Debunking The Antifeminist Mystique


Crown -- 552pp -- $24

The women's movement has taken a giant leap backward in the past decade. The precarious status of legalized abortion, the lack of progress for women in Corporate America, the declining number mf women in national political office, and the constant, negative drumbeat of media reports on the travails of working women all signal a reversal of American feminist fortunes.

That's the argument Susan Faludi makes in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Wall Street Journal, contends that leaders of the new right--religious fundamentalists and conservative politicians--achieved astonishing power in the 1980s. Then, with help from the trend-hungry and credulous media, they waged a misleading and damaging assault on women's rights. Feminism, they said, erodes the family values on which America was built. And loneliness, infertility, and stress among women are the effects of feminist-inspired freedom.

What freedom? asks Faludi. Citing the gap between men's and women's pay, the lack of adequate child care, and the increase in the number of women living below the poverty line, she argues that if women are unhappy, it is because they have not achieved equality.

Drawing on voluminous polls and studies as well as original reporting, Faludi carefully debunks myths that have taken on lives of their own. She begins with the now-infamous 1986 Harvard-Yale study that showed that single women's chances of marrying drop significantly after 30 and are extremely slim after 40. When Newsweek covered the study it concluded that single women "are more likely to be killed by a terrorist"--an analogy that was repeated over and over in other press reports. The media frenzy surrounding the study, Faludi notes, continued well after demographers and the Census Bureau had discredited the findings. In fact, she reports, census data show that it is single men between 24 and 34 who face a shortage of potential spouses. As for the terrorist metaphor, Faludi quotes a former Newsweek intern who says that what began as a reporter's joke somehow made it into the magazine as fact.

Delving deeply into other headline-making events, Faludi brings to light astounding inaccuracies. Self-help books and women's magazines, for instance,

blamed feminism for unprecedented bouts of depression among career women. But Faludi quotes several sources who say the leading cause of depression in women is low social status. Adding that women's reports of depression have historically outnumbered men's by 3 to 1, Faludi says National Institute of Mental Health data show that in the early 1980s, the gap shrank to less than 2 to 1.

Faludi also throws cold water on press attacks on day care, including the notion that sexual abuse in day-care centers is epidemic. In 1985, she writes, a study from the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory recorded 1,300 reported cases of abuse in centers, compared with 100,000 reported cases of abuse by family members.

But given sensational headlines, Faludi writes, it was all too easy for the entertainment and advertising industries to join the backlash. On TV's thirtysomething, Hope, a leading character, decided--after a disastrous return to the office--to stay home with her daughter. That, Faludi asserts, reflected the male co-creators' yearnings more than women's. When ABC polled female viewers, most wanted Hope to go back to work.

Perhaps the most notable ad campaign of the era was Good Housekeeping's "New Traditionalist" campaign. The text, which claimed women were hungry for more family-oriented lifestyles, set off a spate of copy-cat ads and trend stories. When Faludi asked the ad man behind the print campaign about supporting research, he cited a Yankelovich Monitor report on 2,500 Americans. But Yankelovich says Good Housekeeping seriously misinterpreted the results.

In the book's best section, Faludi profiles several leading antifeminists, male and female, and exposes startling differences between what they say and what they do. Connie Marshner, for instance, is an outspoken critic of feminism and was once the highest-ranking woman at the Heritage Foundation. According to Faludi, even as she lobbied for legislation that would encourage women to stay home with their families, she worked long hours and at one point lived in another city, leaving her children in the care of her husband and babysitters. Marshner admits to Faludi: "I'm a terrible housekeeper. To me it's very unrewarding, unfulfilling work."

Faludi is careful to say that the backlash is not the result of an organized conspiracy. Rather, a backlash "returns every time women begin to make some headway toward equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the culture's brief flowerings of feminism." The women's suffrage movement of the mid-19th century, for instance, gave way to the restrictive Victorian era -- when the trend spotters of the day also declared a man shortage. And the flood of women into better-paying, traditionally male jobs during World War II was followed by the suburban stupor of the 1950s.

Even for committed feminists, Faludi's analysis is an eye-opener. But her relentless presentation of facts, figures, anecdotes, polls, and interviews is so dense that at times the book is hard to read. It's as if she's trying to outgun potential critics before they open fire.

A more restrained voice that echoes many of Faludi's themes can be heard in another new book, Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America since 1960 by Flora Davis (Simon & Schuster). A chunk of this comprehensive and lively history of modern feminism is devoted to the power base of the new right and its erosion of feminist gains. Davis, too, observes that periods of dramatic social change are followed by reversals, but she's optimistic. "When the backlash is extreme," she writes, "eventually the pendulum must swing back in the other direction."

Faludi is less patient. Except for a rather vague call to action, however, she leaves women with few ideas about how to pull themselves out of this lull. No matter. Backlash is a thinking person's book. Instead of spoon-feeding answers, Faludi offers compelling and disturbing evidence that some of the toughest battles for women are still to come.

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