Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women Summary

Susan Faludi


Susan Faludi’s bestselling book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, is a methodically researched and documented work challenging conventional wisdom about the American women’s movement and women’s gains in achieving equality in the latter years of the twentieth century. Faludi begins the book by looking carefully at then-current myths about the status of women, including the press reports that single career women are more likely to be depressed than other women, that professional women are leaving their jobs in droves to stay at home, and that single working women over age thirty have a small chance of ever getting married. Not only are these myths not true, says Faludi, but they are evidence of a society-wide backlash against women and what they have achieved in recent years. She describes this backlash as a ‘‘kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie’’ and declares that ‘‘it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s positions have actually led to their downfall.’’

In her book, Faludi takes the press to task for failing to challenge the myths about women in the 1980s and especially for spreading, through ‘‘trend journalism,’’ stories about how unhappy women are, despite their having reaped the benefits of women’s liberation in the 1970s. Faludi challenges the prevailing wisdom that the women’s movement is to blame for women’s unhappiness; she believes their unhappiness actually stems from the fact that the struggle for equality is not yet finished.

Faludi uses data from a wide variety of sources, such as government and university studies, newspapers, census reports, scholarly journals, and personal interviews to explore women’s status in the 1980s. The personal interviews offer a look at the individuals who are behind the ‘‘backlash’’ and, according to Faludi, are hindering women’s progress.

Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women Summary

Chapter One
Faludi begins by stating that, though many may agree that the end of the twentieth century is a good time to be a woman, press reports and surveys indicate that women are unhappy with their lives. Often, this is blamed on a variety of factors related to feminism, such as women working outside the home. ‘‘Women are enslaved by their own liberation,’’ claim many commentators who argue against feminism. But Faludi disagrees, arguing instead that women are unhappy because the real work of achieving equality has barely begun. She uses statistics that show that women still make less money and hold more low-status jobs than men and that domestic violence and rape are on the rise:

The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories the feminist movement did manage to win for women.

Chapter Two
Faludi presents a number of what she calls myths, stories ‘‘that have supported the backlash against women’s quest for equality.’’ Even though these myths have appeared in newspapers and have become accepted facts in America, they are untrue. These myths include the notions that women are finding it more difficult to find husbands, that nofault divorce laws are to blame for the reduction in the standard of living of divorced women, that professional women are increasingly infertile, that career women have more mental illnesses than noncareer women, and that children in day care suffer permanent damage.

Chapter Three
The history of women’s rights in the United States is much longer than most people believe, Faludi says, and dates to well before the 1970s, a decade that many today see as the advent of feminism. While backlashes against women’s rights can be traced to colonial times, Faludi limits her examination to the backlashes after the four most recent periods of advancement: the mid-nineteenth century, the early 1900s, the early 1940s, and the early 1970s. Currently, she says, Americans are in a backlash phase against the advances made in the 1970s. She also notes that each of the backlash periods included a supposed ‘‘crisis in masculinity’’ and its companion, ‘‘a call to femininity.’’

Chapter Four
This chapter covers how the media, through ‘‘trend journalism,’’ helped create the backlash against women’s rights and feminism in the 1980s by coining the terms ‘‘mommy track,’’ ‘‘biological clock,’’ and ‘‘man shortage.’’ The press sought to answer the question of why women, after years of advances, still felt dissatisfied. Their answer was that feminism’s achievements, not society’s ‘‘resistance to these partial achievements,’’ were causing the stress among women. The media claimed that there was a trend afoot (personified in the ‘‘New Traditionalist’’ woman) in which women were choosing home life over careers; this did not have any statistical support, according to Faludi. Media reports were presenting a view of single women as defective, while single men were lauded for making ‘‘mature’’ decisions.

Chapter Five
Here, Faludi addresses how the backlash shaped Hollywood’s portrayal of women in the 1980s. While a number of films in the 1970s positively portrayed single women making choices that supported their careers, the 1980s produced a crop of films in which single career women were made to pay dearly for their decisions not to have children and husbands. Faludi points to Fatal Attraction as the epitome of anti-feminism in the late 1980s. In the movie, Glenn Close plays a bitter, single, career woman who takes out her anger on otherwise...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)