Commentary Magazine


Backlash, by Susan Faludi

New Wave Feminism

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
by Susan Faludi.
Crown. 552 pp. $24.00.

Only a few years ago feminism was reported to be dead, done in at least in part by the backsliding of some of its own pioneers. By the mid-80’s, Betty Friedan was criticizing her more militant sisters for their masculine hairstyles, and Germaine Greer was championing the traditional, family-centered cultures of rural Italy and India. Even Gloria Steinem tried to catch a man. In the middle class, the young career women who were supposed to be feminism’s chief beneficiaries were buying silk dresses, voting Republican, looking for husbands, talking about children.

Reports of the movement’s demise turned out to be premature. Comes now Susan Faludi, who, along with Naomi Wolfe, deconstructionist of the “beauty myth,” is at the forefront of a young and energetic second wave of feminism that makes the first wave seem as insipid and dated as the old “feminine mystique” of frilly aprons and Tupperware parties Friedan used to mock.

Backlash, an exceedingly long book, is also representative of the prolix new genre of 80’s-bashing, already a little tired though we are only two years into the 90’s. Most 80’s-bashing books fixate on junk bonds and undertenanted office towers, twin symbols of the debt-loaded culture of the Reagan era. To Faludi, the same decade also witnessed a “backlash” against feminism that “moved through the culture’s secret chambers, traveling through passageways of flattery and fear.” That, she says, is what accounts for the silk dresses and the husband-hunting.

The 80’s for Faludi would seem to have been not the Greed Decade but the Kneed Decade, a period when women who dared to be liberated really took it in the groin, not just from religious fundamentalists and conservative politicians but from those putative allies of feminism, the popular media, and, of course, the old-line feminists themselves. In Faludi’s book, Friedan and Greer lie down (figuratively) with such bogeypersons as George Gilder, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, Gary Bauer (Reagan’s straight-arrow family-policy czar), and Randall Terry, leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. This is a book in which not to be part of the solution is emphatically to be part of the problem.

Faludi, a Wall Street Journal reporter, writes with a journalist’s easy flair and an occasional striking turn of phrase reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich, who works the same ideological turf in a much more original fashion. (Ehrenreich has her own 80’s-basher out, tellingly titled The Worst Years of Our Lives.) And Backlash is nothing if not thoroughly researched: Faludi devotes a full 89 pages to agate-size footnotes documenting the scholarly and media sources of every factual assertion she has stuffed into her dense, wordy chapters.

For all that, Backlash is a thin book, its workaholic scholarship and competent writing masking stick-figure stereotypes of relations between men and women, and between cultures and their artifacts. It is a pamphlet with but one point to make, repeated again and again like the drumbeat that calls to order those trendy men’s-movement hugathons (another symptom of the “backlash”). In fact, when one has finished this book, practically the only thing one sees are the file folders of newspaper clippings and stacks of index cards that were its raw materials, with, protruding awkwardly here and there like skin grafts that failed to take, a few profiles of leading backlash instigators, typically a little off-point. There is little real reporting in the book, and none of the sustained theorizing or distanced observation that we might expect from a work of cultural criticism.

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Here is Faludi’s entire thesis:

The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central control room, nor are the people who serve its ends often aware of their role; some even consider themselves feminists. For the most part, its workings are encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic. Not all of the manifestations of the backlash are of equal weight or significance, either; some are mere ephemera, generated by a culture machine that is always scrounging for a “fresh” angle. Taken as a whole, however, these codes and cajolings, these whispers and threats and myths, move overwhelmingly in one direction: they try to push women back into their “acceptable” roles—whether as Daddy’s girl or fluttery romantic, active nester or passive love object.

Although the backlash is not a movement, that doesn’t make it any less destructive. In fact, the lack of orchestration, the absence of a single string-puller, only makes it harder to see—and perhaps more effective. A backlash against women’s rights succeeds to the degree that it appears not to be political, that it appears not to be a struggle at all. It is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges in a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head, until she begins to enforce the backlash, too—on herself.

This is an argument impossible to gainsay. It requires no proof; indeed, the very lack of proof demonstrates the insidiousness of the phenomenon, a seamless and invisible spider web stretching into every corner of contemporary culture. By maintaining that the backlash is a “movement” yet not an “organized” movement, a “struggle” that appears “not to be a struggle at all,” a chimera-like phenomenon that exists now as concrete “threats” from the militant Right, now as mere media-generated “ephemera,” now as disembodied feelings “in a woman’s mind” with no objective correlatives whatsoever, Faludi can have it all ways, can seize all sticks with which to beat her opponents.

Seize them she does. One stick is the brouhaha that ensued when several researchers at Harvard and Yale issued a report in 1986 demonstrating that the chances of a college-educated, never-married woman at finding a husband start falling rapidly at age thirty and plunge to almost zero after age forty. The Harvard-Yale findings turned into a Newsweek cover story and generated quite a bit of panic among successful single women who would never see thirty again.

According to Faludi, this was a typical manifestation of the backlash at its most duplicitous and demoralizing. Her own first move is to attack the researchers’ methodology, implying that they made up the statistics for ideological reasons. She cites a rival study by a female Census Bureau demographer—the Harvard-Yale team was headed by a man—which concluded that a never-married woman with a college degree actually has about a one-in-five chance of finding a husband after age forty. What a relief.

Faludi then proceeds to tactic No. 2: who cares, anyway? She cites polls showing that the happiness of single women rose during the 1980’s, while that of their married sisters declined. Finally, she devotes five pages to the travails of a still-single thirty-six-year-old woman (not one of the happy ones, evidently) who signed up for $20,000 worth of plastic surgery in the hopes of winning a bet that she could beat the odds and find a spouse before reaching her fifth decade.

This is the kind of reasoning that used to make men say, “She’s so cute when she gets mad.” Faludi faults Gary Bauer because his wife is a full-time homemaker. Then she turns around and faults Michael Levin, an anti-feminist professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, because his wife has a career as a mathematician. Heads, I win; tails, you lose. As might be expected, she puts great stock in the “gender gap,” the belief that all women are closet ultra-liberals. Did George Bush happen to get 49 to 50 percent of the female vote in the 1988 election? That was “not a real majority,” sniffs Faludi.

Her most scathing denunciations, though, are reserved not for the right-wingers but for the hapless female scholars who have entertained revisionist thoughts about the fruits of the past two decades’ liberation: such figures as the sociologist Lenore Weitzman, who reported a drastic decline in an ex-wife’s living standards after a typical no-fault divorce (bad numbers, Lenorel), and Rosalind Rosenberg, a historian at Barnard who testified at a Sears, Roebuck sex-discrimination trial that female sales employees gravitated toward lower-paying no-commission jobs out of a preference for less competitive work (how could you, Rosalind?). Faludi likes to slip personal barbs into her critiques, pointing out Rosenberg’s close friendship with one of the Sears lawyers, or the haut-bourgeois existence enjoyed by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose book, A Lesser Life, claims solidarity with working-class women against hardline feminists.

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For all that, Backlash might actually have been an interesting book had Susan Faludi explored some of the phenomena she writes about rather than simply listing them in her catalogue of outrages. For example, she cites Good Housekeeping‘s “New Traditionalist” advertising campaign, which shows contented mothers and children in cozy domestic settings. Neotraditionalism is, in fact, exactly what Faludi implies that it is: a veneer of comforting make-believe covering the severe social and familial dislocation of the late 20th century. It is an image of traditionalism, not its reality, serving to satisfy intense longings for the structure and order supplied by traditional institutions, chiefly religion and the authoritarian family, without forcing people to give up the things that they would have to give up if they adopted those institutions in their substance. Women can tie hair-ribbons around their little girls’ pigtails, put a handmade quilt on the bed, bake a pie (or at least read about baking one), and still get to do pretty much whatever they want. Weddings become more elaborate and expensive as marriages become shorter and more contingent.

In truth, feminism is merely a part of a larger and longer-range trend of universal liberation, not just from oppressive husbands and fathers but from all demands, erotic and otherwise, that have seemed burdensome, annoying, or irrational. People in general have become free to pursue their self-interest—careers, wealth accumulation, romantic passions, sexual desires—unhindered. One might find the source of this trend, as Tom Wolfe does, in the four-decade surge of post-World War II prosperity that gradually melted down the chains of necessity binding people together in inconvenient relationships, combined with what Wolfe calls “the fifth freedom—freedom from religion.” Or, looking back further in time, one might see feminism’s roots in the Enlightenment idea of the social contract: people would be better off if their ties to others and to institutions were strictly voluntary, a matter of rational choice directed by mutual self-interest. This has naturally wreaked havoc upon the family, for hardly anyone would freely choose the grab-bag of embarrassing and uncongenial characters who happen to be his relatives. Having first stripped the family of its tribal, multigenerational character, social-contract theory then went to work on marriage itself—hence, easy divorce, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement. It is currently playing itself out in the desire of middle-class parents to have “autonomous” children. Young people have their own cars, cash, designer clothes, telephones, and television sets, while doing fewer household chores than ever before in history.

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Many women have found universal liberation to be as disturbing as it is supposed to be exhilarating. The disruption of traditional courtship and marriage patterns that has accompanied liberation means that young middle-class women spend years wondering when and where they will ever find a husband, all the while feeling varying degrees of dissatisfaction, contempt, and rage at the men they do meet and sleep with, or fight off sleeping with. Women who marry discover that it is more exhausting than glamorous to pursue a career outside the home while being a wife, let alone a mother of small children, at the same time.

Perhaps, as Susan Faludi suggests, it is wrong and reactionary for women to want to be wives and mothers—status roles left over from the days before all human relationships became matters of the marketplace. Yet most women do so want, and if Susan Faludi means to “liberate” them from those desires, she is talking about liberating them from womanhood itself. No wonder American women feel so ambivalent about feminism. Today, they will read Backlash; tomorrow, it will be Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Today, they will fret about the “glass ceiling”; tomorrow, they will have their chins resculpted. They will feel faintly discontented or wildly desperate. They will blame it on feminism, or on men, or on the media, or on themselves. But it is not a backlash. It is more a case of wanting and not really wanting to go back.

About the Author




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