Lashing Back at the Backlash

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

ASK ANY WOMAN WHO WAS SINGLE IN 1986 WHERE SHE WAS WHEN she heard about the Marriage Study, and chances are she can tell you. Susan Faludi was on the phone.

"I was talking to a friend who was irritated that he couldn't get dates," remembers Faludi, then a 26-year-old reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. "He told me he was calling up women and telling them to read this story about marriage in Newsweek. So I read the story, which reported that college-educated women at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. I hadn't been worrying about marriage, but suddenly I felt morose and grouchy."

Instead of heading for a dating service, though, Faludi got to work. The study, which was unfinished at the time the press got wind of it, had been conducted by researchers at Harvard and Yale. Phone calls to the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources told Faludi that the researchers' calculations were unorthodox, their conclusions debatable at best. Like a number of other journalists, she wrote a story pointing this out. (The researchers themselves ultimately didn't publish their original statistics—there was no marriage crunch.) But the debunking stories got limited national media attention. "What was remarkable to me," says Faludi, 32, who now writes for The Wall Street Journal, "was that there was so little interest in finding out whether the study was true or false. The story simply fit the notion of where women were at that point in history."

Thus was born Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Published last month, Backlash is Faludi's talked-about—and well-reviewed—account of the counterassault on women's progress that she believes has characterized the past decade. As American women's rights at home, at work, on the streets and over their own bodies have been limited or even eroded, Faludi argues, the media and popular culture have embraced the message that women's equality, not its lack, is the source of their problems. "The women's movement, as we are told time and again, has proved women's own worst enemy," Faludi writes.

Backlash provides ample evidence for Faludi's thesis. She spent four years researching and writing the book (while also finding time to write a 1991 Pulitzer prizewinning Journal story on the human toll of a leveraged buyout of Safeway supermarkets). Despite the prevailing wisdom that the women's movement has achieved many of its ends, she found discouraging statistics everywhere: American women face the worst gender-based pay gap in the developed world; the U.S. is virtually the only industrialized country without national child-care programs. Added to these disheartening realities, there was a new wave of "statistical" and pop psychological studies that blamed a host of ills—from a reported infertility epidemic among older career women, to the mass "burnout" said to be afflicting women executives, to the supposed horrors of day care—on women's misguided attempts to "have it all." Faludi examined these claims and found their statistical underpinnings shaky. Not that her book is all polemics. She learned, for example, that Gary Bauer, a vociferous advocate of "family values at the Department of Education, popped his own infant children into day care so his wife could pursue her career in government.

Faludi also examines the way books, movies like Fatal Attraction and TV shows have purveyed the idea that women are happiest in traditional roles. "Thirtysomething was particularly insidious," Faludi says. "It elevated and idealized the woman who followed the marching orders of the backlash—stay home, be a good, true wife—and pitied and sneered at the career women."

Still, Faludi wasn't sure when she began her research if the situation was as dire as it appeared. "I thought, 'Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?' " she says. "But once the militant antiabortion movement surfaced, it was obvious what was going on. The attempt to control women's reproduction rights is especially significant because everything else in their lives depends on those rights." There have been past periods of resistance to women's rights, Faludi discovered, and reproductive issues have always been central. "Before the late 1800s, abortion was legal," Faludi says. "Then there was a backlash, and it was striking to me how similar it was to the militant wing of today's antiabortion movement."

Faludi herself was born during a more recent period of revisionist thinking, the 1950s. She came of age as modern feminism was gathering force. "I remember the women's movement hitting Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where I grew up, like a Mack truck," she says. "Beneath the veneer of all those happy housewives, there was tremendous pain at having to live such circumscribed lives. Up and down our block, women began going back to work or school, and marriages broke up. It was a difficult but exhilarating time." Faludi's own mother was divorced from her father, a photographer, in 1976 and found work as an editor. The women's movement changed her life, Faludi says, "and she always called herself a feminist. It was sort of, 'How can you not be?''

At Harvard, Faludi wrote often about women's issues for the school paper. After graduation she worked as a copy clerk at The New York Times before landing reporting jobs at the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution, the San Jose Mercury News and finally, last year, in The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau. Backlash, she says, began as a book about "why we're hearing that single women have never been worse off, when the statistics show otherwise." Its focus broadened as Faludi's research progressed, and the finished product is now being hailed by enthusiasts such as former NOW president Eleanor Smeal as feminism's new manifesto.

Faludi, who lives alone in San Francisco and spends her free hours with boyfriend Peter Small, a physician, feels ambivalent about her new spokeswoman status. "It's strange, since in my book I'm fairly critical of instant experts," she says. "I don't want to set myself up as a sort of seer." She does hope, though, that her book will "help women fight the backlash." That task, she says, seems more important than ever these days.

"I was struck by something Senator Robb said after the Clarence Thomas hearings: that you can't vote on a judge based on 'single issues' like abortion or sexual harassment," Faludi says. "That's the attitude that prevails about women in this country, it seems to me: that we're some kind of single-issue special interest group, like little dwarves who only eat certain foods—instead of more than half the population."

From Our Partners