Susan Faludi ’81, RI ’09

Why Does the Women's Movement Fight the Same Battles Over and Over Again?
Susan Faludi ’81, RI ’09, photo by Tony Rinaldo
Pat Harrison

“She always has an interesting take on things,” a friend said when I told her I’d be interviewing Susan Faludi ’81, RI ’09. Whether she’s commenting on the presidential campaign in op-ed pieces in the New York Times or writing a book about Americans’ reaction to 9/11, Faludi can be relied upon to provide an insightful reading of current events and cultural trends.

She has written about the women’s movement since her undergraduate days as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, but Faludi came to public attention with her first book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown, 1991). There she systematically documents how the struggles for equal rights were struck down in the late seventies and eighties, just as women were beginning to gain ground. A surprise best seller,Backlash garnered acclaim from many corners and won the National Book Critics’ Circle award. Writing inNewsweek, Laura Shapiro ’68 said the book was “as groundbreaking... as its two important predecessors, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.”

Faludi followed Backlash with two more books—Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (Morrow, 1999) andThe Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post–9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 2007). And she has always written for the print media, publishing in the New Yorker, theLos Angeles Times, the NationMother JonesEsquire,Ms., and the (London) Guardian, among other periodicals. In 1991, the same year Backlash came out, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her Wall Street Journal exposé about the suffering of workers that was caused by the leveraged buyout of Safeway.

During her year at the Radcliffe Institute, where she is the Evelyn Green Davis Fellow, Faludi has been researching her next book, an investigation of why the women’s movement has such trouble sustaining itself from one generation to the next. “I kept coming up against the mother-daughter template as one that seems to be the reigning dynamic of how older and younger women relate within the women’s movement,” she says.

At her Radcliffe fellow’s presentation in February, Faludi told an anecdote about an event that had set her thinking about this dynamic. She was invited to a mother-daughter feminist event that was intended to celebrate the passing of the mantle to a younger generation. Instead, Faludi said, what ensued was “like a clip from one of those toxic mother-daughter movies.” The younger women said they were sick of hearing about the glory days of seventies feminism; then the older women said they were sick of being swept into the dustbin of history; then the younger women said the older women needed to relinquish the stage.

That Wonderful Candy Store, the Schlesinger Library

Drawn to the Radcliffe Institute in part because the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, which she calls “that wonderful candy store,” Faludi has been studying how the first wave of the American women’s movement (approximately 1848 to 1963) used the idea of the mother-daughter bond as a political engine.

Feminist scholarship has found, Faludi says, that the ideology that kept women down during the nineteenth century—the notion of a separate sphere, where the most important thing women could do was to be mothers—was turned around and used as a justification for women’s going out into the world. If women were the keepers of the moral virtue, the logic went, they should be out there defending that virtue. This view was the basis not just for suffrage, Faludi says, but also for temperance, settlement houses, and the establishment of all-female colleges. Women were the social housekeepers.

But after women gained the right to vote, in 1920, things fell apart. “Within a couple of years, you look around and young women are testifying to their disgust with feminism,” Faludi says. At the Schlesinger Library, she studied popular culture of the 1920s, including advertising campaigns, novels, and fashion. “The culture seems to argue that young women can find liberation by shopping, drinking, driving, and hanging out with the boys,” she says. “The stand-alone girl is suddenly the ideal, and Mom be damned.”

Faludi plans to extend her analysis into the second wave of feminism, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, though she’s not yet there in her research. She does say, however, that when feminism resurfaced during that period, it wasn’t Mom who was lauded but sisters. “The mother-daughter drama works out in a very different way then,” she says, “with a sort of erasure of the mother in an effort to base feminism on peer relationships between women.” These relationships, she points out, were often extremely fraught and, while they could lead to sisterly bonds, they could also end in ugly conflict. Clearly, the competition among sisters can be every bit as extreme as the complicated emotions between mothers and daughters.

Considering the views of younger women, Faludi points out that many are reluctant to call themselves feminists. During Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, exit polls and media interviews repeatedly showed that they expressed their misgivings about Clinton by saying, for example, that she reminded them of their nagging mothers.

The upshot of all this acrimony is that the women’s movement doesn’t advance from one generation to the next. As Faludi pointed out in “Second-Place Citizens,” an August 2008 op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The salaries of women in managerial positions are on average lower today than in 1983.” And the top twenty occupations for women were the same in 2007 as they were half a century ago. So many women’s movements, so little progress.

Looking ahead, Faludi says she still has a lot of research to do on her book and is happy to be staying on in Cambridge for at least another year after her Radcliffe fellowship ends, in May. Her partner, Russ Rymer, also a journalist and the author of several books, is currently a lecturer in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and will be a Radcliffe Institute fellow next year.

While she’s talking about the future, what does she think about the future of her profession of journalism? “It’s deeply depressing,” Faludi says, pointing out that some original reporting has been done on the Internet, but not much. “Most of the news on the new media comes from old media,” she says. “I like to think that this is all going to reshape itself into some radically new form that we can’t imagine yet, but that’s a ways down the road, if ever.”

The same could be said for the women’s movement: Maybe someday it will reshape itself into a force that makes progress from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next, but that’s a ways down the road.

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