“But the backlash did more than impede women’s opportunities for employment, promotions, and better pay. Its spokesmen kept the news of many of these setbacks from women. Not only did the backlash do grievous damage to working women—it did it on the sly.”— Susan Faludi, Backlash, “Chapter 13 — The Wages of the Backlash: The Toll on Working Women. ”
Latoya Peterson (editor and owner of Racialicious.com and senior digital producer for The Stream): I never read Backlash, so I am brand new to the book. In 1991, I was 8 years old. I didn’t start thinking about feminism until 1997, when I wandered into the 305/306 section in the library. Even then, I don’t remember encountering Backlash—I didn’t really connect with books on feminism until Manifesta, and I didn’t find a feminist home until I read Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.
Krystal Ball (co-host on the MSNBC show The Cycle): I’m brand new to the book, too. I really didn’t think much about feminism until I decided to run for Congress and was blown away by the unbelievable amount of blatant sexism that is out there—even among Democrats. I remember one woman telling me that the only thing I should be running for was after my toddler. A man told me flat out he wouldn’t vote for me because I should be home with my kid. And that was just what people said to my face! I didn’t intend to be a feminist but life certainly made me one.
Bryce Covert (economic policy editor for ThinkProgress): I also came late to this book, although I had somehow identified as a feminist without reading many books on it from a really young age. So when I decided to read Backlash a few years ago, I had a “where has this been all my life?” moment. I read it during the heart of the so-called “mancession,” when states were enacting record numbers of abortion restrictions, and President Obama was still on an austerity kick. So there were a lot of clicks for me.
But since then, I’ve become less convinced of the backlash idea. Is it a backlash, or is it just patriarchy, which has always existed?
LP: It’s a bit of both. I also came up in the ’90s, when feminism was being both foregrounded and co-opted. Women were in your face, on the radio, on the comedy scene, setting their boyfriend’s mansions on fire… it never occurred to me we were sliding backward. I mean, even Mountain Dew was selling female empowerment:
I didn’t really think about a feminist backlash until the cultural mood changed. Strong, multidimensional, unapologetic women started disappearing from the airwaves and movie screens. In their place came the types of women created by highly focused teams armed with market research and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader-style values. After that, I started seeing how easily gains could be eroded.
KB: It’s funny how once you put those feminist glasses on there’s no taking them off. I do think there’s something to be said for the idea of a backlash animating a lot of our current gender politics. Some gains created terror that the old way and the old power structures that benefitted them would be upended. Clever marketers and politicians have preyed on those fears.
BC: This chapter focuses on some examples of the barriers women faced in the economy in the ’80s. Many women were literally shut out of the economy for decades—centuries—before this, with companies explicitly hiring only men because men were the breadwinners. (Although it’s always important to note that this is a middle-class view of things, as low-income women have nearly always had to work.)
LP: This—that low-income women always have to work—is a perpetually glossed over side note. It’s one of my criticisms of the work at large (and really, how we discuss feminist issues): Certain groups of women are often illustrative afterthoughts. What does it mean that low-income women have to work (and often end up employed by wealthier white women in pursuit of their own fulfillment)? There are a lot of strange contortions of argument around that. Millions of women eked out their lives in that small margin. What struck me about this chapter were the stories of women who really had no other choice but to fight for better wages. The mother with five kids who saw a job offering more money with no experience? I can’t imagine how deep she dug to stay on the job in the face of such sustained harassment.
BC: It’s frustrating how low-income women’s work is always a footnote—if that—while more affluent women’s ennui and “feminine mystique” was foregrounded in the ’50s and ’60s. I was put off by Faludi’s first example in this chapter, which was about the barriers women faced in media, not because they didn’t exist, but because I’m not sure how emblematic they were for the vast majority of working women. Media tends to be a privileged and higher-income space. She gravitated toward it because it was familiar to her, but that’s an instinct I wish she would fight a little more, particularly as a middle-class white woman writing about women in the workforce. She does go on to talk about women trying to get ahead in retail and manufacturing, but again, it’s like this is a new phenomenon of women being held back in these fields. I bet low-income or working-class women would tell you it had been that way for a long time as they tried to work and feed their families.
KB: I was working on a segment recently about the way workers are abused and how their wages are stolen more often by contractors and franchisees than if they worked directly for the lead employer. We were trying to book a worker at a plant that made parts for Toyota in Mississippi. She had spoken out about the health conditions she’d developed by working with toxic chemicals and very few health protections. But despite her passion and commitment to making things better for her family and her coworkers, there was just no way for her to get off work—even for an hour—to come tell her story. Those kinds of obvious and practical problems are far from an excuse though. If you can’t get the worker herself, you still find a way to tell the story.
LP: There’s also a self-perpetuating cycle. There are all these ideas of “accepted business hours” that don’t mean anything to millions of people in this country. And to talk to people and tell more inclusive stories, people in media also have to make themselves available. But that starts with realizing that there are a great many jobs that only leave people time in the late evening and early morning.
BC: But is Faludi highlighting new problems or just problems that have existed for a long time? After women were encouraged to enter factories during World War II, they were again chased out when the soldiers got home so the boys could have “their” jobs back. Flight attendants in the ’60s and ’70s were automatically fired when they got married or reached a certain age. Comparatively, it’s hard to claim that the 1980s were an especially tough era for women who wanted to work.
There are some important themes that she describes here. Government agencies may not be so adamantly against helping women who bring discrimination suits—remember that Clarence Thomas was in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the time she writes about it (shudder)—but it’s certainly not proactively helping them as it did during the pre-Reagan era. The courts have become pretty hostile to women’s complaints of discrimination, and it’s really difficult to prove. Take for example the Walmart v. Dukes case, where despite widespread evidence that women at Walmart are paid less and promoted less, the Supreme Court said that didn’t constitute a class for a class action lawsuit.
BC: The EEOC doesn’t go out and target companies for discrimination the way Faludi describes them doing before the Reagan administration took over; complaints have to come to them from the women themselves, and that’s a big ask. Not everyone has the resources or feels able to risk their jobs to make a complaint. And cases are harder to win now. Between 1990 and 1999, women who brought unequal pay claims won a little more than half of them, but between 2000 and 2009, they won just a third. The evidence required to prove discrimination now has also become a lot more stringent. The standard was “disparate impact” then, which has been all but done away with; you often have to prove that there was an intent on someone’s part to discriminate.
KB: And if you can’t prove it at Walmart, a company built according to experts on an old-fashioned patriarchy, I would think that would pretty much keep anyone else from bothering to try. Workers—whether concerned about discrimination or wage theft—are terrified of being fired. When DC Walmart opened, 23,000 people applied for 600 jobs! People know that if they kick up a fuss they’ll be tossed out without a second thought. It’s disgusting the way human beings are treated as disposable commodities.
BC: Absolutely. The fear of losing your job is even more intense now, probably more so than when Faludi wrote this book. Although then, as now, a recession had hurt some blue-collar men and expanded the minimum-wage service sector. But I think two things have shifted. One is that men are also stuck in low-wage service jobs—like retail and food service—along with women, as those make up the majority of jobs added since the recession.
LP: Isn’t that indicative of a broader shift though? There was a great book on blue-collar millennials that described how, between the outsourcing of higher wage jobs and the skyrocketing prices of college, so many people are trapped in this low-wage, multi-job service economy. Even positions like nursing and teaching. Who was it that said we always expected that women’s wages would rise to meet men’s, and not that men’s wages would fall to meet women’s?
BC: Those jobs have also gotten worse since the ’80s, with many more workers forced into part-time positions or denied the hours they need, made to deal with erratic and undependable schedules, and rarely given any benefits like paid sick days.
Back when I was trying to leave poverty in the early aughts, it was rough enough. At one point I was working three different jobs; the highest-paying of those was maybe $12 an hour. But I honestly can’t imagine trying to do it in this era of cost-efficiency. My husband’s sister had to quit a job at Chipotle because the hours were so unpredictable, she couldn’t manage a second job or even approach full time employment. She’s now at Starbucks. Even then, Starbucks isn’t much better—she’s hoping to track into management in order to have some control of her hours. And this new tech stuff is on top of all the usual issues with low wage work.
KB: Still, it’s disproportionately women who are stuck in low-wage jobs and disproportionately minority women. I guess this should be obvious but I was still sort of stunned by this recent study showing that women overall have less flexible workplaces than men.
How can we expect women to be breadwinners—as is demanded by the modern economy—and mothers when she gets her schedule the day before, has no paid sick-leave, no paid maternity leave, no help with childcare, let alone reliable public transit or help from the government should she not be able to make all those things work.
LP: There is this idea that the only fit mothers are wealthy and in white-collar careers. The narrative says it is irresponsible to have a child until you better your station in life, and collect benefits like paid sick days. And even then, enough sick leave, adequate maternity leave, and affordable child care remain elusive.
BC: At the same time, I think there’s been a marked shift away from the ’80s and ’90s, when working women seemed to scare everyone. Faludi hits the nail on the cultural head when she plucks out Fatal Attraction in an earlier chapter as emblematic of the fear of the single working woman. Working women are no longer an anomaly, given that so many families need them to work, whether they’re single moms or co-parents. You just don’t see the freak-outs over the impact of day care on kids or whether working moms will hurt their children’s development that used to happen.
LP: The fear has faded, but I don’t think it’s receded completely. There are still freak-outs about the impact of daycare on kids, it’s just acknowledged as a necessity these days. And the cost of day care in many areas is so high that it’s almost a luxury good. I’m a new mom, and when I was shopping around for daycare options in DC, I was quoted $2,000 a month. $24,000 a year. Clearly, there are cheaper options but then you are a bad parent.
And even in these enlightened times, the idea of a working mom is fine — as long as she fits all the other duties in somewhere.
KB: Exactly! And the guilt factor is still high. And don’t even think about letting folks at work in on the fact that you might have kids that have needs. Even among people who think themselves enlightened, they start automatically assuming you don’t want that big project or promotion or responsibility because you’re probably too busy at home. No one actually bothers to check with you whether or not that’s the case.
BC: That’s very true. I think what’s changed is that people accept it as a norm. You don’t see the religious right as worried about working women as much as they are worried about, say, abortion and contraception (even though, of course, all of these things are intertwined in women’s lives). But that doesn’t mean the things that working women need are any more available now than they were back then. I think our society has gotten over the idea that women work but hasn’t budged in meeting them halfway on it. As you say, child care is insanely expensive! And we almost had universal child care in the ’70s, but today the idea is only just starting to make a comeback. Not to mention how far an outlier we are on not guaranteeing paid family leave, sick leave, and vacation time.
Now what you see is arguments that women have achieved equality in the workplace. Take the mancession or the end of men, the idea that women will dominate the economy because they have soft skills. Or the notion that there is no gender pay gap if you just look at the statistics the right way. This is a victory of sorts because it’s about resentment of women’s achievements, but it’s still an impediment to the change women need.
LP: True, especially the no pay gap idea. Media is a brutal industry — I had no idea Connie Chung took an $800,000-a-year pay cut to have a child, or that women were just arbitrarily fired for pregnancy in the ’80s. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Even these days, with all the cuts and the demise of print journalism, there is this idea that everyone will be a “work hero.” A lot of my colleagues talk about working around the clock or until the wee hours of the morning and it’s just seen as normal. But that may be a culture-wide shift.
What I love about this chapter is that we are taking the conversation out of pop culture and placing it firmly in the realm of economics, organizing, and activism. I love my pop culture, and it can be very revealing, but sometimes I really wish more feminist energy was spent looking at the connections between movements. I really loved this part of Backlash because it deals directly with topics that have become almost-taboo in recent years: labor unions, affirmative action, and gender dynamics in media.
KB: What is fundamentally thought of as “women’s issues”—ie abortion and birth control—are economic issues! The ability to have control over your life and your family means you can take economic control of your destiny.
BC: It’s also notable what Faludi still leaves out. Latoya, I agree that I like moving away from pop culture to what was going on in women’s lives. But I don’t think she actually does spend much time talking about movements here. She doesn’t really talk about labor unions and the fact that they began a huge decline in this era and what that meant for women.
LP: You’re right, Bryce, but maybe that can be chalked up to how difficult it can be to challenge preconceived notions of what a union is and does. I didn’t even think about unions and what they had done until a writer called La Lubu did a stint at Feministe and dedicated her work to feminism and labor. I hadn’t encountered unions until I worked in the media, and it wasn’t my particular job class that was eligible. So it may be a lack of understanding. After I read La Lubu’s work, my eyes were opened- collective bargaining may not be perfect, but neither is hoping for benevolent corporations.
BC: Faludi also doesn’t mention welfare reform, which as has been noted in previous book club discussions—seems like a huge blind spot. Reagan’s demonizing of the supposed welfare queen, which led to the welfare-reform legislation President Clinton signed in the ’90s, had a huge impact on so many women.
KB: That’s such an important point. The changes Clinton made to welfare looked a lot more like ending the program than reforming it. Welfare simply doesn’t exist anymore in most places in the way that most people understand it. Of course, it’s sort of taken until this current recession to figure that out.
LP: Bryce referenced the welfare queen trope, and it’s why a lot of people dismiss the idea of welfare programs: the pervasive idea that welfare is going to “cheats” who in the popular imagination are poor, uneducated women of color. While the woman Reagan blasted as the welfare queen did have an epic story, the reality for most people is that these programs do not provide anything close to a comfortable existence. And, honestly, prejudice is a huge reason for why there isn’t more popular support for these highly used and effective programs.
KB: The big reminder is that progress might feel inevitable. If we just keep heading down this road, we’ll have gender parity in congress, wages, corner offices but actually, we can backslide. We have in certain areas gone backwards and we have to be vigilant against the regressive forces that have a deep interest in pulling us back. Also, after reading modern books like Sandberg’s Lean In and Clarie Shipman and Kattie Kay’s The Confidence Gap, which are both well meaning and in certain ways helpful, it was refreshing to read a book where the problem was not that the women are just doing it wrong. Because if being exactly like the dudes is what it takes to achieve parity, well, that’s never going to work out for us. The dudes are always going to be better than us at being dudes.
Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium/MSNBC.com, tweet at @readmatter with #BacklashBookClub, or comment on MSNBC.com. We’ll be featuring some of your posts and tweets as we go.
Read more of the Backlash Book Club, featuring Jamilah Lemieux, Ann Friedman, and Heather Havrilesky, and others.
Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee