Washington -- It all started with the Study: the now infamous Harvard-Yale "man shortage" study of 1986 that told college-educated single women over 30 they'd better start getting used to Soup for One.
Reporter Susan Faludi was on her way to that fateful age and on her way to a wedding -- not hers -- when she opened a copy of Newsweek to face the grim news. She, like her similarly situated friends, were not amused to read that once they hit 30, they'd be more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find wedded bliss -- or wedded anything.
"What struck me was that, here I had not really given great thought to the tragedy of my single state and all of a sudden, after reading the story, I felt, like so many women, 'Maybe I made a mistake,' " says Ms. Faludi, now 32, the author of the timely and controversial "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (Crown Publishers Inc.).
"There's the guilt that a story like that induces that you've committed this crime of going to college and now you're going to pay!"
As a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News at the time, she investigated the study, found it riddled with problems and errors and wrote a magazine article refuting the story that had already spread throughout popular culture like a mad virus, horrifying scores of single women.
But few people wanted to hear the other side of the story, she says, even though the U.S. Census Bureau, too, was putting out numbers that were far less discouraging. Instead, TV, Hollywood, the media, dating services chose to perpetuate the juicier "man shortage" myth, she says. "It was like this stain on the rug. You couldn't get it out once it was in there," says Ms. Faludi. "The more you scrub away at it, the more it seems to spread."
She decided to write a book about single women and the pressures on them to marry -- evidence, she believed, of a subtle, but insidious societal backlash against women's quest for independence. But single women, she discovered, were not the only targets of what she perceived as antifeminist messages of the '80s.
And Ms. Faludi's newly published book takes to task forces throughout society -- such as the "New Right" in politics, a "misogynistic" White House, the media, Hollywood, Madison avenue, the fashion industry -- that, as she writes, have been telling women, single and married alike: "You may be free and equal now . . . but you have never been more miserable."
Ms. Faludi, now a San Francisco-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, believes this backlash stems from economic anxieties coupled with male anger over women's progress. Whenever women take even small steps forward, she says, a "counterassault" -- one that's not necessarily deliberate or plotted -- is mounted to dangle self-doubt, guilt and worry in front of them.
If this "backlash" was concocted and orchestrated by "three male chauvinists in a war room," she jokes, "it would be much easier to eradicate. But so much of it is ill-thought out or subconscious or unspoken or ill-understood. And it's coming from so many different places."
Just look at popular culture, she says, where messages that feminism is passe, evil and responsible for everything from the single woman's depression to the career woman's burnout to the divorced woman's poverty abound:
* They're in movies like "Fatal Attraction," where a desperate, psychotic single career woman is pitted against a nice, happy housewife, and in TV shows like "thirtysomething," where the single women are pitiful and the wife and mother, saintly.
* In the fashion industry, which exclaimed in the mid-'80s that women were returning to frilly lingerie in droves, when, in fact, the most popular brand of women's underwear by 1988 was "Jockey for Her."
* In the media, where such a trend story as Fortune's 1986 "Why Women are Bailing Out" -- about businesswomen fleeing corporate life and returning to the home -- was picked up and recycled by other news organizations even though it was based on thin evidence.
Such stories, trends and images often provoked a shift, rather than reflecting the reality of women's lives, she says, "like a self-fulfilling prophecy."
And while there may be truth to some of the '80s "myths," such as the working woman's overload and depression, greater independence is not the culprit, maintains the author.
"Yes, women are burned out -- it's just not for the reasons we had heard. It's not because they have too much equality. It's because they have too little. They're burned out because they work for men, many of whom still are very hostile and sexist, in a workplace where they're not paid the same as men and don't have the same opportunities for advancement. And many of those women come home to do 75 percent of the housework. It's not any wonder that they're ready to fall down by the end of the day."