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Jordan Peterson and the return of the men’s rights movement

Why they've come back into fashion.

University of Toronto professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post.)

It’s time to bring back the patriarchy.

That, anyway, is the argument of a new generation of men’s rights activists, who have diagnosed the primary problem of our time as the oppression of men, an oppression, they argue, that has had deadly consequences. Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor and patriarchy advocate, recently expressed his concern for men like Alek Minassian, a self-identified incel who, after blaming women for his inability to find a sexual partner, killed 10 people by driving his car through a crowd.

Peterson bemoans that “no one cares about the men who fail.” To address this alleged injustice, he endorses bringing back patriarchy, urging women to embrace lives as housewives and to submit to a regime of enforced monogamy. Peterson sees such drastic interventions as necessary, because he believes today’s forgotten citizens, the victims of gender oppression, are men.

Yet for all the attention in recent months to pro-patriarchy personalities such as Peterson and the violent misogyny of incels, neither they nor their ideas are entirely new. In fact, almost as soon as second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s observed (again) that women were treated unequally, men’s rights activists proclaimed that, well, actually, men were the real victims of gender discrimination.

In 1969, an Illinois legislator named Richard Elrod introduced a series of men’s equality bills to the state legislature. His bill sought to correct laws that he believed discriminated against men in favor of women.

It was a strange year to argue this. In 1969, it was legal to discriminate against women in college admissions. Banks regularly denied the same credit to women that they extended to men of equivalent means. Equal pay laws had been on the books for six years, but the government was overextended, skeptical about protecting female workers and unlikely to enforce the new law. Bosses and colleagues had impunity to sexually harass women at work. Husbands could legally rape their wives and their ex-wives.

Yet in this atmosphere, Elrod saw men as the victims of gendered inequality.

That same year, Charles Metz, a divorced men’s rights activist, founded America’s Society of Divorced Men (ASDM) near Chicago. At the time, Metz was still mad about his divorce more than a decade earlier. He had refused to pay alimony or child support on principle, instead opting to go to prison. After leaving prison, he wrote a book to help other divorced men. He then founded ASDM.

To his members and the public at large, Metz emphasized that men were “the unwitting stooges of conniving women, incompetent and equally conniving lawyers, and acquiescent judges.” He particularly believed that ex-wives lied about their financial prospects, sexual propriety and domestic violence to gain leverage over men’s checkbooks. To remedy this, ASDM marched in protest outside Chicago courthouses, lobbied Illinois legislators and even sued the governor of Illinois for enforcing divorce laws that ASDM believed discriminated against men.

Nor was Metz’s group unusual. Many divorced men’s rights groups emerged over the next decade or so, including ones with much better names, such as the American Divorce Association for Men (ADAM), the Society for the Emancipation of American Men (SEAM), Men Achieving Liberation and Equality (MALE) and M.E.N. International. All believed that men were oppressed.

In significant ways, these historical groups failed — even if many of their values live on. Divorced men’s groups of the late 1960s and 1970s faced everyday burdens such as stuffing envelopes, maintaining an address list, mimeographing newsletters, cashing personal checks, maintaining enthusiasm for in-person meetings and resolving personal conflicts between members who disagreed. In other words, these organizations required organization, and many of these men’s rights groups failed to meet this challenge.

A number of activists also attempted to consolidate different men’s groups into a single national force akin to the National Organization for Women or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Yet these groups, including CADRE and M.E.N. International, quickly fell apart. Without a national group, the men’s rights movement failed to gain the momentum of any of the major rights movements of the era. That inability to keep a  social movement alive proved the undoing of the men’s rights groups of the 1970s.

Will the same thing happen with these second-wave men’s rights activists? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the Internet age has helped radicalize the principles of men’s rights activists. Men’s rights activists in the 1970s might have winked at domestic violence but did not explicitly endorse mass violence against women.

The Internet has also made it much easier for men’s rights groups to sustain themselves. Message boards require fewer resources than in-person meetings, and the impact is much more significant. For instance, a new men’s rights group called A Voice for Men has founded a site called to track women who allegedly scheme against men. Members then harass women they think lied about rape or domestic violence or other crimes by men.

On the other hand, we cannot assume that the Internet solves all the organizing problems of men’s rights activists. Because sympathy with incels is unlikely to have mainstream appeal, it’s possible that these ideas will be contained to the fringes.

But that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. Just as in the 1960s and 1970s, patriarchy has powerful defenders, even among those who don’t identify as men’s rights activists. Violent misogyny is commonplace, even among those who don’t identify as incels.

Therefore proponents of gender equality must work to ensure that our side poses a well-organized and powerful opponent not only to the newest men’s rights groups — but to the persistent patriarchal forces in our society. Only then can we ensure that the difficulty of organizing extends to this generation of violent husbands, incels and other men’s rights activists.