Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Undeclared War Against American Women

by Susan Faludi
Crown, 549 pages, $24

Look out: here comes Susan Faludi leading the Charge of the Lightweight Brigade! Her thesis is simplicity itself. Just in case the reader might not get it straight off, it is repeated in each and every chapter title—all fourteen of them. There is and has been a terrible backlash in this land of ours, catalyzed by the Deadly Duo (Reagan, Bush), who have been aided and abetted in their nefarious war against “American Women,” no less, by various female malefactors, some openly hostile towards the aspiration of “women,” others apparently promoting women’s interests when what they are really doing is serving the backlashers. In other words, this is the latest entry in a burgeoning genre: left-wing conspiracy theory. 

When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s out in the Western provinces (Colorado, it was), my instructors (Democrats to a man, no women in what was called the History and Government Department at Colorado State University in those benighted times) not only encouraged me to make the most of myself, they taught me that conspiracy theory was the hobgoblin of little minds, like those of the local John Birchers. We studied one of their texts in a Government course, unpacking the way the author crossed every t and dotted every i with his overriding paranoid theory, if it may be called that, that the Communists and their dupes ran everything, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. He had lots of facts too. It all made sense—if you shared the initial paranoid starting point. We mocked this stuff and marveled that anyone could believe it. The Birchers were pretty much defeated by this sort of humorous dismissal, as was a local group that launched a campaign against the Beatles as the instruments of Satan. 

Don’t get me wrong. Every now and then there are conspiracies. But it strains credulity to believe that all sectors of a society as complex as our own—education, politics, the media, advertising, music, scholarship, psychology, medicine, movies, fashion, toy makers, and (unkindest cut of all) many women themselves—are conspiring and colluding against all women everywhere, which means, in many instances, against themselves. 

Faludi’s Backlash is an amazing beast, a living, breathing monster possessing irresistible force. Thus: “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.” On and on in this vein. When Faludi touches on the rise in female poverty (directly correlated with the rise in female-headed households—there’s no doubt about this relationship), the rise in violence against women, the rise of eating disorders, she blames it all on The Backlash. 

But suppose someone came along and blamed all these things on feminism—after all, didn’t these phenomena appear after the rise of the feminist movement?—and dredged up the relevant statistics to make the case. This would be the occasion for outrage on Faludi’s part and further evidence of Backlash. The point is that conspiracy theory, no matter in whose hands, is a monument to anti-intellectualism. For serious laborers in the vineyard of the human sciences understand that all social phenomena have very complex roots—they are, as we say, overdetermined—and it takes skill, real acumen, an eye both for detail and the big picture, and, above all, intellectual honesty to explore such matters. 

Backlash, on the other hand, is social science manqué. The apparatus of scholarship is there, but the book’s each and every claim represents a radical reduction of social reality and experience, particularly Faludi’s presumption that any rethinking undertaken by any feminist at any time, if the thinker in question comes out at some place Faludi dislikes, constitutes a prima facie case that the woman in question has become a backlash pawn. A leading example of this is Betty Friedan, who, whatever might be one’s disagreement with her, surely cannot be charged with having hit upon revisionism as a “marketing tool,” or with being no more than “a fallen leader who is clearly distressed and angry that she wasn’t allowed to be the Alpha wolf as long as she would have liked.” An analyst of motives might have something to say about an ambitious young woman’s dealing that way with an elder. 

For Faludi the use of the intellect is a very dangerous thing indeed; it might lead to what she labels “declarations of apostasy,” by which she more or less means disagreement with some or all of her feminist agenda, guaranteed to be the one and only pure product. To deviate in the slightest is to fling oneself over a cliff into the arms of Backlash. 

Thus, in her hands, scholars like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carol Gilligan, writers who have devoted their careers to the effort to understand the lives of women, become part of a “Neo-Fem Backlash Brain Trust.” Faludi denounces Hewlett (“who was living at the time at a fashionable Manhattan address with her investment-banker husband”) for daring to suggest that mainstream feminism, of the rights-absolutist sort, might not have well-served many “ordinary women.” Hewlett is discredited because she draws “ordinary women” into the picture and, it is clear to Faludi, she has little contact with such women. No doubt Faludi herself doesn’t spend her summer vacation working alongside migrant farm laborers, but that ought not to prevent her from drawing attention to their plight. 

Faludi tries to undermine Hewlett’s claim that it was women themselves who were most mobilized and effective in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment on the grass-roots level by pointing out that in documenting this claim Hewlett “quotes almost exclusively from one source: Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, who directed the Stop ERA program.” The truth of the matter, however, is that thousands of women did mobilize against the ERA. They did so, in part, because of uncertainty as to what the ERA in practice might mean for traditional protective legislation and, in part, because “the women’s organizations promoting the ERA had decided that women must be drafted” should the ERA pass. This was pointed out by Jane Mansbridge in her prize-winning book, Why We Lost the ERA. Mansbridge believes it was a strategic error for feminist jurisprudentialists to insist that the ERA would not only make gender a suspect category for purposes of juridical interpretation, but, even further, a forbidden category. This fueled anti-ERA fervor. Faludi, of course, cites no respectable scholarship, such as Mansbridge, on the ERA, relying instead on her own shoot-from-the-hip posture for her certainty that such fears about ERA were unfounded and hence part of the conspiracy. But finally, the real blow she strikes against Hewlett is her allusion to the fact that Hewlett’s book A Lesser Life “did not become a major seller.” Can it be that the concern for marketing is on the other foot? 

But Faludi saves the harshest denunciation for her discussion of Carol Gilligan, whose 1982 text, In a Different Voice, helped to frame the debate over men, women, and difference for our epoch. Her treatment of Gilligan’s work is reductive and contemptuous, concluding with the comment that Gilligan’s regrets that her work may be “misused” by antifeminists don’t “really matter,” for the “damage has already been done,” no matter what Gilligan may say or do. Gilligan has spent the last decade working with, and listening to, young girls as they grow into young women. Her work is serious in the best sense, worthy of engagement. Faludi’s five-page dismissal is a travesty. 

On her way to pillorying Gilligan, Faludi manages to skewer Sara Ruddick, author of Maternal Thinking. Now, Ruddick is extraordinarily careful to write of maternal thinking not as an ontological given but as a hard-won epistemology that emerges from engaging in maternal practices, and she specifically attacks the “idealized Good Mother,” pointing out that many mothers “who live in the Good Mother’s shadow . . . come to feel their lives are riddled with shameful secrets that even the closest friends can’t share.” Of this tough-minded writer, Faludi says that she writes, “sometimes in starry-eyed terms, of women’s inordinate capacity for kindness, service to others, and cooperation.” In other words, Ruddick is charged with holding precisely the view she has set out to criticize. 

Taking a leaf from Faludi’s own book, one could argue that the Backlashers are cleverer by far than even Faludi suspects, for they have enlisted her, all unwitting, in their cause, and can now gleefully claim a best-selling assault by a woman against other women in the name of regenerating feminism. 

Leaving such thoughts aside, Backlash properly takes its place as part of the growing politics, or, if you will, anti-politics, of scandal. Indeed, it is itself an anti-political book. For Faludi cannot seem to understand that hers are not the only chess pieces on the board. In her insularity, she fails to see that we live in a world of independent actors. When things don’t work out, it may be because others were better at politics—at convincing their fellow citizens—than we were. Others have moves to make, too. It’s something called democracy.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, is the Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Public Man, Private Women: Women in Social and Political Thought, soon to appear in a second edition from Princeton University Press.