Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women

by Susan Faludi

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555

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 happily married Michael Douglas after a brief affair. In many 1980s films, as in Fatal Attraction

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Fatal Attraction, Faludi states, the plot involves the feminine ‘‘Light Woman’’ killing the aggressively manly ‘‘Dark Woman.’’ The press, however, declared that these movies’ themes constituted a trend and found actual women like Close’s character to write about.

Chapter Six According to Faludi, while women largely disappeared from prime-time television programming in the late 1980s (as they did in the late 1950s and early 1960s), ‘‘TV’s counterassault on women’s liberation would be . . . more restrained than Hollywood’s.’’ During the mid-1970s, many television series tackled political issues, including feminism. But by the early 1980s, the tide was beginning to turn. The few shows with strong women were toned down to appeal to advertisers. Television in the 1980s condemned women who dared step outside the home, and single career women were usually given angry or neurotic personalities. The only ‘‘good’’ female character in the popular series thirtysomething was the angelic Hope, according to Faludi, a stay-at-home mom who was the envy of her careerist female friends.

Chapter Seven In the 1970s, the fashion industry responded to a push from career women to produce more suits and practical clothing. But in the 1980s, a backlash occurred in which designers decided that fashion would be more feminine and fantastical—even to the point of childishness. One of the chief perpetrators of this ‘‘little girl’’ look was Christian Lacroix, according to Faludi. After a lull in the 1970s in sales of undergarments and lingerie, the industry declared that the 1980s was seeing a boom in this area. However, according to Faludi, this was a pressgenerated trend and did not reflect reality. A major reason women were not buying lingerie was that the styles in the late 1980s ‘‘celebrated the repression, not the flowering of female sexuality.’’

Chapter Eight In the 1980s, the beauty industry—including those who encouraged unnecessary plastic surgery as well as those who sold cosmetics—set a standard of femininity for American women that Faludi believes was ‘‘grossly unnatural.’’ Even though it may be one of the most superficial of the cultural institutions involved in the backlash, Faludi believes that, because the beauty industry changed how women felt about themselves, it was the most destructive.

Chapter Nine Faludi discusses the ‘‘New Right movement’’ of the 1980s and its agenda—purported to be profamily but, in her opinion, was simply anti-women and anti-feminist. Faludi focuses on the women who work for New Right organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation and Concerned Women for America. She notes that even though these organizations claim that women cannot be both good mothers and good career women, the New Right’s female leaders are living lives that contradict this sentiment.

Chapter Ten Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 came with the help of many New Right women, Faludi asserts. However, she notes that a by-product of Reagan’s victory was that ‘‘women began disappearing from federal office’’—even women who were conservative and anti-feminist. Faludi adds that Democrats did much the same thing during the 1980s and that no one challenged them.

Chapter Eleven Faludi argues that ‘‘the backlash’s emissaries’’ came not only from the New Right movement but also from among the numerous writers, scholars, and thinkers who appeared in the mainstream media. In this chapter, she profiles nine of these men and women, not in an attempt to ‘‘psychoanalyze’’ them, she says, but to offer an overview of those who helped make the backlash against women’s rights more ‘‘palatable for public consumption.’’ They include George Gilder, Allan Bloom, Michael and Margarita Levin, Warren Farrell, Robert Bly, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Betty Friedan, and Carol Gilligan.

Chapter Twelve In the 1970s, according to Faludi, commercially popular therapeutic and self-help books directed toward women told their readers that they had the right to be treated with respect. In contrast, similar books published in the 1980s urged women to keep quiet and not challenge the social order. These books also blamed feminism for women’s unhappiness and asked their readers to criticize only themselves if their lives were not what they envisioned. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association amended its standard diagnosis reference to include, according to Faludi, anti-woman definitions for two disorders, masochistic personality disorder and pre-menstrual syndrome.

Chapter Thirteen The Reagan administration in the 1980s downplayed reports that women were losing status in the workplace, according to Faludi. The press failed to investigate this disinformation campaign and actually participated in publicizing misinformation about the backlash against working women. After the gains made in the 1970s, women particularly in the media, retail, and blue-collar industries suffered in their efforts to secure workplace equality in the 1980s.

Chapter Fourteen In this chapter, Faludi discusses how the 1980s backlash against women affected their reproductive rights. In 1973, the U. S. Supreme Court declared abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, but during the 1980s organizations such as Operation Rescue and many conservative politicians wanted to reverse the result of the ruling. Faludi argues that women’s ability to regulate their fertility contributed to dramatic changes ‘‘not in the abortion rate but in female sexual behavior and attitudes,’’ and this was frightening to many. According to Faludi, in the 1980s, women were losing the right to make decision regarding the treatment of their bodies while pregnant.

Epilogue Faludi tells a number of women’s personal stories to show that ‘‘for all the forces the backlash mustered . . . women never really surrendered.’’ She is, though, somewhat disappointed that women as a whole did not take advantage of their numbers as much as they could have in the 1980s to make their case for equality. ‘‘The ’80s could have become American women’s great leap forward,’’ she believes.