The War Against Feminism

  • This winter's surprise hit movie offers no marquee names and no special effects, only a small cup of poison for maternal peace of mind. In The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Rebecca De Mornay plays the Nanny from Hell, who insinuates herself into the home of a trusting family only to wreak havoc on it. In the weeks after the film climbed to No. 1, earning a stunning $65 million, magazines and newspapers have scurried to find real-life examples of psycho-nannies, which in turn drove home the not-so-subtle message that women who work and leave child rearing to others are courting disaster and had best hurry home.

    Any movie that confounds expectations invites commentators to think Big Thoughts about its surprise appeal. In this case, one set of critics proclaims that the movie reveals the ambivalence that women especially feel about having to balance work and family. But another chorus of critics is offering its own interpretation, wrapped in a warning: that this movie is part of a decade-long attack against feminism intended to roll back the gains of the women's movement and convince women that their newfound liberation is the source of all their unhappiness. And therein lies the bigger story.

    The idea that progress produces a backlash is hardly new -- one need only $ look at Detroit's gracious response to Japan's economic success. But when the issue is the status of American womanhood, this line of argument follows a swollen stream of trend stories that declare feminism shuddered and died sometime during the Reagan era. Many headlines of the '80s called feminism THE GREAT EXPERIMENT THAT FAILED and announced that America had graduated to a postfeminist age of Mommy Tracks, garter belts and men beating drums in the woods. Only in 1991, a year defined by date-rape trials, harassment hearings, abortion battles and gender wars, did the popular media begin to acknowledge that relations between the sexes were not as settled as they seemed.

    Into this rhetorical arena comes Susan Faludi, 32, a soft-spoken, sharp- penned, Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter for the Wall Street Journal who spent four years writing Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, published by Crown in October. In 552 crowded pages, Faludi constructs a thesis out of alarming though sometimes selective use of statistics bound together with ideological glue, designed to explain why many women turned against feminism in the 1980s. Not only has her book become an unexpected best seller; it has also become a staple topic on the op-ed pages, one of those landmark books that shape the opinions of America's opinion shapers.

    More interesting still, after months halfway down the best-seller list, Faludi moves to No. 2 this week -- right behind a new book by Gloria Steinem. Many critics dismissed Revolution from Within, Steinem's treatise on the political implications of the self-esteem movement, as an exercise in squishy new-age thumb-sucking. But as she tours shopping malls, Steinem is being mobbed by crowds that, according to one bookstore owner, exceed those of Oliver North and Vanna White, the backlash icons of American manhood and womanhood. Something must have happened in the climate of relations between men and women for these books to have such an impact.

    What readers may be looking for is an explanation for why, as reported by a TIME/CNN poll last month, 63% of American women do not consider themselves feminists. The answer according to Faludi is not that women are finally free and equal and don't need a movement anymore; or that feminism's leaders, for all their efforts, somehow alienated their constituency; or that finally having choices allows women the luxury of second thoughts. Instead, she argues, women reject feminism because of a backlash against it -- a highly ; effective, often insidious campaign to discredit its goals, distort its message and make women question whether they really want equality after all.

    Throughout history, Faludi argues, any time women tried to loosen their corsets and breathe more freely, they met with a suffocating counterattack. In the 1980s this backlash surfaced in the Reagan White House, the courts, Hollywood and, above all, the mass media, whose collective message to women went something like this: Feminism is your worst enemy. All this freedom is making you miserable, unmarriageable, infertile, unstable. Go home, bake a cake, quit pounding on the doors of public life, and all your troubles will go away.

    Faludi's book has set off firecrackers across the political battlefield. Conservatives applaud her when she exposes the intellectual laziness of the mainstream press; liberals cheer when she exposes the hypocrisy of conservatives who put their own children in day care so they can travel around the country telling women to be homemakers. And the press loves covering itself and hearing about its power. Columnist John McLaughlin, no special friend of the women's movement, called Faludi "the best thinker of the year," and the National Book Critics Circle just handed her its prize for nonfiction.

    Faludi makes an unlikely polemicist. Smart, shy, with a self-deprecating manner, she claims to be more comfortable in front of a terminal than a camera. An alumna of Harvard, the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Constitution, she has left the Wall Street Journal -- where she won a Pulitzer Prize last year for a Journal story tracing the human cost of the $5.65 billion leveraged buyout of Safeway -- in order to handle the flood of speaking requests her book has generated.

    A cynic -- Faludi, for one -- might argue that the messenger herself makes the message easier to hear. With her schoolgirl demeanor and easy eloquence, Faludi defies many unfair but well-embedded stereotypes about feminists. PEOPLE magazine photographed her riding her bike in San Francisco and posing beneath a tree with her boyfriend, Dr. Peter Small. The timing of the book helped too, coming just when the Senate and the American media rediscovered sexual harassment and when puzzled talk-show hosts were groping for a new vocabulary to capture the outrage that women expressed. Had the book been published back in the spring when it was scheduled, Faludi says with a laugh, "it would have dropped like a stone. We were in the middle of a war, it | was boys' time. Fall was girls' time because of Anita Hill."

    But the main reason for the book's success is the resonance of the questions Faludi raises. Were all the movies and television shows and advertisements that featured blissful mothers and frazzled career women intended, either consciously or subconsciously, to sow doubts in women's minds about their real goals? Or, as her critics counter, did the mass media merely pick up on concerns that already existed and touch a nerve that had been rubbed raw by a generation of out-of-touch feminist leaders?

    Behind the Backlash

    "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is," wrote Rebecca West in 1913. "I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute." Decades later, for millions of American women the label remains slippery. During the feminist revolution of the 1970s, it was understood as an effort to secure for women the economic, political and social rights and protections that men have always enjoyed. It was about opening doors, not shoving women through them.

    But in the 1980s that understanding of the term seemed to disappear. In the decade's dismissive shorthand, feminism came to mean denigrating motherhood, pursuing selfish goals and wearing a suit. Whereas feminism was hip and fashionable in the '70s, antifeminism became socially acceptable in the '80s. First the fundamentalist right, then the White House -- and ultimately Hollywood, television and many journalists -- held feminism responsible for "every woe besetting women," Faludi writes, "from mental depression to meager savings accounts, from teenage suicides to eating disorders to bad complexions."

    The "family values" agenda was the rhetorical basis on which Reagan and Bush and scores of other Republicans swept into office, thanks to the votes of millions of women as well as men. Feminism, meanwhile, lost many of its government sponsors. Support for the Equal Rights Amendment reached 60% in 1981, only to be defeated the following year; the number of women seeking out battered-women's shelters soared, but federal funding shrank and the Office of Domestic Violence was shut down. Complaints of sexual harassment climbed 70% between 1981 and 1989, but a congressional study found that caseworkers were rarely bothering to investigate before dismissing the charges.

    But it was not simply this overt partisan assault that created the backlash. According to Faludi, women came to condemn the movement because they heard from messengers they trusted that it was responsible for their pain. When the source of attack claims neutrality, offers statistics, cites an expert, the message carries even more weight.

    Her chronicle of the backlash began in 1986, after major magazines and newspapers trumpeted stories on an unpublished Harvard-Yale marriage study. The researchers claimed that a college-educated woman of 30 had only a 20% chance of finding a husband; by age 35 it was 5%, by 40 she was "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than make it to the altar, in Newsweek's memorable analogy. Reading the article on an airplane on the way to a friend's wedding, Faludi recalls, "I hadn't been worrying about marriage, but suddenly I felt glum and grouchy."

    She decided to write about "the marriage crunch," only to discover what demographers already knew: the figures were based on unorthodox calculations of unrepresentative samples. More men than women were rushing out to dating services, and in the prime marrying years of 24 to 34, there were 119 single men for every 100 single women. What bothered Faludi was not just that the numbers were wrong; it was that many of the stories read like morality tales, whispering threats about the cost of postponing marriage in favor of having a career. Fear of spinsterhood stormed into the popular culture, giving birth to a whole generation of desperate movie heroines, frantic sitcom spinsters, myriad self-help books.

    Struck by the eagerness of the media to hype dubious scholarship, Faludi examined other trend stories to find their hidden message. In 1982 the New England Journal of Medicine urged women to re-evaluate their goals in light of findings that a woman's fertility plunged after age 30. The tyranny of the biological clock, warning women about putting work before family, made front- page news; but the story was based on a French study of women with infertile husbands who had tried to get pregnant through artificial insemination -- hardly a representative sample.

    Digging further, Faludi found that the rash of "toxic day-care" stories, which instilled guilt among working women by recounting the epidemic of abuse in day-care centers, masked the fact that the vast majority of child abuse goes on in the home. She also found fault with the stories about women with Harvard M.B.A.s dropping out to go home and raise their children, the Good Housekeeping ads of the New Traditionalist, the notion of the Mommy Track; to her, they all implied that the postfeminist woman was the one who had sampled having it all and preferred to give most of it up. In fact, the pattern of the '80s was dictated by economic reality: 69% of women 18 to 64 work today, in contrast to 33% in 1950. "There may be women being laid off, but they are not going home because they want to," says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of 9 to 5, an advocacy group for working women.

    But Faludi has a frustrating habit of pushing her case too far, at times at the price of her own credibility. She rightly slams journalists who distort data in order to promote what they view as a larger truth; but in a number of instances, she can be accused of the same tactics.

    On the infertility studies, for example, Faludi is right to point out how the results of a small survey were exaggerated. But there are indeed health risks that confront older mothers. Faludi writes that contrary to popular belief, "women under 35 now give birth to children with Down syndrome at a higher rate than women over 35." This is not true. There are more babies born with Down syndrome to women under 35, but that is because there are more babies born to women under 35. The risk of Down and other genetic abnormalities increases with age, according to Gertrud Berkowitz, a Mount Sinai School of Medicine professor, and it is misleading to mix rates with absolute numbers.

    Likewise in her condemnation of the marriage study, Faludi is right that there is no man shortage for young women. But according to Barbara Lovenheim, who pored over census data for her book Beating the Marriage Odds, the ratio begins to reverse after 35: between the ages of 40 and 44, there are 75 single men for every 100 unmarried women.

    Faludi demonstrates that the studies on the impact of divorce greatly exaggerate the fall in the average woman's living standard in the year after she leaves her husband. But she adds that five years after divorce, most women's standard of living has actually improved. She relegates to a footnote the fact that this is because most have remarried.

    The wage gap, which Faludi says has barely improved since 1955, actually narrowed more quickly in the 1980s than it did in the previous three decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That the average woman now earns 71 cents for every dollar a man earns is still inexcusable, but by downplaying women's recent progress, Faludi risks undermining the message that economic inequity is still a real problem.

    Although her handling of these facts makes Faludi an easy target of backlash, it should not be an excuse to dismiss her entire argument. "It's perfectly legitimate to point out errors in any book that has a factoid in every sentence. I'm bound to make mistakes," Faludi says. "But to dismiss the whole argument is not right. We should be more focused on how we overcome the backlash." As Ann Jones, an author and professor at Mount Holyoke, argues, "The big picture is there, and the big picture is accurate."

    The New Image of Womanhood

    The big picture of the backlash has more to do with the messages that permeate everyday life, through television and movies, through fashions and advertising. Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth got readers talking about why women starve themselves, have breast implants, apply acid to their face to peel off the wrinkles, and why fashion magazines came to favor photo spreads of women wearing dog collars and chains and penciled-on bruises. It is on issues of symbol and representation that Faludi and the newly bred backlash theorists have the most fun and start the liveliest arguments over who really represented the Image of Woman in the 1980s.

    This insidious new image, Faludi claims, was Hope Steadman, the exalted, blissful, breast-feeding mother of thirtysomething, who provided a postfeminist contrast to the "neurotic spinster ((and)) ball-busting single career woman." Or Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction, the crazed professional temptress -- beautiful, successful and mad as a hatter, thanks to the deafening tick of her biological clock. Or the Dress for Success models who, in Faludi's lethal description, "trip down the runway in stiletto heels, hands snug in dainty white gloves. Their briefcases swing like Easter baskets, feather light; they are, after all, empty."

    Faludi acknowledges the presence of strong female figures in films, but she notes that their strength is often directed at protecting their young, which even in a backlash era is an acceptable female preoccupation. This takes care of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Jessica Lange and Sally Field in Country and Places in the Heart. Overall, Faludi finds that female characters were more likely to be portrayed as obsessed with career at the expense of family (Broadcast News), burning out from the rat race (Baby Boom), abandoning their children (Three Men and a Baby) or exploring the rewards of prostitution (Pretty Woman).

    It makes an interesting parlor game for contrarian readers to provide the counterimages, ones that dispute Faludi's thesis by showing that women were also often portrayed as strong and fulfilled. Was Hope Steadman any more an archetype of the '80s than Murphy Brown? The fashion press may have lauded Christian Lacroix's baby-doll dresses, but real women ignored them in favor of Donna Karan's comfortable professional clothes, or the Gap's gender-neutral everyday wear. For every virulent misogynist, such as Andrew Dice Clay or rappers with songs about mutilating "bitches," there was a Sandra Bernhard, a Lily Tomlin, above all a Roseanne Arnold.

    Faludi dispatches Roseanne and Madonna in one subclause of a sentence, which deprives readers of what would surely have been a lively discussion of two of the decade's most influential symbols. Writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich have praised Roseanne for helping root feminism in the family and give it a raw eloquence. "Roseanne gave working-class feminism a face," says Ehrenreich. "The typical image of a feminist in the media has been the Murphy Brown type -- the very successful, very slender, very perfectly organized professional woman. And we didn't have a media image of another kind of feminist who, obviously, is not slender or successful or organized."

    Madonna too became a symbol in the '80s of a maturing feminism, at least in the eyes of flame-throwing author Camille Paglia, who considers herself a feminist. "Madonna has enabled the young women of the world to recover their sexuality and yet to remain assertive, independent beings," Paglia says. "She was able to fuse this overt and almost pornographic sexuality as a woman with this dominant, managerial aptitude. It has been an extraordinary influence on women."

    More broadly, Faludi's feminist critics view her book as flawed and condescending because it treats women as victims, passively accepting what the culture imposes on them. Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck argued that "for all her feminist tenets, Faludi sells women short. The millions of women who are rethinking their full-time commitment to a job and are finding their primary satisfactions in family are, in her view, silly sheep being pushed back into the kitchen and the bedroom by men who want them to stay subordinate."

    Conservative critics charge that Faludi falsely conjures up a junta of antifeminists who conspired to force women to buy lacy underwear, watch reactionary movies, quit their jobs, mind the kids and do the laundry. "She chooses to invent a malevolent conspiracy instead of railing against God and the facts of nature," says author George Gilder, who describes himself as "America's No. 1 antifeminist." On the contrary, Gilder argues, the media and politicians are all in the ideological thrall of the feminists, "because feminism and sexual liberation are the religion of the intellectual class in America." The reason more women do not hold elected office as a result, he adds, is because "women don't vote for feminists. The people don't want feminism. Only the elite does."

    Faludi, in fact, takes pains to make her targets more subtle. "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," she explains. "Some even consider themselves feminists."

    Why the Backlash Worked

    If American women perceive a backlash against their progress, it is probably due more to what they encountered at work than on the screen or in the newspapers. The persistent recession pitted men and women against one another in a battle over job quotas that threw all the issues of economic fairness into bold relief. "Women, after all, and minorities are the first to lose jobs," observes Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a black political leader in Los Angeles. "So there is what you might call a new militancy among women."

    It was the showdown between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill that unveiled the depth of passion that women still feel about discrimination in private and public life. The fact that a majority of women as well as men wound up disbelieving Hill did not change the fact that the episode was a defining moment in the backlash debate. The National Women's Political Caucus placed an ad in the New York Times and in one week raised $85,000 from 1,300 people, far exceeding any of the caucus' previous ads or mailings. "Anita Hill focused attention on the fact that there were no women on that Senate panel making decisions about people's lives," says Harriett Woods, president of the caucus. "Hill-Thomas opened it up like a volcano erupting." The episode allowed feminists and others to make the point loud and clear, and with visual aids, that women are not to blame for their troubles, that the women's movement still has a role to play and that powerful forces will be fighting back.

    But the question remains of why so many women with firsthand experience of discrimination still refuse to call themselves feminists. There is something in the label that a lot of women, especially young ones, reject even as they acknowledge how much the movement increased the opportunities available to them. Younger women "think of feminists as women who burn bras and don't shave their legs," says Pat Schroeder, dean of Capitol Hill's 29 Congresswomen. "They think of us as the Amazons of the '60s. The facts have no relation to it, but it's become conventional wisdom."

    Will the shortage of young women in the movement cause feminism to fade away because it can't replenish its troops? Gloria Steinem says no. Young women have never provided feminism's shock troops, she says, and to assume otherwise reflects a male model of activism that has never applied to women. "I wasn't a feminist in my 20s either," she says. Where men tend to get more conservative as they get older, "it's always been the older women who are more radical than the younger women." Her reasoning is that young men have nothing to lose by being rebellious. "Women have more social power when they're young, and also they haven't experienced what's wrong with the world yet. They haven't been in the labor force. Aging, hitting the middle- management ceiling happens 10 years later. The red-hot center of feminism has never been on campus -- it was always somewhere else."

    The rejection of the label may, as Faludi argues, demonstrate the insidious effects of the backlash. But it may also reflect the failures of the movement. Paula Kamen, 24, author of Feminist Fatale, is a fan of Faludi's. But she urges that "in this age, the women's movement has to look in the mirror." Like some other critics, Kamen thinks that Backlash lets the women's movement off too easily. "It isn't all media conspiracy."

    Large majorities of women have consistently credited feminism with improving their lives and winning them access to public life, jobs, credit and educational opportunities. But that access brought hard choices. "When women were all outsiders and men were all insiders, the goals were easy," says Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. "Barriers were broken. But changes that depended on new social policy never were made. The part of the change that would make it easier for women to work never got put in place. We still don't have child care or family medical leave. Today women are working very hard, and they are tired."

    Contrary to Faludi's backlash thesis, the signs that women are having second thoughts are not purely an invention of the media. In 1985, given the choice between having a job or staying home to care for the family, 51% of women preferred to work, according to the Roper Organization; by 1991 that number fell to 43%, and 53% said they would rather stay home. It is certainly possible to see this self-questioning not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength. "It's not a sense of defeat. But it's saying, 'I have many possibilities, and this is just what I prefer,' " contends Karlyn Keene, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

    Any social commentator who shatters myths and exposes hypocrisy has performed a useful service, and Faludi is no exception. She has inspired men and women to take a new look at the messages they absorb, messages that act as barriers to understanding or to justice. But it is also appropriate to argue, as founding feminist Betty Friedan does, that feminism also needs to "transcend sexual politics and anger against men to express a new vision of family and community. We must go from wallowing in the victim's state to mobilizing the new power of women and men for a larger political agenda on the priorities of life. We need to confront the polarization. We're at a dangerous time." Such conciliatory rhetoric is not backsliding. It too is a call to arms.



    From a telephone poll of 625 American women taken on Feb. 20 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 4%. "Not sures" omitted.

    CAPTION: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

    Has the women's movement improved your life?

    Is there still a need for a strong women's movement?

    Does it reflect the views of most women?

    Do women today have more freedom than their mothers did?

    Do they enjoy life more than their mothers did?