Book Review: Mothers On Trial by Phyllis Chesler

Review by Trish Wilson 

Dr. Phyllis Chesler has updated her groundbreaking book Mothers On Trial for the twenty-first century. Revised with seven new chapters, a new introduction, and a new resources section, this book is required reading for any mother going through a child custody battle. Chesler lays out the groundwork proving it's a myth that mothers have always had custody of their children. That myth is one reason I wanted to review Dr. Phyllis Chesler's revised edition of "Mothers On Trial" since I heard she was writing it a few years back. In the nearly thirty years since she wrote her first edition, things have gotten much worse for mothers. Mothers retain custody of their children only when fathers do not make an issue of it. When a mother and father go to court to fight for custody of their children, the father usually gets it even if he had been absent, neglectful, never married to the mother, controlling, absent for many years, a felon, or simply not the children's primary caregiving parent. Chesler states this is the case not because the mothers ire unfit or were not the primary caregivers, but because mothers are held to much higher parenting standards than fathers.

For fifteen years, I worked as an activist and writer investigating the father's rights movement and I worked on family law and motherhood issues. When I started, the father's supremacist movement was beginning to take off on the internet, in private homes, and in church basements. It was not nearly as organized and as powerful as it is now. Chesler was one of the few experts aware of that backlash against women and mothers in particular that the father's supremacist movement represented, and she spoke out against it. I have since ceased my activist work and I've moved on, but I occasionally choose projects in the field that I feel are important. Reviewing this book is one of them.

Chesler includes information she covered in her first edition, including historic and contemporary overviews of mothering, family law, and custody issues. In the fifteen years I'd worked on these issues I've seen mothers lose a great deal of ground. It was both reaffirming and disheartening to see Chesler voice and expose so much of what I, "good enough" mothers, and motherhood activists had experienced and observed in this decade and a half. While this book covers many vital issues, I want to focus on Chesler's chapters describing what had happened over the past thirty odd years, and where "good enough" mothers stand now.

Chesler bases her findings on years of painstaking research, hundreds of interviews of both mothers and fathers, and international surveys about child custody arrangements. She argues for new guidelines to resolve custody issues that protect children as well as end the backlash against mothers in the midst of contested custody cases.

Suffice to say, things not only aren't going well today for "good enough" mothers. Mothers are in danger of losing custody of their children now more than ever.

Below are highlights that I believe are especially important to today's "good enough" mothers and those who support them.

This is my area of expertise since I started out my activist work following the father's supremacist movement since the mid 1990s, shortly before the father's supremacists became involved in welfare reform and the politically savvier groups quickly became endorsed by the U. S. government. Chesler nailed it when she described the reaction patriarchal men have to women having any advantages over them at all even in motherhood as feeling "persecuted". Father's supremacists love to describe themselves as victims, and there is nothing they hate more than to be told they whine. Family law was one area where many men experienced for the first time not getting their way, and Chesler describes the resentment these men felt over not getting their way for once in their lives. Groups such as the National Congress of Men formed as a backlash reaction against these entitled men feeling that courts, judges, lawyers, and ex-wives discriminated against them at that their ex-wives controlled and economically enslaved them through the children. These men started out suing their ex-wives and the courts both individually and as groups for discrimination against men.

Other groups covered in the book are Fathers 4 Justice, American Coalition For Fathers And Justice and RADAR. These groups encourage the passage of anti-woman legislation that reinforces patriarchy and abusive treatment of women and children.

Chesler also tells the truth about joint custody – now called "shared parenting" although parenting has little to do with it. She correctly identifies father's supremacist's support for joint custody – and that means joint physical custody, not joint legal custody – as being all about wanting to get out of paying child support and continuing to control their exes through the children, with permission and encouragement from the courts. With a joint custody award comes a lower or completely eliminated child support order. Money, not doing right by their children, is a primary motivation in the eyes of father supremacists, and Chesler points that out.

Some individual men want to do better by their children but father supremacist groups don't help them to do that. They encourage anger and resentment rather than healing. These groups harm fathers' relationships with their children.

Other truths voiced by Chesler are listed below:
* When a mother makes allegations of incest lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals are not only reluctant to believe her, they may give visitation or even full custody to fathers, although these same professionals say they are not in favor of raping children.
* Even when incest is documented by Child Protective Services, court personnel often refuse to believe the mother's allegations.
* When mothers make allegations of incest, other forms of child abuse, domestic violence, or simply dig in their heels on the father's demands they stand a good chance of losing custody and/or being accused of Parental Alienation Syndrome.
* She rightly identifies mediation and parenting coordination as divorce-related cottage industries.
* If a mother is seen as too emotional (tears, anxiety, anger), she risks losing custody for being overly-enmeshed or overly involved in her own case. She's accused of imagining serious problems, fabricating them, or over-reacting. Woe to the woman who is outspoken about the way the court system and her ex treat her and the children! She's too uppity to deserve custody. The stoic father is seen as more stable and therefore gains custody.
* Abusive and controlling men are able to use the court system as a weapon against the women they used to love. Chesler shows how these mothers were hounded, exhausted financially and emotionally, and crushed – all with perfectly legal uses of the courts. Nothing these men had done is illegal.
* Referring to joint custody as "post-divorce patriarchy", she demonstrates how joint custody has risen over the past 30 years to replace the primary caregiver presumption. Chesler accurately describes reasons why some fathers want joint custody, such as wanting to control their exes lives and wanting to avoid paying child support.
* Mothers stand a strong chance of losing custody of their children if they are deemed mentally ill.
* "Good enough" lesbian and bi-sexual mothers stand a good chance of losing custody of their children to the fathers because of their sexual orientation, even if the father had been absent, neglectful, abusive, controlling, or simply not the primary caregiving parent. One judge awarded custody of a child to his father because he wanted to save the boy "from the stigma of being raised by a lesbian mother." This same judge had harangued the mother for a solid hour about her lesbianism, saying he would not be "dictated to" by a bunch of "women's libbers".
* Regarding surrogacy, Chesler accurately describes the moral quandary of turning poor women into incubators for the rich who are perfectly capable of bearing children but for reasons such as not wanting to put their bodies through the stress and strain of pregnancy (and lose their youthful figures), they choose surrogacy instead. She describes how these cases turn the definitions of "mother" and "father" on their heads.
* Sadly, a fair proposal for a gender-neutral primary caregiver presumption has been rejected in favor of politically correct and male-supremacist joint physical custody (shared parenting).


I wish there was mention of the more generalized forms of parental alienation brought up by proponents such as Dr. Richard Warshak. This more generalized, less medicalized, and supposedly gender neutral version of alienation is yet another one of those cottage industries Chesler identified In the book. Also, alienation proponents have been fighting hard to get it listed in the upcoming DSM-V but so far have been unsuccessful.

I would have liked to have seen more mention of ridding the courts of those divorce-and-custody-related cottage industries, which would go a long way towards ridding the system of problems mothers experience such as alienation claims and petitions for joint custody. There's money to be made in divorce and custody cases and that monetary pipeline needs to be plugged.

I highly recommend this book for both divorcing and divorced mothers as well as single and lesbian mothers going through custody battles. The issues are the same for all. What these women have in common is that they are mothers and father's supremacists have been waging war on them for over thirty years.

Why has this legal torture been allowed for so long? Patriarchy is a reason. Money is another. There is a great deal of money to be made in divorce and custody cases. Custodially-embattled mothers and their supporters must stand up to these trends or things will only get worse for mothers and children. And yes, they can get worse. Much worse. Chesler has updated her ground-breaking book and it is vitally important court personnel and those who work on the behalf of "good enough" mothers read it, learn, and act. The abuses will stop only if people affected take a stand.

Trish Wilson is a writer/researcher who has written about feminism, divorce and custody, domestic violence, and the father's rights movement for over a decade. Her articles have appeared in Alternet, Feminista!, Sojourner, On The Issues, Domestic Violence Report, XY Online, Ms. Magazine's blog, and American Politics Journal. She has provided well-researched and in-depth testimony related to family law and domestic violence bills for legislators in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and other states. 

Thank you to Trish Wilson for this guest book review. Interested in reviewing books for Viva la Feminista? Email me at veronica*dot*arreola*at*gmail*dot*com