When many people think of the men's rights movement, the image that springs to mind is lonely men lurking in chat rooms and railing against women. But in recent years, a group of brash, witty female activists has taken up the cause. It may seem counterintuitive that women would be helping drive the conversation about a movement that's fighting anti-male discrimination and campaigning fiercely against feminism. But according to Dean Esmay of the men's rights organization A Voice for Men, the fact that they shatter expectations is what makes them such good emissaries. "People want to believe we're a bunch of sad, pathetic losers who can't get laid and are just bitter because our wives left us," Esmay explains. "The very presence of women in the movement creates cognitive dissonance." Often, he adds, this dissonance makes people more receptive than they otherwise would be.
Who are these women men's rights activists? And why do they embrace a movement that some see as blatantly misogynistic? Below is a rundown of key players. A few of them, including Janet Bloomfield, who was the focus of a recent in Vice News article, have been in the spotlight recently. Others are virtually unknown to the mainstream, but within the movement they're seen as luminaries.
Karen Straughan: The YouTube Sensation
In late 2011, Straughan, a foul-mouthed fortysomething Canadian waitress and mother of three, sat down at her kitchen table and began ruminating about the sexes: "I keep hearing from the feminist camp that femaleness has always been undervalued. But I've always contended that it's the exact opposite…If it comes down to a man and a woman in a burning building and you can only save one, the expectation is that you choose the woman every single time. So honestly, whose humanity are we placing above whose?" She then posted a video of her talk on YouTube, where it has racked up more than a million views.
Straughan, who has a brazen air and a taste for ribbed tank tops (a.k.a. "wife beaters"), has since become one of the most visible faces of the men's rights movement. She has nearly 70,000 YouTube subscribers. And she gets emails from men around the world who stumble on her videos and spend hours on end binge watching. Straughan, who wrote erotic fiction as a sideline before getting involved in men's rights, also helped launch the Honey Badger Brigade, a ragtag group of female men's rights activists. This summer, when protesters threatened to shut down A Voice for Men's first conference in Detroit, the Honey Badgers collected more than $8,000 in donations and flew to Motor City to act as "human shields." The Honey Badgers also produce an online radio show, covering men's issues and geek culture. Recent topics include false rape allegations, the treatment of military veterans, and "the shit feminists say."
Helen Smith: The Renegade Psychologist
According to Smith, a forensic psychologist from Knoxville, Tennessee, who is married to conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds, men have had it with women and society in general. Last year, Smith published a book called Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream—and Why It Matters, which argues that the decks are stacked against men in every sphere, from the home and workplace to the justice system (the result of sexual harassment policies and gender bias in schools and family courts). In response, many men are following John Galt's lead and opting out of high-paid work and family life. Smith, who previously worked with violent children, also blogs about men's issues for the conservative news and opinion website PJ Media. In a post earlier this year, she argued that "feminists and their supporters who block funding and education going to boys' and men's issues" may have been "to blame" for Elliot Rodger's deadly shooting rampage in Santa Barbara last March.
Erin Pizzey: Feminism's Bête Noire
Pizzey, a 75-year-old British author and anti-domestic-violence advocate, traces her interest in men's rights back to her own childhood and years of brutal beatings from her mother. She later went on to found England's first shelter for battered women. Pizzey maintains that most of the victims who sought refuge there were themselves violent. She came to believe that women deserved a share of the blame for domestic abuse and that the fledgling feminist movement unfairly demonized men by casting them as the sole aggressors. "This huge edifice of radical feminism made this about 'patriarchy' rather that human relationships," she says. "In the process, it pulled the whole discussion away from the needs of people in violent families."
Pizzey eventually began offering shelter to battered men while crusading against feminism, which she dubs "the Evil Empire." After a bomb scare and a string of death threats, in 1979 she fled to the United States, where she helped set up domestic-violence shelters in 21 cities. She also worked with lawyers to defend men claiming they had been falsely accused of rape and domestic violence—an endeavor she funded by writing adventure novels. Pizzey later embraced nonfiction, and wrote frequently for British newspapers, such as the Daily Mail (sample headline: "Why I loathe feminism…and believe it will ultimately destroy the family"). She also traveled the world speaking to battered men's groups. Today, she is editor-at-large of A Voice for Men, and a hero of the men's rights movement. She feels very much in her element. "For many years, I was this lone voice, and I was hated for it," she explains. "Now, you just don't feel quite so lonely."
Janet Bloomfield: The Social-Media Provocateur
Bloomfield has landed in the spotlight recently as a driving force behind Women Against Feminism, a social-media campaign featuring photos of women with scraps of paper listing their reasons for rejecting feminism. Since the week before last, when the campaign went viral, Bloomfield—a thirtysomething homemaker and doctoral candidate—has been making the network rounds, with interviews on ABC, the BBC, and NBC's Today Show.
Bloomfield, who lives somewhere in Canada (she keeps her location and the names of her three children secret to shield them from harassment), is an unlikely champion for men's rights. In college, she studied film theory, and learned to view the world through a feminist lens. But after giving birth to her first child, she decided to stay home and was shocked by the reaction from other women. "It wasn't so much the disdain for my choice or the idea that I wasted my education," she says. "It was that they treated me like I was crazy to rely on my husband—as if somewhere lurking inside of him was a sex-starved monster who would toss me out like trash." Bloomfield began trading letters with her friend, Pixie, who was camped out in the hospital after giving birth to a critically ill baby boy and believed the intensive care staff was treating the sick baby girls more tenderly. Their letters soon morphed into grumbling about the lot of boys and the treatment of stay-at-home moms.
After immersing themselves in the men's rights blogosphere, in 2012, the pair launched the in-your-face blog, JudgyBitch.com. Bloomfield's anti-feminist screeds, piled with obscenities and inflammatory theories about rape and domestic violence, made a splash in the men's rights circles, and the following year she began writing for A Voice for Men, where she now manages social media. She's also broken into mainstream news and opinion sites, including Thought Catalog, which recently published Bloomfield's essay, "I'm an Anti-Sexist, Liberal Doctoral Student, Wife, and Mother Who Supports the Men's Rights Movement Over Feminism, Here's Why."
In reality, while Bloomfield takes a progressive stand on some issues—she supports gay marriage and a women's right to choose, for example—many of the ideas she flogs are anything but. She calls single mothers "bona fide idiots" who don't "give a shit" about their children's well-being and pens blog posts with titles like "Why Don't We Have a Dumb Fucking Whore Registry? Now That Would Be Justice." She also dismisses concept of "rape culture," as "a giant rape fantasy—one in which all women can imagine all men desire them with such force and such passion that they're willing to commit a crime."
Suzanne Venker: The Traditionalist
For much of her career, Venker followed the path blazed by her aunt, the anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly. In 2011, the pair even cowrote a book, The Flipside of Feminism, arguing that freedom and power have only made women unhappy. But their paths began to diverge the following year when Venker, who in addition to authoring books is a frequent Fox News commentator, published a column on FoxNews.com called "The War on Men." It made the case that men were opting out of marriage because career-minded women had lost their womanly qualities and become angry and competitive. And it urged women to "surrender to their nature—their femininity" if they wanted to find husbands. Predictably, the piece went viral, stirring up a whirlwind of criticism. But Venker was also flooded with grateful emails from male readers. "Men were writing to say, 'Thank you, thank you!'" she recalls. "'Finally, somebody gets it!'" Inspired by the outpouring, Venker launch the men's rights blog Women for Men and shifted the focus of her own commentary to men's issues. In her recent FoxNews.com columns, Venker argues that white men face oppression "unlike anything American women have faced," and claims that men's "success in fields such as medicine, engineering and technology have done more to liberate women from the constraints of their former lives than a busload of feminists could ever hope to do." She also maintains that surrendering to male power is an "aphrodisiac" that "grants women access to the deepest parts of a man's soul."
Anne Cools: The Parliamentarian
In 1969, Cools took part in a supposedly peaceful sit-in to protest racism at a Montreal university. It ended up exploding into one of the most violent student riots in Canada's history, with protesters setting fires and tossing computers out of windows. Cools, who was sentenced to four months in prison but later pardoned, went on to found one of Canada's first shelters for battered women. Then, in 1984, the Barbados native became the first black person ever to serve in the Canadian Senate.
According to the Globe and Mail, "Women's groups applauded the addition of a minority firebrand to the chamber of dozy old white men." Her belief that domestic violence was a two-way street later put her at odds with the feminist movement, but many Canadians embraced her ideas. In 1995, when Cools told an International Women's Day gathering that "behind every abusing husband is an abusing mother," she was inundated with grateful handwritten letters. Many of them were from people who had been abused by their mothers or men claiming they had been falsely accused of domestic violence during divorce proceedings.
Galvanized, Cools—a Liberal Party member turned independent—helped launch a parliamentary committee that traveled the country holding emotional standing-room-only hearings on child custody laws. Critics branded it the "politically incorrect committee'' because it heard testimony from hundreds of men, grandparents, and second wives, who spoke tearfully about being cut off from children by a legal system that they alleged favored mothers. For Cools, who lost two siblings to childhood illness, their stories hit close to home. "I understood very early in life what it meant for parents to lose a child," she told the National Post in the late 1990s. "I've always known a parent cannot recover from that. And this is why I will not tolerate the thought of any parent taking a child away from another parent."
The committee's final report recommended rewriting custody laws to ensure both parents access to the children and making false domestic violence allegations a crime. Despite overwhelming public support, a decade and a half later, Cools is still fighting to bring these proposals to fruition. Her dogged struggle has won her adoration in men's rights circles—so much so that A Voice for Men invited the regal, silver-haired septuagenarian to deliver the first speech at its inaugural conference. "The cause that before you and the things that you fight for are valid and just," Cools told the gathering. "I am on the home stretch of my public career, so you and younger soldiers must come. I encourage soldiers to arm themselves, and to put on battle gear, because it is a fight."