Introduction to Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women(New York: Doubleday, 1991)
To be a woman in America at the close of the 20th centuryñ 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, apply for credit at any bank. Women have so many opportunities now, corporate leaders say, that we don’t really need equal opportunity policies. Women are so equal now, lawmakers say, that we 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 higher office Even American Express ads are saluting a woman’s freedom to charge it. At last, women have received their full citizenship papers.
And yet. ..
Behind this celebration of the American 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, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable.
This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, in advertisements and doctors’ 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 advise: 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 a new identity crisis and “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 the status of women has never been higher, why is their emotional state so low? 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 to 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 dreamsñand lost out on the greatest female adventure. The women’s movement, as we are told time and again, has proved women’s own worst enemy.
“In dispensing its spoils, women’s liberation has given my generation high incomes, our own cigarette, the option of single parenthood, rape crisis centers, personal lines of credit, free love, and female gynecologists,” Mona Charen, a young law student, writes in the Na at ional Review, i in an article titled “The Femi n ist M istake.” “In return it has effectively robbed us of one thing upon which the happiness of most women restsñmen.” The National Review is a conservative publication, but such charges against the women’s movement are not confined to its pages. “Our generation was the human sacrifice” to the women’s movement, LosAngeles Times feature writer Elizabeth Mehren contends in a Tim¢ 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.” Even the beauty magazines are saying it: Harper’s Bazaar accuses the women’s movement of having “lost us [women] ground instead of gaining it.”
In the last decade, publications from 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 ABOUT WOMEN’S LIB.
They hold the campaign for women’s equality responsible for nearly every woe besetting women, from mental 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 slasher 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 only the most famous, emancipated women with condominiums of their own slink wild-eyed between bare walls, paying for their liberty with an empty bed, a 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 ’80s, 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 the 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 sledgehammers at reluctant bachelors. We “blew it by waiting,” a typically remorseful careerist sobs in Freda Bright’s Singular Women; she and her sister professionals are “condemned to be childless forever.” 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, a symbol of female sexual emancipation in the ’70s, with an embittered careeristturned -recovering-“co-dependent” 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 Whittlesey declared feminism a “straitjacket” for women, in the White House’s only policy speech on the status of the American female populationñentitled “Radical Feminism in Retreat.” Law enforcement officers and judges, too, have pointed a damning finger at feminism, claiming that they can chart a path from rising female independence to rising female pathology. As a California sheriff explained it to the press, “Women are enjoying a lot more freedom now, and as a result, they are committing more crimes.” 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 be raped.
Some academics have signed on to the consensus, too ñan they are the “experts” who have enjoyed the highest profiles on the media circuit. On network news and talk shows, they have advised millions of women that feminism has condemned them to “a lesser life.” 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 legitimated the prevailing wisdom with socalled neutral data on 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 confessional accounts, works that invariably receive a hearty greeting from the publishing industry, “recovering Superwomen” tell all. In The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of lntimacy, 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,” as 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 nearly 75 percent of full-time working women making less than $20,000 a year, nearly double the male rate? Why are they still far more likely than men to live in poor housing and receive no health insurance, and twice as likely to draw no pension? Why does the average working woman s .salary still lag as far behind the average man’s as it did twenty years ago? Why does the average female college graduate today earn less than a man with no more than a high school diploma (just as she did in the 5Os)–and why does the average female high school graduate today earn less than a male high school dropout: Why do American women, in fact, face one of the worst gender based pay gap in the developed world?
If women have “made it,” then why are nearly 80 percent of working women still stuck in traditional “female” jobsñas secretaries, administrative “support” workers and salesclerks? And. conversely, why are they less than 8 percent of all federal and state judges, less than 6 percent of all law partners, and less than one half of I percent of top corporate managers? Why are there only three female state governors, two female U.S. senators, and two Fortune 500 chief executives? Why are only nineteen of the four thousand corporate officers and directors womenñand why do more than half the boards of Fortune companies still lack even one female member?
If women “have it all,” then why don’t they have the most basic requirements to achieve equality in the work force? Unlike virtually all other industrialized nations, the U.S. government still has no family-leave and child care programsñand more than 99 percent of American privat employers don’t offer child care either Though business leaders say they are aware of and deplore sex discrimination, corporate America has yet to make an honest effort toward eradicating it. In a 1990 national poll of chief executives at Fortune 1000 companies, more than 80 percent acknowledged that discrimination impedes female employees’ progressñyet, less tha 1 percent of these same companies regarded remedying sex discrimination as a goal that their personnel departments should pursue. In fact, when the companies’ human resource officers were asked to rate their department’s priorities, women’s advancement ranked last.
If women are so “free,” why are their reproductive freedoms in greater jeopardy today than a decade earlier? Why do women who want to postpone childbearing now have fewer options than ten years ago? The availability of different forms of contraception has declined, research for new birth control has virtually halted, new laws restricting abortion ñor even informatin about abortion ñfor young and poor women have been passed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has shown little ardor in defending the right it granted in 1973.
Nor is women’s struggle for equal education over; as a 1989 study found, three-fourths of all high schools still violate the federal law banning sex discrimination in education. In colleges, undergraduate women receive only 70 percent of the aid undergraduate men get in grants and work-study jobsñand women’s sports programs receive a pittance compared with men’s. A review of state equal-education laws in the late 8Os found that only thirteen states had adopted the minimum provisions required by the federal Title IX lawñand only seven states had antidiscrimination regulations that covered all education levels.
Nor do women enjoy equality in their own homes, where they still shoulder 70 percent of the household dutiesñand the only major change in the last fifteen years is that now middle-class men think they do more around the house. (In fact, a national poll finds the ranks of women saying their husbands share equally in child care shrunk to 31 percent in 1987 from 40 percent three years earlier.) Furthermore, 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 was the leading cause of injury of women in the late ’80s. Women who have no other option but to flee find that isn’t much of an alternative either. Federal funding for battered women’s shelters has been withheld and one third of the I million battered women who seek emergency shelter each year can find none. Blows from men contributed far more to the rising numbers of “bag ladies” than the ill effects of feminism. In the ’80s, almost half of all homeless women (the fastest growing segment of the homeless) were refugees of domestic violence.
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. Nearly 70 percent of women polled by the New York Times in 1989 said the movement for women’s rights had only just begun. Most women in the 1990 Virginia Slims opinion poll agreed with the statement that conditions for their sex in American society had improved “a little, not a lot.” In poll after poll in the decade, overwhelming majorities of women said they needed equal pay and equal job opportunities, they needed an Equal Rights Amendment, they needed the right to an abortion without government interference, they needed a federal law guaranteeing maternity leave, they needed decent child care services. They have none of these. So how exactly have we “won” the war for women’s rights?
Seen against this background, the much ballyhooed claim that feminism is responsible for making women miserable becomes absurdñand irrelevant. As we shall see in the chapters to follow, the afflictions ascribed to feminism are all myths. From “the man shortage” to “the infertility epidemic” to “female burnout” to “toxic day care,” these so-called female crises 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 advertisingñan endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood.
Women themselves don’t single out the women’s movement as the source of their misery. To the contrary, in national surveys 75 to 95 percent of women credit the feminist campaign with improving their lives, and a similar proportion say that the women’s movement should keep pushing for change. Less than 8 percent think the women’s movement might have actually made their lot worse.
What actually is troubling the American female population, then? If the many ponderers of the Woman Question really wanted to know, 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 about 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. The Roper Organization’s survey analysts find that men’s opposition to equality is “a major cause of resentment and stress” and “a major irritant for most women today.” It is justice for their gender, not wedding rings and bassinets, that women believe to be in desperately short supply. When the New York Times polled women in 1989 about “the most important problem facing women today,” job discrimination was the overwhelming winner; none of the crises the media and popular culture had so assiduously promoted even made the charts. In the 1990 Virginia Slims poll, women were most upset by their lack of money, followed by the refusal of their men to shoulder child care and domestic duties. By contrast, when the women were asked where the guest for a husband or the desire to hold a “less pressured” job or to stay at home ranked on their list of concerns, they placed them at the bottom.
As the last decade ran its course, women’s unhappiness with inequality only mounted. In national polls, the ranks of women protesting discriminatory treatment in business, political, and personal life climbed sharply. The proportion of women complaining of unequal employment opportunities jumped more than ten points from the ’70s, and the number of women complaining of unequal barriers to job advancement climbed even higher. By the end of the decade, 80 percent to 95 percent of women said they suffered from job discrimination and unequal pay. Sex discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose nearly 25 percent in the Reagan years, and charges of general harassment directed at working women more than doubled. In the decade, complaints of sexual harassment nearly doubled. At home, a much increased proportion of women complained to pollsters of male mistreatment, unequal relationships, and male efforts to, in the words of the Virginia Slims poll, “keep women down.” The share of women in the Roper surveys who agreed that men were “basically kind, gentle, and thoughtful” fell from almost 70 percent in 1970 to 50 percent by 1990. And outside their homes, women felt more threatened, too: in the 1990 Virginia Slims poll, 72 percent of women said they felt “more afraid and uneasy on the streets today” than they did a few years ago. Lest this be attributed only to a general rise in criminal activity, by contrast only 49 percent of men felt this way.
While the women’s movement has certainly made women more cognizant of their own inequality, the rising chorus of female protest shouldn’t be written off as feminist-induced “oversensitivity.” The monitors that serve to track slippage in women’s status have been working overtime since the early ’80s. 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 ” The status of women lowest on the income ladder has plunged most perilously; government budget cuts in the first four years of the Reagan administration alone pushed nearly 2 million female- headed families and nearly 5 million women below the poverty line. And the prime target of government rollbacks has been one sex only: one-third of the Reagan budget cuts, for example, came out of programs that predominantly serve womenñeven more extraordinary when one considers that all these programs combined represent only 10 percent of the federal budget.
The alarms aren’t just going off in the work force. In national politics, the already small numbers of women in both elective posts and political appointments fell during the ’80s. In private life, the average amount that a divorced man paid in child support fell by about 25 percent from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s (to a mere $140 a month). Domestic-violence shelters recorded a more than 100 percent increase in the numbers of women taking refuge in their quarters between 1983 and 1987. And government records chronicled a spectacular rise in sexual violence against women. Reported rapes more than doubled from the early ’70sñat nearly twice the rate of all other violent crimes and four times the overall crime rate in the United States. While the homicide rate declined, sex-related murders rose 160 percent between 1976 and 1984. And these murders weren’t simply the random, impersonal by-product of a violent society; at least one-third of the women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and the majority of that group were murdered just after declaring their independence in the most intimate mannerñby filing for divorce and leavig home.
By the end of the decade, women were starting to tell pollsters that they feared their sex’s social status was once again beginning to slip. They believed they were facing an “erosion of respect,” as the 1990 Virginia Slims poll summed up the sentiment. After years m which an increasing percentage of women had said their status had improved from a decade earlier, the proportion suddenly shrunk by 5 percent in the last half of the ’80s, the Roper Organization reported. And it fell most sharply among women in their thirtiesñthe age group most targeted by the media and advertisersñdropping about ten percentage points between 1985 and 1990.
Some women began to piece the picture together. In the 1989 New York Times poll, more than half of black women and one fourth of white women put it into words. They told pollsters they believed men were now trying to retract the gains women had made in the last twenty years. “I wanted more autonomy,” was how one woman, a thirty-seven-year-old nurse, put it. And her estranged husband “wanted to take it away.”
The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win 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 led 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 scourgeñthe 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”ñwhich they don’t yet haveñbut 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 the chisels of a society-wide backlash. They are part of a relentless whittling-down processñmuch of it amounting to outright propagandañthat has served to stir women’s private anxieties and break their political wills. Identifying feminism as women’s enemy only furthers the ends of a backlash against women’s equality, simultaneously deflecting attention from the backlash’s central role and recruiting women to attack 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 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 stage; 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 (as we will do in a later chapter), we find such flare-ups are hardly random; they have always been triggered by the perceptionñaccurate or notñthat 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. cfforts that have been interpreted time and again by menñespecially men grappling with real threats to their economic and social well-being on other frontsñas spelling their own masculine doom.
The most recent round of backlash first surfaced in the late ’70s on the fringes, among the evangelical right. By the early ’80s, the fundamentalist ideology had shouldered its way into the White House. By the mid-’80s, 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 signs that women were believed to be on the verge of 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 stalled funding for battered women’s programs, defeated bills to fund shelters, and shut down its Office of Domestic Violence only two years after opening it in 1979. Just when record numbers of younger women were sup porting feminist goals in the mid-’80s (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 younger “postfeminist 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 really have had an effect,” feminist psychologist 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 abortionñbut not the 44 million women, from the indigent to the military work force, who depend on the federal government for their medical care. Some women can now walk into high-paying professional careersñbut not the more than 19 million still in the typing pools or behind the department store sales counters. (Contrary to popular myth about the “have-it-all” baby-boom women, the largest percentage of women in this generation remain typists and clerks.)
As the backlash has gathered force, it has cut off the few from the manyñand 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 articles boast about having “found my niche as Mrs. Andy Mill” and going home to “bake bread,” the many working-class women appeal for their economic rightsñflocking 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 lowincome 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 a low ebb, women assume the reactive role ñprivately 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 creates countercurrents and treacherous undertows.
The force and furor of the backlash churn beneath the surface. Iargely 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 firebombed women’s clinics, fundamentalist preachers damn feminists as “whores” and “witches.” Other signs of the backlash’s wrath, by their sheer brutality, can push their way into public consciousness for a timeñthe 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 female characters tortured and mutilated 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 virulently misogynist comics like Andrew Dice Clay ñwho called women “pigs” and “sluts” and strutted in films in which women were beaten, tortured, and blown up or radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, whose broadsides against “femi-Nazi” feminists made his syndicated program the most popular radio talk show in the nation. Or word that in 1987, the American Women in Radio & Television couldn’t award its annual prize for 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, generated by a culture machine that is always scrounging for a “fresh” angle. Taken as a whole, however, these codes and cajolings, these whispers and threats and myths, move overwhelmingly in one direction: they try to push women back into their “acceptable” rolesñwhether 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 seeñand perhaps more effective. A backlash agains 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–ñon 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 feminists with all the crimes it perpetrates. The backlash line blames the women’s movement for the “feminization of poverty” ñwhile the backlash’s own instigators in Washington pushed through the budget cuts that helped impoverish millions of women, fought pay equity proposals, and undermined equal opportunity laws. The backlash line claims the women’s movement cares nothing for children’s rightsñwhile its own represetatives in the capital and state legislatures have blocked one bill after another to improve child care, slashed billions of dollars in federal aid for children, and relaxed state licensing standards for day care centers. The backlash line accuses the women’s movement of creating a generation of unhappy single and childless womenñbut 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 entirely the point of feminism, which is to win women a wider range of experience. Feminism remains a pretty simple concept, despite repeatedñand 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: l only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
The meaning of the word “feminist” has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in the Athenaeum of 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 themselvesñinstead 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.