So as part of my research for rethinking Undead Sexist Cliches: the Book, I reread Susan Faludi’s 1991 book BACKLASH: The Undeclared War on American Women (cover design Janet Perr, all rights remain with current holder). Depressingly it isn’t at all dated.
Faludi’s thesis is simple: every time women have made big steps toward equality in America (19th century suffragettes, 20th century getting the right to vote, etc.), a backlash has risen to put them back into their place. While some of this is an organized effort by the right-wing to undo the gains since the hallowed age of the 1950s (this was before conservatives started openly pining for the Victorian age instead), Faludi is clear the backlash isn’t an organized movement, it’s a lot of people acting independently but with a shared agenda.
- Fashion designers and makeup kings push for girly girl looks that require new wardrobes and expensive makeup.
- Corporations push back against hiring women.
- Movies put emphasis on Woman As Girlfriend/Mother/Homemaker over independent women.
- Newspapers, TV news and magazines run endless stories about how the career woman is miserable, or lonely, or doomed to spinsterhood, or burning out, and longing for the good old days when she’d get married and stay home (there are comparatively few stories about men worrying about marriage or burning out or longing to find a woman who can keep them).
- Feminists are invariably to blame for giving women the idea they can “have it all” (you know, family and career, how unreasonable) which is what makes women miserable, rather than the realization how sexist the system, and some individuals are.
- Rape and abuse are still not taken seriously.
So we end up with an American landscape that portrays feminism and working mothers, etc., very negatively, plus practical restrictions: tougher abortion laws, opposition to hiring women (let alone affirmative action), and a lack of support for victims of rape or sexual harassment. Sound familiar? It’s been 25 years and the backlash is still ongoing.
If anything, it’s gotten worse in some ways. Faludi wrote before Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio heads were fouling the airwaves with talk of evil feminazis and poor, oppressed men folk. The potential horrors of online death threats and Twitter harassment didn’t even exist. Despite twelve years of Reagan and Bush I, we didn’t have anything as nightmarishly sexist as the Trump administration.
If there’s any comfort, it’s that while feminists are frequently at cross-purposes (another Faludi article), they haven’t thrown in the towel either. Which is not to make light of the situation. Increasing restrictions on abortion, lack of support for rape victims and opposition to birth control all make it harder for women to build an independent life.
The chapter on abortion was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve written before about how the rights of the fetus outweigh the rights of the aquarium that carries them. I didn’t realize how far back this had been going, though. Faludi provides plenty of examples of women who in the eyes of authorities did pregnancy wrong:
- A woman lost custody of her infant for not eating healthy enough during pregnancy (there was no sign of actual harm to the baby)
- Another woman lost custody for taking Valium during pregnancy.
- One woman lost her baby because she’d had sex with her abusive husband, hadn’t gotten to the hospital fast enough and hadn’t done what her doctor told her.
- A teenager was locked up because she “lacked motivation” to get good prenatal care.
And yet they wonder why the birth rate is declining.
A running theme in some of the debate is that abortion cuts out the father’s right to decide about his child. Which is still an issue for some right-wingers.
As far as giving me inspiration for Undead Sexist Cliches, Backlash definitely encourages me to write. I’m not sure it answers what bothers me about my first draft. And it does set a very high standard for contributing to the debate.
I’ll let you know when I figure it out.