So I am reading an absolutely fascinating book right now. J lovingly calls it a man-hating treatise and keeps urging me to put it down, but I can't. I am typically a poor nonfiction reader; I have tried to read Blink more times than I can count, but within a few chapters I lose interest and revert to a good old-fashioned fiction story.
This is not the case here, y'all. This piece is truly riveting.
Now, men, I know the title (Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women) is a bit, er, inflammatory? As it should be. I assure you this book is a well-reasoned, well-researched account of a palpable backlash against women's progress throughout United States history. Faludi wrote it in 1991, so most of it details (incredible detail) the attacks (however seemingly benign) against women in the 1980s.
She begins by describing the backlash in the media. She recalls the alarming marriage "study" (beware, college-educated women: your chances of marriage after 30 are so very, very grim) and it's proliferation in popular news magazines (Newsweek seems to be one of the most ubiquitous offenders), newspapers, talk shows, and self-help books. The overwhelming message in the 1980s: marry, and marry quick, lest your eggs dry up and you be left with no mans. I am oversimplifying here, but that's the gist.
An entire chapter centers around the backlash on television, which is certainly one of the most intriguing sections for this pop culture junkie. But before I began reading, I thought about 80s TV; more specifically, 80s moms.
Now, I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore on Nick at Nite with my own mother. Mary was a single career woman in the 70s, and seemed quite happy at that, thankyouverymuch. To that end, in my own home, I was always, always told that I, HomeValley P. Keaton, could be whatever I goddamn pleased. The world was full of endless possibilities; all I needed to do was choose my path. Success was mine for the taking (though my mother preferred I become a scientist and cure cancer, at least she encouraged me to think BIG).
Let's examine, then, the 80s television woman. In the shows I viewed, most of these women were working moms. There was Elise Keaton, whom Faludi admits has a career, but says you'd be hard-pressed to name it. To which I reply - not so! Elise was an architect, and a liberal, liberated woman at that. (The entire premise of the show was the philosophical difference between left-wing parents and an extremely conservative son, no?)
Then there is the lovely Clair Huxtable, an attorney. Faludi asserts that you never saw Clair at work (I concur, though I am sure I have not seen every episode); and that the only time her law degree was used was upon settling family disputes in the living room (to that I giggled, and then reluctantly agreed). At least Clair is gainfully employed, however, and is also an equal, a force, in the happy Huxtable home.
Then there's Growing Pains Maggie Malone Seaver, who's maiden name I know (Jesus Christ, I watched too much TV). Maggie was a television news reporter, another reputable career. From what I recall, she was a strong, successful woman who was balancing it all: work and family.
As Faludi illustrates, single women in the 1980s were repeatedly maligned on television: they were shown as unhappy, weak, neurotic, and often desperately seeking a husband and/or baby. Most of her examples stem from thirtysomething, a show that I never would have tuned into at eight years old, and thus know very little about. (My mind races at these depictions however, and I ask you: how many single women do you know who are unhappy about their plight? How many long for relationships to the point of extreme unhappiness, sometimes even depression, in spite of successful careers or otherwise fulfilling lives? Why is that?)
She also depicts the "dead mom" phenomenon on popular 80s sitcoms. Gah! Does she have a point? One need look no further than Full House, but note also The Hogan Family (Valerie's Family first, remember?) and Blossom, where Mayim's mom was not dead but may as well have been, because she was a selfish musician on tour or something, right? Whoa!
What is the crux here? Though I have not yet finished the book, and though my perspective is likely skewed at this point as I am no longer a single woman, the heart of the matter for me is the ubiquitous question: can women have it all?
My answer: still a resounding yes. But in speaking with the women I know, there is little agreement here.
This week, I emailed a dear friend/wife/mother of two/career woman/graduate student, and I marveled at her ability and shared my belief, that yes, you can do it all and that she is living proof. (This from a very optimistic blogger who has no children yet.)
"I agree," she responded. "We are having our evaluations here at work, seven being the highest. I overheard a woman say to her husband, 'Well, I'd rather be a seven at home and a four at work, right?' Wrong, I thought. What's the point of being here if I can't do it all?"
I have heard women say that they'd never quit work; I have heard women say of course they will quit work. I have heard women say that you need to stay home until your kids go to school. The implication always, if you can afford to stay home, then you should. (My inner voice always hears, you selfish whore. You do not love your babies!)
This is a sensitive topic, and I try to approach it delicately. But my heart starts hammering in my chest when I think about having kids (which I want with all of my being) and making an impact in this world through a successful career (which I want with all of my being). I know some of you will judge me when I tell you I am putting my child in daycare. I know I will feel guilty about putting my child in daycare. And through reading this book, I think I am starting to understand why.
And I'm not so sure I like what I see.
How about a related story, kids?
Yesterday I attended an industry conference, where the key note speaker was an ex Bill Clinton advisor turned political correspondent. I believe he has a column in the New York Post.
"Let me start off by saying," he smarmed, "that I believe Hillary Clinton will win the next presidential election."
Pause for emphasis.
"Let me also say, that I believe she will be a horrible, horrible president."
As his agenda-pushing diatribe continued, I began to see this not as an attack on Hillary politically, but an attack on her personally.
"Hilary's got a list of enemies 500 people long. They're not in alphabetical order: they start with 'M'."
He also asserted that because Hillary was a woman, all of the single women in all of America would vote for her. All of us. I couldn't tell if he really believed this, or if he was merely spewing some sort of reverse psychology: You're so simple, you'll vote for Hill. Show us you're smart, lady! Do not vote for Hillary in '08!
He did assure us that Bill Clinton had a an overwhelming need for affirmation; he just wants to be loved. Hillary, he said, does not need our affirmation; she thinks very highly of herself already. "In fact, Hilary thinks she is the last good person on earth." If you don't agree with Hillary, she thinks you are "evil". I had no idea this former first lady and New York senator was such a simpleton!
She also will NOT pull out of Iraq, so don't you vote for her thinking she will. "She won't want to appear weak."
He ended his self-important tirade with this anecdote: when gay protestors crashed a Bill birthday celebration at Rockefeller Center years ago, Hill smelled a conspiracy.
"It's the Republicans! They planted them there! Right up front! The press will pick up on it, and that's all anyone will hear about! I want background checks and social security numbers on everyone next time!"
Our presenter nodded soothingly to calm our hot-headed, emotional imminent commander-in-chief. Then he went to see Bill.
"Was Hillary talking all of that shit to you about background checks?" Bill asked. "Yeah, we're not going to do any of that." Then the boys had a good chuckle and patted themselves on the back. Crazy Hillary!