A Brief History of the Men’s Rights Movement As Told by a Feminist

The men’s rights movement (MRM) is seen as a relatively recent phenomenon borne out of charismatic youtube personalities and lively message boards. Though technologically savvy, this movement has deep ideological roots. In fact, it can be argued that the MRM and feminism were born in the same generation. While proto-feminists fought for the vote in the 1910s, men started dodging the draft as early as 1898 during the Spanish-American War (1). On a fundamental level, each side fought for their political rights. While women opted in, men opted out. 


This “opt-out” movement reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War, when over 200,000 men dodged the draft and fought for their right not to fight. Though feminists decry the late hour of women’s suffrage, the draft was not widely challenged for another 57 years. Furthermore, while women have enjoyed full voting rights since 1920, young men are still required to register for the draft at 18. If a young man fails to comply, he will be ineligible for federal student aid, federal jobs, and U.S. citizenship. Worse— it’s a crime. The penalty could be jail time (2). Why do we, as a society, still force men to die for us? Why do women get the voice, but not the responsibility? These questions set the stage for a wide variety of MRM issues. 

The latter question regarding gender-based privileges and responsibilities underpins issues like child custody and child support. Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) are working to bring disparities in these arenas to light, where 80% of women win custody of children in the event of divorce (3). Of these women, approximately 60% receive child support. Men are essentially forced to support a life that does not include them. The penalty for failing to comply is a familiar one: jail time. Failure to pay child support is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. Of course, prison itself is one of the last bastions of legal slavery in the United States just like child support is one of the last remnants of debtors’ prisons. 

Through this particularly Kafkaesque series of events, a man can go to prison for failing to pay for a child he isn’t allowed to see, where he is forced to do manual labor for under a dollar an hour. Those wages can be garnished and sent back to his ex-wife, who probably initiated the divorce in the first place since 70% of divorces are initiated by women (4). When that man gets out of prison, his new felony guarantees legal job discrimination, which can decrease the ability to pay child support, and the whole cycle begins again. The intersecting issues of child custody, divorce, prison, and poor working conditions can be thought of as the “second wave” of the MRM. Interestingly, these issues parallel the second wave of feminism, which also focused on the family and the workplace. 

The unexpected resemblance between feminism and the MRM continues into the “third wave,” as both have become preoccupied with conceptions of the self and bodily autonomy. While third wave feminism tackles sexuality, third wave mens’ rights concerns itself with circumcision and mental health issues. Of course, third wave issues weave into the issues of the previous waves. Men commit seventy percent of suicides in the United States, but poor men are ten times as likely to commit suicide as rich men (5,6). The common reasons? Divorce. Unemployment. 

In short, the history of the MRM, and indeed of men in the 20th and 21st centuries, is a dire one. Men have worked themselves to death or killed themselves because they cannot work. Men have been divorced from their wives, and then divorced from their children. Men have lost their voices, their freedom, and even parts of their bodies. Perhaps the fourth wave of feminism will finally fight for them. Perhaps the MRM is the fourth wave.