Families at the Turning Point: The Fatherhood Responsibility Movement in America at the End of the Cold War

Erica Ryan, Rider University

In the early 1990s a movement enjoining men to take up the mantle of responsible fatherhood emerged in the United States at a complicated political and cultural moment. This fatherhood initiative captured the interest of diverse socioeconomic and racial groups amidst changing family demographics, rising economic self-sufficiency among women, racial conflicts like the Los Angeles riots, the divisive “culture wars”, and most importantly here, the abrupt end of the long Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the guiding compass of America’s foreign policy dissolved, overturning Americans’ sense of purpose and their certainty about their place in the world. President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor recalled these developments leaving him “numb, disbelieving,” while the President himself sought a “new world order” to fill the void. As Americans faced this new world, and fathers faced a fraught future in their own intimate worlds, this movement sought to remedy the nation’s ills by strengthening the roles of fathers in “fragile-family” and “pro-marriage” groups and in popular culture. From the Promise Keepers to the participants in the Million Man March, these activists and the wider political culture they operated within positioned engaged and assertive fathers as a powerful panacea. This paper will examine the role of fatherhood in 1990s political culture, arguing that beyond the conservative climate fostered by the rise of the New Right, we must also consider the ultimate collapse of Cold War gender norms as a catalyst for the popular reevaluation of the power of fathers to keep the “new world order” orderly. Furthermore, excavating the ways race functioned in these constructions of masculinity illuminates the connections between whiteness, manhood, and nation that are so prevalent in political culture today.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 217. Gender and Law