Associate Professor Dinner’s Scholarship Selected for Harvard/Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum

Associate Professor Deborah Dinner’s article, “Liberated Patriarchs: Fathers’ Rights Activism and the Revolution in Family Law, 1960–2000,” has been selected for the 2014 Harvard/Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum.

Dinner, the Israel Treiman Faculty Fellow for 2013–14, is one of 19 junior legal scholars selected to present papers at the forum. Held this year at Stanford Law School June 27–28 , the event will feature papers that address various public law and humanities topics, including labor law and social welfare policy, constitutional law, and jurisprudence and philosophy, among other subjects. Dinner’s paper was selected in the Family Law category. 

Analyzing previously unexamined archival sources, Dinner provides the first legal history of the “fathers’ rights” movement. From the early 1960s through the late 1980s, middle-class white men, angered by their own experiences of divorce, fought to remake the patriarchal bargain they believed should govern marriage. This bargain achieved familial intimacy via the exchange of breadwinner obligations for authority over dependents. The fathers’ rights movement played a critical, yet underappreciated role institutionalizing this new “divorce bargain” under law. Using legal frames that ascended in the civil rights era—rights talk, legal neutrality, and equality—the movement redefined paternal custody rights as incentive to fulfill child support responsibilities.  

Dinner traces the evolution of the fathers’ rights movement over three decades. The movement originated in the early 1960s as a reaction to social, economic, and legal threats to male privilege. In the 1970s, the movement used “sex equality” as a legal frame “to erode male breadwinners’ obligations upon divorce.” In the 1980s, however, the movement conceded the legitimacy of these obligations so long as they were coupled with custody rights. Fathers’ rights activism acted as a significant causal factor in a revolution in family law, from maternal custody to joint custody presumptions. Yet the redefinition of fatherhood as caregiving rather than breadwinning “splintered” the movement, as its members grappled with “thorny questions about changing conceptions of sexuality, masculinity, and gender roles.” 

Dinner argues that fathers’ rights activists liberalized gender roles while also reinforcing private familial responsibility for dependent children. The movement fought for sex neutrality, same treatment, and the elimination of gender stereotypes from domestic relations states and jurisprudence. At the same time, it formed part of the assault on the welfare state in this period. As a consequence, the movement contributed to “class differentiated fatherhood.” “Constructing child support and custody as a reciprocal legal responsibility and right served the interest of middle-class men,” Dinner writes. “But it entrenched a privatized system of social provisioning for dependent children that diminished the caregiving opportunities of poor fathers, disproportionately men of color.”

Dinner’s scholarship examines the historical relationship between social movements, political culture, and legal change. She has written extensively about the history of feminist legal activism, analyzing evolving understandings of sex equality, reproductive liberty, antidiscrimination law, and distributive justice. Her dissertation chapter, “The Costs of Life: Maternal Employment, Reproductive Choice, and the Debate over Pregnancy Disability Benefits,” later published in the Washington University Law Review as "Strange Bedfellows at Work: Neomaternalism in the Making of Sex Discrimination Law," was selected for the 2012 Harvard Law School Junior Faculty Forum.

 Timothy J. Fox, Spring 2014