Back when I was still young and firm enough to believe that sexism could be crushed by the force of my empowered heel, there was a book written for gals like me called Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Published in 1991, Susan Faludi’s work ignited the anger of many Western women. The problem, as Faludi and her readers saw it, was that women had achieved so much equality, a resentful media had begun the work of reversing it. She said that this cycle reliably played out: when women make the gains of liberation, a cranky male orthodoxy attempts to take it away with public calls to send ladies back to the kitchen, etc.
If you believe that there’s a historical tendency in Western capitalist societies to greater social equality, this is a good take. You say that things get better and better for women, and for everyone, and that the attempts to contain this are evidence of old power reasserting itself, of the desire for stasis. You yell at the old men, “Stop getting in the way of history!”, never imagining that the conditions of history itself had produced this resentment.
Faludi had written the book just after Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay The End of History? compellingly described the social and cultural perfection that only Western liberalism could deliver. It shows. She believed that the West was en route to balance, and only old guys with bad attitudes were holding it back.
This sort of story was tempting for a young woman raised in the neoliberal tradition to read as fact. It’s tempting again today. Faludi is back to speak with young women of the pussy-hat type who earnestly believe that theirs is a collective history of ascending liberation, which particular old people, such as Donald Trump, wish to quash.
Trump is, of course, fatally unpleasant. That he will continue the Republican tradition of attempting to impede women’s access to reproductive medicine is very likely. That the man is a sexist old beanbag is surely beyond doubt. What is not beyond doubt, however, is that belief so central to both Western feminism and liberalism: equality for all is possible under our current mode of economic organisation, if only we change our attitudes.
Faludi wrote for the US middle-class, a group that was by then dwindling in size and is now approaching Depression-era levels of existence. No working-class women were going to be particularly affected by, say, the Vice-President’s curious criticism of Murphy Brown, a Backlash-type indicator of the sexism we were supposed to be angry about. Low-paid female workers did not gain better conditions as the result of Candice Bergen’s depiction of a sassy professional, nor did they suffer when Dan Quayle chided the fictional character for having a baby out of wedlock. The only women troubled by such a thing were those who believed that the only barriers to their professional success were sexist speech and a lack of personal aspiration.
Wage stagnation for a majority of persons was already a fact in the deluded End of History years, and Western wealth inequality now has the graphic shape of that in 1929. As much as I happen to personally enjoy an empowering woman on TV, I don’t think we can say that an absence of them had much to do with the policy settings that now affect so many of us, whatever our gender. These days, it’s considered a crude argument lacking in “nuance” to point to something like reduced income as a major factor in the experience of inequality. But without crude material things, the refined experiences of watching Murphy Brown or knitting a pussy-hat are just not possible.
Still. The feminist argument, per Faludi, that attitudes start everything and that economic history just follows, persists. Women do not earn much only because of sexism! Fix the attitude, and you’ll fix their economic problems.
It’s true, of course, that there’s a gender wage gap. And it’s true that this has had quite a bit to do with the idea of the virtuous Victorian woman who would be paid in admiration for her contributions to society rather than in currency. But, it’s also true that the wages of that currently reviled group, white men, have declined more drastically in the past twenty years than that of any other group. And it’s true that those Victorian virtues such as childcare, food preparation, the creation of social bonds and what sociologists call “affective labour” remain just as necessary to current economic function as they ever were, but women, having been “liberated” by Murphy Brown into work, have little time to enact them.
The twentieth century idea of a family wage has been long forgotten, and feminists, understandably, haven’t done anything to hang onto it. But this is the problem with thinkers like Faludi: they see just one backlash against everyday freedom where they need to see, at the very least, two. The matter of how we spend our labour time is, in my view, at least as important as the things that awful politicians say. Someone needs to feed the kids, and the solution to this is, surely, more complex than “we need more sensitive househusbands” in an age where everyone needs two wages to survive.
The need to feed a family and then find the time to put food in that family’s mouth is not going to change. But liberal feminism seems largely incapable of making those calculations. Certainly, it has not developed the tools to understand how the means to live can prompt people to become more sexist, and “backlash” to memories of a time where one person could practice the virtue of care and the other of paid labour.
As liberal feminists responded to an annual US report released last month about youth attitudes to gender, we could see the failure to understand time and money again. When researchers found that Millennials craved stay-at-home wives, this was reported in both local and US press as hard evidence of a Trump-led backlash. If young men wanted their women barefoot and pregnant, then this must be the result of sexist language in politics and media.
Certainly, the results of the data, taken from the Rolls Royce of US studies the General Social Survey, seem shocking. That Millennials are now less progressive in their understanding of women and labour than they were 20 years ago certainly deserves some thought. How could this happen? Jamila Rizvi of News Corp sees it, Faludi style, as the failure of young men to truly understand how liberating flexible gender roles can be for everyone. What she doesn’t factor in to a survey largely on attitudes to paid labour and unpaid domestic labour is labour.
To give The New York Times its due, the material basis for this shift in thinking among young men is considered in analysis. I’ll applaud the publication a little longer for its addition of an editor’s note. It wasn’t only Millennial men yearning for a return to man as breadwinner. Seems like it was women as well. The rise in favourability toward the idea of a stay-at-home wife is “no longer driven mainly by young men”.
No doubt, Faludi and others will see this as evidence of female self-loathing, driven by negative speech in press. Perhaps liberal feminism could extend its powers of analysis by going to work for median wage for a week or so. It’s quite possible that the self-loathing they experience there will exceed any experienced in the unpaid domestic realm.