ST. CLAIR SHORES, Michigan -- At what was billed as the first annual international conference on men's issues, feminists were ruining everything.
"I call it the evil empire," Erin Pizzey, the British founder of one of the first domestic violence shelters and a staunch anti-feminist, said Friday, borrowing Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union. "We need to go after them. We cannot allow this to continue. And if we don't stop it, I don't see a future for marriage, for love, or for anything."
"We need to name names," Pizzey said, "and first on my list is Hillary Clinton." One of the few overtly partisan moments at the conference, it drew loud cheers and applause from the attendees.
The conference comes amid increased focus on women's rights. The Supreme Court is poised to decide whether employers are allowed to refuse to cover contraception in their health insurance plans; college campuses and the military are working to combat sexual assault; and women's groups are fighting for laws to close the pay gap between men and women. But for a group of activists meeting in Michigan this weekend, it's men's rights that are under attack.
Men's rights activists have a long list of grievances. They say fathers have to navigate a family court system that unfairly privileges mothers in divorce, and that boys are falling behind in education. They worry about high unemployment among men and the fact that men are more likely to commit suicide. They argue that domestic and sexual violence against men is underplayed by the media, and that men are unfairly stereotyped as violent sexual predators. These are all fruits of a society where women are valued and protected, while men are not.
Many of the more than 100 attendees at the conference spoke of being prevented from seeing their children, or struggling financially in the aftermath of a divorce.
But those issues got short shrift from most of the speakers on the first full day of the conference Friday, hosted by A Voice For Men, an online hub for men's rights activists founded by Paul Elam. What animated most of the speakers at the conference was feminism and how it needed to be defeated.
Although generally understood as an ideology of equal rights for women, at the conference such feminists were called "equity feminists," discussed the way Democrats might refer to "sane conservatives" or Republicans to "good liberals." In other words, a largely fictional exception whose purpose is merely to define the whole as extreme. Feminists, for many of the speakers, were the enemy.
Feminist activists had protested the original venue for the conference, the DoubleTree Hilton in Detroit, in early June. A Voice for Men said that they had moved the conference to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in St. Clair Shores, saying that they had sold so many tickets the Hilton could no longer accommodate them. A spokesperson for Hilton said that "there were some obligations in their contract that they were unable to adhere to."
"The protest really came out of the fact that what they say is not about men's issues, it's about violence against women, it's about blaming feminism for issues that feminists in a lot of cases actually work [on]," said Amanda Levitt, a feminist activist and postgraduate student at Wayne State University who was involved with the protest. Levitt posted online an open letter from her and her fellow activists Wednesday, saying that "due to concerns for physical safety we have decided the best way to oppose the conference that is now going on in St. Clair Shores is to keep our distance."
Conference speakers referred several times on Friday to threats of violence they said they had received, but no protest at the VFW hall ever materialized.
Still, the speakers had plenty to say about feminism.
Mike Buchanan, a British men's activist, warned that feminism was the ideology of "female supremacists, driven by misandry, the hatred of men and boys." For 30 years, Buchanan said, "feminists have worked through the state to attack many of the pillars of civilized society," and become "the defining ideology, of the political establishment."
At the conference, feminism was responsible for turning wives against their husbands, bleeding them dry in divorce proceedings and separating them from their children, levying false accusations of rape and abuse against good men, or creating an ever-present culture of hatred where men are vilified.
Though men's rights activists who hosted the conference often say sexual assault against men isn't taken seriously, the audience laughed when speaker Fred Jones mentioned his fears about his son being raped after being arrested in New Orleans.
"He's kinda small and kinda cute, good looking, you know what I mean?" Jones said. "You know what they do with --" Jones cut himself off. But the audience laughed.
Barbara Kay, a columnist for Canada's National Post, argued that Santa Barbara shooter Elliott Rodger couldn't have been driven by hatred of women because "he hated women because they rejected him sexually, but he also hated men because they had access to women."
Rape on college campuses, she added, was a myth perpetrated by man-haters, and the concept of rape culture, how society can tacitly approve of or rationalize sexual assault, was "baseless moral panic."
"The vast majority of female students allegedly raped on campus are actually voicing buyer's remorse from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky lines of consent on both sides," she said, drawing chuckles from the audience. "It's true. It's their get-out-of-guilt-free card, you know like Monopoly." The chuckles turned to guffaws.
Even the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, which emerged in the aftermath of the kidnapping of more than 200 girls in Nigeria, allegedly by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, was an example of misandry, Kay explained, because there was not a similar response to the slaughter of a smaller number of boys earlier in the year.
Dr. Tara Palmatier, a men's rights activist who advertises herself as a "shrink for men," explained that "feminism has evolved from the radical notion that women are people, to the radical notion that women are superior."
She diagnosed some women with what she called "golden uterus syndrome," which she explained as what happens when a mother will "fleece your ex-husband in divorce court and take assets you didn't earn, you deserve it, take that bastard to the cleaners, force a man into fatherhood with an accidental pregnancy, hey, if he wouldn't commit, sometimes you gotta push him into it."
Palmatier explained that in our selfie-obsessed, reality-TV culture, women are rewarded for their narcissism and men are punished for their natural urges. To make her point, Palmatier presented a slideshow titled "Equitable relationships in the age of female entitlement: An oxymoron." One of the slides showed a photo of an underage Miley Cyrus with the caption, “Quit objectifying me. You’re being rapey!”
"When men can be shamed just for being men, and women no longer have any sense of shame, it creates a dangerously lopsided dynamic between the sexes," said Palmatier, who also denounced the "rape culture hysteria being stoked across American college campuses."
Most of the speakers on the first full day of the conference were women, a fact Palmatier noted proudly. "I am the third presenter to speak at the first annual international men's human rights conference, and that would be the third woman presenter," Palmatier said to applause. "My aren't we an interesting group of misogynists. I hate to tell you guys, but I think we might be doing it wrong."