The best coverage of the Auckland Writers Festival continues right here, as the Spinoff Review of Books devotes the entire week to long, intelligent encounters with guest writers. Today: Charlotte Graham talks with Susan Faludi, author of the classic 1991 book Backlash.
Read more Auckland Writers Festival coverage from the Spinoff here
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi made her name in 1991 with the book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. In it, she took aim at a media-driven backlash against the women’s liberation movement, which saw the media blaming feminism and the rise of working women for a breakdown in society, the workplace, and relationships between the genders.
Faludi also took issue with the dominant rhetoric that women in the early 1990s had it all, pointing out the pay gap, women’s advancement to positions of power, and abortion rights as evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, more than quarter of a century since the book’s publication, all of that has been fixed and the situation for women is great!
Nevertheless, Faludi went on to write Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, and The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America. Her most recent book, In the Darkroom, a memoir on her transgender father and a meditation on identity in its many forms, won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.
Do you think feminism is still useful as a collective organising idea?
Absolutely! Actual feminism. What I’m talking about is ersatz feminism, feminism retooled, which isn’t even really feminism anymore. It’s an advertising idea of feminism. But actual feminism, that challenges the powers that be and is about full equality and changing society, not just fitting women into the same old mould, is more essential than ever. We saw that in the US after Trump was elected. All those women who poured out for the Women’s March and then didn’t just go back home and quit. There are many grassroots women’s organisations that came out of that march. It would have been better, obviously, if we’d had that kind of show of force before the election, but it is a sign that there are vast numbers of women who do believe that women’s rights are utterly essential to the world and to their own lives.
Why didn’t that happen before the election?
There were many reasons for that. One is that a certain… I’m trying to think of a nice way of saying this.
OK, there was a certain naïve belief that one’s vote is an extension of one’s personal expression and so never mind that we’re in this dire situation where we might end up with a crazy man for President. There were large votes of men and women, young men in particular, who wanted to be purist about it and they were going to support their guy Bernie. And then when Bernie didn’t win the primaries, they were going to take their marbles and go home. A huge percentage of young men, Millennials, voted for a third party candidate.
Then there’s the question of all those women who did not vote for Hillary Clinton, who saw her as an elitist, or who had some discomfort about a woman with power. I’m not saying she was the ideal candidate, but when push came to shove, white women in particular, white non-college educated women most of all, refused to support her. The other way you could argue it is that she actually won; she got 3 million more votes than Trump. But what was interesting was that the biggest divide in the exit polls was between non college-educated and college-educated voters. It was the greatest gap since 1980. That gap was not significant in the last two Obama elections. So a lot of non college-educated, so presumably more working class, less upwardly mobile people reacted really badly to Hillary Clinton.
We don’t actually know the full story; there was so much talk about angry white men that no one really looked at angry white women. A large percentage of them felt that they could not rally around Hillary Clinton. And I think that was because she was very successfully framed by her opponents as being this corporate titan insider who couldn’t identify with the working class. Her roots are actually in the lower-middle class; going back one generation, her family was working class, unlike Trump’s family. I think a lot of that has to do with gender often serving in the US as a proxy for class. The symbol of the upper class is the privileged, wealthy woman. In brief what I’m trying to say is that Hillary was seen as the rich bitch. And this goes to a deeper problem: that we don’t really have an archetype for a woman in power that we’re comfortable with. There’s still something suspect, something witch-like and controlling about a woman in power.
Helen Clark, a former New Zealand Prime Minister, has become quite popular in this country since she became the Administrator of the UNDP, which is a role she’s just left. She’s kind of seen as this stateswoman now. I think people have forgotten how they spoke about her back when she was the Prime Minister. I know some of that is people going easier on you after you leave office, but I was in high school when she was PM. And the way I heard her talked about was the way I assumed people talked about all women in power. It was the word “bitch.” It made me think that was not a role that you would aspire to have, because who could put up with men talking about you the way I heard them talking about Helen Clark? And that was in the early 2000s. It was recent.
When you talk about people believing votes are an extension of themselves, do you think that was why white people neglected to take into consideration people who would have it worse than them under Trump? I’m talking about using their vote to protect poor people and people of colour, especially women of colour. Were you surprised white women didn’t have that understanding?
I’m not sure that’s true. The majority of white, college-educated women voted for Hillary Clinton. The majority of the women who voted for Trump were women who were concerned about their own interests. They were classic Trump voters. They thought, “With all this social change, we’ve been left behind, we’ve been screwed over, our husbands have been screwed over, our sons and our fathers have been screwed over. Our families used to be middle class and have a middle class lifestyle with a manufacturing job and now that’s all gone away.”
And rather than face the fact that that’s gone away for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration, or minorities in the country, but have to do with technological change and outsourcing – they’d rather just be angry and vote for the guy who’s playing on their emotions. I don’t think the Trump female supporters are all that different from the Trump male supporters in that regard, and there was a lot of martyrdom and victimisation among his supporters. “We’re the ones who are suffering, we’re the downtrodden.” That was what they wanted to believe, and that was what Trump played on.
Looking back on Backlash now, in some ways it makes you look like a prophet. Just like Margaret Atwood doing interviews at the moment and getting told, “Wow, your work has never been more relevant!” Which on one hand is great for Margaret Atwood, but on the other hand…
…Is really depressing. I feel like I write about things that never change; they just get worse. I feel the same with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man [her 1999 book addressing male gender roles]. It’s full of guys who when I was doing those interviews in the 1990s, were all ranting and raving about the evils of Hillary Clinton. How she was Lady Macbeth, how she was the power behind the throne, how she was to blame for everything. And that was when she was just First Lady. There is a horrible feeling of déjà vu.
You said in Backlash that, “The anti-feminist backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It’s a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.” What happened at the end of last year in the US feels like the greatest culmination of that idea possible, right?
So what are we all supposed to do?
Analysing is more my strength. I don’t have any quick fix-it plans up my sleeve. I think we need to do more and more of what’s being done right now. More grassroots organising, fighting back over and over again. Going to town hall meetings, raising voices, working collectively. It’s all the stuff we already know, but we have to be vigilant and adamant and persistent. We have to recognise that it’s not going to happen overnight. Look at how long it took women to get the vote, the old Century of Struggle, to quote Eleanor Flexner’s book. Fighting against the tendency bred in all of us in a consumer culture for instant gratification is the first step in what will be a very long haul.
That said, the other thing to do in the US is to get rid of the Electoral College. Without that, Clinton would be in office right now. But even that will take a long time. I’ll probably have my head cut off for this, but if more voters on the progressive side of the ledger had been more practical about holding their nose and voting for Hillary Clinton even if they had their issues with her, we’d right now be moving forward instead of this awful fighting on every front, not even to hang onto, but to reclaim, what should be settled law. Reproductive rights, social welfare – and I’m just talking about women; then there’s everything else. We face the horror of losing health care; immigration rights. It’s a profound, terrifying sweep.
In the epilogue to Backlash, the marker of success you state is that “women never really surrendered.” Which is powerful, but it’s such an exhausting yardstick, because as you’ve just described, that’s still where we’re at. Just trying not to be swept away by the tide. And as you go on to say in the book, we have such good feminist TV now! There’s no excuse!
Obviously there are some ways in which things are better. I’ve been talking to women colleagues in media recently for another project, and we’ve been discussing how a decade ago when I started out in journalism, it would have been considered “editorialising” for a women journalist to come out against rape culture or for equal pay, and now it’s something most of us do. One woman said to me, “I don’t consider it editorialising, it’s a basic fact of human rights. So I’m going to publicly say rape is bad and they can censure me if they want.” So that feels like an improvement, from the way you saw the media as being so complicit in the backlash against women in your book.
Yes. I couldn’t get the quotes I got for Backlash now. I think everyone is very careful about what they say. Back then I’d call up some film director in Hollywood, and first of all I’d get him on the phone, which you couldn’t do now. And second, he would just mouth off about, “I hate these ballbuster women! They’re trying to take men’s power away. My wife, she’s great, she stays at home and bakes cookies.” And nobody says that anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t think it. But they don’t say it.
I don’t want to sound glib, but is that perhaps a good first step? If men are only refraining from saying and doing certain things because they’re scared of getting in trouble, then that might tide us over for a while until people get into the habit of not doing shitty things. Do you think that helps, or does it just make people more resentful?
It’s better than a kick in the head. But I think there’s a certain type. One of the big appeals of Trump is that he made it okay for men to come and say noxious things about women. He made it okay to brag about groping women’s crotches or say, “That woman’s a dog,” or, “She’s bleeding from whatever.” It unleashed this whole alt-right demographic who, interestingly, a number of their biggest mouthpieces are men who first established their web presence as internet misogynists. I don’t think that’s an accident.
But yes, in popular culture, we have more shows to choose from that seem to have a feminist edge to them. And the media is not peddling as much sexist claptrap, or running false studies saying that women have ruined their lives because they decided to be independent for five minutes. But the underlying problem here is that there’s been too much focus on feminism’s place in popular culture and media and not enough on the mechanics and status of women’s rights and bread and butter economics and class issues. So it’s great that we have these TV shows where fictional women are wielding a lot of power. We have a female Vice President on TV, but we don’t have one in reality and I guess I would like to see a lot more progress in the real world. Silly me.
Yes. It’s confusing for those of us who grew up in that golden era of popular culture. I just turned 31, and you look around and think, “Wait a moment, there’s no housing security, it’s still a crime to get an abortion and women get turned away from having them every year, I can’t figure out how on earth you’re meant to be able to afford to have kids, and I’m getting paid less than men. Isn’t this what we were meant to be sorting out all this time? Why does it feel like I’m screwed?”
Yes, is my answer to that. I agree.
Susan Faludi is appearing in three events at the Auckland Writers Festival in May. Charlotte Graham is interviewing Roxane Gay at the Festival. Faludi’s books Backlash and In The Darkroom are available at Unity Books.
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