As a reporter steeped in our current backlash to women’s progress, I sometimes go back to the 1991 Susan Faludi bestseller — subtitled “The Undeclared War on American Women” — mostly for trivia’s sake. I screengrab amusing where-are-they-now passages, like the lament from the 1988 presidential race from Republican chairman Frank Fahrenkopf: “We are particularly vulnerable, if I can use that word, among young women between the ages of 18 and 35 who work outside the home and particularly within that subgroup, those young women who are single parents.” He would live to be grimly validated, again and again.
But Backlash had more to it than factoids. It was a cogent, forceful repudiation of the entire decade of the ’80s, mostly in the form of media criticism and pointed follow-up reporting. “The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women. This counterassault is largely insidious: in a kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s position have actually led to their downfall,” Faludi wrote.
The charge was that too much liberation had caused women unhappiness, going against their true natures. The remedy was a return to domesticity and “traditional marriage,” a message Faludi says was drummed in by the press and popular culture, as well as the rollback of what gains women had managed to make in reproductive freedom, workplace equality, and political representation.
There is a lot of room for nostalgia on the internet, but in bits, without much institutional memory. And the conversations get smaller and smaller—the equivalent of high-fiving the person from your hometown who watched the same basic cable programming as you did the same summer, self-recognition as a form of temporary bonding. I’m addicted to Twitter and all, but seriously engaging with the nearly 500 pages of Backlash, and most crucially its relevant to our current backlash moment, requires something different.
That’s why Matter, in partnership with my home turf of msnbc.com, decided to have a bigger conversation — a book club that includes 40 people, some who remember the ’80s backlash and some who don’t, and also you, dear reader, here or elsewhere on the internet. From now until the end of the summer, we’ll have readers come back to the book, or come to it for the first time, and then talk about it together on the Internet, one chapter at a time. We hope you’ll come read and talk too.
Our readers do all kinds of things, usually several at a time. They include journalistic trailblazer Jill Abramson and TV/film/book-maker Lena Dunham, university president and former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, novelists like Roxane Gay and Adelle Waldman, and cultural critics like Emily Nussbaum and Stacia Brown. We have sharp observers on national politics like Dave Weigel, Joan Walsh, and Alex Pareene, and academics who write with marvelous clarity like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Salamishah Tillet. We couldn’t think of doing something like this without including some of our favorite writers who regularly engage with gender politics, like Rebecca Traister, Brittney Cooper, Katha Pollitt, and Anna Holmes.
Even something as simple as all of us reading the same book feels like a hearkening back to a more unified cultural moment.
Returning to a book many years later is also a way to take measure of yourself. I don’t know if you learned your cultural history, or gained your politics, in proper order. For me, it was out of order, which means the backlash to feminism came first in my consciousness. And so did Backlash.
As a 13-year-old who hoarded a collage of Courtney Love images under my desk, all it took was Love dropping a Backlash reference into a magazine interview to get me to buy it. (Get my mother to buy it?) It wasn’t exactly clear what the backlash was to, since feminism to me at that point meant reading biographies of suffragists and issuing strenuous objections to teachers’ default male pronouns.
It had already long been a bestseller, landing just as Anita Hill was harangued before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since feminism was perennially being declared dead, Backlash was seen as a revival. Faludi appeared on the cover of Time in a black turtleneck and jeans, alongside Gloria Steinem. “This book will have a spine-stiffening effect on any woman who thinks she is paranoid,” wrote Ellen Goodman in her New York Times review. “Yes, says Ms. Faludi, they are after you.”
Perplexingly, the book named a few villains, but no central command. “The lack of orchestration, the absence of a single string-puller, only makes it harder to see—and perhaps more effective,” Faludi wrote. “A backlash against women’s rights succeeds to the degree that it appears not to be political, that it appears not to be a struggle at all. It is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges in a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head, until she begins to enforce the backlash, too—on herself.”
Going back to it now, I have some questions, though I’ll wait for our readers to go deeper. Can it be a crime without a conspiracy? Were the women identified as part of the backlash suffering from false consciousness? Was the backlash just something that happened to women, without their resistance? And what role did women’s competing desires and expectations play in any of this? There were significant elisions, too: How could you write an entire book about the misogyny of the Reagan era with barely a glancing mention of the demonization of “welfare queens,” black women in particular?
This is a contradictory moment for women’s progress. The backlash seems fiercer, better-organized, and savvier, but we have more tools than ever for dissecting and subverting it. There are still cover stories blaming feminism for any number of ills, but cover stories matter less than they ever did, and we have so many other places to talk about what does matter. Sexual assault in the military and on campus and everywhere else is nothing new, and despite decades of activism, too often met with gross injustice. But more people than ever care about it and are trying to figure out how to make things better for victims. There is a cottage industry in how to help women advance in the workforce, which depending on where you sit, is at least better than trying to get women out of the workforce altogether, as if it were even possible for most of us.
There is good news, but there are perennial caveats. When Faludi wrote her book, there were two woman in the U.S. Senate; now there are 20, but that’s still just 20 percent. It can feel like Democrats’ entire strategy for 2014 is searching for the next rape-apologist and being the most passionate defender of contraceptive access — if not so much abortion access, which is getting more and more elusive across the country. The president just hosted a Working Families Summit that put the kinds of policies feminists have long dreamed of on the table — if only rhetorically.
So here’s how Backlash Book Club works, in something attempting proper order: Three contributors read a chapter in whatever format they choose, and we’ll release about two of their responses per week until the end of the summer. I’ll be back, too, with a little bit more than nostalgia.
It’s not a celebration or a roast; it’s not even an anniversary. But it is a time to measure our time against a moment, and to do something together.
Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium, 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 Lena Dunham, Anna Holmes, Aminatou Sow, Roxane Gay, and others.
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