Pastoral Psychology

, Volume 67, Issue 6, pp 689–706 | Cite as

The interplay between Korean men’s movements and hegemonic masculinity: Identity, complicity, and resistance

  • Myounghun YunEmail author


This article examines the three representative forms of Korean men’s groups and movements, including men’s rights, conservative evangelical, and profeminist groups. By analyzing how the discourses and practices of each group relate to hegemonic masculinity, this paper will demonstrate how hegemonic masculinities are expressed, enacted, renegotiated, or challenged in public and political spheres and how each of these three groups is complicit with, reinforces, or resists the politics of hegemonic masculinity. Based on the critical evaluation of these three forms of masculinity politics in Korean society, some of the challenges and prospects for profeminist politics of masculinity are discussed.


Masculinity Hegemonic masculinity Men’s identities Men’s movements The father school Profeminist men Men’s rights group 

Some feminists have argued that everything men do in society is ultimately masculinity politics (Connell 1995, p. 204). Given that men continue to predominate in civil services, political structures, business worlds, and religious institutions in many societies, there is truth to the claim. Certainly, masculinity politics never arise in a vacuum. As social psychologists claim, social movements have a range of motivating and mediating factors. With the rise of feminism and the expansion of legislation on equality, South Korean society has gone through significant changes, though it is still a long way from gender equality in the full sense.1 These changes in social, political, economic, and religious arenas have evoked a wide range of organized responses and actions that have political implications—that is, the politics of masculinity.

According to sociologist Raewin Connell (1995), the politics of masculinity is concerned with “the making of the gendered power” organized and exercised in such issues as “violence, inequality, technology, pollution, and world development” (p. 205). In line with Connell, I use the term “politics of masculinity” in a narrow sense, referring to “the mobilizations and struggles” in which “the meaning of masculine gender along with men’s position in gender relations are at stake and where masculinity is not taken for granted as background but considered a dominant or principal theme” (p. 205). In other words, the politics of masculinity is based on the arguably shared perception of men that they feel less certain and secure about their roles and identities in family and society, though whether they think that is due to the shifting economic and sociopolitical conditions, the rise of feminism, the restructuring of the family and marriage, changes in the workplace and religious communities, and/or alternative forms of sexualities varies a good deal. In this regard, the politics of masculinity is about issues related to men’s subjectivities and identities. The attention to men as a gendered category and to masculinity as a category of analysis has opened “a discursive space around men’s identities, roles, and power,” as gender theorist Fidelma Ashe (2007) notes (p. 2).

Importantly, masculinity politics takes many forms with respect to the overall structure of gender relations and processes since masculinity itself has multiple expressions and patterns. This diversity suggests that there could also be numerous methods and avenues to use in investigating the politics of masculinity. As a way of capturing a broader picture of the politics of masculinity, this article focuses on men’s groups and movements2 in Korean society, examining how the issues of men and masculinities are politicized around particular concerns and interests of men in solidarity with other men. Interestingly, some forms of men’s movements claim to be apolitical and may remain overtly apolitical in terms of their explicit discourse and practice, but claiming to be or remaining apolitical also has political implications and consequences in the larger society. To investigate the conservative politics of masculinity in Korean men’s groups and movements along with progressive groups, one thus needs to grasp what provides an alibi for the (dis)continuation of male power, though power is preserved not only by knowledge but also by willful negligence.

Drawing on sociologist Michael Messner’s conceptual framework, I will examine three representative Korean men’s groups and/or movements: (1) Man of Korea as a Korean men’s rights group; (2) the Father School as a conservative evangelical men’s group; and (3) Men for Cultivating a Culture of Equality and Fathers Loving Daughters as pro-women and profeminist groups. By analyzing how the discourse and practices of each group relate to hegemonic masculinity, I will explain how hegemonic masculinities are expressed, enacted, renegotiated, and challenged in the public and political spheres and how each of these three groups is complicit with, reinforces, or resists the politics of hegemonic masculinity, in which religious or quasireligious ideology also plays a formative role. Finally, based on a critical evaluation of these three forms of masculinity politics in Korean society, I will discuss some of the challenges and prospects for profeminist politics of masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is a slippery, contested concept. According to Connell and Messerschmidt (2005), it has given rise to serious criticism and has been examined in different contexts such as social struggles for power and political leadership, public and private violence, and changes in families and sexuality (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Contemporary theories have argued for a multiplicity of masculinities (Connell 1987, 1995; Messner 1993; Whitehead and Barrett 2001). Psychoanalyst Ethel Person (2009) presents masculinity as a multiple entity, calling attention to a wide range of masculinities that are existing and observable “not only within different cultures, but also within any one culture” (Reis and Grossmark 2009, p. 2). Masculinity is something that is continually constructed and transformed in relationships rather than monolithic or unitary or, in essence, a given. Men are situated in different roles, religions, classes, races/ethnicities, and nationalities in which they are embedded in different systems of belief regarding what constitutes optimal and ideal masculinity and what kinds of relationships and practices are to be endorsed (or discouraged) between men and women and between men and men.

Importantly, acknowledging the multiplicity of masculinities leads to the recognition of dominant and hegemonic forms of masculinity as a benchmark against which all men and women are measured and their success is gauged in the gender order. Connell (1983) explicates the phenomenon by coining the concept “hegemonic masculinity,” a culturally idealized, honored, and glorified form of masculinity in a given historical context (Connell 1983, p. 184). To theorize the relationships between men and women and between men and men, Connell draws on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which contains a more nuanced and complex theorization of consent and its relation to coercion. To Gramsci, hegemony refers to “the predominance of one social class over others,” representing not only “economic and political control but also the ability to control and influence the ways one sees the world and the ability to make the subordinated ones accept the ways as natural and common sense” (Visano 1998, p. 236). So, the basic presupposition of his theory of hegemony is that humans are not governed by forces alone but also by ideas that are embodied and embedded in social, cultural, political, and economic institutions and practices. Hegemony is thus achieved not only through force but also through the consent of other groups. By appropriating the concept of hegemony, Connell (1995) defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell 1995, p. 77). Unlike scholars in men’s studies who make a distinction between “hegemonic” and “patriarchal,” she defines the two in close relationship. For Connell, the task of becoming a man involves the process of taking on and negotiating hegemonic masculinity, which is a largely unreachable set of social norms and ideals for most men. Cultural ideals of masculinity do not correspond at all to the actual personalities of the majority of men. Most men, Connell suggests, can never personally embody hegemonic masculinity even though they support it, are regulated by it, and use it to judge other men’s behaviors (p. 77). It is a “largely symbolic, though legitimate, ideal type of masculinity that imposes upon all other masculinities (and femininities) coherence and meaning about what their own identities and positions within the gender order should be” (Howson 2006, p. 3). Hegemonic masculinity is thus conceptualized as an ideal or set of prescriptive social norms rather than as a personality type or an actual male character.

A conceptual framework for mapping the politics of masculinity

American sociologist Michael Messner (2000) draws on three conceptual themes to understand a wide range of social movements engaged with the politics of masculinity in the United States: (1) male institutionalized privileges; (2) the costs of masculinity; and (3) the differences and inequality among men (Messner 2000). Messner bases his first theme on the idea that “men, as a group, enjoy institutional privileges at the expense of women, as a group” (p. 5). He explains why institutionalized male power still predominates by looking at women’s status in political, economic, and religious realms, though he realizes that this one example of male power does not capture the totalizing and unchanging nature of men’s power and privileges. Second, the costs of masculinity focus on the negative consequences that arise from men’s conformity to narrow definitions of masculinity such as poor health, shorter lives, and emotionally shallow relationships, though such definitions allow men dominant status and privileged systems in gender relations. Finally, the theme of differences and inequality among men addresses men’s disproportionate share of power and privileges based on race, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, age, and immigrant status (specifically, Black, gay, immigrant, and working-class masculinities). This theme is premised on the recognition of hegemonic forms of masculinities, which are constructed in relation to femininities and to various marginalized and subordinated masculinities.

Based on these three conceptual themes, Messner maps out the complex terrain of men’s groups and movements in the United States. He categorizes them into four overlapping, broad areas of masculinity politics with the following themes: (1) the terrain of categorical anti-patriarchal politics; (2) the terrain of antifeminist politics; (3) the terrain of racial and sexual identity politics; and (4) the terrain of progressive coalition politics. By using the geographical term ‘terrain,’ Messner does not mean to suggest a clear-cut, rigidly fixed location of a group within the politics of masculinity. Rather, he acknowledges dynamism and movement rooted in internal disagreements and contradictions within groups as well as dialogue, cooperation, and tension among different groups over various political issues.3

Men’s movements and groups in Korean society

Men’s groups and movements in Korean society began to emerge in the early 1990s as a response to the rise of feminism and changes in social and economic structures. New forms of political activism centered on the theme of masculinity have appeared and been undertaken in antifeminist, profeminist, or mixed fashions, though the academic development of the field of men’s studies has been quite slow and delayed. Despite the growing interest in men’s issues, the first university-level course in men’s studies, entitled “Men and Society,” was not offered until 1998 at Pusan University in Korea. Moreover, there has been a prevalent misunderstanding among the public that the men’s movement is another name for the antifeminist men’s rights movement. This misunderstanding was due partly to the dominance of conservative groups in mass media coverage and their overtly antifeminist political agendas that gained significant public attention thanks to the pervasive antifeminist ethos in both the secular and the religious spheres of Korean society.

Korean men’s rights group: Man of Korea

Men’s rights discourse in Korea began to take form in an organization called Man of Korea (MOK), which recently changed its name to “NGO for Equality” (NGO for Equality n.d.).4 MOK is a non-profit organization that claims to seek “solidarity for men.” This organization represents a diverse group of men, from extreme misogynists to men with relatively progressive views of gender. It began as a small online group called the “Antifeminist Male Liberation Union” in 1996 and gained public attention through filing lawsuits against the abolition of the male headship system and insisting on the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in the national government. MOK encompasses aspects typical of male liberationists, acceding to the oppressive nature of traditional masculinities, but unlike U.S. men’s liberationists who have advocated for feminism as a movement for human liberation, MOK has promoted a strong antifeminist backlash from the very beginning. While overtly expressing an antifeminist ethos and views, it has also mobilized various oppositional activities in the cultural, legal, and political arenas. Most members of this group are in their twenties or thirties and are therefore typically in the initial stage of career building and less likely to have a stable economic and social status. MOK has struggled financially to run its organization, yet it claims to have refused any governmental support in order to maintain its independence from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

With respect to its perception of social reality, MOK affirms that men are the true victims of ongoing oppression under current gender arrangements and that contemporary Korean society is female-centered and undeservedly preferential to women. Jae-Ki Sung, the first and former leading representative of MOK, stresses the vulnerability and problems Korean men face, such as a shorter life expectancy, increasing health problems, the loss of economic power at home, and the loss of custody rights in divorce. According to Sung, the perception of the discrimination and oppression of women is now merely a stereotype of the 1970s (Choi 2012). Korean society operates on the false dualism that positions men in dominant roles and women in subordinate ones; therefore, laws, policies, and institutions are all organized to make reparation for this reality. Under this system, men are understood to have faced reverse discrimination and to not have received what they deserve, given their disproportionate economic responsibilities as primary breadwinners and their social duties, including mandatory military service. For these reasons, MOK has focused primarily on the cost of masculinity and the powerlessness of men in contemporary Korean society while denying men’s institutional privileges.

Given these views, MOK is not only diametrically opposed to the feminist assessment of Korean women’s status in the public domain and of existing oppressive cultural bias against women, it also blames Korean feminists for what it perceives as the “gynocentric” social reality in Korea as well as for the high divorce rate and the disintegration of families. On its official website, it asserts:

Feminism is grounded on the unwarranted ideology that men are eternal perpetrators and women are eternal victims; that the private sphere is a space of women’s oppression and exploitation. Feminist ideology has made mothers in our society mere slaves lacking agency, has aggravated social conflicts based on its selfish visions for human relationships, and has shaken the foundation of the family. . . . If you choose feminism, that means you give up the value of love. (NGO for Equality n.d.)

For this group, feminism is not only a source of social conflicts that destabilize the traditional family structure and the sacredness of marriage, it also discounts the value of sacrificial womanhood and motherhood. Even though the current leader of MOK expresses a relatively nuanced view of feminism, feminism is viewed as a plot or a power game to conceal the reality in the public sphere that women are the ones who hold the power as opposed to men, who are oppressed and vulnerable in society. For this reason, some members of this group are (unofficially) not reluctant to call feminists “feminazis,” a compound word that combines feminist and Nazi.

In response to this perceived reality, MOK emphasizes in its vision statement that it wants to cultivate an ideal and happy family culture since the family is the center of society and the nation. Although this group does not elucidate what it means by “an ideal and happy family,” it suggests that such a family is intact, male-headed, and characterized by “the values of love and sacrifice,” which this group considers to be incompatible with equality applied to marital/familial relationships in indiscreet and arithmetic ways. Also, MOK proposes a vision of building a society harmonized with “gender balance”—that is, a society that grants people rights and benefits in proportion to the duties and responsibilities that each person fulfills. In line with this vision, MOK proposes compensation plans for veterans, such as an extra point system for veterans who take civil service exams.

At the same time, MOK opposes public policy initiatives and legislation for women and insists on the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family because of its enactment of pro-woman policies. For example, MOK fought in the past against the legal provision of women-only spaces within subway and libraries (which had been adopted in response to an increase in sexual harassment against women) and the quota system for women in Congress and governmental agencies, regarding these policies as reverse discrimination against men. Third, while working to reform cultural conventions, legislation, and institutions that discriminate against men and impose excessive obligations and responsibilities on men, it advocates on behalf of and supports men who are isolated, discriminated against, and neglected by society. For example, MOK filed lawsuits supporting the ban on pornography and pop music or films that include expressions that belittle men. In addition, this group offers legal counsel to male victims of violence in various forms and contexts as well as to men in international marriages, given the growing social concern about the high divorce rate among multicultural families. MOK maintains that men are the true victims of sexist media conventions, divorce rulings, false rape accusations, and prostitution.

Even though Man of Korea claims that it strives for “real” equality for both men and women, ironically, this group has acted in ways that reclaim men’s power and privilege in public spheres, thus reinforcing gender inequality in Korean society. This group refuses to acknowledge the institutional power and privilege of men and instead regards men as powerless and the true victims of a narrow and traditional understanding of masculinity and of feminists. A similar pattern has arisen in the United States. Investigating the ways in which men in the public eye have been framed and misframed, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the U.S. men’s rights movement as either an expression of defensive resistance or as men’s bitter responses to women’s increasing equality in private and public sectors. Kimmel (2010) notes that the men’s rights movement has pursued “a rear-guard action to undo women’s gains” (p. 15). He makes it clear that even if the United States is not quite yet a woman’s nation, it is just as surely no longer only a man’s world. Similar to the resistance to women’s advancement that Kimmel describes in the United States, MOK believes that “real” gender equality can be achieved by promoting men’s rights and abolishing pro-woman policies. In this regard, MOK holds ambivalent and contradictory attitudes toward patriarchal systems. Although the organization is cognizant and critical of the oppressive impacts of patriarchy on traditional masculine roles and identities, it dismisses the idea of persistent forces and oppressive influences of patriarchy upon the lives of Korean women.

MOK’s political assertion of gender symmetry and male victimization seems to be motivated by the group’s concern about and identification with young men struggling with a sense of deprivation, alienation, and frustration in the context of a protracted economic downturn and unemployment crisis. For this reason, MOK was once known as “an uprising of lower-class men.” Due to the lack of funding sources and the unstable economic status of its members, this group has struggled with financial constraints since its inception. At the same time, its members are also driven by a collective sense of rage. The problem is that their rage is wrongly directed toward seemingly less dangerous targets, socially marginalized groups such as feminists and foreign workers. The rage is grounded in concern about the transfer of rights from men to women; the infiltration of feminists into government agencies, corporations, and social institutions; and the enactment of pro-women policies and initiatives. The misplaced anger of MOK is further evoked by its members’ perception that feminists have overstated their case at the expense of men even though feminists have made enormous progress in achieving gender equality. The group thus claims that men are the “new” and the “real” victims—victims of reverse discrimination and specifically victims of feminism.

In his book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel (2013) examines the social construction of American men’s anger in various contexts, including men’s rights activism. He shares his encounter with three young men who felt that they were the victims of workplace discrimination on a television talk show entitled “A Black Woman Stole My Job” in which the male participants narrated their own experiences of being passed over for jobs or promotions for which they believed themselves to be qualified. While situating rage in the experiences of White men, Kimmel notes that the sense of entitlement is “a marker not of deprivation but of privilege” because those who have nothing do not feel they deserve anything (p. 24). He argues that aggrieved entitlement combined with anger can be a factor for political mobilization, but such mobilization is often directed toward the past rather than the future and toward restoring what one feels has been lost. The dynamic of aggrieved entitlement distorts one’s vision and leads to a misplaced rage, often directed at those who are less powerful.

In this regard, one of the most fundamental problems of MOK is its inaccurate, distorted perception of social reality. By relying on isolated anecdotes and highly questionable research studies, this group disregards widely accepted psychological, sociological, and economic studies, not to mention national and international reports about gender inequality and women’s development and status such as the Gender Inequality Index (United Nations Development Program n.d.).5 It is no wonder that such a blatant disregard for solid social scientific research and findings leads to a misguided perception of social reality, as revealed by the group’s diagnosis of Korean society as gynocentric, preferential to women, and discriminatory towards men.6 For MOK, the solution to this problem is not social transformation of the system that has created these distorted patterns but the reclaiming of men’s rights.

MOK underlines sacrifice as a cardinal value for the family and for the organization itself. As described above, it decries feminism for disparaging and dismissing the value of love and sacrifice in family relations, which it presupposes to have defined the lives of mothers and women and the nature of familial relations. It asserts that by degrading the work of mothering and housekeeping to a form of exploitative labor, feminist ideology has resulted in the phenomena of a low birth rate and a high divorce rate in Korean society. In this way, MOK attributes the growing disintegration of families to the absence of women’s and mothers’ sacrifice and to the pursuit of marital equality proposed by feminism. Such an evaluation suggests that this group considers the sacrifice of women necessary to maintain and redeem the traditional intact family consisting of a husband, a wife, and children, assuming that marital and familial relationships are exclusively and primarily relationships of unconditional love and sacrifice.7

With respect to its far-reaching, negative impact on women’s psychological, spiritual, and physical health, feminist theologians have especially problematized the equation of love with self-sacrifice in Christian theology. Feminist pastoral theologian Bonnie Miller-McLemore (2007) explores the concept of self-sacrifice in the context of family life and generativity, especially when it comes to men’s domestic involvement, and suggests how self-sacrifice, if there is still a place for it, is to be expressed in terms of its form and relation to mutuality. While identifying various forms of self-sacrifice, such as “self-forgetfulness, self-suspension, self-extension, and self-giving,” she points out that “men like self-sacrifice in theory, it seems, but women realize its import in practice” (Witte et al. 2007, p. 30). As revealed in the attitude of MOK, men’s emphasis on self-sacrifice often assumes female sacrifice, and even when men practice it, it is likely to be a means of self-extension—that is, a transitory, sacrificial gesture for greater power and privilege. Miller-McLemore notes, “Instead of inspiring genuine sacrifice, Christianity has linked sacrifices with male headship and rule. Sacrifice requires giving up power. Shared responsibility for work and home means a kind of self-loss for which men have seldom been socialized by religion or otherwise” (p. 30).

The father school: A conservative evangelical men’s movement

The Father School (FS) is one of the most visible religious men’s movements in contemporary Korean and Korean American contexts.8 It was founded in 1995 by members of the Onnuri Church, one of the largest evangelical Protestant churches in Korea, and began as a small faith-based organization (the Father School n.d.). Around the time when the FS movement gained momentum, massive social and economic changes were taking place in Korean society as a result of a sudden economic downturn and the ensuing 1997 bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Since then, the FS has evolved into a nationwide and subsequently transnational men’s movement. Aiming to change communities and societies as well as families, it has held gatherings at prisons, public schools, government-run public institutions, commercial corporations, military bases, and local churches. According to internal statistics, as of 2013 the FS has run its programs more than 4800 times in over 240 cities in 59 different countries. Since the FS came to the United States in 2000, it has spread to Korean immigrant churches across the nation and currently operates in 57 U.S. cities (the Father School n.d.).

The FS offers a range of short-term programs and various group-based activities to men who are current or prospective fathers and husbands. It runs two major programs: (1) the Open Father School, which is held outside Christian faith communities and targets male employees of various corporations and members of public organizations who are not necessarily Christian; and (2) the General Father School, which is held at churches. The FS participants are expected to complete five consecutive weekend sessions that include a series of small group activities, plenary conversations, and various rituals that are designed to facilitate the participants’ reflection upon their manhood, fatherhood, and spirituality, along with biblical and practical guidance for new actions.

The FS can be seen as a hybridized practice or movement whose emergence and development have been significantly shaped by both the U.S. Promise Keepers organization and Korean religio-cultural contexts.9 Among the many factors that contributed to the formation of the FS, the direct and indirect influences of Promise Keepers (PK) were particularly significant. The FS shares some significant commonalities and continuity with PK in regard to its cultural symbols, core theological position, and gender ideologies. In the first session, for example, FS participants watch a video clip on the history of the FS (produced by FS headquarters), which makes an intimate connection between the origins of the FS and the PK. Viewers can observe in the video that FS volunteers and leaders wear the same navy blue T-shirts as the leaders of the PK at the stadium. And at the closing ceremony of the FS, the same style of shirt is also given to each participant as a “graduation” gift. Also, in terms of their theological orientation, both the FS and the PK commonly espouse conservative evangelical theology characterized by the belief in Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior and by a literalist interpretation of Scripture.10 Finally, both the FS and PK hold on to a mixture of both conservative and progressive gender ideologies along with some problematic views of gender. Through lectures and discussions, the FS emphasizes the existence of essential masculinity, portraying men as intrinsically aggressive and naturally competitive. Based on this view of essential masculinity, the FS underscores the value of giving men more authority and power at home as a strategic way of solving problems, which are often termed “crises of masculinity” in Korean society as in the United States. Typically, this is done with the theological conviction that men are created with inherent leadership capabilities, just as PK authors have highlighted. For this reason, PK has been critiqued by feminists as a reactionary movement that is antifeminist in nature (Hagan 1992).

The FS has a paradoxical nature in relation to hegemonic masculinity. In the dominant Korean culture (as in America), sentimentality, openness about emotions, and male relationships are not normally associated with hegemonic masculinities but with being non-masculine, effeminate, or gay. The FS creates a space for challenging Korean hegemonic masculinity by redefining and promoting men’s emotional expression, affectionate attitudes and behaviors, and sentimentality. In the first session, for example, participants watch a short documentary film that includes scenes of former FS participants crying and hugging other men and their family members. The images in the film convey the message that it is totally OK for men to cry and express their emotions. Subsequently, a former participant who now serves as a staff volunteer presents a “testimony” about how his relationship with his father influenced his relationship with his own children and how his participation in the FS helped him realize and change his problematic attitudes as a father. He notes that his life is still “under construction” in a radically different direction than he had followed before. He uses tissues to wipe his tears while sharing his stories—which has the effect of causing some of the audience members to wipe their tears, too. After the man’s testimony, the small group leaders stand in a line and give him a hug. At the end of this first session, the FS leaders then demonstrate for FS participants how to hug one another, and as they exit the room participants practice doing so by hugging each of the FS volunteers in the room.

By allowing men to critically examine their practices of fatherhood and manhood, the FS helps participants reflect upon what kind of father and husband images they have internalized and practiced and whether such images should serve as a role model for their own children. While acknowledging the problematic aspects of authoritarian and emotionally distant fathers, for example, they as a group are encouraged to explore and discuss together cultural and biblical models that reflect affectionate, friendly, and caring images of fathers and husbands. Such group processes are effective in minimizing their defensiveness and resistance. In this way, the FS proposes a new set of masculine roles and behaviors that could potentially enhance male expressive roles and relationality within the family, though it does not address the issue of whether such behaviors could be sustained given the overall culture. It challenges some features of Korean traditional, hegemonic masculinity.

Yet, for all these advances, the FS simultaneously creates a space for reinforcing hegemonic masculinity through its emphasis on the father’s spiritual headship and priesthood. In order to reconcile the confusion and tension between essential, natural masculinity and the changing gender norms and demands for men, PK authors propose a Christ-like model of manhood as a rationale for domesticating males into responsible family roles (Donovan 1988). The FS uses the same strategy by drawing on a “servanthood headship” model. Men’s servanthood headship implies the exercise of male spiritual authority and leadership roles in ways that are caring and affective rather than a tyrannical and oppressive ruling over family members. For example, the third session focuses on men’s spirituality and their relationship with God. The FS lecturer stresses the need for the father to recover his domestic authority in order to restore the well-being of his family. This implied tautology is aptly summed up in an FS banner on the wall: “A father lives! A family lives!” Along with this salvific implication of the father role, the FS also implicitly defines the role of mothers as assisting the fathers, who are the rightful leaders of the family. Regarding the task of “saving” the families from disintegration, the relationship between Jesus the Messiah and John the Baptist is used as an analogy for the ideal relationship between husband and wife. At the final session, the FS does a special closing ritual in which FS participants wash their wives’ feet. Given that the ritual of foot washing is a symbol of servanthood and service in the Christian tradition, the FS presents the participants with two seemingly contradictory masculine ideals for husbands and fathers: spiritual headship and domestic servanthood. At some points, spiritual headship is emphasized more than domestic servanthood, but at other times the opposite is the case. During this ritual, many wives and husbands are encouraged to exchange words of repentance and forgiveness for their past mistakes and wrongdoings.

In this manner, the FS combines a complementary gender ideology with evangelical theology, asserting that its views of gender and family are biblically legitimate and correct. In order to maintain its biblical legitimacy, the FS appropriates Jesus Christ, who is construed as both the head of the church and the suffering servant, as a prototype for paradoxically embracing the tension between male spiritual headship and domestic servanthood. As a way of practicing the model, the FS encourages men to conduct Christian rituals such as practicing daily prayer with their families and washing the feet of their wives on the final day of the program. Like PK, the FS deemphasizes participation in the political process and encourages its participants to change their practices in their domestic sphere by dispensing practical advice and strategies. By affirming the recovery of the father’s identity as “pastor, high priest, steward, and leader,” the FS thus creates a space for reinforcing hegemonic masculinities.

Consequently, the FS as a form of group masculinity therapy provides a space in which hegemonic masculinities are paradoxically both challenged and secured.11 By adopting a group therapy or masculinity therapy model, the FS focuses on the healing of wounds both psychological and spiritual. Though this approach has positive ramifications in terms of its positive effects on the lives of Korean men, it is problematic in that the issues of the masculine gender role and the problematics of masculinity are reduced to and reinterpreted as merely therapeutic and spiritual. In her research study on the FS, Nami Kim (2011) undertakes a discursive analysis of the organization. Based on her critical analysis of the participants’ written and oral statements, Kim identifies two different discursive scripts that are operative in the FS: (1) scripts of the wounded father and (2) scripts of the wise mother and good wife. Scripts of the wise mother and good wife, Kim claims, endorse and promote women’s redomestication by accentuating the traditional roles of women as wife and mother. Such cultural scripts are based on the idea that solving family and societal crises and reestablishing a moral society are viable only through women’s redomestication into the position of a wise mother and a good wife in addition to men’s restoration of their authority and position in the family. The scripts of wise mother and good wife thus become concretized and organized in the Mother School, which is a separate nonprofit organization strongly influenced by the Father School. By endorsing these scripts, the Mother School bolsters a newly constructed hegemonic masculinity within the FS that allows men to become more involved husbands and fathers and in so doing to reclaim their privilege and authority as men.

With its main focus on “masculine healing,” the FS overlooks and dismisses the realities of gender inequality and the organization’s complicity and participation in its continuation. A serious reconsideration or reformulation of the institutionalized male privilege that pervades Korean society is not addressed. It is not that the FS’s therapeutic components and implications themselves are problematic but that the role played by the therapeutic component of the FS should be problematized within the broader context of gender politics in Korea. Just like the PK, which emphasizes its apolitical nature, the FS as a spiritual men’s movement has claimed to maintain a distance from political engagement, but such a claim itself has political (and theological) implications; in essence, by doing nothing to change the existing gender hierarchy and patriarchy in Korean society, the men are complicit in oppressing women.

Progressive men’s groups12: Fathers Loving Daughters and Men for Cultivating a Culture of Equality

Fathers Loving Daughters (FLD), which claims to be a profeminist men’s group, was founded in Korea in 2001 (Fathers Loving Daughters n.d.). The leaders and members of this group at the outset were mostly men in the middle or upper-middle class, including university professors, medical doctors, broadcasters, congressmen, representatives of NGOs, and actors. The group’s members range from prospective fathers to seasoned fathers in their sixties. Chae-Ki Chung (2002), the first co-leader of this group, explains:

Unlike the generation of pre-industrialization who mostly lived under the extended family system, the post-industrialization generation went through the rapid increase in nuclear families, in which men could witness the strengthening of Korean women’s voices. As the society got stabilized, fathers’ authority became dispersed and waned. Even though it could be difficult for men who grew up in a patriarchal family to accept this change, it is time for fathers to change themselves willingly rather than to be pushed to do so under social demand and pressure. (Chung 2002)

The vision of FLD is to build a society in which men and women, daughters and sons live equally and peacefully (Fathers Loving Daughters n.d.). Over time, this group has focused on issues such as the equal division of domestic labor among family members, the reform of companies and social institutions to allow employees time with their children, and the education of sons and daughters to assume equal responsibility and roles within the family. In alliance with women’s groups, FLD has participated in the social movement to abolish the men’s headship system. It has done so for two reasons: first, the men’s headship system is a symbol of gender inequality, pushing men into the responsibilities of headship solely because they are men; and second, the male headship system contributes to the high rate of abortion in Korean society.

Men for Cultivating a Culture of Equality (MCCE), an offshoot of Seoul Women’s Hotline, was established in 1995 (Men for Cultivating a Culture of Equality n.d.). Unlike FLD, it is currently active among young Korean men. Early on, members of the MCCE consisted of thirty progressive men in Korean society, including actors, film producers, politicians, and leaders of NGOs (Lee 1995). The vision of the MCCE was to create a society free of inequality and bias against women, a society toward which women and men could work together. Due to declining membership and participation, however, the group could not sustain its regular meetings and was eventually suspended. The second MCCE, which was restarted with new members in May 1997, attracted men from diverse backgrounds in terms of age, education, and jobs (e.g., white-collar workers, teachers, businessmen), though most members belonged to at least the lower middle class (Lee 1995).

This group has continued to have monthly meetings as a space for discussing and debating a wide range of gender issues as well as for facilitating friendship and solidarity among its members (Kim 2005). MCCE has also created and facilitated workshops called Equality School in which the subjects and themes covered in these meetings include family culture and men; sex culture and men; male socialization and manhood; political culture and men; workplace culture and men; growing up as a male; narratives about “my father”; men in relationship with women; the identification of violence with life; dealing with physical violence; and dealing with psychological violence (Kim 2005). In his statement about its goals, MCCE leader Sangchoon Han notes:

As I was working in a company, I was awakened to the reality of gender inequality. To address inequality and discrimination against women, I think the active role of men is critical. Even though we might believe that men and women are equal, it is actually not the case in reality—marriage and family. Upon marriage, men might expose some patriarchal masculinities hidden within themselves. MCCE helps men to repent, reflect on, and act concretely in new ways. (Kim 2005)

By addressing various issues and problems in the lives of men and women, MCCE seeks to create practical alternatives and offer suggestions that can help create a free and happy society. In order to achieve such a society, its goal is to support and extend the horizon of the women’s movement through the development of programs, social activism toward the enactment or amendment of legislation, publications of magazines and/or books, support for the feminist (and men’s) movement in solidarity with women’s organizations, and the maximization of small groups.

Two things are notable about these two self-identified pro-women men’s groups. First, unlike conservative men’s groups, these progressive men’s groups have not been mobilized as a systemic men’s movement or a formal organization like the Father School. Rather, they exist and act in a decentralized manner that favors flexibility and anti-authoritarianism, which results in a very different kind of politics in terms of their activities. These progressive groups tend to come together as a form of men’s consciousness-raising groups that are self-managing and that gather from time to time at conferences or for campaigns on particular issues such as gender equality and violence against women. Also, even though these groups claim to be pro-woman and anti-patriarchal in terms of their movement’s goals, it appears that solidary among men in progressive masculinity politics has not necessarily led to solidarity with the women’s movement or with feminist activists in particular. This partly reflects a negative cultural bias and antagonism against feminism and the women’s movement as being anti-family and anti-male in Korean society and partly the uneasy relations between feminist activists and men’s groups.

In my assessment, anti-sexist politics in current progressive men’s groups, such as FLD, are closer to a form of the kind of “men’s liberation movement” that occurred in the 1970s in America. Despite their recognition of the detrimental impacts of patriarchy and sexism on men’s roles and identities, some proponents of the men’s liberation movement took a separatist approach that emphasized male liberation and solidarity, sometimes with antifeminist sentiments. Though these progressive men’s groups are distinct from conservative men’s groups such as the MOK and the FS in terms of their critical view of traditional and patriarchal male roles in the family, they do not seem to go beyond these critical views to actually tackle the structure of male institutionalized power and privilege in public spheres.

The interplay between men’s movements and hegemonic masculinity: Challenges and prospects for the profeminist politics of masculinity

I have discussed how men’s groups and movements position themselves in relation to hegemonic masculinity, whether they do so consciously and intentionally or not. Both conservative and progressive men’s movements enact and reconfigure hegemonic masculinity. The connection between men’s movements and hegemonic masculinity needs further clarification. In focusing primarily on the costs of masculinity while overlooking the differences and inequalities among men, Man of Korea (MOK) fails to recognize the differences and multiplicity of masculinities, and this results in blindness to the existing hierarchy among masculinities, both hegemonic and subordinate positions. In this way, opinions and discourses publicized by MOK are based on the false universalization of “men”: the group especially tends to universalize the experiences of lower-middle or working-class, young, heterosexual men who will or did complete military service. Based on its ignorance of the influences of hegemonic and dominant versions of masculinity upon a majority of men, MOK disregards the reality that most institutional power and privileges are exercised by men over women and by privileged men over subordinate men. It identifies men merely as powerless and as victims of feminism.

In addition, this group defines the masculine in opposition to racial and sexual minorities and women and feminists; that is, the way this group constructs masculinity is predominantly based on what masculinity is not rather than what masculinity is. For MOK, what it means to be a man is not feminine and not homosexual. In its pursuit of the promotion of men’s rights and the abolishment of pro-woman policies, MOK thus becomes complicit in the reinforcement of hegemonic masculinities in Korean society, though its members themselves may not be the bearers of hegemonic masculinities.

The Father School (FS) creates a paradoxical space in which it reinforces and challenges the current configurations of hegemonic masculinity. It also functions as group masculinity therapy. Fundamentally, the politics of masculinity therapy is grounded in men’s recognition or perception of the crisis of masculinity. Men’s groups have framed the crisis of masculinity thesis in different ways. How it is defined and approached determines what is really at stake and how the groups establish priorities for action. Framing the discourse of masculinity solely around a crisis motif, however, makes the purview of men’s political engagement limited and short-sighted, losing sight of broader structural factors underpinning perceived crisis situations. In this homosocial, therapeutic space, men are allowed to remain blind or indifferent to the reality of patriarchal forces and contexts. Consequently, gender discourses and practices in the conservative politics of masculinity are complicit in the sustenance and reproduction of hegemonic masculinity in ways that maintain male hegemony and dominance in service to gender hierarchy and patriarchy (whether the grounding discourse is spiritual or political).

With respect to the goals of transforming such politics of masculinity, there are many practical and theoretical challenges and struggles for progressive—and especially profeminist—men’s groups and their political engagement. First, one of the struggles for profeminist men’s groups comes as a result of feminist suspicions and criticisms. In Misframing Men, Michael Kimmel introduces stories of young profeminist men who gathered at the Young Feminist Summit Conference organized by the National Organization for Women and their struggles around their sense of isolation in becoming part of the struggle for women’s equality, dealing with the suspicions of feminists, their frustration with other men (especially angry antifeminist men), and the pervasive indifference of the public (Kimmel 2010, p. 221). One of feminism’s consistent criticisms of profeminist activism and men’s turn to feminist theories is that men can “reproduce forms of gender power through the medium of men’s appropriation of feminism” while at the same time defusing the power of feminism (Ashe 2007, pp. 77–78). In addition, feminists question the level of commitment of profeminists by raising the issue of “gender tourism,” a reference to men’s initial attraction to feminist ideas and then their gradual distancing from and indifference to feminist goals. More fundamentally, feminists who take a traditional standpoint have problematized the relation between male experience and the implementation of a “profeminist” perspective because they believe that feminist epistemology is grounded in women’s experiences of oppression. Men and women are different in terms of their gendered experiences; therefore, men “lack the epistemological foundations of feminist resistance” (p. 83).

According to feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether (1992), it is “not paranoia, but simply well-founded experience that disposes women to be suspicious of men’s movements that claim to be healing the wounded male psyche by reaffirming the masculine,” which she thinks of as an expression of patriarchal power relations in American culture (Ruether 1992, p. 192). She states:

I have long believed that “we,” i.e., women and men, need a “men’s movement,” in the sense of men who have to come to understand the evils of patriarchy, the injustice that has been done to women, and the way that has distorted all social relations. These are men who are prepared to work in solidarity with women to create a new society liberated from patriarchy. (p. 192)

In order to build trust and restore “damaged solidarities” at various levels, men in profeminist politics (and academia) should move beyond premature and superficial commitment to feminism and be clear and conscious about their own motivation for supporting and appropriating feminism (i.e., some men support feminism only for its potential to liberate men). Theologically speaking, becoming part of feminist struggles as profeminists involves a spiritual discipline of kenosis on the part of men, not a forced or reluctant but a voluntary practice of giving up dominance and a self-emptying of privilege. However, such a move does not imply men’s salvific acts, nor does it mean to reduce the issues of power to the realm of religion or to a matter of spiritual discipline and personal practice. Based on such self-reflexivity, profeminist politics of masculinity should confront the danger of excluding women and men in marginalized statuses from activism and scholarship while taking their theoretical compatibility with feminist politics into serious consideration. More fundamentally, attention to economic, domestic, and material justice (not just spiritual matters) is necessary to fully address the problem of male dominance and power and to achieve feminist goals.

Second, another practical challenge for progressive masculinity politics has been to promote the political mobilization and active participation of men, given that they tend to remain “a quiet revolution,” one restricted to working at the personal level compared to the militancy and enthusiasm of conservative men’s groups and their highly organized approach. Though the personal is the political, this observation and challenge warrants an analysis of how changes at the personal level could lead to the transformation of deep-seated institutional gender hierarchy and patriarchal structures. The public’s awareness of the profeminist politics of masculinity is also minimal in Korean society. As Clatterbaugh (2000) indicates, most men’s movements are now in serious decline in the U.S., and the profeminist men’s movement especially has had almost “no life outside the university” (pp. 887–890). It would be too naïve to expect a mass movement of men against sexism given that “the project of social justice in gender relations is directed against the interest they share” (Connell 1995, p. 236). It is nonetheless important for progressive men’s groups to dismantle the social mechanism of reactionary gender politics and to create more politically effective venues or strategies for involving men and making changes in solidarity with women’s movements. Rather than seeking to form a large-scale, unified mass movement to oppose patriarchy, profeminist politics of masculinity could develop a fresh politics of masculinity in new areas beyond “gender territorialism.” In fact, more promising forms of progressive masculinity politics in Korea have arisen outside pure gender politics, often at the intersection of gender with other structures such as labor unions, ecological movements, and the conscientious objection movement, which tackles the gendered nature of militarization and dominant militarized masculinities. These political areas open new possibilities for reconfiguring and transforming hegemonic masculinities.

Finally, given the lack of Christian voices and involvement in progressive gender politics, there is a need for affirmative political and ecclesial campaigns. Though it is critical to raise awareness of male violence, harassment, rape, etc., political engagement should not be limited to what men should not do but should incorporate what men can do, and what men should do, and even what men want to do (Kimmel 2010, p. 222).


Feminist theorists have vocalized the importance of tackling masculinity politics. Feminist Sylvia Walby, for example, indicates that feminist discourses on gender politics have typically neglected the importance of analyzing the politics of masculinity, that is, men’s actions in gender politics that are often organized as oppositional forms of women’s politics (Walby 1997, p. 18). Based on this insight, this article has investigated both the conservative and progressive politics of masculinity and their complex relations to hegemonic masculinity. Particular attention has been given to how hegemonic masculinity is maintained, reinforced, and challenged in the masculinity politics of three forms of men’s movements. In order to deconstruct the enactment of hegemonic masculinity in religious and public spheres, the analysis encompasses the examination of socioeconomic, cultural, and theological backgrounds and structures that produce and reproduce movements such as the Father School, as well as of the interplay between individuals, hegemonic masculinity as an ideal, and social structure.

In her article on the men’s movement in the United States, Rosemary Radford Ruether (1992) notes that “patriarchy is itself the original men’s movement, and the struggle to overthrow it must be a movement of men as well as women” (p. 17). To resist and transform the patriarchal order requires a form of explicit masculinity politics, even though defending the order does not necessitate this. In terms of the need for envisioning alternative politics of masculinity, it is necessary to explore critically the nature, focus, goal, and ethos of such movements, especially in relation to the ongoing women’s movement. There is also a need for religiously inspired or theologically based profeminist politics of masculinities that challenge Korean hegemonic masculinities. In fact, engagement with progressive gender politics at both the theological and the practical levels is almost “the road not taken” in mainline Korean Protestant churches. While being critical of the roles that Korean Protestant churches as male-dominant institutions play in gender politics, pastoral theology should address how feminist values and perspectives can be applied and transferred to the daily lives of men and congregants. Pastoral theology should also envision an alternative politics of masculinity that integrates feminist visions, voices, and theories towards critiquing hegemonic configurations of masculinity and practicing manhood compatible with feminist values of gender equality and justice.


  1. 1.

    The OECD Report 2017: The Pursuit of Gender Equality illustrates the status of gender equality in Korean society in terms of political empowerment (As of 2016 women hold only 17% of seats in the National Assembly which is in the fifth-lowest among OECD countries), representation in the private sector (only 10.5% of management positions, the lowest in the OECD), the income gap by gender (37.2%, the largest of the OECD nations in 2016), and equal treatment at work (Korea was the most unequal of the OECD nations) (The OECD Report, n.d.).

  2. 2.

    Whether or not these can be seen as a social movement has been a point of dispute among scholars in studies of social movements. Some scholars, such as Stephen White (2002), argue that it is inaccurate to consider men’s movements as representing a social movement given their loose, less formal, and decentralized nature. In contrast, others, such as Fidelma Ashe (2007), claim that men’s movements can be viewed as a social movement given that contemporary social movements are marked by relatively informal organizational processes, fluid structures, loose forms of belonging, and diverse and shifting perspectives.

  3. 3.

    Although Messner’s conceptual framework is useful in categorizing men’s organized responses to changes, challenges, and crises in the social organization of gender, it has some limits. First, Messner’s framework depends on the group’s “emphases”; that is, the most salient foci in terms of the movement’s visions, goals, and practices, which could be shifting and inconsistent in nature; therefore, it is obviously difficult for these themes to fully capture the complexity and ambiguity of reality. The identification of a group’s emphases also runs the risk of being affected by the researcher’s own emphases and perspectives. More fundamentally, Messner’s themes themselves demonstrate the inner mechanism and rationales behind a men’s group’s emphasis on each of the themes; that is, these categories cannot address why men’s groups and movements emphasize what they emphasize. Each group might emphasize a particular theme for dramatically and strategically different reasons.

  4. 4.

    Since this group was known as Man of Korea until recently, in this article I will use this name instead of NGO for Equality.

  5. 5.

    The Gender Inequality Index is reported annually by the United Nations as part of the Human Development Index. This index reflects “gender inequality along three dimensions—reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market—as rated by five indicators: maternal mortality and adolescent fertility for reproductive health, parliamentary representation and educational attainment for empowerment, and labor force participation for the labor market” (United Nation Human Development Reports, n.d.)

  6. 6.

    However, a recent report by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family notes that Korean women in corporations and civil offices continue to experience the existence of the “glass ceiling” and “glass walls,” invisible barriers that structurally obstruct women’s promotion to higher positions.

  7. 7.

    Interestingly, the group’s emphasis on sacrifice is also revealed by the organizational culture and practices of its leadership. As a way of promoting public interest in the organization, MOK’s former representative Jae-Ki Sung planned a performance that might draw greater public attention to the organization yet would risk his own life. Regarding his decision as “sacrificial,” he fell off a bridge over the Han River and drowned. Earlier, he had left a message on a social network service that appealed strongly for moral and financial support from the public. He was found dead a few days after the “accident”; it was unclear whether he had intended to kill himself or just to make a dramatic and attention-grabbing performance. According to a posthumously published essay by Sung, he had also made personal sacrifices by selling his small business to provide financial resources for MOK and by devoting himself so wholeheartedly to the organization.

  8. 8.

    I conducted a participant observation study of sessions of the FS held at a Korean American church located in the southeastern region of the United States in 2012. Even though participant observation often employs more than just observation in the process of conducting research (e.g., interviews of various sorts, checklists, and questionnaires), this study relied primarily on the extensive observation of both volunteers’ and participants’ actions and of verbal and nonverbal expressions of emotions demonstrated during five weekend sessions of the FS. I also undertook a document analysis of written materials and resources such as student handbooks and monthly magazines published by the FS headquarters in Korea.

  9. 9.

    The existing literature in the United States has barely examined the Promise Keepers’ connection to religious men’s movements in other cultural contexts. Moreover, the transnational vibrancy of the FS movement has not yet gained scholarly attention outside the circle of Korean scholars.

  10. 10.

    PK, an evangelical men’s movement founded by Bill McCartney, former football coach at the University of Colorado, emphasizes a man’s commitment and accountability to seven subjects: to Jesus Christ, his prayer group, his wife, his children, his church, racial harmony, and the world. Even though stadium conferences are the most visible PK public appearances, the organization also relies upon grassroots church-based support by organizing local meetings called “Wake-up Calls” and small “Promise Builder” prayer groups for men. PK has garnered mixed responses and contradictory criticism from the public. Scholarly studies and mass media have depicted the movement paradoxically as both an antifeminist and reactionary movement and as a movement rejuvenating “godly manhood” and sensitive husbands and fathers, both impeding social transformation and promoting it and both apolitical and political (see Donovan 1988).

  11. 11.

    Based on their evangelical Christian faith, participants are encouraged to accept gender ideals that are combined with theological language as proper and legitimate. The participants’ religious identity, specifically as conservative evangelicals who adopt a literalist reading of the Scripture, functions as an ideological glue for reconciling the contradictory discursive resources for undergirding hegemonic masculinities.

  12. 12.

    Regarding the nature of progressive men’s movements in the Korean context, two things need to be noted. First, profeminist groups in particular, though formed before progressive men’s groups, tend to lack a sustained, systematic form of discourse and practices, which makes a full analysis challenging. Compared to the United States, men’s movements in Korean society are not full-fledged and have a fairly narrow spectrum of gender politics, and they are barely sustained due to a low level of activity and discourse. Second, a majority of men’s groups, including progressive ones, seem to lack an understanding of masculinities as multiple, contradictory, hierarchical, and complex. Such a lack of critical awareness has a consequence for the mobilization and activism of men’s groups in that it obscures and conceals the power of hegemonic masculinity that affects the lives of men and women and the various dimensions of society: home, workplace, politics, and religious institutions.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New Brunswick Theological SeminaryNew BrunswickUSA

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