Backlash, not revisited but still experienced

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Backlash

Some books demonstrate their quality and depth by being relevant long after the generations that saw their first publication pass away. Some books prove irrelevant and dated within a few decades (or less). A third and particularly interesting classification belongs to books that I wish were dated and are relevant only as a historical anecdote. Such is Susan Faludi’s Backlash: the Undeclared War against Women. Faludi, a renowned feminist journalist, celebrates her 54th birthday this week; the occasion is nothing if not a brilliant reason for revisiting her work. Published in 1991 and as its name implies, the book dealt with the 1980’s wave of anti-feminist backlash. The backlash blamed women’s alleged unhappiness on feminism, when in fact, if anything was causing women stress and frustration, it was those same institutions that took part in the backlash, for instance by shaming working mothers for not being at home with the kids

New found freedom and equality are not what cause women distress, the writer repeats again and again: it’s the still-prevalent inequality that causes it. Faludi’s book is an impressive and detailed explanation of the attempt to silence women’s fight for equal rights. It’s not an easy read: some of it is overwhelming and most of it is aggravating.What is worse, it’s unsettling because even over two decades later, it still rings so uncomfortably familiar: which is exactly why you should read it.

Many months ago I had a discussion with some friends in which I expressed my concern that humanity is headed in very dark directions. Some objected: life today is more comfortable and fair than it was fifteen years ago, which is better then thirty years ago, and so on till the Dark Ages (which everyone agrees were pretty damn awful). To some extent this is true. I would also add that every generation tends to think of itself as the center of history so ego may well have a part to play in this worry of mine. And yet, I do think there is cause for alarm when more and more freedoms are being taken away instead of given. Or when progress slows down to the point where you realize that the equality you thought was just around the corner now becomes statistically possible only in 2260.

Such is the case with feminism. Throughout history, writes Faludi, every time women seemed to be making strides towards equality, feminism was immediately greeted with strong and violent resistance. The notion of social change, of disruption to the known order, so terrified those who currently benefited from it that their retaliation was “an often ludicrous over-reaction to women’s modest progress”. Backlash is varied and diverse, and there’s really no need to go back in history to demonstrate it. Just open a newspaper. One type of backlash, for instance, is scapegoating feminism for ruining society by putting dangerous ideas in women’s heads. In Russia, the head of the Orthodox Church was quoted earlier this month as saying that he considers feminism “very dangerous, because [it proclaims] the pseudo-freedom of women”, while the woman, as everyone knows, “must be focused inwards, where her children are … If this incredibly important function of women is destroyed then everything will be destroyed – the family, and, if you wish, the motherland”.

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Another prominent type of backlash is the promotion of the idea that feminism not only hurts the state but women themselves. The freedom they achieved is too much for them to handle and it causes them great unhappiness, as they slowly realize that their careers are standing in the way of their relationships. This relates to “the heart of the backlash argument: women are better off ‘protected’ than equal.” In contemporary terms this is usually known as the conundrum of “having it all”, one which Drew Barrymore (to name one out of many, of course) was recently quoted about. “It sucks when you’ve worked really hard for certain things and you have to give them up because you know that you’re going to miss out on your child’s upbringing, or you realize that your relationship has suffered”, she said. To be fair, she’s making a good point: you really can’t be at work and at home at the same time. The only question is, why is this dilemma exclusive to women? Why is it the assumption that their choice of career comes in expense of the child whereas a father who only sees his children in the evenings and weekends faces no similar choice? A truly feminist progress would not be to find the magical way to raise children and have a career at the same time, but to get rid altogether from this flawed concept of ‘having it all’ which the media keeps selling us in order to remind women that it is their duty, and their duty alone, to be responsible for the home.

A final example – though Faludi’s remarkably thorough and well-researched book has many, many more – is that of post-feminism, the idea that women have gained enough, are now equal in all ways, and therefore need not keep fighting. Just in case you thought that were true, here are some selected recent headlines from around the world: “Two football players found guilty of raping teenage girl at party in Steubenville, Ohio”; “Equal pay day draws attention to gender wage gap”; “Why women are less free 10 years after the invasion of Iraq”. Closer to home, “a new research published by the NUS reveals that 50 percent of study participants identified ‘prevailing sexism, ‘laddism’ and a culture of harassment’ at their universities”. Sexual violence is not exactly a symptom of a society in which women are seen as equals. Neither is ‘regular’ violence, when it is so much more often aimed at women than at men (domestic violence, men murdering wives and girlfriends etc).

Of course, many good things are happening too. More and more people are becoming aware of inequality, and increasingly, more women are learning that they can fight for their rights. But these all result from the hard work of feminists which, despite what some backlashers would have us believe, are still necessary.

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