The so-called men’s rights movement has mostly existed as a virtual phenomenon that measures its strength in clicks. So the negative media and online petitions that greeted A Voice For Men’s First International Conference on Men's Issues couldn’t have been altogether unwelcome to its organizers. In fact, they claimed the reason they changed the event’s venue from the Doubletree Hilton in downtown Detroit to a VFW Lodge in suburban St. Clair Shores wasn’t because the hotel had cancelled their agreement, but because its ballroom wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the new registrants.
A Voice for Men’s Paul Elam warned attendees to keep low profiles, lest they be harassed by protesters, and made much of the police presence he had secured. There were indeed uniformed policemen on site, and quite a few black-shirted security guards. There were camera crews from Vice and a number of reporters. But the only sounds to be heard outside the VFW Hall on Friday were chirping birds and the hum of passing traffic—there wasn’t a protestor in sight. I counted between 150 and 200 people in the hall. One speaker said it was the largest crowd she’d ever seen gathered in one place to discuss men's rights. Perhaps it was.
Elam e-mailed ticket holders to warn them that anyone “trash-talking women [or] making violent statements, even jokingly” would be summarily expelled. The movement’s enemies, he said, “will be looking for anything they can to hurt us with. They will be listening, eavesdropping, and if they can, gathering things to harm us with.” Perhaps for that reason, the decibel level was a little lower than it usually is at the website A Voice for Men. I didn’t hear any pejoratives for women.
Surprisingly, some of the speakers at the conference hardly even alluded to feminism. Fred Jones, a lawyer and life coach (whose uncle and law client was the Second Amendment hero Otis W. McDonald) gave an inspirational speech about how he gained sole custody of his children and raised them to adulthood. Tom Golden spoke about the non-verbal ways that men process grief.
Others were less diffident. The Canadian Senator Anne Cools, who opened the conference, spoke at great length about how feminism has hijacked Canada’s family courts, quoting Blackstone on women’s rights, the song “Frankie and Johnnie” and even Euripides to give lie to the supposed feminist myth that women were historically oppressed. Frankie and Medea, she implied, both gave as good as they got. Erin Pizzey, the well-known novelist, ex-feminist, and founder of Chiswick Women’s Aid, one of the first women’s shelters, indicted the movement she had once helped lead as a radical Marxist plot to turn women against men, destroy families, and create a billion dollar social welfare industry.
“The whole business of patriarchy,” she declaimed to wild applause, “the whole business of persecuting men, of demonizing boys and failing to educate them, has been a huge, fraudulent movement. And we need to go after them. And first on my list is Hillary Clinton. I accuse her of being one of the leaders of this fraudulent movement.”
Tara Palmatier, a psychologist, noted that she was both the third speaker and the third woman to speak. “My, aren’t we an interesting group of misogynists,” she quipped. Thanks to feminism, she said, women are suffering from narcissistic personality disorders at astoundingly high rates. Feminists, in her description, are indistinguishable from the Kardashians and other reality TV stars, in that they are all about unearned entitlement. In the world that feminism has remade, men are shamed and women are shameless. The Canadian newspaper columnist Barbara Kay also spoke about misandry in the media, deconstructing TV commercials and women’s magazines for messages that disparaged men and traditional families.
During one of the breaks between speakers, I eavesdropped (just as Paul Elam predicted!) on the conversation between the two men sitting behind me. “I’m fifty years old,” one said, “and people are always asking me how I look so young. It’s because I’m free. Because I didn’t marry.” A few minutes later, he admitted that he was lonely. “Feminism took something from me,” he said. “It changed women. It reduced the pool of compatible mates for me.”
Mike Buchanan, the founder of the new English political party Justice for Men & Boys (and the women who love them), and of such campaigns as the Anti-Feminism League, and Men Shouldn’t Marry, compared England to a moving train that is relentlessly privileging women and girls over boys and men. It’s time, he said, for us to “lay a block on the rails and the train will stop.” The conference we were attending, he said, was without a doubt a landmark victory for men. The “enemies of boys and men's rights,” he added, “are going to have to get used to losing.”
After a fulsome introduction by Warren Farrell, who praised him for owning his anger and drawing on its power to heal, Paul Elam spoke quite movingly about his blue collar roots. He started A Voice for Men when he was a trucker, he said, writing his posts from a laptop in the cab of his semi at night. He shared a haunting memory of his Uncle Walter, who was a ghostly presence in his own home before he passed away—a frightening harbinger of what Elam might have become himself, he said, had he not reclaimed his manhood.
Elam used his time at the podium to fan a little faux controversy too. Lee DeVito, a writer for the Detroit Metro Times, had posted a semi-tongue-in-cheek piece (“I Was Molested at the Men's Rights Conference”) about a strange man who petted his arm and made incoherent small talk while he was attending yesterday’s press conference. “I realized this is the kind of creepy shit women deal with … everywhere … every day,” he said.
In Elam’s telling, DeVito claimed that he’d really been molested. Elam choked up a little as he recounted how he’d been compelled to ask the offender to leave, even though he was clearly harmless, emotionally ill, and badly in need of succoring. “I look forward to the time,” he said, “when we can have a conference when there might be some help here for him.”
Elam’s implication was that the libel against the arm-petter was just the latest in the long line of male-demonizing lies told by feminists and their enablers against long-suffering men. But there was another inference too, that struck me as surprisingly candid—that some men’s rights activists are as off-putting as they are because they are so broken.