Saturday, March 26, 2011

Backlash: 20 Years On

I read Feministing. I read Feministe. I read Womanist Musings and The F Word and a host of other women's rights websites. I am on top of the jargon and acronyms common in feminist/womanist writings (TW! IBTP!), and I have a decent understanding of what is broadly meant by the terms first-, second-, and third-wave feminism.

Despite all this, I haven't actually read many classic feminist texts. My main reason for this is that a lot of second-wave feminists at best ignored and at worst actively worked against the causes of women of color, trans* people, women in developing countries, and basically anyone who wasn't a white, highly-educated, upper- or middle-class cis woman in the developed world. See this excellent Bitch post for more information. Being a white, highly-educated, upper- or middle-class cis woman in the developed world myself, I am extremely conscious of my potential to stomp all over most of humankind, and of my duty to be an outspoken ally of all the people who don't share my many thousand metric tons of privilege. Given that Jezebel hacked me off to the point of quitting it completely a number of months ago, the thought of reading pages and pages of self-described feminists failing intersection forever is profoundly unappealing.

However, I recognize the importance of knowing the history of any movement with which I align myself. And so, leaving the Steinem and the Greer and the Wolf for a day when my defenses are higher, I decided to dip into the slightly less problematic end of the classic-feminist-text pool, starting with Susan Faludi's 1992 award-winner Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women.

Faludi's thesis is that every period of major gains for women's equality is followed by a political and media backlash blaming feminism for every problem women still face, when in fact the problems exist because feminism has not gone far enough. Her primary focus is the 1980s, but she devotes an early chapter to showing how contemporary anti-feminist rhetoric restates ideas from earlier backlash periods: the late nineteenth century, the 1930s, the post-war period.

Each chapter explores the backlash in a different sphere: the media, movies, TV, fashion, beauty, politics, popular psychology, careers, and reproductive rights. The book is primarily about these things in the US, though it does contain briefer references to the situations in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand throughout. Obviously this self-imposed limitation – a necessary one, since it already runs to 500+ pages – means that a number of intersections fall outside the book's scope, such as women in non-Anglophone or developing countries, trans* women, disabled women, etc.; but Faludi engages often with class issues and sometimes with issues specifically facing women of color (though I would have liked a whole chapter on WOC). It is worth mentioning that Faludi occasionally uses ableist language, notably referring to failing systems as “crippled”.

Faludi does not write with the crackling fury and vitriol that makes some other feminist writing such fun but also so easy to dismiss as hyperbolic. Even when pointing out stomach-turning hypocrisy and injustice (the chapter on reproductive rights made me cry with rage), her writing is measured and calm, calling on an impressive and frankly irrefutable array of statistics. However, some parts of the book would have benefited from even more facts and figures: the chapter on movies would make a more effective point if it explored feminist and anti-feminist content in, say, the 100 highest-earning films at the box office in the 1980s, rather than concentrating on a handful of cherry-picked movies. The chapter full of ad hominems on leading figures of 1980s anti-feminism, while very funny, would have felt less petty if it had contextualized its chosen targets better and given more of a sense of their respective degrees of influence and popularity to those of us too young to remember the eighties.

The best chapter by far is the one on reproductive rights. It balances a broad overview with agonizing individual stories, and it hits especially hard in our current context, where Republicans in the US are launching ever more jaw-dropping attacks on women's health and reproductive rights.

Twenty years on, are we in another backlash period? I'm no sociologist, but the truth is that, while the figures might be different, the backlash attitudes described in the book will be painfully familiar to anyone who engages with Western culture with a feminist eye. It's 2011, and articles like this and this are still being published in major media outlets. It's 2011, and Faludi's 20-year-old words could have been written yesterday on any of the blogs I linked in my opening paragraph: “Feminism's agenda is basic: […] It asks that women be free to define themselves – instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.”

Backlash is not a perfect book, but it has the dual value of all great texts: as a historical document of the specific time and place where it was written, and as a timeless statement of truths that hold today. If you are despairing of ever achieving justice and equality, if you feel crushed by the weight of everything we have to fight against, read Faludi's closing words of sorrow and hope:

[W]omen's hour on the stage is long, long overdue. Because, whatever new obstacles are mounted against the future march toward equality, whatever new myths invented, penalties levied, opportunities rescinded or degradations imposed, no one can ever take from women the justness of their cause.”

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