This is the first part of a two-part series.
Copyright 1991 by Susan Faludi. Pulitzer Prize – winner Susan Faludi’s piece on Operation Rescue appeared in the November 1990 Mother Jones.
Blame it on Feminism
What’s wrong with women today?
Too much equality.
TO BE A WOMEN IN AMERICA AT THE CLOSE OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY - what good fortune. That’s what we keep hearing, anyway. The barricades have fallen, politicians assure us. Women have “made it,” Madison Avenue cheers. Women’s fight for equality has “largely been won,” Time magazine announces. Enroll at any university, join any law firm, and apply for any credit at any bank. Women have so many opportunities now, corporate leaders say, that they don’t really need opportunity policies. Women are so equal now, lawmakers say, that they no longer need an Equal Rights Amendment. Women have “so much,” former president Ronald Reagan says, that the White house no longer needs to appoint them to high office. Even American Express ads are saluting a woman’s right to charge it. At last, women have received their full citizenship papers. And yet…
Behind this celebration of the Americans woman’s victory, behind the news, cheerfully and endlessly repeated, that the struggle for women’s rights is won, another message flashes: You may be free and equal now, but you have never been more miserable.
This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere-at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, I advertisements and doctor’s offices and academic journals. Professional women are suffering “burnout” and succumbing to an “infertility epidemic.” Single women are grieving from a “man shortage.” The New York Times reports: Childless women are “depressed and confused” and their ranks are swelling. Newsweek says: Unwed women are “hysterical” and crumbling under a “profound crisis of confidence.” The health-advice manuals inform: High-powered career women are stricken with unprecedented outbreaks of “stress-induced disorders,” hair loss, bad nerves, alcoholism, and even heart attacks. The psychology books advice: Independent women’s loneliness represents “a major mental-health problem today.” Even founding feminist Betty Friedan has been spreading the word: She warns that women now suffer from “new problems that have no name.”
How can American women be in so much trouble at the same time that they are supposed to be so blessed? If women got what they asked for, what could possibly be the matter now?
The prevailing wisdom of the past decade has supported one, and only one, answer this riddle: It must be all that equality that’s causing all that pain. Women are unhappy precisely because they are free. Women are enslaved by their own liberation. They have grabbed at the gold ring of independence, only to miss the one ring that really matters. They have gained control of their fertility, only to destroy it. They have pursued their own professional dreams-and lost out on romance, the greatest female adventure. “Our generation was the human sacrifice” to the women’s movement, writer Elizabeth Mehren contends in a Time cover story. Baby-boom women, like her, she says, have been duped by feminism: “we believed the rhetoric.” In Newsweek writer Kay Ebeling dubs feminism the “Great Experiment That Failed” and asserts, “Women in my generation, its perpetrators, are the casualties.”
In the eighties, publications forms the New York Times to Vanity Fair to The Nation have issued a steady stream of indictments against the women’s movement, with such headlines as “WHEN FEMINISM FAILED” or “THE AWFUL TRUTH AVOUT WOMEN’S LIB”. They hold the campaign for women’s equality responsible for nearly every woe besetting women, from depression to meager savings accounts, from teenage suicides to eating disorders to bad complexions. The Today show says women’s liberation is to blame for bag ladies. A guest columnist in the Baltimore Sun even proposes that feminists produced the rise in slashed movies. By making the “violence” of abortion more acceptable, the author reasons, women’s-rights activists made it all right to show graphic murders on screen.
At the same time, other outlets of popular culture have been forging the same connection: In Hollywood films, of which Fatal Attraction is the only most famous, emancipated women with condominiums of their own slink wild-eyed between bare walls, paying for their liberty with an empty bed, barren womb. “My biological clock is ticking so loud it keeps me awake at night,” Sally Field cries in the film Surrender, as, in an all-too-common transformation in the cinema of the eighties, an actress who once played scrappy working heroines is now showcased groveling for a groom. In prime-time television shows, from thirtysomething to Family Man, single professional, and feminist women are humiliated, turned into harpies, or hit by nervous breakdowns; the wise ones recant their independent ways by closing sequence. In popular novels, from Gail Parent’s A Sign of the Eighties to Stephen King’s Misery, unwed women shrink to sniveling spinsters or inflate to fire-breathing she-devils; renouncing all aspirations but marriage, they beg for wedding bands from strangers or swing axes at reluctant bachelors. Even Erica Jong’s high-flying independent heroine literally crashes by the end of the decade, as the author supplants Fear of Flying’s saucy Isadora Wing, an exuberant symbol of female sexual emancipation in the seventies, with an embittered careerist-turned-recovering-“codependent” in Any Woman’s Blues – a book that is intended, as the narrator bluntly states, “to demonstrate what a dead end the so-called sexual revolution had become and how desperate so-called free women were in the last few years of our decadent epoch.”
Popular psychology manuals peddle the same diagnosis for contemporary female distress. “Feminism, having promised her a stronger sense of her own identity, has given her little more than an identity crisis,” the best-selling advice manual Being a Woman asserts. The authors of the era’s self-help classic, Smart Women, Foolish Choices, proclaim that women’s distress was “an unfortunate consequence of feminism” because “it created a myth among women that the apex of self-realization could be achieved only through autonomy, independence, and career.”
In the Reagan and Bush years, government officials have needed no prompting to endorse this thesis. Reagan spokeswoman Faith Ryan Whittlesey declared feminism a “straightjacket” for women, in one of the White House’s only policy speeches on the status of the American female population – entitled “Radial Feminism in Retreat”. The U.S. attorney general’s Commission on Pornography even proposed that women’s professional advancement might be responsible for rising rape rates: With more women in college and at work now, the commission members reasoned in their report, women just have more opportunities to rape.
Legal scholars have railed against the “equality trap.” Sociologists have claimed that “feminist-inspired” legislative reforms have stripped women of special “protections”. Economists have argued that well-paid working women have created a “less stable American family.” And demographers, with greatest fanfare, have a legitimated the prevailing wisdom with so-called neutral data sex ratios and fertility trends; they say they actually have the numbers to prove that equality doesn’t mix with marriage and motherhood.
Finally, some “liberated” women themselves have joined the lamentations. In The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy, Megan Marshall, A Harvard-pedigreed writer, asserts that the feminist “Myth of Independence” has turned her generation into unloved and unhappy fast-trackers, “dehumanized” by careers and “uncertain of their gender identity.” Other diaries of mad Superwomen charge that “the hard-core feminist viewpoint,” a one of them puts it, has relegated educated executive achievers to solitary nights of frozen dinners and closet drinking. The triumph of equality, they report, has merely given women hives, stomach cramps, eye “twitching” disorders, even comas.
But what “equality” are all these authorities talking about?
If American women are so equal, why do they represent two-thirds of all poor adults? Why are more than 70 percent of full-time working women making less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year, nearly double the number of men at that level? Why are they still far more likely than men to live in poor housing, and twice as likely to draw no pension? If women “have it all”, then why don’t they have the most basic requirements to achieve equality in the work force: unlike that of virtually all other industrialized nations, the U.S. government still has no family-leave and child-care programs.
If women are so “free”, why are their reproductive freedoms in greater jeopardy today than a decade earlier? Why, in their own homes, do they still shoulder 70 percent of the household duties – while the only major change in the last fifteen years is that now men think they do more around the house? In thirty states, it is still generally legal for husbands to rape their wives: and only ten states have laws mandating arrest for domestic violence – even though battering is the leading cause of injury to women (greater than rapes, muggings, and auto accidents combined).
The word may be that women have been “liberated”, but women themselves seem to feel otherwise. Repeatedly in national surveys, majorities of women say they are still far from equality. In poll after poll in the decade, overwhelming majorities of women said they need equal pay and equal job opportunities, they need an Equal Rights Amendment, they need the right to an abortion without government interference, they need a federal law guaranteeing maternity leave, and they need decent child-care services. They have none of these. So how exactly have women “won” the war for women’s rights?
Seen against this background, the much ballyhooed claim that feminism is responsible for making women miserable becomes absurd – and irrelevant. The afflictions ascribed to feminism, from “the man shortage” to “the infertility epidemic” to “female burnout” to “toxic day care”, have had their origins not in the actual conditions of women’s lives but rather in a closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising – an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood And women don’t see feminism as their enemy, either. In fact, in national surveys, 75 to 95 percent of women credit the feminist campaign with improving their lives, and similar proportion say that the women’s movement should keep pushing for change.
IF THE MANY PONDERERS OF THE WOMAN QUESTION REALLY WANTED to know what is troubling the American female population, they might have asked their subjects. In public-opinion surveys, women consistently rank their own inequality, at work and at home, among their most urgent concerns. Over and over, women complain to pollsters of a lack of economic, not marital, opportunities; they protest that working men, not working women, fail to spend time in the nursery and the kitchen. It is justice for their gender, not wedding rings and bassinets that women believe to be in desperately short supply.
As the last decade ran its course, the monitors that serve to track slippage in women’s status have been working overtime. Government and private surveys are showing that women’s already vast representation in the lowliest occupations is rising, their tiny presence in higher-paying trade and craft jobs stalled or backsliding, their minuscule representation in upper management posts stagnant or falling, and their pay dropping in the very occupations where they have made the most “progress”.
In national politics, the already small numbers of women in bother elective posts and political appointments fell during the eighties. In private life, the average amount that divorced men paid in child support fell by about 25 percent from the late seventies to the mid-eighties (to a mere $140 a month). And government records chronicled a spectacular rise in sexual violence against women. Reported rapes more than doubled from the early seventies – at nearly twice the rate of all other violent crimes and four times the overall crime rate in the United States.
The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, and an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win in for women. This counterassault is largely insidious: in a kind of pop-culture version of the big lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s position have actually let to their downfall.
The backlash is at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively “progressive” and proudly backward. It deploys both the “new” findings of “scientific research” and the dime-store moralism of yesteryear; it turns into media sound bites both the glib pronouncements of pop-psych trend watchers and the frenzied rhetoric of New Right preachers. The backlash has succeeded in framing virtually the whole issue of women’s rights in its own language. Just as Reaganism shifted political discourse far to the right and demonized liberalism, so the backlash convinced the public that women’s “liberation” was the true contemporary American scourge – the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems.
But what has made women unhappy in the last decade is not their “equality” – which they don’t yet have – but the rising pressure to halt, and even reverse, women’s quest for that equality. The “man shortage” and the “infertility epidemic” are not the price of liberation: in fact, they do not even exist. But these chimeras are part of a relentless whittling-down process – much of it amounting to outright propaganda – that has served to stir women’s private anxieties and break their political wills. Identifying feminism a women’s enemy only furthers the ends of a backlash against women’s equality by simultaneously deflecting attention from the backlash’s central role and recruiting women to attach their own cause.
Some social observers may well ask whether the current pressures on women actually constitute a backlash – or just a continuation of American society’s long-standing resistance to women’s equal rights. Certainly hostility to female independence has always been with us. But if fear and loathing of feminism is a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture, it is not always in an acute state; its symptoms subside and resurface periodically. And it is these episodes of resurgence, such as the one we face now, that can accurately be termed “backlashes” to women’s advancement. If we trace these occurrences in American history we find such flare-ups are hardly random; they have always been triggered by the perception – accurate or not – that women are making great strides. These outbreaks are backlashes because they have always arisen in reaction to women’s “progress,” caused not simply by a bedrock of misogyny but by the specific efforts of contemporary women to improve their status, efforts that have been interpreted time and again by men – especially men grappling with real threats to their economic and social well-being on other fronts – as spelling their own masculine doom.
The most recent round of backlash first surfaced in the late seventies on the fringes, among the evangelical Right. By the early eighties, the fundamentalist ideology had shouldered its way into the White House. By the mid-eighties, as resistance to women’s rights acquired political and social acceptability, it passed into the popular culture. And in every case, the timing coincided with the signs that women believed to be on the verge of a breakthrough.
Just when women’s quest for equal rights seemed closest to achieving its objectives, the backlash struck it down. Just when a “gender gap” at the voting booth surfaced in 1980, and women in politics began to talk of capitalizing on it, the Republican Party elevated Ronald Reagan and both political parties began to shunt women’s rights off their platforms. Just when support for feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment reached a record high in 1981, the amendment was defeated the following year. Just when women were starting to mobilize against battering and sexual assaults, the federal government cut funding for battered-women’s programs, defeated bills to fund shelters, and shut down its Office of Domestic Violence – only two years after opening in 1979. Just when record numbers of younger women were supporting feminist goals in the mid-eighties (more of them, in fact, than older women) and a majority of all women were calling themselves feminists, the media declared the advent of a young “post-feminist generation” that supposedly reviled the women’s movement. Just when women racked up their largest percentage ever supporting the right to abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court moved toward reconsidering it.
In other words, the antifeminist backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a preemptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line. “A backlash may be an indication that women rally have had an effect,” feminist psychiatrist Dr. Jean Baker Miller has written, “but backlashes occur when advances have been small, before changes are sufficient to help many people….It is almost as if the leaders of backlashes use the fear of change as a threat before major change has occurred.” In the last decade, some women did make substantial advances before the backlash hit, but millions of others were left behind, stranded. Some women now enjoy the right to legal abortion – but not the forty-four million women, from the indigent to the military worker, who depend on the federal government for their medical care. Some women can now walk into high-paying professional careers – but not the millions still in the typing pools or behind the department store counter. (Contrary to popular myth about the “have-it-all” baby-boom women, the largest percentage of women in this generation remain in office support roles.)
As the backlash has gathered force, it has cut off the few from the many – and the few women who have advanced seek to prove, as a social survival tactic, that they aren’t so interested in advancement after all. Some of them parade their defection from the women’s movement, while their working–class peers founder and cling to the splintered remains of the feminist cause. While a very few affluent and celebrity women who are showcased in news stories boast about going home to “bake bread,” the many working-class women appeal for their economic rights – flocking to unions in record numbers, striking on their own for pay equity, and establishing their own fledgling groups for working-women’s rights. In 1986, while 41 percent of upper-income women were claiming in the Gallup poll that they were not feminists, only 26 percent of low-income women were making the same claim.
WOMEN’S ADVANCES AND RETREATS ARE GENERALLY DESCRIBED IN military terms: battles won, battles lost, points and territory gained and surrendered. The metaphor of combat is not without its merits in this context, and, clearly, the same sort of martial accounting and vocabulary is already surfacing here. But by imagining the conflict as two battalions neatly arrayed on either side of the line, we miss the entangled nature, the locked embrace, of a “war” between women and the male culture they inhabit. We miss the reactive nature of a backlash, which, by definition can exist only in response to another force.
In times when feminism is at low ebb, women assume the reactive role – privately and, most often, covertly struggling to assert themselves against the dominant cultural tide. But when feminism itself becomes the tide, the opposition doesn’t simply go along with the reversal: it digs in its heels, brandishes its fists, builds walls and dams. And its resistance crates countercurrents and treacherous undertows.
The force and furor of the backlash churn beneath the surface, largely invisible to the public eye. On occasion in the last decade, they have burst into view. We have seen New Right politicians condemn women’s independence, anti-abortion protesters firebomb women’s clinics, and fundamentalist preachers damn feminists as “whores”. Other signs of the backlash’s wrath, by their sheer brutality, can push their way into public consciousness for a time – the sharp increase in rape, for example, or the rise in pornography that depicts extreme violence against women.
More subtle indicators in popular culture may receive momentary, and often bemused, media notice, then quickly slip from social awareness: A report, for instance, that the image of women on prime-time TV shows has suddenly degenerated. A survey of mystery fiction finding the numbers of tortured and mutilated female characters mysteriously multiplying. The puzzling news that, as one commentator put it, “so many hit songs have the B word (bitch) to refer to women that some rap music seems to be veering toward rape music”. The ascendancy of violently misogynist comics like Andrew Dice Clay, who calls women “pigs” and “sluts,” or radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, whose broadsides against “femi-Nazi” feminists helped make his syndicated program the most popular radio talk show in the nation. Or the word that, in 1987, the American Women in Radio and Television couldn’t award its annual prize to ads that feature women positively: it could find no ad that qualified.
These phenomena are all related, but that doesn’t mean they are somehow coordinated. The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central control room, nor are the people who serve its ends often aware of their role; some even consider themselves feminists. For the most part, its workings are encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic. Not all of the manifestations of the backlash are of equal weight or significance, either; some are mere ephemera thrown up by a culture machine that is always scrounging for a “fresh” angle. Taken as a whole, however, these codes and cajoling, these whispers and threats and myths, move overwhelmingly in one direction: they try to push women back into their “acceptable” roles – whether as Daddy’s girl or fluttery romantic, active nester or passive love object.
Although the backlash is not an organized movement, that doesn’t make it any less destructive. In fact, the lack of orchestration, the absence of a single string-puller, only makes it harder to see – and perhaps more effective. A backlash against women’s rights succeeds to the degree that it appears not to be political, that it appears not to be a struggle at all. It is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges inside a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head, until she begins to enforce the backlash, too – on herself.
In the last decade, the backlash has moved through the culture’s secret chambers, traveling through passageways of flattery and fear. Along the way, it has adopted disguises: a mask of mild derision or the painted face of deep “concern”. Its lips profess pity for any woman who won’t fit the mold, while it tries to clamp the mold around her ears. It pursues a divide-and–conquer strategy: single versus married women, working women versus homemakers, middle versus working class. It manipulates a system of rewards and punishments, elevating women who follow its rules, isolating those who don’t. The backlash remarkets old myths about women as new facts and ignores all appeals to reason. Cornered, it denies its own existence, points an accusatory finger at feminism, and burrows deeper underground.
Backlash happens to be the title of a 1947 Hollywood movie in which a man frames his wife for a murder he’s committed. The backlash against women’s rights works in much the same way: its rhetoric charges feminism with all the crimes it perpetrates. The backlash line blames the women’s movement for the “feminization of poverty” – while the backlash’s own instigators in Washington have pushed through the budget cuts that have helped impoverish millions of women, have fought pay-equity proposals, and undermined equal-opportunity laws. The backlash line claims the women’s movement cares nothing for children’s rights – while its own representatives in the capital and state legislatures have blocked one bill after another to improve child care, slashed billions of dollars in aid for children, and relaxed state licensing standard for day-care centers. The backlash line accuses the women’s movement of creating generations of unhappy single and childless women – but its purveyors in the media are the ones guilty of making single and childless women feel like circus freaks.
To blame feminism for women’s “lesser life” is to miss its point entirely, which is to win women a wider range of experience. Feminism remains a pretty simple concept, despite repeated – and enormously effective – efforts to dress it up in greasepaint and turn its proponents into gargoyles. As Rebecca West wrote sardonically in 1913, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
The meaning of the word feminism has not really changed since it first appeared in the book review in the The Athenaeum on April 27, 1895, describing a woman who “has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence”. It is the basic proposition that, as Nora put it in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a century ago, “Before everything else I’m a human being”. It is the simply worded sign hoisted by a little girl in the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality: “I AM NOT A BARBIE DOLL.” Feminism asks the world to recognize at long last that women aren’t decorative ornaments, worthy vessels, members of a “special-interest group”. They are half (in fact, now more than half) of the national population, and just as deserving of rights and opportunities, just as capable of participating in the world’s events, as the other half. Feminism’s agenda is basic: It asks that women not be forced to “choose” between public justice and private happiness. It asks that women be free to define themselves – instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.
The fact that these are still such incendiary notions should tell us that American women have a way to go before they enter the promised land of equality.
- Percentage drop in child support paid by the average divorced man between 1978 and 1985: 25
- Percentage change in a woman’s standard of living after a divorce:-33
- Percentage change in man’s: +15
- Percentage of women polled in 1984 saying their husbands shared equally in child care: 40
- Percentage of women polled in 1986 saying this: 31
- Percentage of female work force holding traditional “women’s” jobs (secretaries, administrative-support workers, salesclerks): 80
- Percentage of women at the end of the 1980’s saying they suffered job discrimination: 82
- Percentage saying they received unequal pay: 94
- Percentage of Fortune 1000 chief executives polled who believe that discrimination impedes female employees’ progress: 80
- Percentage of those executive who regard development of high potential women as a goal their personnel departments should pursue: less than 1
- Number of female senators: 2
- Number of female Fortune 500 chief executives: 2
- Percentage of top corporate managers who are female: 5
- Percentage of high schools that violate Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education: 75
- Percentage of college aid and grants received by female as compared with male students: 70
- Percentage increase in sex-related murders of women between 1976 and 1984: 160
- Percentage of those murders committed by husbands or boyfriends: 33