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Big Thinker: Susan Faludi

by The Ethics Centre
10 April 2018
Susan Faludi is an American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. She has written several books about identity and gender politics including her most recent, In the Darkroom, a memoir about her relationship with her father who came out as transgender and underwent sex reassignment surgery at the age of 76.
Faludi’s best known book is her first, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Published in 1991, the book examines how anti-feminist sentiment in the 1980s promoted the idea that gender equality brings about greater unhappiness for women.

Anti-feminist sentiment in the 1980s

Faludi was inspired to write Backlash in the mid 1980s after she came across a story in Newsweek about a study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Yale that found women over 30 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband.
It was a time when public discussions about feminism were largely disparaging and “women’s issues” were framed as psychological rather than political.
Faludi investigated the claims of the study and found that many of its findings had been manipulated to promote an anti-feminist message. She published an article exposing these flaws, which led to the researchers retracting many of the key findings of their paper.

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For Faludi, the Newsweek article was just one example of how feminism was being undermined in public discourse. It was part of a much bigger social phenomenon that sought to forge a link between the gains of feminism and the suffering of women. Faludi called this “backlash”.
Her central argument was that “backlash” was based on a lie that maintained true equality between men and women was bad for women.
Faludi argued that this was dishonest on two fronts. First, there wasn’t true equality between men and women. Women’s pay lagged behind men’s, incidents of sexual assault against women were climbing, and women held few positions of political power. Second, the source of women’s suffering was not too much feminism, but not enough. Women suffered most from not being treated equally in the workplace or the family home, and still felt frustrated at being shut out of political institutions.
Faludi also stressed those who promulgated the backlash often suggested women’s suffering was a punishment for overstepping their boundaries. At its core, Faludi concluded, the backlash was designed to put women “back in their place” and stop the feminist movement in its tracks.

“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.”

Susan Faludi, Backlash (1991)

Backlash today

Backlash was a huge success and launched Faludi to international fame. After it was published, she received tens of thousands of letters from women saying they had been feeling concerned about the push back against feminism but had lacked the words to articulate their grievances.
Since the book’s publication in the early 1990s, there has been a resurgence of public discourse around feminism and great gains have been made by what is now referred to as its “third wave”. Yet whatever progress has been made, Faludi’s ideas might today seem prophetic.
There has been a resurgence in news stories that pose a link between feminism and women’s suffering as well as a rise in interest in men’s rights activism. Contemporary backlashes are not limited to feminism, but take aim at many other progressive movements, which are often derided as “political correctness gone mad”.
In this context, Faludi’s book will function as an alarm bell for some readers, warning that resistance to social change can insidiously take hold of a culture and can undermine the cause of social justice.

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