English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Comments on Susan Faludi's
Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (1991)
by Al Drake

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

By way of historical background, I offer a summary and thoughts on Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (1991). 

Faludi details the “backlashes” that result from advances on women's part.  She identifies four such reactions: 

1) The first came when the mid-C19 movement (she mentions Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), ran into the "Teddy’s Rough Riders/Frederick Jackson Turner Era"—America wanted to forge an empire around 1900. 

2) The second came around the 1920's after women had again begun to demand and to make improvements: an Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, and a whole lot of national organizations were formed--labor, journalism, etc.  The Nineteenth Amendment (suffrage for women, basically) passed, but then the War Department, explains Faludi, began accusing leaders like Charlotte P. Gilman and Emma Goldman of being communists in the wake of the Soviet revolution.  Then came the Great Depression of 1929.

3) The third backlash occurred after women had made gains as workers in W.W. II America.  But when the war ended and the male GI's came home demanding jobs, Rosie the Riveter was told to pack up and go home. Although many women remained in the workforce (often as clerical employees), the Eisenhower Era's promotion of the Feminine Mystique showed that the chill had set in against feminism.

4) The fourth backlash, says Faludi, came after the gains of the 1970's--reproductive rights and entry into the formerly male professions.  Faludi takes aim at the Reagan Years (1980-88) as the focus of this fourth backlash, which she says was aimed mainly at the professional and reproductive gains women had just made.

Final point: it is worth considering that Faludi does not write solely about overt attacks on American women's material status.  A big part of the backlash cycle, she suggests, consists in antifeminists' ability to convince many women (especially members of the new, allegedly post-feminist generation) that A CONSENSUS HAS BEEN REACHED ABOUT FEMINISM.

The consensus would go something like this:

1) Feminism is unnecessary, since "we" know that "everybody is equal now" and/or 2) Feminism is unwise, since any gains made by its strident, UNNATURAL advocates come only with a terribly high price tag--the incessant ticking of the "biological clock," "depression," "unfulfillment," etc.

Faludi provides historical context for what some take as the consensus view that post-feminism is now the way to go.  While recognizing the genuineness of these views on many women's part, she resists--correctly, I believe--treating them as indicators of universal facts or inalienable accomplishments.  Treating them as such, she would say, only reinforces what has become a cyclical pattern in women's history: modest advance/step backward . . . . That is a valuable point since it allows the "fourth-wavers" (or third-wavers, in some accounts) posited by the consensus manufacturers to examine themselves with some distance.