Backlash by Susan Faludi, copyright 1991.
Faludi's book is about what she calles the "Backlash Era" of the 1980's. Her thesis is basically that all of the strides the women's movement made in the 1970's were met with a fierce backlash in the following decade that spread throughout all facets of American life in an attempt to undo all of the progress that women had made.
It was a bit surreal for me to read this book. I was born in the early 80's, and therefore I was largely blind to everything about the world I grew up in. When you're 4 years old, no one is talking to you about a woman somewhere who was forced to undergo a c-section after a court decided that the rights of her fetus prevailed over her own. At 5 years old, I wasn't flipping through Vogue magazine and seeing all of the ridiculous little-girl fashions that designers were trying to force on women. At 6 and 7 years old, I was not aware of lawsuits being brought against chemical companies that forbid women to work unless they were sterilized because of supposed fetal risks. In other words, this book introduced me to a world I didn't know existed.
Faludi appears to be incredibly comprehensive and thorough in her examination of women's rights and issues in the 80's and prior. In places, the book hammers you over the head with the same point so many times that you begin to feel dizzy. If she were making a case in a courtroom about whether this backlash existed, an opposing attorney would have a hell of a time proving her wrong.
I spent many moments in incredible anger and bewilderment while reading this book. She shows instead of tells the hypocrisy of many of the public fugures that played prominently in the backlash. For example, she interviews a man who spent years trying to convince the public that women belong in domestic roles only and should defer to their husbands in all matters. When Faludi visits him at home, she describes how he must negotiate childcare with his wife, who works full-time, and as he sits there and tries to convince her that men should never perform domestic chores, his young son comes in the room with a frying pan and begs his father to show him how to cook an egg (or something), until the father gets up, dons an apron, and saunters into the other room to cook. All the while his wife is sitting there saying how she supports her husband's work. Faludi doesn't comment on this in the book - she doesn't need to. She brilliantly puts it all out there for us without casting her own judgment on the situation, and rests assured that we are all thinking "How do these people reconcile their beliefs with their reality?"
I was frustrated while reading this book. Throughout the entire thing I felt desperate for her to either write a new, updated edition, or write another book that looks at what has happened in the past 20 years. I wanted to know what I have been missing this whole time. I thought to myself "No woman would ever lose a lawsuit nowadays over being forced into sterilization only to lose her job anyway." But am I right? Do I actually know this to be true? No, I guess I don't.
I wanted her analysis of the life I have known, not the life that came before my awareness of the public sphere. In the 80's, clothing companies and fashion designers suffered because they couldn't get women to wear the feminine clothes they refused to stop producing. Jockey for Women came out in response to female feedback that said they wanted comfort and practicality, not lace and bows, and the company took the vast majority share of the market because they listened. But I think about life now, and the women I know. Many of us eventually gave in - but how and when did that happen? Did it actually happen, or did we just compromise somehow?
I look at my closet, for example, and I see a decent amount of sexy, feminine clothing. I think to myself, "Yeah, we must have given in." But when I look at what I actually wear - tailored suits, jeans, basic cotton shirts, capri pants that are the most comfortable things I've ever worn in my life - what I'm wearing right now and what has become my at-home uniform: sweatpants and a t-shirt - I think "Have we really given in? Or have we just taken it as an option?"
I think about the election last year. A woman ran for president and had a very real chance of winning. I didn't vote for her in the primary because I didn't believe that she was the most qualified person for the job. But I was proud that she was in the race. I don't believe she lost because she was a woman - I believe she lost because when all was said and done, we just liked Obama a hell of a lot better. I think about Sarah Palin. I don't believe she was railed against because she was a woman. I think she was railed against because she is a fucking idiot, and we all saw through what the Republican party was trying to do by putting her on the ticket for VP. Did she face sexism? Yeah, of course. But we didn't vote for her and McCain because she did not represent us - she was against abortion rights and spoke about traditional values even as she supported her deadbeat husband. She represented to us all of the things that are wrong with the right-wing - if abstinence is the only way to go, for example, why is your teenage daughter knocked up and being forced to marry her high school boyfriend?
As I read the book I wanted to know what Faludi thought of all this. I wanted to know - does all of the progress I believe women have made since I was a child really exist? We're not even remotely there yet - true equality is a long way off. But are we at least still moving in the right direction?
I highly recommend that everyone read this book if you haven't already. It casts light on all the ways in which women's rights can and have been challenged, and will hopefully make us all more vigilant. It's not a man-bashing book. It does not call out any specific enemy that we need to fight. Indeed, she says multiple times that the backlash was not a conspiracy. But she says at the end of the book that the backlash occured because the men knew just how much power the women were gaining and how their world could have been overthrown had we remained organized and focused. The problem, she says sadly, is that the only people who were unaware of this power were the women themselves.
I finished this book feeling stirred, angry, and hopeful. If we want government-mandated paid family leave policies, we need to fight for them. If we want goverment-sponsored daycare and in-house nannies, we need to fight for it. If we want equal pay for equal work, we need to fight for it. The book reminded me that we are half the population, and the only thing that keeps us from having the things we want and need is ourselves.
The takeaway message from this book, for me, was to stop being afraid to be labeled a feminist, and to recognize that push-back is a sign of progress. I think we all need to be reminded of that every so often. So do yourself a favor and go get your hands on a copy of this book. Maybe you will be the one to write the next installment.
As for me, once I finish reading the book I am on right now, I will move on to Stiffed - also by Faludi only the focus this time is on the men.