The appearance of these two books marks a new epoch in our social history. Although first published in the United States, both books deal with England and other countries. Susan Faludi extensively revised her 1991 American edition for the 1992 British edition. This version, with a Preface by Joan Smith, includes information regarding the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Marilyn French deals with Southern and Eastern countries, including the ‘Third World’ – a term which she thinks passé and dishonest. Both books are contemporary and well-informed, and both announce by their very existence that the Nineties are going to be a different era from the Eighties. One of the pleasures of both works is that they analyse the previous decade with knowledge and pungency. The word ‘pleasures’, it is true, is unlikely to occur very often in discussion of either book. To some, these writers will appear to be among the Monstrous Regiment of Women who are responsible – as women always are – for the Death of Civilisation as ‘We’ Know It. To other kinds of reader, these books will be too true to be good, painful indeed, as they clearly render acts of brutal injustice which women may expect to encounter as they live their lives. But for some of us the announcement of the truth after an era of lies and fictions is itself a pleasure – the mind, as Dr Johnson indicated, delighting to rest on the stability of truth. Both writers appear to have a strong sense of the paradoxical – or perhaps it is merely that the paradoxes that appear in the investigation of men’s treatment of women demand recognition.
Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist now aged 32. That Susan Faludi writes as she does is itself an encouraging symptom that the very strong movement which she analyses, the Eighties endeavour (in Britain and in the United States) to declare that we now lived in a ‘post-feminist’ era, has not succeeded. We who are older have now some reason for optimism, for a belief that the young have not had their spirit broken nor their minds unhinged by coming of age in the Reagan-Thatcher era. Susan Faludi discovered her topic, as she tells us in her prefatory Acknowledgments, when she began work on a ‘magazine story on the Harvard-Yale “man shortage” study’. That Harvard-Yale ‘study’ provides clues and metaphors for Faludi’s entire book.
In 1986 researchers at Harvard and Yale produced a highly-touted study of marriage, which ‘claimed that a college-educated unwed woman at the age of 30 has a 20 per cent likelihood of marriage, at 35 a 5 per cent chance, and at 40 no more than a 1.3 per cent chance.’ The ‘study’ was an immediate hit. It was discussed in newspapers, on television news and talk shows, and in movies, magazines, advertisements and greeting cards. The message was clear. Educated women were to feel humble, anxious and concerned about their marital status. For good measure, a 1982 study by French researchers claiming that professional women become infertile was added to the bad ‘news’. Women become clocks, always ticking away, like the crocodile in Peter Pan who had swallowed the alarm clock. Women must marry and have children immediately, skipping the attractions of further education or interesting careers. There were no men and yet it was every young woman’s painful duty to try to find and hang onto a man.
Faludi does an excellent and jovial job at deconstructing the Harvard-Yale ‘study’. In what is evidently a revision of her original magazine essay (or essays) she investigates the investigators and points out the extremely flawed and suspect sources of their data. The whole ‘study’ could not inelegantly be called a lie.
The real statistics indicated some trends quite other than those the Harvard-Yale study (or the talk-show hosts, or the magazines) wanted young women to believe:
In all the reportorial enterprise expended on the Harvard-Yale study, the press managed to overlook a basic point: there was no man shortage. As a simple check of the latest census population charts would have revealed, there were about 1.9 million more bachelors than unwed women between the ages of 25 and 34 and 54. (The 1986 Census for England and Wales bears these figures out – in the two age groups there were, respectively, 464,000 and 275,000 more single men than single women.) In fact, the proportion of never-married men was larger than at any time since the Census Bureau began keeping records in 1890. If anyone faced a shortage of potential spouses, it was men in the prime marrying years: between the ages of 24 and 34 there were 119 single men for every hundred single women.
A glance at past Census charts would also have dispelled the notion that the USA was awash in a record glut of single women. The proportion of never-married women, about one in five, was lower than it had been at any time in the 20th century except the Fifties, and even lower than the mid-to-late 19th century ... In Victorian England, one-third of the female population could anticipate a single life, whereas today the figure is fewer than one woman in 12. If one looks at never-married women aged 45 to 54 ... the number of unwed British women in 1985 was, in fact, smaller than in 1891, and smaller even than in the marriage-crazed Fifties.
Faludi’s research is careful and she likes deploying statistics in argument. One might call her work ‘scholarly’, but a member of the academic community like myself must wince in recognition of the fact that the ‘scholarly’ world (the Harvard-Yale world) is often part of the problem. Faludi’s independent study and her journalistic training and curiosity impelled her to keep digging at the problem she had discovered. Not the ‘problem’ of the poor women who couldn’t get married (because in fact there were few of those), but the problem of the big lie, the impressive creation of fear. What lay behind it? It was in answering and continuing to ask that question that her sense of the Backlash evidently came into being.
The Harvard-Yale study (and its collaborators) expressed, while at the same time concealing, a very real fear on the part of men that women might depart from marriage. Or rather, a fear on the part of men of the upper and professional classes (white men, very largely) that women of the same classes might depart from marriage and not reproduce them. The feminism of the Seventies and certain concomitant social and economic changes (requiring high levels of office worker, manager etc) had given women (some women) economic resources other than matrimony. Various surveys, scientific and casual, of about the same time as the Harvard-Yale study indicated that women were far from being desperate for marriage. A study carried out by the Battelle Memorial Institute in 1986, collating 15 years’ worth of surveys of ten thousand women, found that women were intentionally delaying marriage or even ‘dodging the wedding rings’, as Faludi puts it, while ‘Cosmopolitan in the UK reported in 1988 that “a whacking majority” (81 per cent) of their readers surveyed enjoyed being single.’ Women had not necessarily sworn off men, or taken up celibacy. According to Faludi, ‘the cohabitation rate in Britain tripled between 1979 and 1988.’ Some had boyfriends but preferred to live on their own, and were even purchasing their own houses. ‘The more economically independent women are, the less attractive marriage becomes,’ a Princeton demographer worried in 1986.
Marriage is certainly not in general a boost for a woman’s morale or her spirits. Mental health studies show most impressively that the real gainers from marriage are men. Single men have nervous breakdowns and depressions, are twice as prone to suicide as married men. But the most cheerful group of women, the least prone to mental problems, are the never-married. This is of course not the view promoted in the media (past or present), which have been quick to apply to the unmarried or not yet married woman (as to the divorced or widowed female) the symptoms of mental distress, melancholy and trauma. The data cited by Faludi bear out the warning uttered by Jessie Bernard in 1972: ‘Marriage may be hazardous to women’s health.’ This wording ought perhaps to be attached to the marriage licence.
As Faludi describes and analyses the utterances, the hype and the statistics (and the cooked books), she very convincingly creates a portrait of powerful cultural elements engaged in a very serious ideological putsch. Advertising, films, news programmes, and scientific pseudo-studies of the mid-Eighties, were all devoting themselves to an onslaught aimed at altering one particular group: women. The Backlash phenomena are attempts to re-feminise women. The immediate objectives were to ensure that females became eager to marry, and uncomplaining about supporting their children, their households and themselves, while consoling and strengthening their husbands. At the same time, such ‘good’ and ‘feminine’ women would eschew any turn towards power, authority or control for themselves. Women thus could be got to police themselves out of any desire to compete with men for the higher kinds of job, as out of any will to take legislative or other control of their lives and fortunes, and the lives and fortunes of their children. It was not that the Backlash Empire really wanted to get all women out of the workplace, at least in the UK and America. In fact, supporting a family in middle-class style increasingly demands two paychecks. The point was to ensure that women carried on with the low and middle jobs and carried on deferring to male authority and entitlement. Part of the Backlash included unpunished physical assaults on women taking jobs that some men regarded as ‘theirs’ – that is, male jobs.
The Backlash Empire was striking back, but not in an era of prosperity. The work-force actually became more sex-segregated, with many women stuck in what Faludi calls ‘many low-paid female work ghettos’. Women’s wages declined: ‘by 1986 more working women would be taking home poverty-level wages than in 1973.’ At the same time, we were given the picture of dangerous feminists or tough career women taking over the boardroom and the law court, the operating theatre and the marketplace. Women were warned that their femininity had suffered permanent damage from this dangerous and unnatural ‘equality’. Yet the inequality even in the professional world became more rather than less marked. In the UK, most appointments made to important government departments are men, and though there are eminent female QCs there are ‘only two female High Court judges out of 83’, and only 18 women serve as directors of British companies, according to a survey of 1991. (Some of these women serve on more than one board, which makes the statistics look a little brighter than they actually are.)
There was really no need for the scare movie Baby Boom, which showed a bright career woman giving up her unnatural, highly paid working life in the boardroom, brought to her senses by having to take charge of a baby. The author of the film (who had written Private Benjamin ten years before) had already run into trouble (as Faludi recounts) in trying to tell a story about a waitress who becomes politically intelligent – and a shrewd diplomat: the movie eventually made (Protocol with Goldie Hawn) became the story of a ditzy sweetiepie ‘cheerleading for the American Way’. The studio had warned that they didn’t want to see anything that could look anti-Reagan. As Faludi comments, ‘a woman who thinks for herself, apparently, could now be mistaken for a subversive.’ In Backlash films like Working Girl and Baby Boom, the women were being re-educated to know their place. These films were aimed at the ‘yuppie’ woman, the one most likely to have education and ambition, and, perhaps, to have run into feminist theory in some form or other. She needed re-education, constructive self-criticism. But women of all classes watched these films, and they could all get the message.
Films are much more likely to be overtly macho and misogynistic than television programmes. Men dictate what films they, their girlfriends and their families will see. Television must, however reluctantly, go some way toward meeting women’s demands to be entertained, because the majority of television watchers in certain households are probably female, and the advertisers must reach them since women purchase the humble necessary and incessant domestic products, like the famous soap of soap opera. But television’s producers, directors and others in authority are overwhelmingly male. In the UK, according to a 1989 Institute of Manpower Studies report, ‘74 per cent of broadcast employees were male, and in some key grades such as camera, sound and light more than 86 per cent were men.’ The interesting reluctance to portray interesting women in positions of strength can be related to this fact. But beneath this simple fact is the deeper cultural desire that gives rise to both facts – i.e. the avoidance of strong women in TV dramas and the preponderance of males in broadcasting. The cultural desire is perhaps experienced as a need, a deep need to ensure that the social messages created and passed on tell women plainly what they are to be and to do. Even when a woman is the apparent centre of a television drama in the Eighties, her real role is customarily to represent female fecklessness and feminine lack of authority. A salient case in British television would be Butterflies. A talented actress played a married woman in a dull marriage who did absolutely nothing (she could not even cook) save dream wistfully of adultery with a preposterous rich smoothie who at first seemed like a figment of her imagination. This lady was like Madame Bovary on Marmite. Women watching the programme could see themselves amusingly displayed in their wistfulness, lack of assurance, uselessness, and lack of direction. (The family didn’t seem able to educate its lunkish sons, although the father was a dentist – why didn’t the wife get a job?) To the Manor Born offered a replay of old Tory values in an era of new Whiggism calling itself Tory. Penelope Keith’s character rejoiced in both assurance and widowhood. Yet she was merely a charming eccentric at bottom, one of those comic ladies, like Margaret Rutherford playing Miss Marple; Keith’s character, like that of Addison’s Sir Roger de Coverley, was there to inform us of the harmlessness and ineffectuality of a defunct class represented by this posthumously lively personality.
Helen Mirren’s portrayal of a female police chief in Prime Suspect was a new departure on British television in showing a woman seriously engaged with her profession, and in exhibiting the backlash experienced in the workplace. The message was certainly sombre: your marriage will suffer and you won’t be popular if you get involved in your work. The respect for the character and her activities, however, marked a new departure, and is another refreshing signal that the Nineties are not as the Eighties. It should be noted, however, that Prime Suspect was a mystery story and that the ‘mystery’ field has been a refuge for women (writers, readers and characters) decade after decade. Detective fiction of the Eighties gave us the works of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created strong heroines – how much better-off are women who read detective stories than those who attend only to magazines, to serious self-help books, or to Allan Bloom! But Disney studios made a mess out of trying to make a film about Sara Paretsky’s heroine, as they could not really believe in or approve of her.
Television in the United States is almost universally under the control of advertisers, and the advertisers’ interests must take precedence over the imagination of writers, director or actors. To the extent that British and European television is supported by advertisement, the same must be true. Unfortunately television is either the organ of big business directly (through its advertisers) or of governments, and both business and government occasionally fret about the need for even more control than they already have. But television advertisers in the US (and in England) do very well at ensuring that ‘entertainment’ programmes dovetail with advertisement. Advertisers feel at their happiest when the women in the ‘show’ appear to be suitable and unthreatening types who make good consumers of their products, and do not voice or represent difficult attitudes or positions that might a. offend viewers or b. engage viewer interest so deeply that the advertising becomes painfully irrelevant and irritating. Theoretically, the objective of an advertising-supported programme is to reach a wide, defined and devoted audience in a high consumer range. Yet success is no guarantee of favour.
The police series Cagney and Lacey about two female cops had a wide and devoted audience of young women, including students, career women and high-purchasing ‘home-makers’. Yet CBS was upset by the character played by Sharon Gless – Cagney was a single woman who had occasional sexual encounters, wasn’t too worried about not being married, but was seriously ambitious about her job. Faludi tells us of CBS’s programming chief worrying that Cagney wouldn’t be a ‘positive role model’; another executive explained their anxiety over the fact that it was ‘difficult to portray her as being vulnerable’. Women (especially pretty blondes) are supposed to be ‘vulnerable’: Gless played tough but humorous. One episode that we have never seen dealt with the Equal Rights Amendment, and Gloria Steinem was supposed to appear briefly; the network not only banned her appearance but cancelled that episode. The popularity of the programme itself did nothing to assuage the executives’ discomfort with it. CBS cancelled Cagney and Lacey in 1983, but had to restore it after fans snowed them under with letters. The programme went on to win five Emmys. Nevertheless, by pulling it from its time slot in autumn 1987, CBS made sure they could get rid of it. Before they did cancel it, they had worked over the Cagney character, making her stressed-out, anxious and alcoholic. They pushed the character into the desired ‘vulnerability’, and tried to get female viewers to forget her courage and zip. Sharon Gless herself, incidentally, has plenty of courage. Some British readers may remember that during the Gulf War when America got the heebie-jeebies about flying, Gless was brave enough to fly to England – unlike Sylvester Stallone, who plays all those macho heroes in the movies.
One might wonder why CBS was so anxious to tone down or even sabotage a show that was doing well. But it is a mild and passing wonder compared to the bewildered amazement one may feel on considering the gyrations of the fashion industry in the Eighties. In her chapter ‘Dressing the Dolls: The Fashion Backlash’, Faludi offers a cogent account and analysis of the activities of designers. In what Faludi calls ‘the High Femininity year of 1987’, Christian Lacroix unveiled his ballooning little bubble skirts. Less material was used than formerly, but dress prices went up some 30 per cent. Of course, Lacroix hadn’t anticipated that his display would hit New York a few days after the 19 October Stockmarket collapse. Advertisers, designers, stores still went at it hammer and tongs, proclaiming the Year of the Dress, advising women that everything else was outmoded and had to go. Women were told that dressing like men, as they were thought to have done, was an error that had landed them in an identity crisis and they were now to return to the feminine. The fashion designers wanted to dress women like little girls. Designer Decree had worked famously with Dior’s long feminine New Look in the late Forties and in the Sixties the mini had been a real hit and had knocked out all the longer lines. This time, however, the designers and their entourage couldn’t bring it off.
This was more than a mere miscalculation, as Faludi points out. The fashion dictators kept it up through 1988 and 1989: ‘By 1989 Lacroix’s design house was reporting a $9.3 million loss.’ Despite the softening-up afforded by the 1986 marriage study, and other anxiety-provokers, American women were not really willing to go into the baby-doll look. In the Sixties the Baby Boom generation was young (teens and twenties): by the Eighties the women in that large group were working at jobs where they needed to be taken seriously, and the better-off among them were working in professional and managerial jobs which this ‘look’ did not suit. I remember the Mayor of the town of Princeton, New Jersey, saying that she disliked fashions that infantilised us, and that we should stand against them. So she did, many of us did, and even the women who bought one puffball for an evening weren’t going to change their day wear. So – fashion designers took huge losses, and department stores reeled, and some stores went out of business and some clothing operations in the US are still suffering from the results of the sulky determination of the late Eighties that fashion – and men – would dress women and make them look the way they ought.
Now this is a most interesting story, and the phenomena here entailed touch on many matters beyond fashion – even if we recognise, as Faludi does, that ‘fashion’ goes beyond clothes to ‘style’, as reflected in Ralph Lauren’s nostalgic country-house decor, and the various forms of Victorian kitsch and notional ‘cocooning’. Victoria’s Secret and designer sheets based on the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady are aspects of the same Eighties period, although those operations have been much more successful, as they did not cast practicality altogether aside in making underwear and sheets. But if we fasten our attention on the fashion dictators, especially Lacroix, and the advertising and marketing industries that went along with them, we are confronted by a fascinating possibility. The determination of the designers exhibits motivations beyond the mere making of money. We have tended to assume (both on the right and on the left) that on its own terms, capitalism is an essentially rational – if brutal – game: that all the activities of its players, when seriously playing, are explicable on the basis of money-making – the famous Market. We presume that advertisers create the beer or car advertisements the way they do because that makes them money. We assume that firms get rid of skilled workers and lower-paid unskilled workers because that saves them money. Could we imagine that capitalism of that ‘pure’ kind might be a secondary consideration – at least in the individual case? Faludi’s book repeatedly illustrates what look like instances of crazed short-sightedness on the part of money-making entities. For instance, American Cyanamid hired 36 women for production work in the mid-Seventies. ‘In the pigments department, in the first year that the women joined, both the quality and quantity of production increased dramatically – a fact begrudgingly noted at the plant’s annual banquet that year.’ Yet, despite the women’s success at working for American Cyanamid, male workers protested and the company later and most infamously introduced a ‘foetal protection clause’ which required women workers to be sterilised if they wanted to continue to hold their jobs. Some women were so desperate to hang onto jobs (family-supporting jobs) in hard times that they agreed. These women were later to seek legal relief, and it was Judge Robert Bork as Federal appellate judge who in 1984 ‘ruled in favour of the company’. It may be that American Cyanamid had expected all its female employees would go away rather than undergo sterilisation, and the protection policy (which offered no ‘protection’ for men whose sperm could be adversely affected by working with the chemicals) was a means of getting rid of the female workers despite the fact that their work was conscientious and efficient, and thus profitable.
A chemical company (which manufactures skin creams and Breck shampoo, among other things) gets rid of female workers, even though they increase productivity. Fashion designers, giant stores, advertisers etc run themselves repeatedly into the deep red trying to make women wear short skirts. A popular television programme is repeatedly criticised, retouched and even sabotaged by network executives. Are these the activities of a ‘pure’ capitalism? One of the fascinating things that emerges from Backlash is a vision of a society at large in which capitalism in its individual manifestations performs in a subordinate role relative to some greater end. This greater end can justify the kamikaze loss of money by gown-makers and stores, by pigment manufacturers and networks. Money alone is not enough. The entire gigantic enterprise must never allow itself intermission from its constant preoccupation – the ownership of women. Taming, subduing and moulding women, although according to a nostalgic point of view these ought to be ‘natural’, are activities that cost, mighty endeavours which must, like ‘real’ wars, occasionally call for large expenditure and great exercises of propaganda.
Expenditure on show, propaganda and products is only a part of the story, though a vivid part. We can laugh at the short skirts, the puffs and poufs – we can hardly laugh at the bombing of abortion clinics, and all the really ugly attempts in the United States in the Eighties to take literal and physical control of women’s bodies. The foetus suddenly acquired rights and privileges and status to the extent that the mother lost all of these. Anti-abortion groups in the USA call themselves ‘pro-life’, but the hypocrisy in most cases is very evident, for there are poverty-stricken children in the United States, in the poor country regions of the South like Mississippi and in the vast urban sprawls of the North and West. There are children who get no food during the day, no measles shots, no health care. The offer of prenatal health care would save multitudes of wanted babies, and give them and their mothers a chance at life. The pro-lifers are not against abortion because they love children – they are patently against women’s right to choose abortion because it gives the woman control over her own body and thus also over reproduction in general.
Reproduction is the production – the substructure on which all economies rely. The conflict about marriage is a conflict about control over reproduction. In marriage as conventionally constituted the father has control over his wife and children, though if he chooses to be irresponsible about either, he is seldom penalised. Therefore, the industrial complex has a duty to work hard at making women feel insecure, body-shy, anxious about marrying, willing to marry. Advertising portrays women as helpless, vulnerable, feckless, silly, so that they will have the humility necessary to take upon themselves the chains of marriage. As Faludi has shown, behind the Harvard-Yale study are the contrary statistics indicating a new diminution of interest in marriage on the part of well-off, well-educated women. These women have now been scolded and lashed by all sorts of ‘moral’ advice, from the ravings of fundamentalist pulpits through the anxiety-based emollients of self-help books to the gloomy rages of academic pundits like Allan Bloom. Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is very open about his anger at the women’s movement. ‘Feminism,’ he warns, ‘triumphed over the family.’ It suppresses modesty and rearranges the sex roles ‘using force’, it has enabled women to bear children ‘on female terms with or without fathers’, and has wickedly and wrongly freed them from the male will ‘so that they can live as they please’. Women doing ‘what they please’ apparently constitute the most massive threat to Civilisation as We Know It.
It may be that Bloom is right. In some sense he must be right, for women, once they emerge from the dictates of others and the behaviour and manners dictated by others, will not want to re-create a society that repeats the patterns that have in some ways suited men so well, and themselves so very ill. It is horrifying to think that for Bloom, as for so many other, Civilisation as We Know It must entail the enslavement of women. One can retort that a ‘civilisation’ that depends upon the enslavement of others – of half of the human race – is a pretty shaky and ugly proposition. The ‘civilisation’ we have has failed in a great many respects. To the truly religious ‘civilisation’ must never be set up as an idol. Perhaps now is the time to think of some alternatives. It is this fear, this very great fear of alternatives, that led the cultural complex of the West, particularly but certainly not only in the United States, to the excesses of folly that Faludi outlines in Backlash. The Eighties were a sleazy but interesting decade – interesting in its very brassiness, and the abrupt slews and gestures that made so much so visible.
Faludi’s book is an excellent companion to the Eighties. It offers a good means of getting one’s bearings. The revised English edition includes later news taking us to the Anita Hall case and the reactions to Thelma and Louise. Yet Marilyn French’s The War against Women is the more telling book. It is brief, where Faludi is excursive; it does not wear the accoutrements of research as well (it has no index), and it is written in a much more peremptory, less immediately engaging manner. Yet it is French’s book that I would choose as the true manifesto of the new era of feminism. Marilyn French is global, whereas Faludi is engaged with the English-speaking world. Marilyn French is very trenchant, without trying to be in the least charming, but some of her crisis sayings have the bite of the best of, say, Virginia Woolf or the early Germaine Greer.
French’s thesis is that the modern cultures, at least since the invention of agriculture, are and have been engaged in a systematic war against women. Women have been repressed, abused and enslaved, and continue to be so. Religions are turned against women, in their various fundamentalist forms; legal systems offer support to men in abuse of females; and medicine ignores or tortures women. French draws a broad pattern of history, but she is more interested in making us focus on what is going on right now. Women in India need a dowry to marry, and when the groom’s family continues to make demands the bride may commit suicide or her husband’s family may kill her. An Indian historian ‘calls bride-burning a new form of capital accumulation’. Women are systematically killed in the Punjab and Haryana. The Chinese are aborting women. In many areas of the world women are systematically overworked and underfed. Women are also regularly murdered by boyfriends or spouses, a form of murder that ‘society’ (a term which does not really include women) has tended to look upon with some leniency.
Women’s labour is part of the basic work of the world. It is life-sustaining and in many regions, such as large parts of Africa, female agricultural work keeps the people. Yet the women have no land rights, no right to income from the cash crops they raise, often cannot even join co-operatives. International agencies collude with the men. The International Labour Organisation ‘counts the Beti man but not the Beti woman as an “active labourer” because she does not “help ... the head of the family in his [sic] occupation”’ – even though the women work at least eleven hours a day, six to raise food (some for market) and five to collect water and firewood, do the wash, prepare the meals, tend the sick. Women’s work is forgotten in national and international statistics. Payments (including UN and other handouts) are made to males, who may spend the money on transistor radios. There is an almost universal pretence that women in the working world (whether a market in Africa or an office building in London) are really just working frivolously, passing the time, working for silly personal expenditures, working, as Moroccans sneer, for ‘lipstick’. Yet even ‘lipstick’ may be made a job necessity: ‘Continental Airlines in 1991 dismissed a young woman for refusing to wear make-up. (Presumably, a man would be dismissed for wearing it.)’ The world is most unwilling to admit women’s work as part of the GNP or to recognise that women are often the primary breadwinners for themselves and others. Women’s work is to be silent and unregistered, even if vital – like the ‘natural’ work of child-bearing and child-rearing.
States, religions, governments, parties, academics, philosophies – all have interested themselves in the control of woman, the regulation, ownership and operation of her body. Ownership goes to an extreme in the violence and mutilation practised on female genital organs in many parts of the world, most notably in Africa. The superior ‘liberal’ attitude has been to leave alone ‘native customs’, but women in some highly repressive cultures when allowed to express their own ideas and preferences may well not coincide in support of the prevailing cultural customs. Mutilation of the female genital organs has an undeniably negative influence on the health of women, and in some cases leads to their death. As Marilyn French shows, however, the death of women is by no means thought undesirable, and killing women is a common method of expressing male power.
Not only, as Faludi exhibits, may female mental health suffer in marriage, but also, as French illustrates, the mere hitching up with a man – as fiancée, live-in lover or wife – can threaten a woman’s very survival. As French points out, ‘because male attacks on women are not categorised as a class, we cannot estimate the number of women physically injured by men in any given year.’ Wife-beating is too common a practice, abroad and at home, to have caused much felt need for statistical measurement, at least until recently. French cites statistics which indicate that in the United States nearly two million husbands batter their wives, and about four women die every day as a direct result of male abuse. Women who run from battering husbands or ‘lovers’ are not safe – homicidal rage may be the reaction in a man who feels entitled to kill not only the errant one but her children and relatives. Judicial separation does not help: ‘Department of Justice statistics show that 75 per cent of reported assaults against wives or lovers are committed after separation.’
French is at her shrewdest when analysing the turns and twists of language, public language, which change this matter (when it has to be dealt with) into a vague unspecific trouble without an agent, where if any blame exists it must be equally allocated to the woman in phrases like ‘domestic violence’, ‘spousal violence’. These soothing phrases obviate the necessity of talking about the ugly fact – the recurrent male violence against women, expressed in both rape and murder. French corroborates Faludi, who believes the violence against abortion clinics in the USA has helped to alleviate inhibitions about woman-killing. Both authors cite, inter alia, the case of Marc Lépine, the 25-year-old engineer, unemployed, who on a December day in 1989 took a gun to the University of Montreal and deliberately shot dead 14 young women; his reason was that the women he killed were ‘all a bunch of fucking feminists’. Backlash murder can hardly declare itself more succinctly or obviously.
Faludi or French could have added to their case the recent incidence of mercy killings and voluntary ‘euthanasias’ – the practice of euthanasia most encouraged being the killing of a woman incapacitated through sickness or age. When someone ‘helps’ another person to take that person’s life the ‘helper’ is most often a man and the person assisted off this planet is customarily a woman. In May 1992 Dr Jack Kevorkian ‘helped’ a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis to die. He advocated suicide for her, gave her a ‘suicide consultation’, rigged up his special contraption and fitted on the mask she was to wear. It is evident that sick or aged women are going to be increasingly urged to take themselves off, not to be a burden to others – an elderly husband is not thought to be appropriately employed in looking after a sick wife, while an elderly wife is supposed to care faithfully for a sick husband right to the end. Still, women live longer than men. That is a habit that could be cured.
The Kevorkian type of ‘suicide’ urging has a certain subtlety about it – many assaults lack such niceties. A Harvard professor of law who wrote a feminist article for the Harvard Law Review was knifed to death. Not too long after, her article was viciously spoofed – at an occasion at which her bereaved husband was going to present. He was just as bad as the feminists at not finding this funny – silly old them, just can’t take the joke of murder. Professor Frug’s death has, mysteriously, never been solved. As a mystery writer I might suggest ... oh, never mind. Harvard seems bound to fulfil the prophetic title of the Amanda Cross murder mystery, Death in a Tenured Position, and to prove as true Cross’s implicit contention that anti-feminism among academics is not only destructive but positively lethal.
French is very clear on the fact that the background to all women’s lives is fear – and a lot of our time and energy is wasted on defensive care and anxious circumspection. From childhood, we are taught to be careful: ‘Women tend to lead stifled lives; they avoid going out alone after dark ... Women are afraid in a world in which almost half the population bears the guise of the predator, in which no factor – age, dress or colour – distinguishes the man who will harm a woman from one who will not.’ Not only the rapist but the killer lurks in the shadows. That women should live in such fear is part of a general pattern of woman-taming and subjugation: ‘As long as some men use physical force to subjugate females, all men need not. The knowledge that some men do suffices to threaten all women. Beyond that, it is not necessary to beat up a woman to beat her down.’ French points out what hardly needs asserting: ‘male violence against women could not be as epidemic as it is without the co-operation of the entire social system – the press, police, courts, legislatures, academia, welfare agencies, the professions, and other institutions.’ This is hardly news, and was not news to Samuel Richardson, whose novel Clarissa is an excellent analysis of our rape culture and what it means to live in a rape culture. Even ‘nice’ men, individual ‘nice’ men, must at some point in their lives collude in woman-bashing in order to preserve the status of manhood. ‘Manhood’ itself seems a shaky and relative concept; manhood must always be proved in relation to a sustained and sustainable superiority over women. Marilyn French knows that a man reading her book is likely to feel maligned, and that working men could truthfully remind women that they too are victims. ‘Nevertheless,’ she adds, ‘the entire system of female oppression rests with ordinary men, who maintain it with a fervour and dedication to duty that any secret police force might envy.’ Among the military an ideology of ‘manhood’ is sustained in a language of power and orgasm that endorses the release of bombs and missiles as a form of fucking that is super-sex – better than sex, that for which active sex serves only as a metaphor. Personal survival itself becomes unimportant compared to the sustaining of the mighty thrusting mythical expression of ‘manliness’. The analysis of military language and sub-culture is one of the most disturbing sections of French’s book.
Working men are deflected from pursuing their own interests by the urgent cult of manliness or manhood. The energy of the poor males is thus usefully turned to work against women, keeping the general system in place, and weakening the cause of the working class by more or less eliminating women from both the class and the cause. It has recently been argued by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in Feminism without Illusions that feminism when cultivated as ‘sisterhood’ is in danger of eluding class realities: ‘Sisterhood invokes non-political relations ... In so doing it missed the point ... feminist politics of the personal unmistakably emerges as a politics of race and class that perpetuates the injustices of American society.’ Fox-Genovese does well to remind us of the dangers of putting a middle-class feminism in some (false) transcendent relation to social divisions and political conflicts. Some supporters of feminism would argue that feminism, though useful in its place, should not try to supersede or displace the role of class. But French’s critique is so trenchant and far-reaching that it sufficiently answers Fox-Genovese’s case. The war against women is not something that can be more fully attended to when other injustices have been removed or palliated. That war against women, as French outlines it, is a fundamental cause and aspect of all the other injustices, and as long as men are blinded by the cult of ‘manhood’ which entails the need to own and abuse women, so long will they be held in their own poor place.
Working men may be encouraged to push women out of certain jobs, even accepting females’ elimination on the grounds of the health of a foetus or potential foetus (as in the case of American Cyanamid). Yet in their exultation at getting rid of the ‘bitches’ men don’t notice that their own procreative health is not cared for. We are getting very good (at least in the US) at locking women up or subjecting them to other penalties because they drink when pregnant, or might drink (or commit other sins) when pregnant. This fuss over the foetus, however, which serves further to police and even incarcerate females, accompanies a wholesale carelessness about population health in general, and about industrial causes of unhealth. Virtue seems to require an authoritarian custody of the egg, but men can do damage to their own sperm with impunity – or others can do it for them without letting them in on the secret. Undeniably, men should be made more aware of the existing threats to male health and to the health of the sperm – for it is not in men’s individual interest to tolerate these threats, even though society will continue to blame women for most damaged foetuses and unhealthy children.
The energy of the poor males is thus usefully turned to work against women – though the usefulness is not to themselves. Men are motivated by the need impressed upon them to collude with their masters in the upper castes, sustaining ‘manliness’ and keeping women ‘in their place’. (You can see this lesson or transaction taking place in beer advertisements in all our countries.) The Clarence Thomas hearings, when the public had to watch the all-male Senate Committee browbeating Anita Hall, provided American women with an object lesson in their powerlessness. That that object lesson occurred was a subject of distress to the establishment, which needs to sustain the idea of its own naturalness, but the establishment had bought its own naturalness too readily, and had no idea of how it might look when the bunch of old boys was projected on TV screens for long periods of time. American women found they were not really anything like as powerful or as well represented in the political structure of the United States as they were taught to believe. There were (and are) only two women in the American Senate. It is a striking paradox (too recent to be noted by Faludi or French) that when Iran, which forced women back into the chador, held an election in the spring of 1992 to its one chamber, the Majlis, nine women candidates were elected, ‘more than twice the number in the previous parliament, and more than four times the number in the United States Senate’, as Robin Wright reported in the New Yorker. Perhaps Iran, too, is now participating in the Nineties anti-backlash movement. This spring’s British election, however, registered no very dramatic changes. One paradox that French picks up that Faludi does not is the paradox of the British Labour Party. She neatly observes its failure in terms of its dogged self-destructive devotion to ‘a masculinised political tradition’. Labour has certainly fielded some excellent women candidates, but Labour’s general ethos has denied the reality of women workers and their work. Female voters can feel that Labour’s story is not their story.
As I am the daughter of an Englishman, the granddaughter of a British coal-miner, and have spent some time in those two great Anglicising institutions, Oxford University and the Anglican Church, I might add some comments about the present state of the United Kingdom and its political drift. Some of the harder edges of Thatchersim have been rubbed into a certain fubsiness by a ‘kinder, gentler’ John Major. What seems to be gathering power among the middle and professional classes is a new republicanism, a desire for a complete political representation of the Whig dream. This was Margaret Thatcher’s dream also, and why she cried (when given the bounce) that the work was not yet done. Let women beware. The new republicanism may represent itself as egalitarian, just and reasonable – as against the in-fâme of the Monarchy. But one of the visible phenomena of the new British (really English) republicanism is a woman-hating even more staunch and determined than the old Tory kind. The republican dream is sold in various forms and guises and periodicals. One of its appeals is that the state would no longer be represented by a female figure – even as a figurehead. No more Queens! At the moment, the republican war is being waged against Prince Charles, using Princess Diana as a means and excuse, but that sympathy for a woman is a trumped-up and certainly an interested matter. No woman ought to think for a moment that the republican movement as represented by, for instance, the Sunday Times has any sympathy or respect for women, or for any aspect of femaleness. A year or two ago the New Statesman ran an anti-monarchist article with a grotesque drawing of a stout woman in her underwear claiming to represent the Duchess of York two weeks after giving birth. The pro-republican magazine pretended that it was using a woman’s image to attack a political institution. Yet one sensed that the primary desire was to attack woman – and that Fergie’s connection with the Royal Family as a political institution served as a convenient alibi. High-money republican culture is built on a woman-hating even more severe and permanent than the old Anglican Church and Monarchy kind. Neither is the new movement friendly to other races – and unlike the Monarchy it has no interest in the Commonwealth. This new non-Labour pseudo-Left speaks with a forked tongue, and its interests are not the interests of women – certainly not of women who, like the Duchess of York, give birth to children. If Princess Diana became bulimic, there were good cultural reasons. That image of Fergie – grotesque not because of the woman’s body per se but because of the grotesque energy that went into representing that body as loathsome – is an image that tells us a great deal. British women should take warning. And it is time to be wary, since the political situation is just about to change.
The hatred of woman’s body represented in that pseudo-image of Fergie – what does it mean? Why does the woman’s body rouse so much hostility? Of course, the woman’s body doesn’t ‘do’ anything of the sort. Why do men feel such unreasonable rage against women? Why do they knock them about, legislate against them, imprison them in purdah, caricature them, stick them in shitty jobs, smother them in the chador, deny them the right to their own bodies? What’s it all for? Susan Faludi in her description of the war against women in America (and elsewhere) in the Eighties takes as her starting-point the false study that tried to make women nervous about marriage, and she goes on to show that the males became freshly alarmed in the Eighties because a combination of causes had made it slightly less likely that women would crave marriage: that is, respond in the preferred way to their duty of taking care of men and giving children to men. Women’s control over procreation is seen as a sort of hideous usurpation of male authority. Illegitimacy, once used as a shame to threaten and police women, loses its significance in an economic situation where the woman can support herself and her child in reasonable comfort.
Men become deeply frightened of losing control. This was vividly illustrated (some while after the publication of both of these books) by Vice-President Dan Quayle’s announced upset over an episode of Murphy Brown, a television programme in which a single woman in her thirties found herself pregnant, decided to have her baby – and did so. Searching for someone or something to blame for the current state of the United States (including the recent LA riots), the Vice-President had the happy thought of blaming Murphy Brown, claiming indignantly that this bad role model represented fathers as ‘insignificant’. An unfortunate adjective – ‘insignificant’ is a word some would be tempted to apply to Quayle himself. His outburst in favour of ‘family values’, put thus, inspired the late-night comics to some happy ripostes. Still, as Faludi had already demonstrated, the phrase ‘family values’ is simply a buzzword meaning male control over women and children.
New forms of intervention and control are being invented. French is caustic: It is a major irony that the only developed nation in the world without free medical care, government-funded day care, home health visitors for mothers, or allotments to subsidise child-rearing, is jailing women for improperly caring for the babies in their wombs.’ Various groups and institutions in the US are extremely anxious to monitor women’s reproduction, to take charge of their bodies and, like Dan Quayle, to scold the girl back into marrying, to make sure that we send her back to the father.
As Faludi’s book shows, the extent of the alarm, the lies and the male flap points to a truth that is not always openly acknowledged – and yet very widely recognised: women are unlikely to want to enter of their own free will into marriage as traditionally set up and must be coerced into doing so. The Princeton demographer was right: ‘The more economically independent women are, the less attractive marriage becomes.’ Despite all the jokes about women’s pursuit of men, their need of men, their abject romanticism, there is an underlying awareness that women have needed men for financial support because of the way the economy is set up and that marriage is not designed by or for women. This again is not news. Frances Burney in her teens, watching a wedding take place at a neighbouring church, wrote: O how short a time does it take to put an eternal end to a woman’s liberty!’ Women don’t necessarily want marriage – marriage is mainly what has traditionally been on offer. Jane Austen knows that just as well as Susan Faludi. Austen clearly states the economic reasons for marrying: the incomes, the property, the social position. That is why she got scolded by Walter Scott for lack of romance, a lack of belief in the magic of love.
In the Seventies women began to teach men (a little, here and there) about the kind of marriage that women wanted. I will not say the attempt has made no difference – the models of marriage on offer now among professional people are decidedly preferable to the rather dismal models on view when I was growing up in the Fifties, and among the ‘happy’ marriages I think I know, most are between people of forty or younger. The New Marriage itself, however, posed a threat to masculine position, and that, as well as the reluctance of young women – of the white and educated classes – to hurry into marriage and to reproduce white upper-class rulers, helped to fuel the determined propaganda backlash, as well as the vicious legal and other actions to take control of women’s bodies and their procreative capacities. Our word ‘proletariat’ comes from reproduction – the proles are those who can only produce ‘proles’, progeny. Women are the original and fundamental proletariat whose ‘natural’ function of producing children should be taken into custody by a male ‘society’ which is always their social superior. Man’s body belongs to himself; Woman’s body belongs to the State (or the Church). For the proles to begin to act as if they were senators or equites throws off the political balance in a revolutionary way.
Paradoxes abound, of course, in trying to make this anxious male position respectably intelligible, as poor Quayle discovered: some Republicans immediately pointed out that at least Murphy Brown had not had an abortion, and had chosen to go through with giving birth. But that very idea – that women should have a choice, should be able to determine what happens to their bodies and to their lives – is found deeply offensive. Women should not choose not to have abortions – baby-making, woman’s natural role, should be thrust upon them. Hence the strong contingent of anti-choicers in the USA who would not make any exception in the case of rape – even incestuous rape; one of the anti-choice activists is reported to have said that abortion would be unjust, for, after all, the penalty of rape does not include a man’s having his kids taken from him! Rape is just another means, then, of getting a man’s children. (So Richardson’s Lovelace also thought, gloating at the prospect of a Clarissa impregnated by force.)
The USA is notably more vexed than the UK on the subject of abortion. One may wonder why. To point to the influence of fundamentalists, both Catholic and Protestant, only carries the answer back one step. In England, where women’s economic status has not shifted very much, the effect of female control over reproduction has been more muted, as its revolutionary potential is less felt. The USA is a more various and more fractured society than England (though not, perhaps, than Britain) and the US has a visible potential for disturbance, change, revolution. The nation was founded on the idea of continuous revolution. The altered position of women who can choose to be fertile or infertile, and/or to abort, raises the possibility of truly radical social change. Women are seen in the US, as elsewhere, as a potentially always insurgent group or class, which must always be kept under. It is notable – and not just in countries like Iran – that whenever social change threatens or hardship presses, the popular social answer is to monitor and punish the women. Invasion threatens? Lock up your women. Recession and poverty strike? Why, punish the women. Social conditions seem to be getting ‘out of control’ – as in the LA riots? So talk about ‘family values’ and ‘morality’ as Quayle does, reminding men of their sacred duty to own, control and enforce behaviour upon women.
‘Why no women should marry’, a short article in the glossy (English) magazine for women Options, has attracted unusual attention in the press. Jenni Murray’s cheerful analysis of the negative effects of ‘that ever-tightening band of gold’ is the more shocking because Murray is the presenter of Woman’s Hour, and her opinion runs counter to the reassuring image of British womanhood (sweetly stirring its strawberry jam) that the programme was originally intended to project – and is still felt to project by those who don’t listen very often. Murray, like Faludi, cites Jessie Barnard’s study showing that ‘the happiest healthiest people are single women and married men,’ and points to the wretched outcome of divorce and custody cases for women. ‘I believe’ says Murray, ‘that there is a strong argument for remaining an unmarried mother.’ What Murray overlooks are the new movements that have arisen to give unmarried fathers all kinds of rights over their progeny, in utero and out.
The family is where social control of women must take place; if women choose not to marry, they elude that blessed control. It seems to be a popular notion (among developed and undeveloped nations alike) that the god of Things as They Are is appeased by women’s being beaten up. Yet as Marilyn French remarks, ‘for men to focus on controlling women’s reproduction to solve a society’s problem seems nothing short of mad or, at best, superstitious. But men’s superstition or insanity has real and dire consequences.’
Why is there this superstition? Why is there the feeling that the proper attitude to women is one of contemptuous control, of never-ceasing vigilance, of, in short, permanent hostility, hostility which may break out into such violence that, as French says, if it were waged against any external group it would lead to the charge of genocide. Marilyn French suggests an answer, in a rapidly-sketched myth according to which women were the permanent losers in the revolution in human living which led to agricultural life and established cities and city states. The ideas of ever-increasing wealth and domination over nature led to the subordination of women, and their use as tokens of exchange. In proffering this myth (not particularly her own), French performs a useful function in getting rid of other ‘explanations’, such as Freud’s myth, or Marx’s. She promises to deal with it at greater length in a forthcoming book From Eve to Dawn. French does not draw all the conclusions that might be expected, and leaves the reader to draw her own.
One may open out the line that French (with other theorists) has offered in looking not just at the evils done to women, and to other subject peoples, but at the evils done to this planet. We are going to have to stop talking about the world we live in as an ‘environment’, which leaves an ‘I’ separate from mere surroundings, and to think about the Earth in a more central way. A degree of seriousness of the kind required to weather the momentous social and political change that confronts us will not be acquired by anything less than a religious consciousness and a religious vision. The ‘Gaia’ hypothesis offered by Lovelock (who was then horrified at the way in which it was seized upon) indicates what is about to occur. If there is a defect in Faludi’s or French’s book, it is that neither of them seems to see religion (especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as anything other than a hindrance and an instrument of male control. That religion is used repressively fairly often is not something that the religious themselves can deny. Yet the strength obtained by a spiritual view of life and time, and of the sacred significance of one’s life, should never be underestimated. For women, as for other oppressed peoples, religion has been a powerful agent in creating an awareness of what liberty and identity might mean. Religion is perhaps the single most powerful agent of change in the world – if ‘in the world’ is the right phrase. What is developing before our eyes now is a new religion – or rather a new religious consciousness – of a kind suited to saving the planet by respecting the very body of the Earth. The image for this saved Earth is that of the Goddess (and here the Catholics have an advantage over the Protestants, who produced one of the most masculinised forms of religion). It is foolish to neglect all these ‘New Age’ symptoms as trivia – they are very serious, and the religious impulse to save the planet must be serious, or the game is up. Perhaps nobody over twenty really understands the matter very well, and a great deal of hard cultural work must be done in an exceedingly short time.
All of us in the West and the East are going to have to shed a contaminating if seductive Gnosticism which has affected religious and philosophical thought – and which Marxism tried frenetically to break from. According to the Gnostic view, only the spiritual world is real. The material world is the result of a Fall, a world of dirty matter, of which the real soul is free. This despising of the material world is not a feature of classic Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but at various points all sorts of theoreticians have been seduced by the Gnostic cleanliness. Women, of course, have been identified with the ‘dirty’ material world, that which can be used, despised and thrown away as the clear spirit makes its true way home. The spiritual world became identified with the intellectual (broadly in Plato, narrowly in Descartes) and Man (man) was seen as having the right intellectually to exploit the dirty world of matter to the utmost. Such a set of views and values leads to the spiritual degradation of the world, and one of its constant symptoms and symbols is the despising of woman. According to these categories of thought, not only is the ‘real man’, the landowner, governor or king, to be defined by owning land and women, controlling natural fertility, but the real man of mind is known by his power over dirty matter, and his aloofness from it.
The idea of property is one of the things that the new religion is going to urge us to change. It seems ridiculous to think that men own women, just as slavery seems ridiculous. But in some parts of the world marriage is very literally slavery. The world would be better off if on one particular day all the adult males on Earth would say simultaneously (over a set two-minute period, perhaps): ‘I do not own a woman. I shall never own a woman. No man has ever truly “owned” a woman.’ But this will happen sometime around the coming of the Cocqcigrues. To admit that man does not own woman is to open the way to an absolute re-definition of the idea of ‘property’ – not according to the Marxist objections, but rather according to what we are getting to know as Green objections. We do not own the Earth. The Earth which gives us birth and buries us ‘owns’ us. Exploitation of Earth’s resources has limits. Sacredness, the sense of the holy, will demand of us (and by the next century) that we learn abstention and respect – which we can only learn by re-instating the world of matter as a divine good, and woman (like man) as a divine good also, and not subject to another, just as man must not be subject to woman. That such a state of affairs should come about is not impossible, but there are other scenarios. It may be that the alternative route will be pursued – the phasing out of women through test-tube breeding, the super-production of males, leading to expensive, exciting and costly wars, culminating in the orgasmic letting-off of poisoned fireworks that put an end to the affair, with very few women around to be bothered by this ending. At the moment, we are caught in the cross-fire, in the backdraft from the old civilisation still trying to hold things in place – Bush refuses to sign the bio-diversity document while Quayle busily talks about morality and family values in terms of Murphy Brown’s baby. Such ructions are likely to continue as this decade lurches its alarming way along. But Nineties decades foreshadow the century to come. At the very least, the appearance of these two books by Susan Faludi and Marilyn French at the beginning of the decade signal to an excited or alarmed audience that the Women’s Movement is far from over. In England, of course, it has barely begun. In the Eighties we were told that England was ‘post-feminist’. Nonsense! England was and is in a pre-feminist state, and has yet to discover what changes may be in store for it.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.