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A Subtle Attack on Women

Backlash By Susan Faludi Crown Publishers $24.00

By Maggie S. Tucker

American women today are more equal than ever, but also more unhappy. Though working outside the home in record numbers, women are also miserable in record numbers. The married ones are stressed by career-family conflicts, and the single ones feel unfulfilled. Because the women's movement has fostered false expectations, it has hurt women more than helped them.

So goes the reasoning, at least, of what Susan Faludi '81 argues was an anti-feminist "backlash" that swept America in the 1980s. In Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women, Faludi convincingly refutes this argument. First, women are not even close to achieving full equality in the U.S., and in the last decade they have made strides backwards. Second, many widely accepted social theories present a distorted view of how women feel, think and behave. And finally, opponents of the women's movement, and not the movement itself, have hurt women.

The tide of anti-feminism that Faludi describes pervades our society and culture. Its manifestations range from the subtle--changes in perfume advertising campaigns--to the blatant--legislation proposed by The Heritage Foundation that would require "marriage and motherhood" to be taught as the only appropriate occupations for women.

But Faludi, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is no conspiracy theorist. She does not believe that a group of men run the "backlash" from a smoke-filled room. Instead, she calls its workings "encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic," and argues that even sympathetic feminists like Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan have unknowingly contributed to its success.

One of the central backlash mechanisms Faludi focuses on is the "feedback loop" between media coverage and popular culture. Her book provides a disturbing look at how the American media perpetuates misleading or inaccurate information just because it fits the preconceived notions of reporters and editors.

For instance, in 1986. Harvard and Yale sociologists found that college-educated women over the age of 30 had a sharply decreasing chance of marriage, down to 1.3 percent at the age of 40. These widely publicized findings led to a rash of marriage anxiety among American women and a proliferation of books and workshops offering to help them beat the odds.

But Faludi takes a closer look at the Harvard-Yale study and at how it came to national attention. A Stamford Advocate reporter writing a Valentine's Day story on modern romance called the Yale sociology department and happened to talk to one of the authors of the uncompleted study. The story ran in the Advocate, was picked up by the Associated Press and soon appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.

However, a number of scholars and government officials found serious problems with the study's methodology. Basing their findings on an unusually small population sample, the researchers employed a "parametric" model that had never before been used to predict behavior. In fact, the study's authors did not include the marriage figures in their final paper.

Yet somehow none of these facts--nor the U.S. Census Bureau's determination that the marriage rate for women of that age group was actually rising--have received much attention in the media, which continues to cite and even to inflate the original statistics. As Eloise Salholz, the author of Newsweek's lead story on "the man shortage," said, "We all knew this was happening before that study came out. The study summarized impressions we already had."

In addition to dispelling this and similar myths of 1980s womanhood, Faludi traces the backlash's manifestations in popular culture, from movies to fashion. She provides fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at everything from how Victoria's Secrets top management plan merchandise--based on their own fantasies--to how Hollywood executives turned Fatal Attraction from a pro-feminist film into one where men would yell "Kill the bitch!" in theaters nationwide.

This book effectively demolishes any claims that women today are treated as equal citizens. Some of the stories she tells are horrific--doctors perform a Caesarian section on a dying woman against her will--while others are merely unsettling--the woman creator of thirtysomething has her script rejected repeatedly until her husband submits it under the name "Buck Trent."

The one weakness of Backlash is that Faludi's efforts to disprove charges of women's unhappiness make the reader think that such ideas have no basis in reality--as if no working women are stressed, no children are abused by daycare providers, etc. Still, Faludi performs an important service--no one should accept flawed statistics and inaccurate theories as the boundaries of their lives.

Though 544 pages long, Backlash is anything but a dry treatise. Faludi's tour of 1980s America takes the reader from a Guess jeans photo shoot to the dinner table of a leading anti-abortion activist, providing a fascinating look at the making of U.S. society and culture. Anyone interested in how women are doing today--and especially anyone who thinks they are doing just fine--should read this book.

Backlash effectively demolishes any claims that women today are treated as equal citizens.

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