What happened to feminism is the 1980s? You might have heard that it finally succeeded, or that it finally failed. In Backlash, Susan Faludi argues convincingly that the setbacks feminism experienced during that decade were due to a cultural backlash against the advances women were making.
At first glance, Backlash may seem like a daunting read, 498 pages of small print, packed with research and stats, full of venom for those who participated in waging ‘the undeclared war against women’. Most book-club attendees agreed that it was difficult to get through, American-centred and perhaps dated. It was published in 1992.
On the other hand, the book provided no shortage of outraging facts for us to discuss. Faludi’s academic approach and comprehensive research (80 pages of footnotes!) lends her a lot of credibility. Backlash bears witness to some grave injustices, like the female chemical plant workers who were told to get sterilized or lose their jobs (to Hell or to Connaught!) due to trumped-up fears over the effects of some chemicals on foetal development. In fact, alongside its facts and figures the book offers real insights into women’s lives, via Faludi’s innumerable interviews with women about their experiences. Thus she compiles an immensely readable and important social history (or should I say herstory).
This relatively recent herstory is vital context for modern feminist campaigners. Faludi paints a full picture of the cultural landscape of the 80s and its effects on women. She analyses the fashion and beauty industries, women in politics and popular psychology among other topics. Members of the book-club were struck by the dated feel of some stories (that would never happen today!), and the familiarity of others. We balked in disbelief at the description of the ‘Women who love too much’ groups, where grown women were encouraged to cuddle teddy bears blame themselves for the abusive behaviour of their partners. Meanwhile we recognised the magazine stories celebrating single women finally being taken off the shelf after forty. In Sex in the City 2 (2010), Carrie’s magazine celebrates her no longer being ‘the last single girl in New York’ upon her engagement to Big. After all, ‘women are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married after forty’.
This is just one of the multitudes of myths that Faludi exposes in Backlash. Spawned throughout the decade, they are best summed up in tabloid ‘trend stories’. Journalists would handpick a few women with a particular condition and portray this as a condition of all women, for example ‘nesting’ (the return of the domestic goddess) or ‘burnout’ (you can’t have it all). This misinformation explains the confused legacy of feminism in popular culture. Why do most women no longer call themselves feminists? Because feminism has succeeded and we’re all equal now. Because feminism has failed and we’re better off without it. Because feminists are militant wet blankets.
Understanding where this perception has come from is an invaluable tool in reclaiming the f-word. As the story of the latest blimp on the radar of our movement, Backlash illustrates both how far we have come and what’s left to do. I would appeal to you to read this book.