Women Struggle to Make Gains

Two approaches to the history of the feminist movement

THE history of the women's rights movement in the United States has been marked throughout by a debate centered on the question of equality - what it means in practical terms and how it should be achieved. One of the principal themes in Flora Davis's history of the women's movement, Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America Since 1960 (Simon & Schuster, 604 pp., $27.50), is how this debate has played out in recent years.

Encouraged by civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, the leaders of the women's movement decided to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This commitment to secure constitutional equality for women, Davis explains, signaled a turning away from the position that women should be "protected" by laws regulating and often restricting opportunities. Rather than emphasizing the differences - biological and otherwise - between men and women, supporters of the ERA argued that women should be judged as individuals, on the basis of their personal abilities and achievements.

While the campaign for passage of the ERA served as a common goal for most women's rights groups through the 1970s, many feminists began to focus on specific issues that had direct bearing on their own lives - women's health, reproductive rights, child care, welfare, education, employment, and politics. They established strong grass-roots organizations that served as both support systems for the members and effective lobbies for reform.

Davis applauds the proliferation of special interest groups. She argues that the vitality of the women's movement depends on this "messy, volatile conglomeration of groups and individuals, all inspired by similar ideas and bent on making changes."

While finding evidence of progress, Davis also acknowledges persistent problems. She points, for example, to the strategies adopted by both Republicans and Democrats to check the gains made by women in national politics, and she discusses the federal appeals court decision in 1986 upholding the discriminatory hiring and promotion policies of Sears, Roebuck & Co. One witness testified that "women were raised to be less competitive than men, and that security and social aspects of work were more important to them than making the maximum pay."

Examining both "famous feminists" and "many activists who played vital roles but weren't well known outside the movement," Davis gives a comprehensive and, therefore, more accurate view of how this "second wave" of feminism has found expression.

Susan Faludi deals with some of the same issues as does Davis, but takes a very different approach in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown, 552 pp., $24). Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, focuses on reactions to the feminist movement and analyzes both the motives and means used to dissuade women from asserting their rights in the home and marketplace.

Convinced that the media and the fashion and beauty industries are largely to blame for casting attitudes in a more conservative mold, Faludi devotes the first half of her book to an examination of how they attempt to manipulate women.

Using as examples the film "Fatal Attraction," the television series "Charlie's Angels," the recent push to dress women in little-girl fashions, and the promotion of cosmetic surgery, Faludi provides some fascinating insights and useful lessons for the hitherto unthinking consumer. But not all women have succumbed to these efforts to reshape (sometimes literally) the American female, she adds.

Her strongest attacks are leveled against the press. The clearest example of irresponsible coverage is the publicity given to a study by Harvard and Yale University sociologists dealing with women's marriage patterns. Released before the research was completed, the study predicted that "college-educated women who put schooling and careers before their wedding date were going to have a harder time getting married."

Even though a demographer at the US Census Bureau successfully challenged the methodology and the conclusions of the Ivy League study, major newspapers and magazines clung to the more sensational findings.

"When it came time to cover the Census Bureau study," Faludi says, "the Times didn't even waste a writer's time; it just used a brief wire story and buried it." Yet almost a year later, "The New York Times ran a front-page story on how women were suffering from this putative man shortage, citing the Harvard-Yale study as proof."

Faludi dissects and discredits a number of supposedly authoritative studies and discusses their impact on women. This strategy is enormously successful in raising questions about how much of what is in print should be believed, but it also forces one to consider the validity of reports that Faludi herself cites. She incorporates material that supports her thesis, but rarely gives a clear sense of how representative this evidence is.

Both in tone and in content, "Backlash" belies a certain disdain for those who would choose family rather than career, marriage rather than sexual freedom. This inflexible position toward the women's movement and "legitimate" feminist goals seems somewhat shortsighted and unnecessarily limiting. It stands in sharp contrast to the argument made by Davis.

Nevertheless, "Backlash" is intellectually stimulating - a powerful treatise on the conscious and unconscious campaign to undermine the gains of the women's rights movement.

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