Women beware men

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women by Susan Faludi
    Chatto, 592 pp, £9.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4643 5
  • The War against Women by Marilyn French
    Hamish Hamilton, 229 pp, £9.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 241 13271 1

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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