Feminist Backlash, Then and Now

In August 1982, the No Comment section of Ms. magazine decried a decade of premature media eulogies for feminism and the women’s liberation movement.

But the women’s movement wasn’t dead, it was under attack.

In the 1980’s, feminist gains of the previous decade were turned upside down, shaken by the ankles and mutilated by conservatives in an attempt to get women out of their power suits and back into frilly aprons.

By 1992, Susan Faludi chronicled the systematic efforts by mainstream media and conservative politicians to undermine women’s contributions to public life and social discourse in her iconic tome Backlash: Women have stopped having babies! Birth control is the end of America! Put the brakes on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy! Quick!

And oh, the disastrous “man crisis!” What a threat was posed to proper social function when women entered the public realm!

The headlines wore on and on, wishing for–announcing, even–an end to that pesky lady demand for equality.

Almost laughable, right?

But wait, just three years ago Newsweek columnist Kathleen Parker engendered popular praise when she railed against feminists for contributing to the death of masculinity in her book Save the Males.

And what about the national attack on reproductive rights that’s unfolded these last few months?

Looks like feminist backlash is alive and well.

On its tenth birthday in 1982, Ms. rebuffed the backlash: “Is Gloria Steinem dead?” “Is feminism finished?” NO COMMENT, we replied, ironically. For almost 40 years we’ve retained that disposition.

On the first birthday of the Ms. Blog, we’re still laughing in the face of backlash. Today is Feminist Coming Out Day–a day to wave your feminist flag high, say no to anti-woman policy and hold strong to feminist gains of the last four decades.

Inspired by the brave and proud queer community’s National Coming Out Day, Feminist Coming Out Day was launched last year at Harvard where, outraged by inaccurate portrayals of the feminist movement, students donned “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and buttons and visibly reclaimed the name. This year, we’re asking everyone to be an “out” feminist: Laugh in the face of backlash and show your feminist colors. Because we’ve got to. Feminism, still, is under attack.

To celebrate today, tell us why you’re a feminist in the comments. Or participate in our Women’s History Month contest. Wear a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. Read Ms. and the Ms. Blog. It’s time to reclaim the name!


  1. emjaybee says:

    I am a feminist because I respect myself and all women as full human beings. Even if all injustice was wiped out tomorrow, I would still be a feminist.

  2. I am a feminist because I believe all human beings should have equal rights, equal pay, and be equal under the law. Pretty simple, really.

  3. Darlene says:

    I can't help but be a feminist. I want human rights for every single person, and I still see repression everywhere. When our voices are equally valued, when we are equally paid , when ALL our work is recognized and supported, when we have equal opportunities, when our bodies aren't constantly under attack, when we feel safe anywhere, anytime, then, maybe, we can let down our guard a bit. Until then, I continue to resist oppression for myself, for my daughter, for women everywhere. Go Ms! Happy Anniversary.

  4. katiebelle says:

    Why wouldn't I be a feminist? I'm a woman and I have friends and family who are women. I want those women to have equal rights in every aspect of their life. I'm still genuinely surprised when people (women and men) tell me they aren't feminists. I have this strange, radical idea that my reproductive organs do not have complete control over what I do or who I am. I'm a feminist because I want my two younger sisters to be given every opportunity males are given. I'm a feminist because my mom and dad raised me to be one. I'm a feminist because I choose to be one.

  5. harvester of sorrow says:

    MEN: We don’t know what we did.

  6. Queer Woman With Questions says:

    It’s ironic that today I stumbled across this article because I just received Susan Faludi’s groundbreaking book in the mail this week and began reading it with my morning coffee today. Many of the descriptions of the 1980s anti-feminist backlash had me in tears, as they mirrored blow-for-blow what we woman have to deal with today. While I was a kid in the 80s, and the only thing I knew about feminism was Madonna’s then-raunchy yet independent lyrics and music videos (which, unsurprisingly, bear very little difference to Katy Perry’s self-objectification disguised as “I choose my choice” empowerment), today, I am very aware of just how much women, as a class, are hated and oppressed. It fills me with seething rage.

    Just as Faludi warned, every time America falls into a recession, a backlash follows, and the early 21st-century backlash hobbling Gen-X women like me (and my Millennial younger sisters) is no different than the one aimed at taking down my Baby Boomer mom and aunts when they finished law, business, or medical school and launched their careers in the late 70s and early 80s. So-called “liberal” magazines like the Atlantic fret over the plight of the unmarried 30-something woman, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “woeful” tale of her difficulties working a top-tier political job inside the D.C. Beltway that required 90+ hours a week from her and trying to make time for her rebellious adolescent son – and more importantly, her choice to return home to “cocoon” – has been held up as a triumph by men and women alike who sneer at the concept of feminism, which I define as “The radical notion that women are people too.” Mirroring the Guess Jeans ad campaigns from the 80s, we open our magazines today and see 17-year-old Dakota Fanning dressed as a silent Lolita and holding a bottle of perfume as if it were an erect penis, while a recent issue of Vogue features a cover photo of a woman being choked by a man standing behind her.

    A rash of books, articles, and TV shows bemoan the “Man Crisis,” lamenting the fact that 40% of wives are breadwinners and one in five refuse motherhood, which emasculates men for reasons they cannot rationally or cogently explain. The media flogs and frets about the downfall of the upper-middle-class white man in the “He-Cession,” while the truth proves a “He-Covery,” with 90 percent of new hires being male, over 80 percent of jobs with relocation packages going to men, and women’s unemployment rate surpassing men’s as men’s has slowed. The top-rated shows on TV include Honey-Boo Boo, which Americans tune into to laugh at a lower-class white female toddler who competes in beauty pageants, and Girls, a solipsistic affair by Lena Dunham, which depicts older Millennial women praying they’ll get AIDS so they don’t have to take control of their own lives. Worst of all, the commencement of the 2011 Congresses at the federal and state levels alike have ushered in the largest number of anti-women bills over the shortest period of time in American history, many of which have passed, and which range from de-funding well-woman care to chipping away at Roe, to jailing women for the natural body function known as miscarriage.

    As a 30-something woman who’s consistently worked twice as hard in my male-dominated STEM profession to be half as good, while earning 20-30% less, never once receiving recognition for my work, and enduring relentless bullying from Boomer men who feel threatened by a young female director, I have hit my head on the career glass ceiling so many times it hurts. In fact, I’ve been forced to uproot my husband and my entire life from the gender-segregated Midwest to the somewhat more-egalitarian East Coast so that I’m not damned by the “woman tax,” or, the notion that all women are just estrogen-soaked wombs incapable of sustaining successful management careers because they’re all just biding time until they can get knocked up and become stay at-homes. I am viciously angry about the backlash. And what hurts most of all is that every time I talk about it, even if to ponder what it’d be like to live in a world where I could earn the same salary as the men whose accomplishments, skills, and experience are half of mine, I’m verbally abused, called names like “elitist socialist,” “fem-Nazi,” and told I have too many rights already and the whole human race would be better off if I were knocked around a little more and stripped of some of them.

    Hope? What hope? I see none. And the generation after me, who has no memory of the Boomer women’s struggle for equal rights, who seem to feel collectively that feminism is a four-letter word, and who take pole-dancing classes and mouth along to rap music that calls them “b*tches” and “wh*res” seems just fine with the status quo. Many of them profess to be happy with the idea of housewifery and stay at-home motherhood, and the ones who do work confess that they hate working with women and have had nothing but negative experiences with female supervisors. The modern feminist movement has done its share to derail our slow crawl to equality too, casting aside life-defining issues like equal pay, access to work, and reproductive rights in order to focus nearly single-mindedly on rape and the ever-metamorphosing definition of “consent,” which, as of 2012, is considered to be absent among any women who had sex while drunk and regretted it within one year of the event.

    I give up. I’m not fighting anymore. I am tired of living in a world where even my own gender sees only two roles for me: that of second-class citizen, or that of victim. What’s the use in fighting for equal rights? Even if the economy does recover, we’ll surely see a couple more recessions in our lifetimes, and the subsequent backlashes will undo our meager progress like it always has, anyway.

  7. MJMastermind says:

    I AM A FEMINIST BECAUSE I am a believer of equal rights. I has been discriminated against all my life from my mother my father my brother my aunts my uncles my grandpa my grandma my boyfriends my coworkers my bosses my friends (female and male) and of course the occasional perfect stranger. They often do not realize their Act of hate in words or actions, some form of accepted or unspoken discrimination, some bigoted contrived survivalist concept of competition. THERE IS NO NEED FOR it

  8. I am a womanist (see Alice Walker) because I believe that a woman has a right to choice. There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife, especially if you have freely chosen it. I am a womanist because we make beautiful things as well be it gardens, quilts, paintings, or novels. I am a womanist because I live in the South, where the people can be beautiful when not caught in the ideal of the “perfect woman.”

    I read and love to learn, and I want the freedom to do that openly and without shame. We should not give up. I will not.

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