Donna Shalala, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Traister

“You Don’t Remember What It Was Like When There Was No Feminist Internet”

Matter and MSNBC.com are rereading Susan Faludi’s feminist classic, Backlash. Here’s our conversation on Chapter Two.


“The press first introduced the backlash to a national audience—and made it palatable. Journalism replaced the “pro-family” diatribes of fundamentalist preachers with sympathetic and even progressive-sounding rhetoric. It cosmeticized the scowling face of antifeminism while blackening the feminist eye. In the process, it popularized the backlash beyond the New Right’s wildest dreams…[T]he press was the first to set forth and solve for a mainstream audience the paradox in women’s lives, the paradox that would become so central to the backlash: women have achieved so much yet feel so dissatisfied; it must be feminism’s achievements, not society’s resistance to these partial achievements, that is causing women all this pain. In the ’70s, the press had held up its own glossy picture of a successful woman and said, “See, she’s happy. That must be because she’s liberated.” Now, under the reverse logic of the backlash, the press airbrushed a frown into its picture of the successful woman and announced, “See, she’s miserable. That must be because women are too liberated.” —Susan Faludi, Backlash, “Chapter 2—Man Shortages and Barren Wombs: The Myths of the Backlash.”

Rebecca Traister (senior editor at The New Republic and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women): President Shalala, do you remember reading Backlash when it came out?

Donna Shalala (President of the University of Miami, Secretary of Health and Human Services, 1993–2001): Yes. I do. Well, only because I was in New York and everyone else was having a heart attack. I think that when you live in New York at a certain level, people actually believe everything’s that written on the front page of The New York Times. They actually think it’s a trend. Academics were always more skeptical.

RT: Roxane, do you remember reading it the first time? Did you read it when it came out?

Roxane Gay (author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist): I did not, I’m reading it right now.

RT: Oh, this is the first time!

RG: Absolutely, a fresh perspective. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. It’s very eye-opening, to feel like, “Wow, that was such a different time.” And, at the same time it feels like, “Wow, very little has changed.” The other day I saw some article on one of those websites where women were holding up signs explaining why they don’t need feminism, and I felt bad for them because they’re clearly a little ignorant? And I wanted to hand them this book.

RT: I just finished writing a book about unmarried women, so over the past couple of years, I’ve been looking at a lot of media stuff about single women that Faludi is dealing with in this chapter. I came across was a piece in the NYT—from, I believe, around 1987—that actually mentioned you, President Shalala. It was about unmarried women in New York City. Do you remember that piece at all?

Donna Shalala: No. But I’m not denying it exists. It was a long time ago.

RT: It was a very long time ago. It was very much in the vein of what Faludi says in this chapter. It was a kind of scary New York Times trend piece about women staying single longer. The piece began with “There’s a single woman in New York, bright and accomplished,” and it goes on to include all the wonderful things about her life. But it says that she “dreads nightfall,” when “darkness hugs the city and the lights go on in warm kitchens.” It paints unmarried women as these tragic lonely figures, consigned to a life of affairs and unhappiness, when in fact, the subjects of the story were very often saying, “Look, there are lots of terrific things about my independent life that would have not been possible had I married earlier.”

RG: I think women are still being asked: Are you married? Are you a mother? Either you’re not a mother yet or you are a mother. Womanhood is basically connected to motherhood. Men are never considered “not fathers” as women who don’t have children are considered “not mothers.” And we’re still seeing a lot of hysterical reporting about women and marriage and motherhood; it’s like we can’t just be individuals who make decisions that have nothing to do with either of those institutions. I found it really interesting to see how she deconstructed the ways in which those statistics were taken from faulty samples or really narrow samples and then used to extrapolate grand conclusions. I just wish we had just come a little further in the past, what, 25 to 35 years?

RT: I agree with you in a million ways that this fear mongering still exists. It’s taken slightly new forms. A few years ago, there was a lot of stuff about our population declining because the birthrate was going down. Jonathan Last and some other conservative writers were talking about the serious national dangers of population decline even though we’re really not declining that much. But, the thing that struck me is how Faludi and Backlash captures the particular moment that’s changing the shape of women’s personal lives. The second wave really had not been about overthrowing marriage as a norm; it was about having a public and economic life in addition to marriage and motherhood. It was in the ’80s and ’90s when women really started postponing marriage. That is such a liminal moment she captures.

DS: That’s true, and that’s the impact of the women’s movement in the sense of economic liberation and the impact of Title IX. Title IX wasn’t just about sports. It was about educational opportunity as well, which basically meant that women could go and dominate law schools and medical schools. It transformed not only the percentage of women who got college degrees but what kind of college degrees that they got.

RT: There were a couple of things in the chapter that I noticed. One was that Faludi fights back against these statistics that show how bad divorce is for women. Of course you understand politically why it’s necessary to fight against that. The ability to get out of a marriage is crucial to women’s’ independence. But one of the things I’ve come across again and again in my research is that divorce does, in fact, put women at a higher risk factor for unhappiness, depression, illness, and I believe, poverty, than remaining single does. In many ways, for women getting into a marriage and then out of that marriage is a far more dangerous prospect than simply never getting married at all.

RG: It has a lot to do with control. Not just control between a man and woman, but economic control.

RT: Yes: not becoming dependent on another person. But that doesn’t mean you want to say “Don’t divorce!” because divorce is such a powerful and freeing tool for women and, of course, also for men.

DS: None of the data has ever captured long-term relationships between people who were not getting married.

RG: Which I think is key and there are lots of people who just cohabitate, and who were cohabitating before marriage. There’s no way really counting that.

RT: President Shalala, when you were Secretary of Health and Human Services, there was this kerfuffle around Murphy Brown. You responded with a statement saying, “I don’t think anyone in public life today ought to condone children born out of wedlock even if the family is financially able.” This was obviously a very long time ago, in 1994, and it was after Dan Quayle made a big deal out of Murphy Brown. Thinking about Backlash and the moment it captured and where we are today, could you have anticipated at that point that massive rise in children being born outside of marriages?

DS: No, but I think my point was that people in politics in public life were not going to condone pregnancies out of wedlock. It was a point about the politicians—that’s what changed. I think the fact that a president of the U.S. and progressives and elected officials, are far more open about kids that come from nontraditional settings or have single moms. That attitude has changed so dramatically.

RT: The thing that comes to me off the top of my head is Barack Obama talking about his own single mother.

DS: I think there’s more people embracing the child and looking at the support system for the child as opposed to arguing that you have to have two parents. I think those attitudes have changed. One of the changes was welfare reform.

RT: How so?

DS: To the extent that welfare mothers went back into the workforce with support systems, there was simply less criticism of them as single moms.

RT: What do you mean by support systems?

DS: I mean support systems that included childcare, the earning compact credit, depending on where they lived, housing and transportation supplements, the limitation of time they could spend out of the workforce without looking for a job.

RT: But those supports—the childcare, the transportation—that was very limited. Do you really think that those—

DS: It was billions of dollars for childcare given to the state. There are millions of women now in this country who get subsidized childcare.

RT: I wish there were a lot more women who had subsidized childcare—

DS: Absolutely. But the earned income tax credit literally raised family support. It’s essentially a child supplement and everybody with children gets back taxes depending on their income.

RT: I did notice in Faludi’s chapter that there’s not a terrific focus on poverty and there’s not a lot of distinction made about how the media was talking about white middle class women vs. poor black women.

DS: I thought she was referring to the fact that the media was focused on white women, on middle class white women.

RT: But there was this whole other media narrative happening in the ’80s, certainly as Reagan came into office talking about welfare queens, about poor mothers. The welfare queen figure was an unmarried, or a multiply/several-times-married single mother. That was the imaginative figure who was drawn, often portrayed in the media as black. Roxane, as a black single woman now, do you feel like there’s enormous pressure in conversation in the media right now, particularly directed at black, college-educated single women, that also differs from the white narratives of what happens to single women? Do you feel those differences at all?

RG: I definitely feel those differences because, again, there is a hysteria directed specifically at black women. What I think is most damaging is that often times when people see a single black woman of a certain age, they think “Oh, that’s it for her, she’s done.” There’s also the expectation that you have children because that’s what black women do, they have children out of wedlock. So when you don’t have children it can be very confusing for some people. They don’t even understand what’s going on. And they ask all types of strange and invasive questions.

RT: At the same time there’s this cultural judgment still rendered particularly on black women who do have children out of wedlock.

RG: Absolutely. And statistically black women are not more prevalent; they’re not having more children out of wedlock than other groups, but we are the ones consistently penalized for that. Because I think black women are a very convenient cultural scapegoat, and that’s never going to get old for some people. They’re trying to talk about narratives, about family values.

RT: I haven’t thought about how closely the “You’ve either powered or educated yourself out of the marriage market,” Steve Harvey, “There are no black men left” messages mirror the messaging to white women that Faludi writes about in the late ’80s, except this stuff is specifically being directed at black women within the past 5 years. All of those messages that Faludi laid waste to in the 1990s are very fresh now.

RG: And it’s also very heteronormative. Not all black women are heterosexual, which could also be problematic. And Steve Harvey, I think, is one of the more damaging people in terms of black women and black relationships because he is a comedian who has decided that he’s an expert. He’s just putting out these ridiculous books telling black women what they need to do, and often times what they have to do is compromise themselves ethically, financially, their dignity…just to get this prize that Steve Harvey has decided we all want—it’s ridiculous.

RT: Right. It is. Yet he’s very popular, right?

RG: Yeah, definitely. He has a strong fanbase. I don’t not support him, but I just think the man is dumb and I feel like he really put forward a very heteronormative and a very rigid gender role situation for black women. It does us all a disservice and it’s insulting.

DS: I think one of the things Faludi talks about was how once that information is put out there, there’s no pulling it back. There’s no way to overcome the narrative that gets shaped by the bad information or by the faulty statistics so we’re seeing it on television and journalism, and in movies, and in books and there’s nothing you can do to create a counter-narrative.

RT: I used to worry that this kind of backlash attitude was going to reverse a lot of liberation and behaviors that had come out of the second wave, because as you say, these punishing narratives, they seem unalterable. Except, people keep on not marrying. They keep having kids out of wedlock. Women keep going to colleges. So funnily enough, even though the narratives of punishment haven’t improved much, and in fact, have taken all new creative forms—in mommy punishing stuff, you’re a terrible mother, etc.—it hasn’t actually reversed the women’s march towards greater educational, economic independence and certainly independence from old marital structures and heteronormative structures.

RG: The question is, does it matter? What kind of impact does it have on attitudes? I live with a generation of young people who pay no attention to any of that. Social media is far more important to them. With all due respect, I don’t read any of the major news magazines. They don’t read the newspapers and they don’t watch most of the stuff on television unless it’s their late-night great loves, so they get their information in a totally different way.

RT: So how do you see them, or hear them, thinking about issues of marriage, independence, singlehood, sexuality, how do you —

RG: I think they’re much more open to the exploration of different options. They’re just not so hung up on all of those things. They hear it from their parents, but they just don’t have those kind of hang-ups.

RT: Feminism online is now so populated with younger women, just out of school. And generations who are new to feminism don’t have a comparative context so they understandably feel furious about the variety of injustices and prejudices that we are facing right now, and furious at the way media deals with women and furious at the way it deals with race and sexuality. But every once in a while, as the older person who remembers this time really clearly, I just want to say, “No, no, no, you have no idea how much better it is right now than it was in the early ’90s, you don’t remember what it was like when there was no feminist internet.” I’m grateful for this book for so thoroughly cataloguing how bad that period of backlash was, how grim it felt then. Right?

RG: Faludi had a darker take, but I think she had every reason to have a darker take because she was in the thick of it when she wrote this book. She couldn’t have anticipated that it was indeed going to get better. And that’s one of the issues we’re currently dealing with in feminism, when we think about where feminism is. There are all always these calls for feminism to re-brand. A lot of feminists, particularly from the second wave—they were in the thick of it when they had to be—are more rigorous and far more diligent, and so I think she didn’t have as much optimism as we might.

DS: I think that’s exactly right. But if you know this generation, you’d be much more optimistic. The guys are not so macho anymore. I’m much more optimistic now. Everybody has to be. You can’t go back.

Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium, tweet at @readmatter with #BacklashBookClub, or comment onMSNBC.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.

Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee

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