Beating of chests is abandoned for friendly persuasion

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The Independent Online
BROTHERS, hang up your drums. The time for half-naked breast-beating in the woods is over. Feminists are no longer the enemy, to be insulted and abused. The men's movement is changing.

After decades of being easily marginalised as ranting misogynists, those who fight on behalf of that beleaguered species the modern man have realised that they need to change tack, become persuasive rather than aggressive. In short, to copy the sisters. Six years after the American guru John Bly persuaded them to go bonding in the woods, beating drums in imitation of ancient rituals, his British brothers want to be taken seriously. So they are learning the lessons that made the feminist movement a success.

"We are still as militant as ever, we have the same policies, but we put them in a more friendly way," says Edward Crabtree, who serves on Man Kind's national executive.

In its fight against the perceived injustices of the Equal Opportunities Act, the group has long been seen as right-wing and regressive, eager to chain women back to the kitchen sink. Now, in an attempt to put all that in the past, it has ditched the name UK Men's Movement and been reborn with its touchy-feely new title.

It now pursues a broad agenda, campaigning to stop alleged discrimination against men in the health service, at work and in the provision of pensions. Man Kind is carrying its battle into arenas such as the European Court of Human Rights, where slanging matches are banned.

Others are following suit. "We have made a real effort to become cooler, calmer and more collected at a managerial level," says Jim Parton, chairman of Families Need Fathers, the country's oldest men's organisation. Founded in the Seventies, his group now receives funding from the Government. It advises fathers separated from their partners on how to use the law to secure contact with their children.

"It has got a lot easier over the years," says Mr Parton. "Twenty-five years ago, you would be told you could see your child for two hours at the zoo once a month. These days, judges grant proper contact orders. Our main problem is getting them enforced."

Until now Families Need Fathers could be condemned as angry, militant and often anti-female - partly because so many of its volunteers were and are frustrated fathers. But these days a third of those who call its helplines are women. The furious language that once peppered its literature has gone.

Such changes reflect a general shift among politicised males away from ideological battles to pragmatic campaigning. The fight against feminism is seen as a dead end.

Increasing numbers are choosing to be driven by a more positive aspiration towards male fulfilment, rather than a sense of loss or victimisation. The independent information service Fathers Direct, founded this year, portrays men as people who are entitled to the best in terms of working conditions, family services and education, if they are to excel as parents.

Nevertheless, men in Britain have been slow to embrace gender politics, and culture rather than activism remains the major driving force. Britain looks likely to follow the US, where women earn more than men in a quarter of all couples, and, in 6 per cent of them, men stay at home to look after the children.

It has taken less than a decade for the men's movement in the US to come into bud, briefly blossom and wither again. Even the Promise Keepers, which once drew millions of Christian men to stadium events all across the land to commit themselves to being better fathers, brothers and sons in a framework of worship, has seemingly lost its momentum. Two years ago, a Promise Keepers rally in Washington DC was attended by more than half a million people. Since then, the organisation has all but dropped from sight.

The American men's movement caught fire with the publication of John Bly's book Iron Man, which spawned an industry of all-male retreats where participants were encouraged to shed all reserve about their inner feelings and sometimes their clothes too. Bly was the prophet of the so-called mythopoetic approach to self-analysis by men, through the prism of legends and mythology.

Fewer retreats exist now, but Bly contends that they and bonding groups still have a cumulative impact. "The men's movement has had a powerful effect - not on all men, maybe 10 to 15 per cent. But in turn, they interact with one another."

There is little agreement on why the fire first lit by Bly has so quickly dimmed. Some argue that the movement could not be sustained because it never identified any clear political goals - in contrast with the feminists.

Jack O'Sullivan is a co-founder of Fathers Direct.

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