If you are a woman of a certain age, you may remember the exclamation "click!" It appeared in an essay called "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," which ran in the first issue of Ms. magazine on Dec. 20, 1971. "The shock of recognition," writer Jane O'Reilly described it. "Instant sisterhood ... that parenthesis of truth around a little thing that completes the puzzle of reality in women's minds--the moment that brings a gleam to our eyes and means the revolution has begun." For years, that "click!" of sudden clarity happened not only to housewives but to secretaries, waitresses, students, salesclerks--women everywhere who were learning that a man's world was likely to be a woman's dead end. Now that girls play Little League and newspapers no longer segregate their Help Wanted ads by sex, a good many sages have declared that the revolution is over. But ... do you hear a click? Last week thousands of women did. And U.S. senators heard jangling phones for days.
The anger ignited by Anita Hill's charges had been smoldering for years, fed not only by the common experience of sexual harassment but all the outrages large and small that make this country a radically different place for women than it is for men. "You can be fired because you have a sick child, you can be fired because you're pregnant," says Barbara Otto, a spokeswoman for 9to5, a Cleveland-based advocacy group for working women with 25 chapters nationwide. "Women have been told there's no sex discrimination, and they're saying screw that. It's happening." In Chicago, women construction workers say they're hired to fill mandated goals for female workers on federally funded jobs and kept around just long enough to be visible when the inspector from the Labor Department walks by. Then they're let go. (The lucky ones become "Ping-Pong girls," bouncing from one federally funded job to another.) In Portland, Ore., the Lesbian Community Project has formed a security force known as the Urban Amazons-women in fedoras and black bowling shirts who ward off harassment and violence at women's events. In Everett, Mass., 32 women working in school cafeterias are suing for pay equity: their top wage was $6.85 an hour, while custodians doing what the women say is comparable work made nearly twice that.
No, the revolution isn't over. But it's off the streets, for the most part, and much less visible. During the '80s a long, slow chill settled over the word feminism as the press, the advertising industry,the New Right, the religious right, television and movies all decided that the women's movement was dead and nobody was mourning it. In fact a smiling new' postfeminist" American woman was supposed to have risen up from its ashes. Under scrutiny, postfeminism turned out to look a lot like prefeminism, give or take a briefcase; but it took no time at all for this new concept to dominate the free marketplace of ideas, notably via ads for bluejeans. Meanwhile, Washington, too, was determined to undermine the legal and economic progress of the early '70s, when more than a third of all the women's rights legislation in this century was passed. Radically conservative Supreme Court appointments and the defanging of such agencies as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission combined to the previous decade.
The whole story of this multifaceted assault on women, progress and common sense is detailed in an extraordinary new book by Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (552 pages. Crown. $24) has just arrived in bookstores and seems certain to rouse both controversy and acclaim. As groundbreaking in its own way as its two important predecessors, Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Faludi's book is less visionary than theirs but just as gripping. She's not a theorist, she's simply a reporter. The assignment she set herself was to find out why and how the women's movement was knocked off center stage in our national imagination, replaced by a mysterious throng of women in frilly garter belts desperate to spend more time at home so they can dress up their children to match the Thanksgiving party favors. Once you've read this hair-raising but meticulously documented analysis, you may never read a magazine or see a movie or walk through a department store the same way again.
Faludi, 32, was inspired to begin her investigation by a 1986 NEWSWEEK cover story called "The Marriage Crunch," which was based on a study-since disavowed even by its authors-that gave women in their 30s almost no statistical chance to marry. "With my first phone call to the Census Bureau, a demographer said yes, there are about 15 things wrong with this study," she says. "She had tried to tell this to other reporters, but people just didn't seem to be interested in that side of the story." Faludi went on to gather polls and surveys taken throughout the '80s that show--consistently, and across every age and economic group--that majorities of women respect the women's movement and consider themselves better off because of it. They aren't morbidly depressed because they feel doomed to singleness; in fact, they aren't even doomed to singleness; they don't see the movement as anti-family, they don't blame the movement for the problems they experience as working mothers and the No. 1 concern they voice is not emotional but financial: they want to be paid more. If this is the case, why did politicians, movie and television producers, even lingerie companies turn their backs on millions of women and try to woo a "new traditionalist" who barely existed? Faludi describes their efforts, but she's hard pressed to explain them; and no wonder. The antifeminist backlash may represent the only moment in American history when capitalist males deliberately acted against their economic self-interest.
Take underwear. In 1987 the Intimate Apparel Council, an association of lingerie manufacturers, issued a press release announcing that frilly lingerie was back in style. No sales figures or other facts were cited, but who cared? A trend had been born. Manufacturers churned out nearly three times as much fancy lingerie as the previous year, and soon stores were dripping with teddies and bustiers. Who bought them? Nobody, really, just a few men. Sales of frilly underwear went down $4 million over two years. The stuff just couldn't compete with the kind of underwear women began buying in 1983 and that had a 40 percent market share by 1988: plain cotton underpants by Jockey for Her. Manufacturers of men's underwear quickly imitated Jockey's line for women-but strangely, companies aimed at women kept aiming at a woman who wasn't there. "Not even economic motives will prompt these guys to loosen their grip on these tired ideas of how women and men should behave," says Faludi.
Employed women received the brunt of the backlash, as Faludi makes plain. Women became dramatically more visible in medicine, law and corporate life during the '70s-the number of women physicians, for example, more than doubled between 1975 and 1985. But the gains could be illusory, too. "Only 2 percent more of all working women were in professional specialties in 1988 than 15 years earlier," writes Faludi, citing figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of women in the military has grown steadily since 1973; by last year women made up 11 percent of the armed services. But combat and other job restrictions make high-ranking women scarce. Equal pay remains as elusive as ever: college-educated women in 1988 made 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
Most of the women pouring into the workplace during the '80s weren't headed to corporate boardrooms, they were taking traditionally female jobs, such as clerical and service work, with their traditionally low wages. The few women who managed to break into highly paid trades by becoming plumbers, carpenters and electricians remained lonely pioneers: in 1979, women made up 1 percent of carpenters; in 1986, they were .5 percent. Women tend to be laid off or fired in greater numbers than men, and it's not much use to sue anymore. Sex-discrimination complaints to the EEOC soared in the '80s, just as Reagan halved the agency's budget.
As for women who prefer to stay home with their children-few have the choice. Two paychecks are a virtual necessity in most households with working parents. During the last decade quite a bit of press attention was devoted to the handful of career women who did make the choice for home; nonetheless, a 1986 NEWSWEEK Poll found that majorities of both employed and at-home mothers said they preferred work to full-time homemaking. (Part-time and flexible-hours arrangements were appealing, too.) What changed during the '80s was not so much women's attitudes toward work vs. home, but their attitudes toward one another. As '70s activists became '80s mothers, they gained a good deal of respect for the hard labor involved in child care and a profound awareness of the emotional commitment born with babies.
Despite the appalling damage done to women's progress in the last decade, Faludi believes that a resurgence of female power is possible, even probable, in the years ahead. "The important question to ask about the current backlash ... is not whether women are resisting, but how effectively," she writes. Her own predilection is for actions on a grand scale that make a whole lot of noise. Awaiting the Supreme Court's 1989 Webster decision, which deeply eroded the right to choose abortion, half a million women hit the streets in one of Washington, D.C.'s, biggest demonstrations ever. That mobilization, she emphasizes, produced a "spectacular turnaround in abortion politics."
But Faludi may be underrating both the long-lasting effects of the '70s movement and the power of that dazzling change of perspective that comes with the "click!" of feminism. "If you're a political activist as I am, the strength of a backlash tells you how good your movement is," says Florence Howe, who founded The Feminist Press in 1970. "If you don't have a backlash, you haven't had a movement."
We had one, and we still do. Polls indicate that women's faith in the movement remains strong, and long-time feminists see evidence of women's activism everywhere. "In every institution I can think of, there are women's caucuses," says Mary Katzenstein, professor of government at Cornell, who has studied women's groups within the church and the military. Even the evangelical church movement has a women's caucus; it recently split over the issue of lesbianism (the breakaway group is opposed on Biblical grounds). Appalachian Women Empowered, based in Gate City, Va., is a group of 250 Appalachian women who work on what they call "belly issues." "We care about getting food on the table, getting our babies to the doctor, whatever it is that keeps body and family together," says Teri Vautrin, 40, a cofounder of the group. Pat Scarselli, director of the women's affairs department of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has been organizing women poultry workers and meatpackers. "A lot of times women are afraid to speak out," she says. "They'll say, 'I'm not a feminist.' I'll say, 'Of course, neither am I.' Then we discuss the issues and find out we both are." At Denver's Mi Casa Resource Center for Women, low-income black and Latino women work on gaining economic self-sufficiency. One of their programs, based on a peer-group lending model used in Bangladesh, is a revolving loan fund. Five women get together and raise up to $2,000 to lend to one of the group. When the money is paid back, it's lent out again. "Ideals are great, but we're reality based," says executive director Cecilia Ortiz.
A mixture of anger and exhilaration fuels the movement now. To the members of Chicago Women in Trades, who work as pipe fitters, electricians, laborers and elevator repairers, work sites represent good money but man at his worst. The harassment is relentless, say these women: men will give them the wrong name for a foreman, so they'll start the day looking for someone who doesn't exist; the women's bathroom will be 30 floors up; foremen refuse to give them lucrative overtime work; the sexual innuendo is constant. "The media may have shut up about discrimination, but we're still fighting the same prickheads as we did before," says Wanda Griffin, 32, a pipe fitter who makes $23.80 an hour. Their group offers a lifeline to other women, a source of emotional support and understanding--and a conduit for complaints to the Labor Department on discrimination and harassment.
Many more black and Latino women participate in the '90s women's movement than did 20 years ago, many fewer ideologues dominate the scene and the real action is at the grassroots level, in part because there is something of a vacuum at the top. In Congress, in NOW, in the national prochoice organizations, women are working tirelessly but invisibly. Such nationally known figures as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are still heard from occasionally, but they're not the ones who frame the issues and get people thinking-that's happening locally. When five or six women from Milwaukee 9to5 get together to play poker, as they do every couple of weeks, they frame the issues for themselves. "I had been looking for 9to5 for years, even before I knew the name," says Ellen Bravo, a former clerical worker who is now executive director of the Milwaukee chapter. "So much of the women's movement was aimed at managerial women, or professional women. Here was a group of women, whom I had been part of, who and whose skills were undervalued. People who were smart and competent and doing important work, who were being paid poverty wages."
At the local level, too, is where the most startling legislation is getting passed, thanks to the Women's Agenda Projects now found in 39 states-up from 24 only two years ago. The projects are coalitions of women's groups, everything from the Junior League to the battered women's shelter, that work together on such issues as abortion rights, domestic violence, women's health and welfare. In Nevada, a women's coalition got an abortion-rights referendum onto the ballot; it passed two to one, and now Nevada--Nevada--has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation. Maryland and Connecticut have similar abortion laws, and more than a dozen states have passed family-leave bills--something that took the U.S. Congress eight years. At the same time, women are steadily moving up in the ranks of local and state government. "Some of you may wonder if you're smart enough to hold elective office," a woman in Massachusetts state government told an audience of local women new to activism some 20 years ago. "Listen. Go up to the State House and sit in the visitors' gallery. Watch what goes on. Watch those men. Then come back here and tell me if you're smart enough to join them." Today, 18 percent of state legislators are women; three states have women governors and an additional 13 have women lieutenant governors, attorneys general or secretaries of state.
Most heartening of all for women active in the '70s movement is the sight of younger women jumping into the fray. (Most disheartening is to be called a "foremother.") Nearly 800 women showed up for a NOW-sponsored "young feminists" conference last winter in Akron, Ohio, where even workshops on ancient causes like the ERA were packed. On campuses across the country there are 621 women's studies programs-Wabash College in Crawfordville, Ind., one of the few remaining all-male institutions, offers women's studies courses-and thousands of students are changed, or at least jolted, by what they learn from them. "For many students, it's consciousness-raising," says Susan Hartman, a historian and director of the women's studies program at Ohio State University, where some 700 students are taking introductory courses in women's studies this fall and hundreds more were turned away. "They always say in their written evaluations that their world view has changed, that this course should be required for everyone. One man wrote, 'I didn't realize what a jerk I was before I took this class'." At Ohio State, as at many campuses, the galvanizing issues for women have been abortion rights and date rape. According to surveys, between 15 and 24 percent of undergraduate women have been raped by someone they know. "Friends would come to me and say, 'I don't think I've been raped,' and then go on and describe a rape," says Gina Prows, a senior who opened a NOW chapter at California State University at Chico last spring. "I knew I had to get the message out."
More open-minded, more practical and more diversely based than the '70s movement, the women's movement today is missing something even so, and it's a dispiriting loss. Ask anyone under 40 what a feminist is--even a feminist--and you're likely to hear about hairy legs and bra-burning. A NEWSWEEK Poll last week revealed that while 45 percent of women believe that the women's movement has done well in improving women's lives and an additional 23 percent believe that it hasn't gone far enough, only 34 percent identify themselves as feminists. "Tremendous gains have been made, but not under the label of feminism," says Susan Marshall, a sociologist at the University of Texas. "Such a number has been done on that term that people shy away from it." Maybe it's time to bring it back, to rescue feminism from the media hacks and woman-haters who abused the term so widely and effectively even its friends could no longer recognize it. And while we're at it, let's bring back feminists, too-women who like that word. They're still around, they've just been keeping their heads down, getting their work done, raising their families, getting along. It's time we staked a permanent claim to our offices, our cities, our country and our identity. "I'm not a feminist, but..."? But you probably are.
Do you think most men in the U.S. today understand the issues that concern women?
WOMEN MEN Yes 25% 36% No 69% 58%
Do you think that women in the U.S. have been making gains unfairly at the expense of men or not? WOMEN MEN Unfair gains 26% 33% Not unfair 70% 64%
From the NEWSWEEK Poll of Oct. 10-11