Sunday, March 25, 2012

Charlotte Allen's Critique of Susan Faludi's Backlash

For this post, I will share some comments that I read on Susan Faludi's 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. I will focus primarily on a February 1992 article by Charlotte Low Allen in Commentary, but I will also bring into my discussion a comment by an Amazon reviewer who goes by the name "Hieronymus Braintree" (see here).

Overall, I did not care for Allen's piece. Allen spent a lot of time making fun of Faludi's book, without refuting Faludi's overall argument----that there is a cultural push for women to retreat from the workplace into the domestic sphere, even though many women feel fulfilled when they are working for money. For example, Allen states:

"Backlash, an exceedingly long book, is also representative of the prolix new genre of 80′s-bashing, already a little tired though we are only two years into the 90′s. Most 80′s-bashing books fixate on junk bonds and undertenanted office towers, twin symbols of the debt-loaded culture of the Reagan era. To Faludi, the same decade also witnessed a 'backlash' against feminism that 'moved through the culture’s secret chambers, traveling through passageways of flattery and fear.'...Faludi, a Wall Street Journal reporter, writes with a journalist’s easy flair and an occasional striking turn of phrase reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich, who works the same ideological turf in a much more original fashion. (Ehrenreich has her own 80′s-basher out, tellingly titled The Worst Years of Our Lives.)"

So Faludi bashes the 80s. Perhaps the 80s were not perfect but had their flaws like every other decade. And so what if the 80s are over? Faludi believes that developments in that decade had profound and lasting effects on the American economy, such as the stagnation of wages and the decline of American manufacturing. And so what if Faludi was not terribly original (which is not to say that Allen is right on this, but let's assume that Allen is correct)? Faludi is talking about real-life injustices here. That shouldn't be blithely dismissed by treating Faludi's book as a theater-critic would treat a movie.

There was one time (as far as I could see) in which Allen presented a fact that contradicted Faludi's thesis. Allen states: "Did George Bush happen to get 49 to 50 percent of the female vote in the 1988 election? That was 'not a real majority,' sniffs Faludi." Similarly, Hieronymus Braintree in his Amazon review accuses Faludi of cherry-picking facts: "For example, she paints Republican administrations as being totally antithetical to the ambitions of women but omits any mention of Reagan's appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court or the fact that the first Bush administration had twice as many women in it as Carter's." Granted, life is too complex to boil down into a neat thesis that takes all factors into consideration. But does that mean that Faludi is not noticing real-life problems? She provides enough statistics and anecdotes to convince me that she's on to something, even though there may be times when I have a hunch that there is another side to the story or a feeling that perhaps issues are more complex than Faludi is presenting.

I didn't particularly care for this line from Allen: "Faludi faults Gary Bauer because his wife is a full-time homemaker. Then she turns around and faults Michael Levin, an anti-feminist professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, because his wife has a career as a mathematician. Heads, I win; tails, you lose." In my opinion, what was significant in Faludi's discussion of these figures was the commonalities that she observed: that women had a desire to be fulfilled outside of the home and that they enjoyed working outside of the domestic sphere.

But Allen did make good points. Here are some of them, along with my responses:

After quoting Faludi, Allen states that Faludi's argument is slippery because it is "impossible to gainsay." Allen elaborates:

"It requires no proof; indeed, the very lack of proof demonstrates the insidiousness of the phenomenon, a seamless and invisible spider web stretching into every corner of contemporary culture. By maintaining that the backlash is a 'movement' yet not an 'organized' movement, a 'struggle' that appears 'not to be a struggle at all,' a chimera-like phenomenon that exists now as concrete 'threats' from the militant Right, now as mere media-generated 'ephemera,' now as disembodied feelings 'in a woman’s mind' with no objective correlatives whatsoever, Faludi can have it all ways, can seize all sticks with which to beat her opponents."

I thought that Faludi did a decent job in demonstrating that there is a backlash against the advancement of women and that similar backlashes have occurred throughout history. But I was disappointed that Faludi did not offer ideas about who or what was perpetuating the backlash, and why. She said that insecure blue-collar workers are not responsible for the backlash because they are absorbing ideas from the elites, and that the media are not responsible for it because they are merely receptors. So who is responsible for it? Right-wing men from the elite who do not want women on what they consider to be their turf? Even if Faludi does not consider the backlash to be a conspiracy, I think that she should have spent some time explaining why there was a backlash, rather than merely demonstrating that a backlash exists.

Allen states: "In truth, feminism is merely a part of a larger and longer-range trend of universal liberation, not just from oppressive husbands and fathers but from all demands, erotic and otherwise, that have seemed burdensome, annoying, or irrational. People in general have become free to pursue their self-interest—careers, wealth accumulation, romantic passions, sexual desires—unhindered...Or, looking back further in time, one might see feminism’s roots in the Enlightenment idea of the social contract: people would be better off if their ties to others and to institutions were strictly voluntary, a matter of rational choice directed by mutual self-interest. This has naturally wreaked havoc upon the family, for hardly anyone would freely choose the grab-bag of embarrassing and uncongenial characters who happen to be his relatives. Having first stripped the family of its tribal, multigenerational character, social-contract theory then went to work on marriage itself—hence, easy divorce, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement."

While it's easy to conclude that Faludi thinks this way, since Faludi does appear to be down on the domestic sphere, I do not believe that she ultimately does. At times, she argues that women can have both careers and also families, and she praises men and women cooperating so that this can occur. She does not believe that no-fault divorce is necessarily harmful for children (after all, parents fighting with each other can hurt the children, too), and she wants for the government to make things easier on women who work and have families----either because it's economically necessary for them to work outside of the home (since the family depends on their income), or because they are seeking fulfillment. I do not believe that Faludi is anti-family. I just wish that, in her book, she spent more time affirming the importance of family. When she praises women who delay marriage and children (and, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with that), one can easily get the impression that she is down on those things.

Allen states: "Many women have found universal liberation to be as disturbing as it is supposed to be exhilarating. The disruption of traditional courtship and marriage patterns that has accompanied liberation means that young middle-class women spend years wondering when and where they will ever find a husband, all the while feeling varying degrees of dissatisfaction, contempt, and rage at the men they do meet and sleep with, or fight off sleeping with. Women who marry discover that it is more exhausting than glamorous to pursue a career outside the home while being a wife, let alone a mother of small children, at the same time. Perhaps, as Susan Faludi suggests, it is wrong and reactionary for women to want to be wives and mothers—status roles left over from the days before all human relationships became matters of the marketplace. Yet most women do so want, and if Susan Faludi means to 'liberate' them from those desires, she is talking about liberating them from womanhood itself. No wonder American women feel so ambivalent about feminism. Today, they will read Backlash; tomorrow, it will be Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Today, they will fret about the 'glass ceiling'; tomorrow, they will have their chins resculpted. They will feel faintly discontented or wildly desperate. They will blame it on feminism, or on men, or on the media, or on themselves. But it is not a backlash. It is more a case of wanting and not really wanting to go back."

Allen presents women as people who don't really know what they want: they seek fulfillment outside of the home, yet they also long for the domestic sphere. I thought that Faludi did an excellent job demonstrating that many women are fulfilled when they are working outside of the home. At the same time, the impression that I got was that she felt that women who craved a husband, children, and physical beauty were merely absorbing the values of the backlash. I find that approach to be one-sided, based on the women whom I have known. In my opinion, Faludi really shone when she argued that women could have it all, as well as advocated society making it easier for them to have it all. I wish I had seen more of that in Faludi's book.

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