Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women

by Susan Faludi

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

Structure and Functioning of Families
Conservative thinkers and writers object to feminism because it ignores what they see as a woman’s natural inclination toward making a home for her children and husband. In their eyes, feminists’ endorsement of a woman’s ability to maintain a home while pursuing a career threatens the family structure by subverting the man as the traditional head of the household. This, in turn, threatens the country’s social and economic structure. Those who view feminism in this way believe that the women’s movement is not only encouraging women to work while they have children but also to forgo or delay having children. Faludi is particularly concerned that the backlash against women delaying childbirth encourages press reports that there is an ‘‘epidemic’’ of infertility among career women.

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Some conservative commentators, who argue that feminists have encouraged women to remain childless, believe that such urgings place the nation at an economic disadvantage in the world. In her analysis of this argument, Faludi asserts that those who make this case for American women having children can be accused of racism and xenophobia. She believes that they are worried not only about America’s economic future but also about the possibility of whites becoming a minority among people of color and foreigners.

Faludi delights in revealing the personal lives of many of the conservative thinkers who oppose feminism, observing that those lives very often run counter to the tenets of their public comments. She writes about a number of the women involved in the New Right who, despite their arguments that careers and motherhood do not mix, are pursuing lives filled with both children and work. She also points out the number of men in these prominent couples who take over the household duties, such as child care and cooking, so that their wives can pursue careers.

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Popular Culture in the 1980s
Faludi uses popular culture during the 1980s to buttress her argument that the decade was a period of backlash against women and feminism. Her evidence for this backlash includes examples from the movie industry, television, the cosmetics and beauty industry, the fashion world, and societal trends.

For example, Faludi notes that after a decade filled with television series like All in the Family, which tackled tough political issues (including women’s rights), television in the mid- to late 1980s featured few programs in which women’s issues were considered. The rare 1980s show featuring a strong woman was usually under threat of cancellation. In the movies, women were regularly beaten, pitted against each other, or punished for being single. Hollywood supported the backlash by showing American women who were ‘‘unhappy because they were too free [and] their liberation had denied them marriage and motherhood,’’ says Faludi. The fashion industry reinforced the backlash, as well, by designing clothing that was either childlike or extremely restrictive and binding.

The Struggle for Equal Rights
Faludi’s book is concerned with a period in history—the 1980s—during which women’s struggle for equal rights suffered setbacks. She notes, however, that these periods of backlash historically occur after periods of advancement in women’s rights. According to Faludi, the mid-nineteenth century, the early 1900s, the early 1940s, and the early 1970s were eras during which American women saw large gains in their economic and social status. ‘‘In each case, the struggle yielded to backlash,’’ asserts Faludi.

Faludi points out that the backlash against women is cyclical. For example, when she speaks of movies in the 1980s, she also looks at the tenor of movies in the 1970s. When she examines 1980s fashions, she also considers what women were wearing in the 1950s, a period of backlash after the advances of the 1940s.

Myths and Their Role in Society
Faludi points out that many in society, including some well-meaning writers and thinkers, have accepted the truth of myths about the status of women in the 1980s. She exposes many of these myths and supposed trends, which have appeared so often in the press that most Americans consider them as fact. For example, Faludi discovered that the Harvard-Yale marriage study, proclaiming that unmarried women after the age of thirty have a very slim chance of ever becoming wed was full of methodological errors. She also challenges stories claiming that single career women suffer from depression in epidemic numbers.

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