Arlington, Va. — The battle for equal rights in this country has historically been the province of women. Not any more. About 75 men attended a three-day convention sponsored by the New Jersey-based National Congress of Men (NCM). The meeting represented an attempt to unify a movement whose members are few and whose efforts are still in the pioneer stage. NCM serves as an umbrella organization for state and local men's liberation groups around the country.
Much of the convention's discussion centered on children and fatherhood. That's because many of the members came to the men's liberation movement via the process of divorce, explained Fred Hayward of the California-based Men's Rights (MR) Inc.
Said Jon Ryan of the New Hampshire-based Concerned United Birthparents, a group that supports adoptees' rights to obtain information about their natural parents and wider recognition of birthparents' ongoing concern about children given over to adoption: ``You go through life thinking that society is going to give you all the goodies, and then suddenly, in a divorce, you're faced with a system that goes 180 degrees the other way. That makes you wake up, look around, and see that many parts of society ar e not as they seem.''
Convention participants aired their views and came up with these complaints and suggestions:
The divorce process, if it involves children, awards sole custody of the child to the woman in 90 percent of the cases, leaving the father with child-support payments, sometimes alimony, and visitation rights that are inadequately enforced.
Members advocated a wholesale reform of the divorce process to recognize the husband's continuing stake in parenthood. They suggested that all states follow California's joint-custody law, which allows the court to award joint custody on the application of one parent only; to set up strict visitation schedules plus a system of enforcing them; and to establish a mechanism for renegotiating child-support and alimony payments.
Convention participants cited a need for helping parents who have abducted their children. According to James Cook, past president of NCM, there are parents who would be willing to face up to charges if they were guaranteed future contact with their children.
According to the group, governmental bodies have not provided services to men that are comparable to the services they offer women. Members cited an absence of men's self-help programs, men's studies programs at colleges, and facilities in all-male prisons where men can visit with their children. ``In two federal prisons housing both men and women inmates, there are specially equipped children's rooms. But none of the 41 federal facilities which house only men has such a room,'' pointed o ut Dan Logan of Free Men, a men's organization based in Washington, D.C.
Another issue that surfaced was the lack of facilities for babies and children in men's public restrooms. Members admitted that on the surface this seems a ``silly'' point. But they presented an under-lying reason for their protest. By omitting these facilities in men's areas, ``you are reinforcing in children's minds the idea that only women can care for children,'' said NCM's John Rossler.
Mr. Rossler has filed a lawsuit protesting the lack of such facilities in the Syracuse, N.Y., airport. He is being represented in the case by Karen DeCrow, past president of the National Organization for Women. Ms. DeCrow stepped into the limelight as a sex-discrimination lawyer years ago when she protested the barring of young girls from Little League.
Another area of concern to NCM members was the unfairness of the draft.
NCM is among the groups waging a battle with auto and life insurance companies. NCM charges that companies which charge men higher rates than women are guilty of unfair discrimination. This particular protest echoes recent pension and health-insurance suits in which women charged they were victims of discriminatory pricing.