The History and Odyssey of Pro-Feminist American Fathers


by Doug Gertner

Ever wonder where fathers fit in the history of Pro-Feminist American Families?

According to Dr. Joseph Pleck, the Victorian father was “Moral Overseer” of his family, the one who taught them right from wrong, good from bad, and to fear God. This is a noble and necessary role for a father, to be sure, yet fathers in this era showed little affection to their children, especially sons, and during this time when slavery was practiced in parts of America, the image of father as overseer brings to mind the troubling image of slave ownership.

During the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, after the industrial revolution, the role of fathers became that of “Distant Breadwinners.” For the first time, a father’s work was sited away from their immediate home; where once dad ventured only as far as the fields out back, or his blacksmith shop next door, now he left for factories and offices perhaps hours away. In this period, domestic duties most often fell to mothers, and although fathers maintained responsibility for moral teaching and discipline of their families, it was moms who cared for kids and managed the household. Thus it was probably during this era that mothers first uttered those immortal words “Wait until you father gets home!”

Wartime in America saw fathers leave home in great numbers to defend their country – Distant Breadwinners still – and when they returned, after World War II and through the Mid-1960s, they became what Pleck calls “Sex-Role Models,” displacing Rosie the Riveter from the factories, and seeking to show men, women, and children the ‘proper’ way for each sex to behave. These Sex-Role Models defined and demonstrated their expectations of how masculinity and femininity should look in post-war America, even as they stayed aligned with the narrow stereotypes of traditional gender roles.

With the 1970s, 80s, and 90s came the so-called “New Father,” a mix of all the old roles combined with new norms and opportunities spawned by the Women’s Movement and fueled by a tighter economy. These dads were the first to attend and participate in the births of their children, to actively share in the care of their infants, and to engage equally in the lives of their daughters as well as sons. With new doors opening, came a range of new roles, and no small measure of confusion for these more involved fathers, these New Fathers of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

That brings us to the present, a time I call “A Fatherhood Odyssey.” As new fatherhood movements emerge, there are new opportunities to balance our traditional roles and our work with the joys of co-parenting and full and active involvement with our children and partners. And while all of the previous roles are still present and indeed prevalent among fathers, and each of these types of fathers certainly has a positive aspect to it, the pro-feminist father of the future will chart new territory to create a unique version of his important role that is at once informed by the past and fully in step with the needs of himself and his family.

Source: Doug Gertner, Ph.D., NOMAS Fathering Task Force Chair. Adapted from Pleck, J.H. (1985), American fathering in historical perspective. American Behavioral Scientist, 29(1), 7-23.

Bibliography This is a short bibliography on feminist issues related to fatherhood.:

Bishop, G. (2005). Hit the ground crawling: The essential guide for new fathers. Dads Adventure, Irvine, CA.

Corneau, G. (1991). Absent fathers, lost sons: The search for masculine identity. Shambhala, New York.

Levine, J.A., and T.L. Pittinsky (1997). Working fathers: New strategies for balancing work and family. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

Linton, B. (1998). Finding time for fatherhood. Fathers’ Forum Press, Berkeley, CA.

Masson, J.M. (1999). The emperor’s embrace: The evolution of fatherhood. Washington Square Press, New York.

Pleck, J.H. (1985), American fathering in historical perspective. American Behavioral Scientist, 29(1), 7-23.

Pruett, K.D. (2001). Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is As Essential As Mother Care for Your Child. Broadway Books, New York.