative importance of biology versus society—nature versus nurture—as influences on our behaviour.

The relevant evidence comes from both human and non-human studies. For instance, it has been found that if testosterone, a male hormone, is administered to female rabbits during the last twelve days of pregnancy, they are more likely to kill their young or fail to nurse. Female rats which received male hormones at four days after giving birth behaved less maternally (in terms of retrieving, licking and nursing strange pups) than a control group which were not given the hormones. In the same study male rats who were castrated at birth and who could therefore not make testosterone, showed more nurturant behaviour than intact males. This was not true of rats who were castrated when they were 25 days old. Other studies with rats have shown that female rats given doses of male hormones just after birth are also more dominant than ordinary females.

Many researches believe that a lot of the gender behaviour differences between men and women arise because males are exposed to greater amounts of testosterone while they are still in the womb. This happens as the male fetus’ own testes develop and start making male hormones. It is claimed that these hormones actually influence the development of the central nervous system in ways which predispose men towards different behaviour from women.

Hard evidence is not easy to find, especially in the case of human beings. Even those who feel that the search for knowledge justifies the practice of castrating rats do not usually advocate such a procedure for humans. There have therefore been no comparable experiments on human mothers or babies. Nevertheless, accidents occur which appear to shed some light on these complex questions. One famous case concerns a young American boy whose penis was destroyed when he was seven months old during an attempt to circumcise him. The physician used an electric cauterizing needle instead of a scalpel, and after a couple of abortive attempts turned the current up so high that he cooked the boy’s penis and it subsequently dropped off. Eventually, it was suggested to the distraught parents that the best solution might be to ‘reassign’ the boy as a girl by removing his testes and constructing female external genitals by plastic surgery. When the child reached the age of puberty s/he would be given female sex hormones to feminize her body.

The parents agreed, and the child was brought up as a girl from the age of fifteen months. She had actually been born as one of twin boys and had been the dominant brother in the early months. Nevertheless, despite the fact that she had been exposed to male sex hormones while in the womb, by the age of five she was able to act as a girl—albeit a rather tomboyish one. Her dominance behaviour changed to ‘fussing’ over her twin brother, and she became more concerned with clothes and appearance and helping in the kitchen than he was.

This particular case is often cited as showing that the influence of hormones is not as important as the effect of upbringing, but recently it has been suggested that this girl has had great difficulties at puberty and found it hard, if not impossible, to adjust to the notion of being a woman. Perhaps the influence of the early exposure to male hormones is more important than some like to admit.

Additional evidence that this might be the case comes from a family in the Dominican Republic, all descendants of one woman who had an unusual genetic condition. Her genes have been detected in 23 families in three separate villages, and 38 individuals have been directly affected by their inheritance. All of them were born and brought up as girls, and then at puberty changed into boys!

In fact they were genetically male all the time and had undescended testes which were able to produce the male hormone testosterone, but they were not able to process it into another hormone which is responsible for shaping the external male sex organs in the fetus. Because of this the Dominican children were brought up as girls and it came as a complete surprise to all the family when they started developing male sex organs, and had to shave. However, it is reported that none of the children had trouble adjusting to their new lives as men, despite the fact that they were raised as girls. It has been suggested that the fact that they had been exposed to testosterone from their own testes in the womb was a greater influence than their upbringing.[1]

These and other studies suggest that testosterone plays an important part in the creation of sex differences between males and females. It has also been implicated in differences in dominance behaviour. One of the most thorough-going biological theories has been proposed by Stephen Goldberg. He points out that some people say that male dominance is based on the fact that males are stronger and more athletically able than females. However, there is also a strong body of evidence which suggests that women do not feel the same need to dominate as men do. So while physical superiority may be necessary for males to dominate women, it is not of itself a sufficient explanation of why men should want to do so. Stephen Goldberg attempts to get round this difficulty by suggesting a biological mechanism which accounts for the differences between men and women.

According to Goldberg, the very universality of patriarchy and male dominance make it almost inevitable that they have some underlying biological basis—otherwise there would be exceptions. He suggests that men are more likely to react with dominance behaviour in a situation of hierarchy because of the influence of male sex hormones—both from the exposure in the womb and from the male’s normally higher levels of testosterone. Although there is a great deal of evidence to support this position, it is clear that the theory is a statistical one. It accepts that some women are more dominant than some men. Goldberg also accepts that the way we are brought up—socialization, as the social scientists call it—has some part to play, but as far as he is concerned, all that upbringing can do is to reinforce and make explicit the innate biological tendencies. It is at this point that the weaknesses in his presentation become clear. For instance, he writes:

Even if it were possible for socialization to ignore the psychophysiological reality—and for children to be socialized to believe that fathers were not dominant and tall, mothers not nurturant and short—the physiological factors would still be at work and fathers would still be dominant and tall, mothers nurturant and short. (p.104)

There are two points to make here. Firstly, the theory does not maintain that fathers are dominant, but they have a tendency to dominance. Secondly, height is an attribute which is genetically determined and which cannot be altered except by surgery or accident. A dominance tendency is a behavioural influence which can be changed—unless our actions are completely determined by the action of our hormones. Nevertheless, the implications of Goldberg’s theory is clear: fathers will tend to dominate their partners and children.

Assume, for the moment, that Goldberg is right. What are the consequences in human terms? Is this a good state of affairs, or should we be trying to change it? As a beginning, consider the following definition of fatherhood. It says much the same as the cool scientific research findings, but the impact is very different:

...we must remember that a father is simply a male who has possession and control of a female (or more than one) and her offspring. (Rich p.67)

Possession and control? Is this, then, the chilling reality of fatherhood? Is this what male dominance means in practice? There are those who believe that it is so. And they have much evidence to support their view. We have already seen that male control seems to be universal, and based on the normal biological differences between men and women. Possession, too, seems to be an almost universal characteristic of fatherhood. “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” The famous question from the Prayer Book wedding service requires no spoken answer; what is required is for a man—the bride’s father or a substitute for him—to step forward and ‘give away’ the bride. Perhaps today, for us, this is just a symbolic remnant of an old social order, but there are still many societies where it seems to be literally true. Marriage is a matter decided by two fathers: the prospective bride and groom have nothing to do with it.

In many societies it isn’t just a matter of arranging the marriage, nor is the bride ‘given away’. Instead she is exchanged, either for another woman (‘I’ll give my daughter to your family, if your family will give me your daughter as my son’s bride’) or for some form of bridewealth. There are those who see this as a simple form of ownership: women are owned by their fathers who dispose of them as they see fit, either by selling them for cattle or by swapping them for other women. (Others deny that ‘ownership’ is involved, preferring to speak of ‘control’.)

Fatherhood is seen, in this analysis, as a means by which men exert power over women and children; denying them their rightful freedom. But the indictment of fatherhood does not end here, in the father-dominated family. On the contrary, according to the radical feminists, the relations of dominance and control which men must exercise in order to assert their ‘fatherhood’ are reproduced and magnified in society as a whole. Where Stephen Goldberg sees patriarchy and male dominance as manifestations of the same biological reality, Adrienne Rich sees patriarchy as fatherhood writ large:

Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male. (p.57)

According to radical feminism, patriarchy is a means of controlling and oppressing women. It denies women equal access to power and prestige in the world—indeed, our very notions of power and prestige are defined by men, without reference to women. Men even try to control the reproductive power of women—most obstetricians are male, and the increasing presence of men at birth is just one more example of male intrusion into the domain of women’s reproduction. Patriarchy is the rule of the female by the male, of the weaker male by the more powerful male. It dehumanizes; treating other people, especially women, as objects to be controlled, used and disposed of as the patriarchs think fit.

Patriarchy achieves its aims by a variety of methods. According to Mary Daly it uses four techniques. Firstly there is the killing of women, as in the witchcraft trials of the Middle Ages, where thousands of women were tortured and killed. Secondly, it rewrites the natural order of things, as when Eve is born from Adam or Athena from Zeus. Thirdly, it tries to redefine and colonize feminism in order to control and manipulate it. And lastly it uses divide and conquer tactics by training ‘token’ women to operate in patriarchal professions and so dilute the opposition. (Daly 1978 p.8)

For radical feminists such as Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone, the basis of the subjugation of women is the father-led family. “Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family.” says Kate Millett (p.33). Shulamith Firestone followed this up and suggested that the liberation of women required them to be freed from family structures, and the dependence on men that the facts of birth and childcare forced upon them. According to Firestone, the new reproductive technologies of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization now offer the hope of liberation from the ties of biology and the oppression of men.

Others, such as Susan Brownmiller, claim that the basis of patriarchy is not the family, but male violence—especially the actuality and the fear of rape. In a sense it matters little whether it is the power of the father or the fear of rape. Domination by physical and psychological means is both the cause and the effect of patriarchy. Rape and family structure are in any case intimately connected. In many Western countries it is not possible, legally, for a man to rape his wife. The law grants him unlimited sexual access to her. Whether or not rape is the cause of patriarchy, it is its archetypal expression. If fatherhood is responsible for the creation of rapists then perhaps fatherhood should be abolished.

More recently, Elizabeth Ward has brought the two strands together in her book on incest, which she calls Father-Daughter rape. For her, the nuclear family provides the main source of such rape and also the type which illuminates many other cases. So the ‘Fathers’ are any trusted men—male adult relatives or family friends and the ‘Daughters’ are any girl children who might look to them as some kind of father figure. Once more the father is portrayed in chillingly stark terms:

The fact that some Fathers rape Daughters means that every Daughter, theoretically, is a potential victim of rape by one of her Fathers, just as all women are potential victims of rape by any man. And the fact that girl-children are raped at home means we must question the social structure of the family. (p.94)

Are all men potential rapists? Elizabeth Ward claims that there seems to be little obvious difference between those who commit incest and those who do not. The studies so far have usually been of biological fathers, although some have also looked at step-fathers. They find that the typical incestuous father tends to be in his thirties or forties, of normal or above-average intelligence, a good worker, not involved in other criminal activities. He is often well-respected in his community and by his friends—until his incest is discovered. The typical incestuous father, she remarks, sounds like the vast majority of males in any Western country. As a clincher, Ward gives the following quote from a study of incest:

The typical incestuous father is not mentally retarded, psychotic, or pedophilic but is characterised by some sort of personal disturbance that interferes with his ability to control his impulses in a situation where the temptation to commit incest exists. (Meiselman p.108)

We are to believe, apparently, that all men have the impulse to rape young girls of their acquaintance, but that some manage to control themselves. Furthermore, this impulse is not primarily a sexual one, but rather is an attempt to dominate, to subjugate, the daughter—and less frequently, the son. The influence of biology and upbringing both lead men to dominate women by violence, and by the creation of structures of domination in the family and through society at large. The father becomes the symbol of evil.

Fathers rape Daughters within the family; men rape women at work, in their homes, on the streets, in cars and car-parks. As long as the male principle has power to rule, at home, in the schoolyard, in the streets, at work, in culture, then we will have rape. Rape is the end result of the dehumanised authoritarian social structure called patriarchy, through which the Son becomes Father by rejecting his Mother and thereby gains unfettered access to the Daughter. (Ward p.201)

The radical feminist position depends on the assumption that it is the institution of fatherhood which is responsible for the perpetuation of male dominance and exploitation within the family, and also its reflection in patriarchal control in wider forms of social organization. Given the power and anger with which the arguments are expressed it is not surprising that men, as well as women, have shown concern about the problem of fatherhood. Jeff Hearn is one of those men who wish to eliminate men’s control over women’s reproductive power. Not only does he want to get rid of men’s sexism in all its many manifestations, but he also wants to see some rather sweeping changes made in the way we structure family life:

Most importantly, the notion of fatherhood must be smashed or more precisely dropped bit by bit into the ocean. Parenting yes, childwork yes, crèches yes, but fatherhood is the most pernicious part of the whole mess. (Hearn 1983 p.51)

Jeff Hearn is not advocating that men should cease to be involved with children; on the contrary, they should become much more involved. But they need to get rid of the notions of power and property often associated with fatherhood. If they do this, not only will women be liberated from men’s control, but men may also be liberated from their own dark side. Most men have very little contact with any children except their ‘own’ children. This might change if fatherhood as an institution were to be abolished. Perhaps then, Hearn suggests, men could develop relations of friendship and equality with children which would benefit both child and man. It is true that at the moment men are putting more investment into their own children, but does this not simply make them more inward looking? The increase in concern may be a reflection of an increased desire to ‘own’ their children; after all, if men are really concerned about children why do they give such a low priority to the provision of child care facilities?

The details of Jeff Hearn’s solution seem difficult to pin down. Men are to give up control of children, but are to become much more involved in their care. I am reminded of the pithy comment from one of the mothers in a group I spoke to: “Working fathers should fill their leisure time with their children. Non-working mothers should fill their leisure time without their children.” Or perhaps this from another mother: “A mother regards the children as her responsibility. A father just helps out.”

Jeff Hearn worries that the more fathers become involved with their children, the more they may expect that they have rights to control them, and the mothers as well. The current concern with fatherhood may just have the effect of reinforcing patriarchal attitudes. Custody after marriage breakdown is a case in point. Just because a man has invested a certain amount of time and effort in a child does not mean that he should expect custody if his relationship with the child’s mother ceases. Men have oppressed women for so long that it will take more than a few ‘good’ fathers to redress the balance. In particular, fatherhood has involved notions of control and authority for so long that, whatever the efforts of a few well-intentioned fathers, it is always likely to revert to its old forms.

It is hard to imagine that many men would undertake the care of children with whom they have no biological or social relationship, completely under the direction and control of the mothers of those children. In fact even if such a solution were feasible, I doubt if it would satisfy most radical feminists. Something more far-reaching would probably be required.

Feminists are divided over the question of whether differences between men and women are biologically or socially conditioned. On the whole, radical feminists are more inclined to accept that there are innate differences which cannot be eliminated by changing the way we bring up children or structure society. Given the radical feminist analysis that fatherhood is responsible for the reproduction of undesirable power structures in the family and in society as a whole, a logical conclusion for many radical feminists is that it is not worth tinkering with the father’s role in order to try to improve things. The logical radical feminist conclusion seems to be the abolition of fatherhood altogether.

At first sight this might seem to be not only extreme, but also impossible. After all, we all know that men are biologically necessary—both to fertilize the egg and also because sexual reproduction confers benefits on the species. But it appears that even these certainties may rest on rather softer foundations than we realise. According to some evolutionary biologists, sexual reproduction confers few, if any, benefits to our species. If you adopt an evolutionary perspective which argues that ‘the only goal of life is to reproduce itself’, then it could be argued that sexual reproduction means that females waste half their reproductive potential by having to produce male children. The following hypothetical example may help to clarify this.

Suppose, among a population of creatures which reproduce sexually as we do, a mutant female occurred who could have children without needing a male to fertilize her eggs. Because only males carry the Y chromosomes needed to produce male offspring all her children would be daughters—who would themselves spontaneously give birth to daughters. She, and they, would have approximately twice as many daughters as other the females in the population; and since it is usually females who look after the young, they would suffer little disadvantage in not having males around. Because of this, and their greater ability to reproduce themselves, the mutation would soon spread throughout the population and males would be eliminated. As far as females are concerned, having sons cuts down their potential for reproducing themselves.

What, then, is the point of men? Why don’t human beings reproduce themselves asexually like greenfly and many other insects and plants, and abolish males altogether? The answer usually given is that sexual reproduction allows variability in a species which enables it to adapt to changes in the environment more effectively than asexual reproduction. But it appears that as far as the physical environment is concerned sex is not very useful unless the changes were much more rapid than they are now—or unless we were to have thousands more children than we do now. In any case, we human beings seem to specialize in adapting the environment to ourselves, rather than vice versa.

Another possible use of sexual reproduction is that it may help to protect the species against illness and disease. By mixing our genes we may make it difficult for invaders such as viruses to gain a decisive hold. But even here we are increasingly looking to technology rather than biology to protect us from illness. Jeremy Cherfas and John Gribbin have suggested that if women could discover how to reproduce without sex—make clones of themselves—they might be able to survive alone, provided they have enough high technology to keep disease at bay.

Nor is this all completely idle speculation. Parthenogenesis—the development of an egg cell without fertilization by a sperm—is quite common in some fishes and lizards, as well as in insects and plants. There have been claims that parthenogenesis can also occur in mammals, but so far there has been no decisive evidence to demonstrate this. It is however possible to get unfertilized eggs to start dividing; but the process never gets very far. There seems to be a ‘missing factor’ which is preventing development. If this could be found, it might one day be possible for human females to reproduce themselves without any contribution from males—and then the radical feminists’ dream of a world without fathers could become a reality.

Until then the nearest approach to the abolition of fatherhood is to be found in a few self-insemination groups. Self-insemination is used by some lesbian feminists who want children, but who do not want to enter into a casual relationship with a man simply to get pregnant, and also by some heterosexual women who are concerned to maximize their reproductive freedom of choice. The male donors are often, but not always, homosexual. Sometimes they have a continuing relationship with the child; sometimes they agree to stay away and never disclose their part in the child’s creation.

Nobody knows whether such fatherless families will be healthy places for a child to grow up. There are still very few of them, and since the earliest examples of self-insemination appear to have taken place in the early 1970s, it is too soon to tell what effect this environment will have on the growing child. Although many people might instinctively assume that such a family style must be harmful to a child, it may actually provide a less stressful and more secure environment than the fragment of a conventional nuclear family which is left after the fission caused by a divorce.

The lesbian family may appear to be extreme, unrelated to ‘ordinary’ parenthood, but I’m not so sure. In chapter one I reported that the majority of the parents I have spoken to want to minimize the differences between mothers and fathers. Furthermore, their ideal parent tended to have more ‘feminine’ than ‘masculine’ qualities. I said that what they seemed to be seeking was a ‘male mother’; denying that a father has any really distinctive masculine role to play. In the lesbian family this desire seems to have come to fruition: there is one biological mother and one (occasionally more) co-mother. No doubt the co-parents find themselves playing different roles from time to time, but they are now in a position to eliminate successfully most of the major differences between motherhood and fatherhood.

The radical feminist arguments do not get much attention from the majority of parents. There is a general belief that men are not really as bad as the radical feminists make out (they probably are), and that women are not really as good as the radical feminists make out (they probably are not). Most people would completely reject the radical feminist view of the ideal parents being mother and co-mother, but the irony is that their own point of view finds its logical conclusion in just such a family structure.

There is clearly something peculiar going on. The radical feminists say that fathers are so different from mothers that they ought to be eliminated. The prevailing orthodox middle class opinion says that fathers are almost the same as mothers, which in a sense also eliminates them. Even biological science doesn’t seem to be entirely sure that fathers are necessary any more.

There is much talk about involved fatherhood at present, but as we have seen there isn’t quite so much action. Although there are strong pressures for fathers to participate much more in their children’s lives, we live in a society which makes it hard for men to be involved in childcare, and where many children grow up without a father for much of their childhood. The question has to be asked: is there really a need for fathers, and if so what kind of fathers do we need? [Next]


[1] The research with rats is reported in Quadnago & Rockwell and in Goldberg. Money & Tucker (pp. 68-71) describe the case of the boy who was reassigned as a girl. This is commented on in Durden-Smith & de Simone (p.90ff), who also describe the Dominican Republic gender changes (p.87ff).