The Feminist Backlash Has Always Been With Us. That Doesn’t Mean We Should Be Afraid.
Moira Donegan on reading Susan Faludi in 2022
In the spring of 2018, I was at lunch with a friend about two decades older than me. This was in the heady moments of Me Too—after the Weinstein stories but before the Kavanaugh hearings—when it still felt like a feminist revolution might be in the works. I felt optimistic and energized by the moment, grieved by all the stories of suffering but also convinced that by telling them, feminists could force a better world. My lunch companion threw cold water on this immediately. “They’re going to make us pay hard for this,” she told me, big eyes full of fear as she leaned over the wobbly table. “There’s going to be a backlash.”
It wasn’t that I’d never heard of Susan Faludi’s 1992 epic Backlash, the book that chronicled the rise of antifeminist ideas and media throughout the ’80s. But before this moment, I didn’t realize how deeply that book, and the era that Faludi depicted in it, had embedded into older feminists’ consciousness. Backlash—that retrenchment of misogynist forces that emerges in response to feminist progress—was formidable. It was formidable culturally, it was formidable politically—and for feminists themselves, it seemed formidable psychically.
It wasn’t until this spring, in the first confused weeks after the Dobbs decision leaked, that I finally read Backlash in full. In the book, Faludi traces the political and media narratives that emerged in the wake of the Second Wave to cast feminism as a simultaneously dominant and oppressive force. The backlash claimed, with fabricated evidence, that all the feminist battles had been won, and that now, women were worse off for it: less happy, less romantically satisfied, burdened by work instead of being taken care of by husbands. If anything, the backlash reasoned, feminism was bad for women.
If that story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s still being told, repackaged as a new insight in a think piece or clickbait column nearly every day. Even that day at lunch, when Me Too was at its height, the gears of the backlash had already begun to turn. How many stories had I read about how Me Too was threatening women’s sexual pleasure? How many stories had I read about how the feminist movement had made women into joyless, soulless girlbosses? Feminism generally, and Me Too in particular, was cast as mean, excessive, wrongheaded, and bloodthirsty. There was hand-wringing about due process violations no matter what process was used; there were attempts to cast accused men as victims, no matter what their victims accused them of. Antifeminism dressed itself up as sophistication, or just common sense. Later, the movement’s enemies rebranded their opposition to Me Too as a crusade against “cancel culture,” and they rode that horse all the way to the bank.
Faludi’s book is about a parallel moment to ours that took place in the ’80s. But it may make more sense to begin in the ’60s, when a confluence of forces—including the rise of the New Left and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—began to radicalize women against sexism. This movement didn’t just change attitudes. It built institutions, creating organizations to lobby for feminist change at the state and national level, and direct-action groups to provide services to women at the ground level. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of organized feminist activist bodies; some of them became influential national players. For all the ways feminism is more popular now, it was much better organized—and better resourced—in the ’70s.
Faludi’s book is largely a work of media criticism, but it’s also a story about the Reagan era dismantling of these institutions in the ’80s. Groups like NOW and Planned Parenthood were systematically drained of resources; anyone sympathetic to feminism was purged from the federal bureaucracy. At the Department of Education, the right obsessively hounded the women tasked with enforcing an unsung law called the Women’s Educational Equality Act . There were attacks on children’s school books, with a special focus of ire directed at those that depicted women in non-traditional roles. This onslaught of petty but viscous attacks exhausted feminists and curtailed their access to power. By the time Me Too came around, this feminist political infrastructure was weaker, smaller, more risk averse, and operating on tighter budgets. And by extension, the movement itself was much more vulnerable. In our era, feminism is strong enough that it can create a moving and viral hashtag. But it has been made too weak to advance a political platform.
“But there’s another way of looking at the backlash: if antifeminism is inevitable, and if any feminist progress is going to prompt outrage and resistance from misogynists, then feminists have just as much to lose from tepid steps as they do from big ones. If your enemy is going to lash out anyway, you might as well demand the world you really want.”
I think this is why my friend was so afraid. She read Backlash not only as a diagnosis but as a warning: This is what happens when feminists overstep. She wanted a more strategic movement, something less heady and more careful, so that feminism could not be painted as excessive, and so that the punishments would not be as severe. She was older than me and more weary. She’d seen what we have to lose.
But there’s another way of looking at the backlash: if antifeminism is inevitable, and if any feminist progress is going to prompt outrage and resistance from misogynists, then feminists have just as much to lose from tepid steps as they do from big ones. If your enemy is going to lash out anyway, you might as well demand the world you really want.
What do we want? I want a world where my sexed body doesn’t constrain my access to public life. I want a world where women have as much money and as much political power as men do, and as much freedom to shape their own lives. I want a world where women’s work isn’t valued less or paid less, and I want a world where more men do the things we call “women’s work.” I want women to have control over their own bodies, including the freedom to decline sex or have it, to decline motherhood or pursue it, without their health or their dignity being infringed upon by others. I want the entrance to every abortion clinic to be clear and quiet. And when the doctor places the baby in the new mother’s arms and says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl,” I want those parents to have no expectations or demands for what that child’s life will look like, only excitement and joy at all the things she might become. These are not merely sentimental aspirations, they are political visions, and a lot of women—a lot of people—share them. If we stick together and don’t let our fear cloud our mission, we can build it in the political realm.
The Second Wave’s feminist institutions were dismantled, but before that, they were built—which means they can be built again. The backlash Faludi described in 1992 was largely about assaults on feminism’s moral authority—the think pieces about how maybe the movement has gone too far, the lies about how independence makes women unhappy. But the backlash we’re looking at now is not just a matter of an assault on feminism’s moral authority. It’s what happens when moral authority is all we have.
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