The fathers' rights movement exists almost exclusively in industrialized countries, where divorce has become more common. It emerged in the West from the 1960s onwards as part of the men's movement with organizations such as Families Need Fathers, which originated in the 1970s. In the late twentieth century, the growth of the internet permitted wider discussion, publicity and activism about issues of interest to fathers' rights activists. Factors thought to contribute to the development of the fathers' rights movement include shifting household demographics brought about by rising divorce and falling marriage rates, changes in the understanding and expectations of fatherhood, motherhood and childhood as well as shifts in how legal systems impact families.
Fathers' rights groups in the West are primarily composed of white, middle or working class, heterosexual men. Members tend to be politically conservative but do not share a single set of political or social views and are highly diverse in their goals and methods. Members of the fathers' rights movement advocate for strong relationships with their children and focus on a narrowly defined set of issues based on the concerns of divorced or divorcing men. Women, often new partners including second wives or other family members of men who have had some engagement with family law and mothers without custody, are also members of the fathers' rights movement, and fathers' rights activists emphasize this. Two studies of fathers' rights groups in North America found that fifteen percent of their members were women.
The fathers' rights movement organizations Families Need Fathers and the Lone Fathers Association have campaigned for fathers' rights over many decades. Longer lasting organizations appear to result from the longterm dedication and commitment of key individuals. Other fathers' rights groups have tended to form and dissolve quickly. Internal disagreements over ideology and tactics are common, and members tend not to remain with the groups after they have been helped.
The fathers' rights movement has both liberal and conservative branches, with different viewpoints about how men and women compare. Although both groups agree on the victimization and discrimination against men, they disagree on why men and women differ (nature versus nurture) and traditional gender roles. The liberal version believes the differences between the sexes are due to culture and supports equality between men and women; in contrast, the conservative branch believes in traditional patriarchal/complementary families and that the differences between genders are due to biology. Ross Parke and Armin Brott view the fathers' rights movement as one of three strands within the men's movement that deal almost exclusively with fatherhood, the other two being the good fathers' movement and groups forming the Christian Men's movement – the Promise Keepers being the largest.
Warren Farrell, a veteran of the women's, men's and fathers' movement since the 1970s, describes the fathers' rights movement as part of a larger "gender transition movement" and thinks that, similar to women in the 1960s, fathers are transitioning from gender-based to more flexible family roles. Farrell also believes the movement helps children by increasing the number who are raised equally by both parents, which in turn increases the children's social, academic, psychological, and physical benefits—in his opinion it becomes a children's rights issue with fathers acting as advocates.