Identifying the enemy

June 3, 1992

When women have demanded change, there has always been a backlash. Two thousand years ago angry women stormed the Roman Forum demanding equal rights, and the counter-assault from law-makers was swift — the troublesome sex were banned from the area.

Women of the '90s face a different kind of backlash — these days techniques are more sophisticated. For the past decade, we've been told feminism was faltering, and by the end of the '80s media moguls were saying it was more or less dead. Headlines pronounced the heady feminist days of the '60s "The Experiment that Failed" and declared that the mature post-feminist woman had arrived. Working mothers, we were told, were returning to the home, and single career women were paying the price of daring to think they could have it all.

The message was clear — feminism was our worst enemy. Freedom was making us unhappy, ill, infertile and unmarriageable. It was time for sensible women to go home, find a man, bring up the kids and keep out of political life.

Into this arena steps Susan Faludi, a 32-year-old sharp-penned Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the Wall Street Journal who spent four years researching and, finally, debunking the spurious "evidence" upon which the backlash is built in her best-seller, Backlash — The Undeclared War Against Women. Enter also long-time feminist activist and editor of the influential magazine Ms, Gloria Steinem, with her treatise on the political potential of the self-esteem movement in her book, Revolution From Within.

Both women try to sort out why the women's movement of the '60s faltered. Why were the hard-won gains made in pay, working conditions, abortion rights and anti-discrimination legislation gradually wound back, in degrees, during the Reagan years?

As Faludi documents, support for the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was 60% by 1981, but it was defeated the following year. The numbers of women seeking shelter from violent spouses soared, but federal funding dried up and the Office of Domestic Violence was closed down. Sexual harassment climbed 70% between 1981 and 1989, but a congressional study found most cases were dismissed before they were investigated. Faludi, more than Steinem, documents the mechanisms, in government, media and ideology, which were set in play to reinstate women's traditional role.

But perhaps more importantly, both Faludi and Steinem attempt to work out how women can now become a sustained political force — a movement which cannot easily be counter-assaulted by men, governments or anti-woman media propaganda.

Their ideas sit uneasily with one another and could easily be misread as hard-nosed realism versus new-age navel gazing.

Steinem, labelled by one incensed reviewer as a "squishy thumbsucker" who has betrayed the feminist movement by turning the blame back on women, sees self-esteem as the prerequisite for true democracy. "The bottom line is that self-authority is the single most radical idea there is", she writes emphatically, "and there is a real hunger for putting the personal and the external back together again".

So far, so good. Few feminists would deny that higher self-esteem on a mass scale would help create a fairer world. Hitler, Stalin and Hawke would probably have been nicer leaders if they'd been able to "reparent their inner-children" and rid themselves of their conditioned lust for power. And women — universally trained to be submissive, take the blame, stay quiet and eat dinner after everyone else is served — would do a lot better if they learned to put themselves first and hubby's ironing second.

But exactly how women are supposed to raise their self-esteem on a mass international scale and galvanise their new-found "authentic" selves into a democratic political force to be reckoned with is not made clear.

Steinem found, she tells us, an inner peace which has refuelled her political life by painting barns, singing and learning how to laugh again. Good for her. But those of us who have experienced the years of hard slog and therapy it takes to begin gaining self-esteem after a difficult childhood sense that Steinem has the enthusiasm of a newcomer.

More than a tinge of naivete blots Steinem's thesis.

Self-esteem, she argues, is a national concern. By raising a country's self esteem you raise its ability to resolve conflict, develop the economy and treat women and other oppressed groups as equals. She cites Argentina and Australia as examples of similar nations with vastly different levels of self-esteem — both are industrialised nations among the 10 largest in the world, both have great natural wealth, a large population of European immigrants, histories of brutality toward indigenous people and large underpopulated areas.

Unlike Australia, she writes, Argentina has developed a culture with low self-esteem. Argentina's "efforts at democracy have fallen victim often to cult-like military dictatorships, its society is divided into extremes of rich and poor and its role as a refuge for Nazi criminals has become legendary". Australia, however, she says, has a stable democracy, per capita income three times that of Argentina, far less violence and corruption, and a much smaller military.

Countries which have self-esteem, like Australia, concludes Steinem, demand fair play. Countries with low self-esteem, like Argentina, put up with being crapped on.

This is weird stuff.

Faludi, by contrast, sees the problem of oppression as being firmly "out there". If people, particularly women, are being oppressed, it's not through choice. It's because the power is elsewhere — with the media, governments and men. (And although it is never addressed, one senses Faludi would argue there are reasons Argentina was burdened with dictators and poverty which had more to do with history, British investment and exploitation and US policy than the country's self-esteem.)

Faludi, in fact, is highly critical of self-esteem as the road to women's liberation, let alone the world's. She blasts the pop-psychology texts which have swamped bookshops in the last decade as part of the insidious backlash against women. In particular she targets psychologist Robyn Norwood's best-seller, Women Who Love Too Much, which argues that women in abusive relationships are addicts who actually seek out violent men. Norwood encourages these man junkies to take up 12 step self-help programs to cure their habits.

Faludi will have none of this. The problem, she argues, is not why so many women pick abusive men, but why there are so many to choose from. And why, she asks, do so many books which claim to help women point an accusatory finger back at the victim?

Because they're part of the backlash — "Rather than changing their lives", says Faludi of the women engaged in Norwood's self-help program, "they seem, at best, to have learned how to adjust to intolerable situations. They've been taught they allow the abuse to happen."

This is not to say Faludi thinks self-esteem is a bad thing. It's a good thing, in her eyes, when it is used to empower, rather than blame, the oppressed. "Self-esteem is the basis for feminism because it is based on defining yourself and believing in that definition. It is regarding yourself as a grown up."

In so doing, women can define their rights as a co-existing, rather than second, sex. Men, she believes, must take equal responsibility for child-rearing if real political justice for women is to be won, "We're adults", says Faludi. "What bothers me is the implication that women can only prove themselves by having children. All family issues should not be women's issues. They should be human issues."

Ultimately, concludes Faludi, real justice for women will come when we have a clear agenda that is unsanitised and unapologetic, a mobilised mass that is forceful and public, and a conviction that is uncompromising and relentless.

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