Put the Blame on Mame

by Wendy Kaminer
BACKLASH: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi. Crown, $24.00.
SHE’S A CASHMERE-sweater and camel’s-hair-coat girl: no artificial fiber would dare to touch her perfect skin. She’s an Ivory Soap girl, with barely styled brown hair falling thickly past her shoulders. Softly pretty and blankly self-assured, she’s a tranquilizer: two clean and docile young boys flank her, stuck to her sides like magnets on a refrigerator. One has both arms wrapped fervently around her waist. The other leans into the pleats of her good wool skirt.
She’s the New Traditionalist, star of a recent Good Housekeeping ad campaign and harbinger of what’s supposed to be a trend. In the 1990s women will rediscover domesticity, according to Good Housekeeping. “Searching for something to believe in,” the post-feminist woman will find “her husband, her children, her home,” and last of all “herself.” Kicking off the new “social movement” of full-time homemaking, Alan Waxenberg, the publisher of Good Housekeeping, offered this historical critique of late-twentieth-centurv American culture: the 1960s was the decade of “protest,” the 1970s was the decade of “feminism,” the 1980s was the decade of “yuppieism,” and the 1990s will be the decade of the “new traditionalist.”
It should be easy to dismiss anti-feminist fantasies (and puerile pronouncements on culture) like this, but they are taken quite seriously. Reactionary visions of femininity have displaced “factual reporting” on women’s lives, Susan Faludi stresses in her comprehensive survey of a powerful ten-year backlash against feminism. Faludi, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, briskly exposes the conventional wisdom about women’s dissatisfaction with equality and life outside the home as a collection of prejudices and myths.
The first myth, from which all others flowed, began circulating in the early 1980s (I originally heard it from the audience on The Phil Donahue Show). It goes something like this: the feminist movement is over, because equality has been achieved. To believe this you have to ignore a heaping lot of facts—about sexual violence and harassment, the wage gap, occupational segregation, the denial of reproductive choice to poor women, the disproportionate numbers of women in poverty, the disproportionate numbers of men in Congress and the judiciary. (Approximately three quarters of all wageearning women are clustered in lowerpaying “women’s jobs"; every six minutes a woman is raped; women make up only five percent of Congress.)
The problems these statistics represent have, of course, received some attention in the media—occasional articles about the “glass ceiling,” the feminization of poverty, and the unequal treatment of women candidates, a few TV movies about rape victims and battered wives. But feminists who have continued to protest pervasive sex discrimination are likely to be dismissed as complainers. And they’re said to be “out of touch" with the average American woman, which brings us to myth no. 2: Women today suffer from too much equality, not too little. The highprofile problems for women in the 1980s (middle-class problems all) were infertility, the stress of working outside the home, and the emptiness of professional life. The blame for virtually all these problems was put on feminism, which devolved from a promise to a threat.
Faludi, unabashed about her own feminism and commitment to equal rights, shows how these myths were perpetuated and exploited by the press, the fashion and film industries, the anti-abortion movement, cosmetic surgeons, right-wing ideologues-turnedauthors (George Gilder and Allan Bloom), popular psychologists, the men’s-movement guru Robert Bly, and a few revisionist feminists (Carol Gilligan, Lenore Weitzman, Sylvia Ann Hewlett). Backlash is more descriptive than analytic; Faludi doesn’t argue the justice of equality so much as assume it, which will alienate readers (I suspect there are many) who believe that equality is unnatural and bad for women. But Faludi is a good journalist; her assertions about anti-feminist propaganda are thoroughly substantiated. If you believe, as I do, that equality is good for women, and that traditional gender roles are mandated unfairly by culture, not nature, you’ll find this book a valuable resource— an encyclopedic review of contemporary anti-feminism—and reading it you may feel less alone.
BEGINNING WITH a critique of the overpublicized 1986 HarvardYale study about the diminishing chances that single, educated, heterosexual women over thirty would find mates, Faludi debunks much popular wisdom about the ravages of feminism: the Harvard-Yale marriage findings were preliminary, readily discredited by other statisticians, and deleted from the final marriage study that was formally published three and a half years later. The preliminary Findings, encouraging women to marry young, were front-page news; word of their retraction was buried and brief.
In the 1980s, Faludi asserts, “statistics on women stopped functioning as social barometers.” Instead of describing women’s behavior, they effectively prescribed it. The Reagan Administration pressured the Census Bureau into demonstrating “the rising threat of infertility, the physical and psychic risks lurking in abortion, the dark side of single parenthood, the ill effects of day care.” Bad news about feminism was heavily promoted by the press and rarely scrutinized, as Faludi demonstrates. The press portrayed the “post-feminist” professional woman as stressedout and frustrated sexually and maternally. It helped create an “infertility epidemic” (there was little hard evidence of one), launching an infertility industry. It seized on questionable news about the dire effects of divorce reform on homemakers, perversely blaming feminists for the inevitable consequences of discrimination. The problems of displaced homemakers are hardly indictments of feminism; they’re indictments of the traditional division of labor at home and in the workplace (and of the dearth of day care), which denies women equal earning power and necessitated a feminist movement,
The scapegoating of feminism—the spread of rhe notion that women suffered from equality, not discrimination—was a product of what Faludi calls trend journalism. (It was trend journalism that allowed Good Housekeepings publisher to anoint the 1990s as the decade of the “new traditionalist” with a completely straight face.) News accounts of women’s lives in the 1980s were marked by “the absence of real women,” Faludi asserts.
The press delivered the backlash to the public through a series of “trend stories,” articles that claimed to divine sweeping shifts in female social behavior while providing little in the way of evidence to support their generalizations.
Underlying Faludi’s occasionally familiar critique of anti-feminism is a powerful critique of the press.
Faludi is not a conspiracy theorist who believes that the press was part of some anti-feminist cabal; it was “just grossly susceptible to the prevailing political currents.” She also ascribes the shoddy reporting on feminism to laziness—journalists’ “propensity to repeat one another"—and to a concentration of ownership that encouraged the repetition of news items. The persuasiveness of thoughtless, unsubstantiated attacks on feminism was a tribute to the force of repetition, as Faludi observes. Saying that feminism was bad for women made it so, as long as you said it often. (“If we say it’s a quota bill, it’s a quota bill,” a Republican operative told The New York Times recently, explaining the President’s strategy on the civil-rights bill.)
Journalists created the new truths about feminism; Hollywood dramatized them. The independent, often unmarried heroines of the 1970s gave way to the frustrated career women of the 1980s who got their comeuppance in the anti-feminist Fatal Attraction. Faludi doesn’t predict fashions in femininity for the 1990s, but if Thelma and Louise and Terminator 2 are indications of a trend, celluloid women may regain their independence with a vengeance. She does provide an entertaining and instructive report on the backlash of the 1980s in the movies and on TV, focusing on the misogynist sentiments of Fatal Attraction’s director, Adrian Lvne, its leading man, Michael Douglas, and other rich white guys who feel wounded by feminism. Douglas is “tired of feminists, sick of them. . . . Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” he laments. Marshall Herskovitz, a co-creator of thirtysomething, agrees: “I think this is a terrible time to be a man, maybe the worst time in history,” he whines. “Manhood has simply been devalued in recent years and doesn’t carry much weight anymore.”
Womanhood, however, carries no weight at all. It floats down fashion runways in tight, tiny skirts and babvdoll dresses. Faludi chronicles the emergence in the late 1980s of Christian Lacroix and other designers who promoted High Femininity—clinging, revealing fripperies and street-wear lingerie. Fashion designers claimed philosophically that they were doing women a favor: The “tailored look” damaged women “psychologically,” Cher’s favored designer. Bob Mackie, opined. “It hurt their femininity,”
Women consumers did not agree. Faludi believes. She reports that the fashion industry lost money on High Femininity. It was a failure in the readv-to-wear market; it didn’t suit women’s lives at home or in the workplace. Informal evidence—what you see on the street and in stores—indicates that designers may finally have been more successful in marketing miniskirts than Faludi suggests. But their apparent willingness to suffer some financial losses in their High Femininity campaign is unsettling, revealing, as it does, an anti-feminist ideology that’s stronger than greed.
Not that anti-feminism isn’t often profitable, as cosmetic surgeons can attest. Not that feminism isn’t seen as a financial threat by men who fear losing their monopoly on higher-paying jobs. (Women’s advances in employment in the 1970s helped trigger the backlash, as Faludi observes. Blue-collar workers whose earning power was being depleted by a failing economy were especially resentful of feminism.) But Faludi’s report on the backlash implies that it is fueled not just by economics but by prejudice arising from a fierce emotional attachment to traditional gender roles and notions about natural gender differences. (Michael Douglas and Marshall Herskovitz can hardly be worried that women will take over their jobs.) The enormous popularity of Carol Gilligan’s narrow, anecdotal, entirely unsubstantiated paean to women’s “different voice” was evidence of a strong belief among women, too, in natural gender differences— that men and women differ not just biologically but in terms of character, temperament, and moral perspective. The anti-abortion movement exploits this belief in the primacy of women’s maternal role and their nurturing, compassionate, “relational” proclivities. Reproductive choice is a covert economic threat to men (it expands education and employment options for women), but it also poses an identity crisis for women who define themselves as mothers first.
Faludi acknowledges the emotional appeal of anti-feminism, but she believes that it’s limited among women. Relying on surveys that indicate women’s strong support for an egalitarian feminist agenda, she suggests that backlash was foisted upon us by antifeminist men (and their right-wing women’s auxiliary). Women have been silenced and isolated by backlash, she says, not persuaded by it.
I’m hopeful she’s right, but I’m not optimistic. Despite some evidence of a small gender gap, women help elect anti-feminist politicians. Women consume trend journalism, advice by selfappointed experts on “successful” femininity, and tributes to women’s special (and superior) ways of knowing, relating, and resolving moral dilemmas. Women believed Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill by about a two-to-one margin, according to The New York Times, which reported no significant gender gap in support for the Thomas nomination. Feminism was easily sabotaged by the federal government and gatekeepers of the culture because it lacked the wholehearted support of its constituency. Feminists themselves are deeply divided over the fairness and feasibility of equality, and over strategies for achieving it. Feminists, too, are insecure about aging, gaining weight, and failing the tests of femininity.
Demographic changes and the need to integrate women fully into the civilian workplace and the military may eventually force equality on a recalcitrant public. Reaction to the probably imminent reversal of Supreme Court cases securing women’s abortion rights may revitalize the feminist movement. Young women like Susan Faludi may continue the drive for equality with uncompromising confidence and verve. Meanwhile, according to a reliable source, some leading New York feminists are getting facelifts.