Reporter depicts wide-ranging assault on gains made by women in 1970s

November 03, 1991|By Pat Schroeder | Pat Schroeder,Knight-Ridder News Service



Susan Faludi.


552 pages. $24. Anyone in America who was surprised at the outpouring of women's anger over the Senate's handling of Anita Hill's sexual harassment complaint against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas should read "Backlash." In this well-documented, insightful book, Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, reports the political, cultural and economic forces that led to a decadelong backlash against women in this country.

Ms. Faludi describes the backlash as the unorchestrated counterassault on women's gains in the '70s. In that decade, the Supreme Court upheld women's right to abortion. The Congress enacted laws to protect women from discriminatory employment practices. Popular culture, whether it was through advertising, movies, music or magazines, encouraged the independent woman to take charge of her life. Society began to tolerate and accept women having more choices about their lives.

But in the mold of other backlashes in American history, that tradition culminated in a predictable dance of two steps forward, one step back.

As Ms. Faludi points out, what has made this backlash more insidious than previous ones is precisely that it wasn't a conspiracy. Yes, it did have a political core pushed by New Right and conservative politicians, forces that seemed to proclaim feminism as the domestic equivalent of the Evil Empire.

But other forces -- new statistics, faulty scientific research, heavy societal moralism and unskeptical media -- were key to fueling the momentum of the backlash against women's rights during the '80s. For example, studies announcing infertility epidemics, shortages of marriageable men and working-mom burnout were, under close scrutiny, nothing more than good copy. Good copy meant more female readers, which translated into higher profits for media and advertisers.

The trend story, which Ms. Faludi defines as "articles that claimed to divine sweeping shifts in female social behavior while providing little in the way of evidence to support their generalizations," was used to masquerade moralizing as reporting. Such trend stories made the rounds on the media circuit, from "Donahue" or "Oprah Winfrey" back to Newsweek and on to the New York Times, and tended to create self-fulfilling prophecies.

As Ms. Faludi points out, polls reported a trend a year or two after the round of stories had bombarded people's consciousness. One of the greatest services this book does is to explain and unmask such media techniques and the ease with which a faulty piece of research can instantly create a new trend.

Good copy, in addition to creating new myths about women, also diverted attention from facts. Facts such as how the number of complaints women filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of women's discrimination complaints, rose 25 percent during the '80s.

"Backlash" is replete with examples of politicians, employers, journalists and other gatekeepers in our society duping and diverting women. It is with this decade as a backdrop that women struck back and rose in anger, disgust and frustration this month at the hint that their government wasn't taking women seriously. As Americans watched the hearing on Ms. Hill's charges against Mr. Thomas, they saw the modus operandi of the past 10 years.

The senator leading the charge against Anita Hill, Orrin Hatch, was propelled into the Senate by astutely using backlash politics. In attacking Ms. Hill, he used the tactics used to discredit rape victims in the '50s (another backlash era): It's all in her head; she's lying; poor thing, she loved him and was spurned. The Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee patronized, intimidated and trivialized the seriousness of the issue. The Democrats, for the most part, stood by and gulped.

As Ms. Faludi points out, similar messages, while not as blatant, were used to discredit the women's movement in the '80s. In politics, we saw it straight and simple.

In 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan's reign, conservatives in Congress put forth the Family Protection Act, an attempt to undo the bulk of women's legislative gains. From repealing federal laws that protected battered wives to dismantling federal programs designed to encourage equal opportunity in education, the Family Protection Act was the New Right's attempt to tell women what it was they really wanted and needed.

Today the backlash, fueled by the bitter Thomas nomination, rages. Phyllis Schlafly is predicting a backlash against the "feminists who tried to destroy Thomas." What is disheartening, however, is that the president of the United States is echoing her words: George Bush is threatening retribution against the "radical feminists" who opposed his Supreme Court nominee.

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