Understanding the Backlash Against Feminism

Susan Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women"

Betty Friedan in 1990
Betty Friedan in 1990. Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Backlash is a negative and/or hostile reaction to an idea, especially a political idea. The term is usually used to refer to a reaction that happens after some time, as opposed to an instant negative reaction when an idea is presented. The backlash often occurs after the idea or event has had some popularity.

The term has been applied to feminism and women's rights since about 1990. There is often perceived to be a backlash against feminism in U.S. politics and public media.

Politics

After the great successes of the women’s liberation movement, a backlash against the “second wave” of feminism began during the 1970s. Social historians and feminist theorists see the beginning of the political backlash against feminism in several different events:

  • The volatile political climate surrounding the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): The proposition of ERA brought to the surface another split between the feminist and other ranks. The proponents advocated for common humanity between men and women, while the opponents thought the ERA would erase the natural differences between the sexes and thus strip women from certain necessary protections.
  • A strong antifeminist presence of the New Right: The attack on the Equal Rights Amendment by the New Right, especially by Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP-ERA campaign was disappointing.
  • The anti-feminist groups attacking the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision: Roe v. Wade was a decision that allowed pregnant women to decide for themselves whether to go with an abortion or not. The decision resulted in an enormity of negative responses throughout the country and for many years to come.
  • The election of Ronald Reagan: President Reagan was one of the strong and vocal opposers of Roe and of feminist movements in general.
  • The rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority organization: The organization promoted traditional family values and was in strong opposition to many feminist issues such as ERA, Roe v. Wade, or homosexuality.

Media

There was also a backlash against feminism found in the media:

  • In declarations that feminism is dead
  • In the description of the 1980s and beyond as “post-feminist”
  • In the narrative that treated feminism as a movement of the past rather than a still evolving force
  • In the accepted use of stereotypes of feminist women and of women in general

Feminists point out that the 1980s backlash was nothing new. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, powerful voices also tried to sweep the “first wave” feminism out of the public’s awareness.

However, the publication of Susan Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" in 1991 began a significant public conversation on the fate of feminism in the 1980s. To those who read her best-seller, other antifeminist trends became more apparent.

Feminism and Backlash in 21st Century

Women remain underrepresented among media decision-makers, and many have looked at later trends as being part of a continuing backlash against feminism, scapegoating women's rights advocacy for not only making women unhappy but "destroying masculinity."

In the 1990s, legislation about welfare seemed to make poor single mothers responsible for the problems of the American family. Continuing opposition to women's reproductive rights and decision-making authority regarding birth control and abortion has been described as a "war on women," echoing Faludi's book title.

In 2014, a media campaign, "Women Against Feminism," took to social media as yet another kind of backlash against feminism.

Susan Faludi's "Backlash"

In 1991, Susan Faludi published "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." This book examined the trend at that time, and similar backlashes in the past, to reverse women's gains in moving towards equality. The book became a best-seller and was awarded the National Books Critics Circle Award.

From her first chapter:

"Behind this celebration of the American woman's victory, behind the news, cheerfully and endlessly repeated, that the struggle for women's rights is won, another message flashes. You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable."

Faludi looked deeply at the inequalities that American women faced during the 1980s. Her inspiration was a Newsweek cover story in 1986 about a scholarly study, coming out of Harvard and Yale, supposedly showing that single career women had little chance of marrying.

She realized that the statistics didn't really demonstrate that conclusion and began noticing other media stories that seemed to show that feminist gains had actually hurt women. Faludi says, "the women's movement, as we are told time and again, has proved women's own worst enemy."

In the 550 pages of the book, she also documented the factory closings in the 1980s and the effect on blue-collar women workers. She also noted that the United States was alone among industrialized nations in not providing a system of childcare, making it more difficult for women, still expected to be primary caregivers of the family's children, to enter the workforce on equal terms to men.

Criticism

Despite her analysis including racial and class issues, critics have pointed out that "Backlash" largely addresses issues of middle class and successful white women. With her focus on the marriage study, critics also noted the focus on heterosexual women.

Faludi on Media

Faludi documented many ways in which the media, including advertisers, newspapers, movies, and television blamed feminism for problems of American women and families. She showed that the common media myths of unhappy women were not accurate:

  • The movie "Fatal Attraction" seemed to sum up the negative image of a woman.
  • Mary Tyler Moore's independent character of the 1970s show had been remade into a divorcee in a new 1980s series.
  • "Cagney and Lacy" was canceled because the characters didn't fit feminine stereotypes. 
  • Fashions featured more frills and restrictive clothing.

Different Origins of the Backlash

"Backlash" also documented the role of the New Right—an anti-feminist conservative movement describing itself as "pro-family"—in the anti-feminist movement. Overall, the Reagan years, for Faludi, were not good ones for women. 

She also identified that some of the negativity about feminism came from feminists themselves. Faludi notes, "[e]ven founding feminist Betty Friedan has been spreading the word: she warns that women now suffer from a new identity crisis and 'new problems that have no name.'"

Faludi saw the backlash as a recurring trend. She showed how each time that women seemed to make progress towards equal rights, the media of the day highlighted supposed harm to women, and how in this way, at least some of the gains were reversed.

This article has been edited and content added by Jone Johnson Lewis.