Is Feminism Out of Fashion?

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Elissa Karg

AS I READ Susan Faludi’s bestseller, Backlash, I found myself doubting her thesis: instead of going forward, as women have been all of my adult life, are we now going backwards? Did feminism go out of fashion in the ’80s?

As I was mulling over these questions, I picked up a copy of the magazine section of the Sunday paper and came across one of those personal testimony” type articles describing a woman’s decision to give up her career after the birth of her baby. She concluded that her husband was constitutionally unable to do housework or learn to cook, and the baby’s firsts too precious to miss, so she would stay at home. None of this bothered me, except the article’s clincher. Isn’t this, after all, what women’s liberation means?

I turned back to Faludi with more interest.

Faludi’s thesis is that there is a backlash against feminism which says that it is precisely women’s progress that accounts for our unhappiness. Newspaper stories, magazine articles, advertising campaigns, TV sitcoms, movies all send us a message about the loneliness and stress of feminist-inspired freedom.

Feminist Urban Legends

The book begins with a chapter called “Man Shortage and Barren Wombs,” which debunks a series of what I would call the equivalent of urban legends for feminism. McDonald’s grinds cockroaches into your hamburgers and women…

… won’t get  man if they don’t have one by age thirty.

… are burned out on the corporate ladder and ready to jump.

… who delayed childbearing for career are infertile.

who put their children in daycare risk having them abused.

Feminist urban legend #1 is a study that reported that single, college educated women over thirty have a 20% chance of getting married. By forty, the odds plummet to 1.3%. Known as the Harvard-Yale study, it made front page news in 1986 and water cooler conversation across the country. When Newsweek ran this story, they said a woman over forty had a better chance of being shot by a terrorist than finding a husband. (An analogy that at least assures us that misogyny isn’t dead.)

Faludi, then a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, blew the lid off the Harvard-Yale study. She reported that data analyzed by Census Bureau demographer Jeanne Moorman showed that single women over thirty had a 60% chance of marrying, and that college-educated women were more likely to marry than women with high school degrees alone.

The Reagan administration ordered Moorman to abandon her study and concentrate instead on a study about the abuse of welfare by poor women. None of this made front page news.

Later, Faludi parlayed her expose into a full-blown book As a book, there are enormous stretches to fit the data into the thesis. What Faludi produced is a breezy, almost frenzied survey of antifeminist ideas of the ’80s.

She looks at political sources: right-wing politicians, leaders and movements, feminists-turned-anti-feminists, and even revered feminist leaders such as Betty Freidan and Carol Gilligan. The more interesting part of the book is an assessment of popular culture: advertising, fashion, cosmetics, music, Hollywood and self-help books.

But Faludi reserves the hottest place in hell for the media. The media’s complicity in spreading these feminist urban legends is termed an “endless feedback loop” that perpetuates its own reality. Faludi scores important points about trend journalism, where trend stories refer to other trend stories, which base their claims on trend stories. Several times, in interviews, her subjects refer to the movie “Fatal Attraction” as if they are quoting scholarly research. What happens is that, rather than reporting on trends, the media creates trends.

Take, for example, feminist urban legend #2, the infertility crisis. Faludi shows that the infertility crisis was a complete statistical fabrication, but the facts did not get in the way of generating news stories, feature articles, movies and TV shows (not to mention a medical infertility industry) that panicked a generation of women. In fact, this myth was based on a study conducted by a federation that ran eleven artificial insemination centers in France. Again, the underlying message was: You feminists, you thought you were so smart, now you know the tradeoff for your selfish careerism: you’re infertile.

Feminist urban legend #3: Women are jumping off the corporate ladder, presumably because they realized that you can’t be a CEO and have milk and cookies waiting after school. The original source of this legend was Fortune magazine. On closer examination, Faludi found that the story hung on one solid fact: 30% of the women graduates of the Harvard Business School class of 1976 said they were unemployed or self-employed. The story failed to mention that 21% of the men identified themselves the same way.

What’s useful about Backlash, and positive, is that it offers an analysis, a world view, a new way of seeing things, that puts the women’s movement in a perspective. A review in Working Woman said: “It’s as if she had jetted in from Jupiter, spotting patterns we couldn’t see.” Other reviewers compared her insights to an aerial photograph.

Sometimes this kind of a perspective is helpful even if all we want to do is refute it.

Assessing Popular Culture

I suspect that we I suspect that we could analyze any decade in the modern era and conclude that women have been the subject of a backlash. In what decade was popular culture not sexist? The fashion industry not predicated on the idea that appearance is more important than comfort or function? The film industry promoting more women like Thelma and Louise than Marilyn Monroe?

The problem with the backlash theory is that it makes it look as if the women’s movement has been trampled into the dust. As if we had been systematically beaten back to ground zero. It’s simplistic, and it’s pessimistic. For activists, it can be hard to build a women’s movement with this kind of assessment.

It’s useful to remember that if there’s a backlash, there must be a frontlash. This is a response to real gains that women have made.

Social movements, especially those that make real gains, have to be seen as a dynamic process. Faludi’s model: ’70s frontlash -’80s backlash – ’90s start again – won’t hold up. The ’70s was a peak of feminist accomplishment, the decade of Roe v. Wade, the decade of the consciousness-raising movement. But it was also the decade that launched the right-to-life movement, passed the Hyde Amendment, effectively defeated the ERA and characterized feminism as a fringe movement of bra burners.

The ’80s may have been the backlash decade, but it was also the decade when women mobilized in massive numbers to defend abortion rights, when working women started fighting back against sexual harassment Feminist organizing as such may have ebbed, but women’s expectations were never higher, nor more widespread. Feminism advanced from a movement of conscious activists to a part of the fabric of American culture. The maxim of the ’80s might have been: I’m not a feminist, but…

Many critics have taken Faludi to task for playing fast and loose with statistics, in just the way that outrages her. For example, Faludi states that the increase in sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC is documentation of an increase in sexual harassment. It seems fairly obvious that the increase is in women’s awareness of sexual harassment as an illegal form of sex discrimination.

Faludi also produces an array of statistics to show us that women’s economic progress stalled in the backlash decade.

Another problem with Faludi as a social critic is that many of her critiques center on personality, rather than politics. She seems to think that she has scored a big point when she exposes right wingers for the inconsistencies between their philosophy and their personal life.

In an interview with one couple that purported to be a traditional couple, Faludi gleefully notes that as she was leaving, the man was putting on an apron to help his sons in the kitchen. She trumpets to quote Connie Marshner, another right-wing guru, saying, “I’m a terrible housekeeper. To me, it’s very unrewarding, unfulfilling work.” All this may be fun to read, and may be grist for feminist inspiration, but the important thing about right-wing leaders is not their personalities, but that their ideas gain such following.

Faludi’s treatment of the media is unsettling. It is almost as if the media is a force in class conflict, equal to other class forces, rather than a reflection of class conflict By and large, the media is controlled by the ruling class and reflects ruling class politics. In Faludi’s analysis, there are no class forces, no reason for the media to want women in traditional roles other than sexism.

Finally, Faludi writes without any sympathy for the stress that women experience. No one invented the stress that working mothers feel. Anna Quindlen wrote a review of Backlash, mostly positive, but she noted that when she goes to the daycare center at the end of the day and her daughter greets her by saying, “Mommy missed you,” that is a genuine stress.

There have been tremendous changes in women’s work patterns, but not tremendous changes in working conditions. The women’s movement fought for day care, and lo and behold, corporations finally got on that bandwagon in the late ’80s, but a fight for flexible work schedules for parents, for part-time work with benefits, were not issues that the women’s movement took up, nor were they of concern to corporations. Our society molds the children to fit the needs of corporations, not vice versa.

Faludi accepts without question the counterposition of career-juggling-mom versus stay-at-home-mom, and implicit is that the career-juggler is the true feminist These are not things we have to accept (She is also flippant about statistics about abuse in daycare centers, concluding that abuse by family members is a far bigger problem, which hardly seems to be the point.)

Backlash itself is a phenomenon. “Backlash” is accepted as a characterization of the ‘80s, or at least as the characterization to be argued against. (Actually, “backlash” is a word that might be applied more precisely to other movements, say the labor movement. But that’s another book.) It’s an explicitly feminist book, and a bestseller.

But is it being discussed in the women’s movement? If it is, or if it can be, one of the useful contributions that can be made to the discussion would be that the power of oppressed groups is in struggle. Faludi presents a static mode—frontlash/backlash/ground zero (sounds like a computer program)—and deemphasizes the role of movements and the importance of being in motion. In reality, our gains are gains only as long as we are in struggle.

March/April 1993, ATC 43