Unless you take a special interest in the history of the women's movement, you probably haven't heard of Karen DeCrow, the Syracuse-based feminist attorney, author and activist who died on June 6 at age 76.
DeCrow, who headed the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977, never achieved the fame of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. But she was a remarkable figure -- all the more so because of a fascinating aspect of her career that most obituaries skipped: She fought not only for women's rights but also for men's rights, particularly as fathers.
Many feminists have said equal parenting is essential to achieve equality for women outside the home, and have supported equal rights for men in such areas as parental leave. But supporting divorced or unmarried fathers' rights even when it means challenging a female advantage and backing men in disputes with women is a different matter.
On these issues, the feminist movement has mostly come down on the side of women's interests rather than gender equity. The New York State chapter of NOW has opposed joint custody since the early 1980s, claiming that it would give fathers leverage to blackmail mothers into settling for less child support (talk about gender stereotyping!). Nationally, the organization issued statements in 1996 and 1999 comparing fathers' groups to abusive men and formally resolving to counteract these groups' influence and defend mothers who supposedly face gender bias in courts.
While DeCrow maintained her ties to NOW, heading its greater Syracuse chapter in her later years, she was one of the dissenters. She was willing to work with fathers' rights groups -- which the women's movement generally regarded as the enemy -- and served on the board of the Children's Rights Council, a leading advocacy group for joint custody.
DeCrow saw her feminism and her advocacy for fathers as two aspects of the same cause. In a 1982 speech to the National Congress for Men, one of the early men's rights groups, she stressed that fathers' difficulties in getting joint or sole custody were directly related to the notion that women are inherently better suited to take care of children -- which also was holding women back in the workplace. And she was unafraid to say that sometimes women abuse the advantages they have because of traditional biases.
In an interview she gave me for a women's newsletter in 1994, DeCrow lamented the polarization in debates on gender, with "the men who are writing in the men's movement . . . taking a combative attitude toward women's activists" while "most feminists are writing about what's going on with women and just eliminating the other half of the equation."
Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse since then, with a vicious cycle of toxic discourse on the Internet where far too many feminists engage in outright male-bashing and far too many men's rights activists spout undisguised misogyny.
One of DeCrow's last published articles, in the Syracuse Post Standard, was written almost a year ago for Father's Day 2013 and ran under the title, "We should cease thinking about men as the enemy of women and children."
Today, when DeCrow's voice is silent, hers is the kind of feminism we should be seeking to revive.
"I think there really should be no such thing as a men's movement and a women's movement," she said in her speech to the National Congress for Men. "I think that we're after the same thing."
Amen to that.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.