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The Myths of the Backlash

The Myths of the Backlash - 5 SAN FALiiipi findings 20th...

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Unformatted text preview: 5 SAN FALiiipi findings. 20th century — what good fortune. That's what we keep hearing anyway. The barricades have fallen, politicians assure us. Women have ”made it,” Madison Avenue cheers. Women’s fight for equality has ”largely been won,” Time magazine announces. . . . Behind this celebration of the American woman’s victory, behind the news, cheerquy and endlessly repeated, that the struggle for women’s rights is won, another message flashes. You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable. . . . The prevailing wisdom of the past decade has supported one, and only one, answer to this riddle: it must be all that equality that’s causing all that pain. Women are unhappy precisely because they are free. Women are enslaved by their own libera- tion. They have grabbed at the gold ring of indepen- dence, only to miss the ring that really matters. . . . But what has made women unhappy in the last decade is not their ”equality” — which they don’t yet have — but the rising pressure to halt, and even reverse, women’s quest for that equality. . . . Some social observers may well ask whether the current pressures on women actually constitute a To be a woman in America at the close of the From Backlash by Susan Faludi, copyright © 1991 by Susan Faludi. Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. The Myths of the Backlash The author describes how research was misused by the media to disseminate false information about women, providing a useful case study about the need to be skeptical of reported research results and a guide to learning how to ask the right questions about the backlash — or just a continuation of American soci- ety’s long-standing resistance to women’s rights. Certainly hostility to female independence has al- ways been with us. But if fear and loathing of fem- inism is a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture, it is not always in an acute stage; its symp- toms subside and resurface periodically. And it is these episodes of resurgence. . . that can accu- rately be termed ”backlashes” to women’s advance- ment. . . . The backlash line claims the women’s movement cares nothing for children's rights — while its own representatives in the capital and state legislatures have blocked one bill after another to improve child care, slashed billions of dollars in federal aid for chil- dren, and relaxed state licensing standards for day care centers. The backlash line accuses the women’s movement of creating a generation of unhappy sin- gle and childless women — but its purveyors in the media are the ones guilty of making single and childless women feel like circus freaks. How is it possible that so much distorted. . . information can become so universally accepted“). . . (The) way the media handled two particular statistical studies may help in part to answer that question. In 1987, the media had the opportunity to cri- tique the work of two social scientists. One of them had exposed hostility to women’s independence; the other had endorsed it. . . . Shere Hite had just published the last installment of her national sur- vey on sexuality and relationships, Women and Love: A Cultura pendium port's m2 and despz the men i fifths of t and respe had achie quest for triggered This was the press busy atta- When tistical me or hypoc cause she women’s But Hite : women’s clubs, am that she 1 Yet, as w logical an critically nonrandc the book resentatix many wc their inti The book than nun If anyt the worn their wor Hite's nux to digest 1 ing perso just coulc to say; thn suggest a] the illusti included lapsed In: bathwate in a frigh‘ At the suggestin sponsible K‘.‘ 16 :rican soci- en’s rights. nce has al- ing of fem- :ion in our 2; its symp- I. And it is can accu- ’s advance- movement 1ile its own legislatures prove child aid for chil- .rds for day 1e womens ihappy sin- :yors in the single and . How is it nformation . . . (The) r statistical [I question. inity to cri- me of them ependence: ite had just itional sur- en and Love.- fieéfi'nbm .4 H . W" ' .1-1‘5-1.-':u.m~:,~.s -! i .' ,_ SUSAN FALUDI A Cultural Revolution in Progress, a 922-page com- pendium of the views of 4,500 women.l The re- port’s main finding: Most women are distressed and despairing over the continued resistance from the men in their lives to treat them as equals. Four- fifths of them said they still had to fight for rights and respect at home, and only 20 percent felt they had achieved equal status in their men’s eyes. Their quest for more independence, they reported, had triggered mounting rancor from their mates. . . . This was not, however, the aspect of the book that the press chose to highlight. The media were too busy attacking Hite personally. . . . When the media did actually criticize Hite’s sta- tistical methods, their accusations were often wrong or hypocritical. Hite’s findings were ”biased” be- cause she distributed her questionnaires through women’s rights groups, some articles complained. But Hite sent her surveys through a wide range of women’s groups, including church societies, social clubs, and senior citizens’ centers. The press charged that she used a small and unrepresentative sample. Yet, as we shall see, the results of many psycho- logical and social science studies that journalists un- critically report are based on much smaller and nonrandom samples. And Hite specifically states in the book that the numbers are not meant to be rep- resentative; her goal, she writes, is simply to give as many women as possible a public forum to voice their intimate, and generally silenced, thoughts. The book is actually more a collection of quotations than numbers. . . . If anything, the media seemed to be bearing out the women’s complaint by turning a deaf ear to their words. Maybe it was easier to flip through Hite’s numerical tables at the back of the book than to digest the hundreds of pages of rich and disturb- ing personal stories. Or perhaps some journalists just couldn’t stand to hear what these women had to say; the overheated denunciations of Hite’s book suggest an emotion closer to fear than fury — as do the illustrations accompanying Time’s story, which included a woman standing on the chest of a col- lapsed man, a woman dropping a shark in a man’s bathwater, and a woman wagging a viperish tongue in a frightened male face. At the same time the press was pillorying Hite for suggesting that male resistance might be partly re- sponsible for women’s grief, it was applauding an- The Myths of the Backlash other social scientist whose theory — that women’s equality was to blame for contemporary women’s anguish — was more consonant with backlash think- ing. Psychologist Dr. Srully Blotnick, a Forbes maga- zine columnist and much quoted media ”expert” on women’s career travails, had directed what he called ”the largest long-term study of working women ever done in the United States.” His conclusion: success at work ”poisons” both the professional and personal lives of women.” In his 1985 book, Other- wise Engaged: The Private Lives of Successful Women, Blotnick asserted that his twenty-five year study of 3,466 women proved that achieving career women are likely to end up without love, and their spin- sterly misery would eventually undermine their careers as well. ”In fact,” he wrote, ”we found that the anxiety, which steadily grows, is the single greatest underlying cause of firing for women in the age range of thirty-five to fifty-five.” He took some swipes at the women’s movement, too, which he called a ”smoke screen behind which most of those who were afraid of being labeled egomaniacally grasping and ambitious bid.”2 The media received his findings warmly — he was a fixture everywhere . . . national magazines like Forbes and Savvy paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce still more studies about these anxiety-ridden careerists. None doubted his methodology — even though there were some fairly obvious grounds for skepticism. For starters, Blotnick claimed to have begun his data collection in 1958, a year in which he would have been only seventeen years old. On a shoe- string budget; he had somehow personally collected a voluminous data base (”three tons of files, plus twenty-six gigabytes on disk memory,” he boasted in Otherwise Engaged) — more data than the largest federal longitudinal studies with multimillion-dollar funding. And the ”Dr.” in his title was similarly bogus; it turned out to be the product of a mail- order degree from an unaccredited correspondence school. When tipped off, the editors at Forbes dis- creetly dropped the “Dr.” from Blotnick’s by-line — but not his column. In the mid-80’s, Dan Collins, a reporter at US. News 01 World Report, was assigned- a story on that currently all-popular media subject: the misery of the unwed. His editor suggested he call the ever quotable Blotnick, who had just appeared in a similar story on the woes of singles in the Washing- ton Post. After his interview, Collins recalls, he began to wonder why Blotnick had seemed so nervous when he asked for his academic credentials. The re- porter looked further into Blotnick’s background and found what he thought was a better story: the career of this national authority was built on sand. Not only was Blotnick not a licensed psychologist, almost nothing on his resume checked out; even the professor that he cited as his current mentor had been dead for fifteen years. But Collins’s editors at U.S. News had no interest in that story. . . and the article was never pub» lished. Finally, a year later, after Collins had moved to the New York Daily News in 1987, he persuaded his new employer to print the piece.3 Collins's ac- count prompted the state to launch a criminal fraud investigation against Blotnick, and Forbes dis- continued Blotnick’s column the very next day. But news of Blotnick’s improprieties and implausi- bilities made few waves in the press; it inspired only a brief new item in Time, nothing in Newsweek. And Blotnick’s publisher, Viking Penguin, went ahead with plans to print a paperback edition of his latest book anyway. . . . Viking’s executive editor explained at the time, ”Blotnick has some very good insights into the behavior of people in busi- ness that I continue to believe have an empirical basis.” The press’s treatment of Hite’s and Blotnick’s findings suggest that the statistics the popular cul- ture chooses to promote most heavily are the very statistics we should view with the most caution. They may well be in wide circulation not because they are true but because they support widely held media preconceptions. . . . Valentine’s Day 1986 was coming up, and at the Stamford Advocate, it was reporter Lisa Marie Pe- tersen’s turn to produce that year’s story on Cupid’s slings and arrows. Her ”angle,” as she recalls later, would be ”Romance: Is It In or Out?" She went down to the Stamford Town Center mall and inter- viewed a few men shopping for flowers and choco- lates. Then she put in a call to the Yale sociology department, ”just to get some kind of foundation,” she says. ”You know, something to put in the third paragraph.”5 She got Neil Bennett on the phone — a thirty-one- year~old unmarried sociologist who had recently completed, with two colleagues, an unpublished S E (TI 0 N 9 Perspectives on Sex Role Stereotypes and Sexism study on women’s marriage patterns. Bennett war‘ned her the study wasn’t really finished, but when she pressed him, he told her what he had found: college-educated women who put schooling and careers before their wedding date were going to have a harder time getting married. ”The marriage market unfortunately may'be falling out from under them,” he told her. Bennett brought out the numbers: never mar- ried college-educated women at thirty had a 20 per- cent chance of being wed; by thirty-five their odds were down to 6 percent; by forty, to 1.3 percent. And black women had even lower odds. ”My jaw just dropped,” recalls Petersen, who was twenty~ seven and single at the time. Petersen never thought to question the figures. ”We usually just take anything from good schools. If it’s a study from Yale, we just put it in the paper.”6 The Advocate ran the news on the front page.7 The Associated Press immediately picked up the story and carried it across the nation and eventually around the world. In no time, Bennett was fielding calls from Australia. In the United States, the marriage news was ab- sorbed by every outlet of mass culture. The statistics received front-page treatment in virtually every major newspaper and top billing on network news programs and talk shows. . . . Even a transit adver- tising service . . . plastered the study’s findings on display racks in city buses around the nation, so single straphangers on their way to work could gaze upon a poster of a bereft lass in a bridal veil, posed next to a scorecard listing her miserable nup» tial odds. . Bennett and his colleagues, Harvard economist David Bloom and Yale graduate student Patricia Craig, predicted a ”marriage crunch” for baby-boom college-educated women for primarily one reason: women marry men an average of between two and three years older. So, they reasoned, women born in the first half of the baby boom between 1946 and 1957, when the birthrate was increasing each year, would have to scrounge for men in the less popu- lated older age brackets. And those education- minded women who decided to get their diplomas before their marriage license would wind up worst off, the researchers postulated — on the theory that the early bird gets the worm. At the very time the study was released, how- ever, the assumption that women marry older men was rapi. now sho average ( ble to re these che study w bother tr study on months ( sion. Th: searcher: that the minimal. support t playing a behavior In Ma released vealed th pute wm untried r professor originally lyze man‘ ready c0] Bloom, ‘ Coale, th predict I later, was applicabl marital h To me Craig t0( Current data C0111 househo research: smaller 5 until the small un As m through pher in t' ily statist seeking ( at the res with a dc man was demogra two, to a Bennett shed, but It he had schooling e going to marriage om under :ver mar- l a 20 per- ;heir odds 5 percent. “My jaw s twenty- en never :ually jUSt tudy from )nt page.7 :d up the :ventually as fielding IS was ab- e statistics ally every vork news isit adver- ndings on nation, so ork could iridal veil, table nup- economist 1t Patricia aby-boom ne reason: 11 two and -men born 1 1946 and each year, less popu- education- r diplomas 1 up worst heory that .sed, how- older men through the media, Jeanne Moorman, pher in the U.S. Census Bureau’s marriage and fam- ily statistics branch, kept getting calls from reporters seeking comment. She decided to take a closer look at the researchers’ paper. A college-educated woman with a doctoral degree in marital demography, Moor- man was herself an example of how individuals defy demographic pigeonholes: she had married at thirty- two, to a man nearly four years younger. S U SAN FA L U DI The Myths of the Backlash was rapidly becoming outmoded; federal statistics now showed first-time brides marrying grooms an average of only 1.8 years older. But it was impossi- ble to revise the Harvard-Yale figures in light of these changes, or even to examine them — since the study wasn’t published. This evidently did not bother the press, which chose to ignore a published study on the same subject — released only a few months earlier — that came to the opposite conclu- sion. That study, an October 1985 report by re- searchers at the University of Illinois, concluded that the marriage crunch in the United States was minimal. Their data, the researchers wrote, ”did not In March, 1986, Bennett and his co-researchers released an informal ”discussion paper” that re- vealed they had used a ”parametric model” to com- pute women’s marital odds — an unorthodox and untried method for predicting behavior. Princeton professors Ansley Coale and Donald McNeil had originally constructed the parametric model to ana- lyze marital patterns of elderly women who had al- ready completed their marriage cycle. Bennett and Bloom, who had been graduate students under Coale, thought they could use the same method to predict marriage patterns. Coale, asked about it later, was doubtful. ”In principle, the model may be applicable to women who haven’t completed their marital history,” he says, ‘-’but it is risky to apply it. ”9 To make matters worse, Bennett, Bloom, and Craig took their sample of women from the 1982 Current Population Survey, an off year in census data collection that taps a much smaller number of households than the decennial census study. The researchers broke that sample down into ever smaller subgroups — by age, race, and education — until they were making generalizations based on small unrepresentative samples of women. As news of the ”man shortage” study raced a demogra- ® Moorman sat down at her computer and con- ducted her own marriage study, using conventional standard-life tables instead of the parametric model, and drawing on the 1980 Population Census, which includes 13.4 million households, instead of the 1982 survey that Bennett used, which includes only 60,000 households. The results: At thirty, never- married college women have a 58 to 66 percent chance at marriage — three times the Harvard-Yale study’s predictions. At thirty-five, the odds were 32 to 41 percent, seven times higher than the Harvard- Yale figure. At forty, the odds were 17 to 23 percent, twenty-three times higher. And she found that a college-educated single woman at thirty would be more likely to marry than her counterpart with a high-school diploma. In June 1986, Moorman wrote to Bennett with her findings. She pointed out that more recent data ran counter to his predictions about college- educated women. While the marriage rate has been declining in the general populations, the rate has actually risen for women with four or more years of college who marry between ages twenty-five and forty-five. ”This seems to indicate delaying rather than forgoing marriage,” she noted. Moorman’s letter was polite, almost deferential. . . . 'IWo months passed. Then, in August, writer Ben Wattenberg mentioned Moonnan’s' study in his syndicated newspaper column and noted that it would be presented at the Population Association of America Conference, an important professional gathering for demographers.lo . . . Suddenly, a let- ter arrived in Moorman’s mailbox. “I understand from Ben Wattenberg that you will be presenting these results at the PAA in the spring,” Bennett wrote; would she send him a copy ”as soon as it’s available?” When she didn’t send it off at once, he called and, Moorman recalls, ”He was very de- manding. It was, ’You have to do this, you have to do that.”’“ This was to become a pattern in her dealings with Bennett. . . . Moorman . . . put the finishing touches on her marriage report with the more optimistic findings and released it to the press.12 The media relegated it to the inside pages when they reported it at all. At the same time, in an op-ed piece printed in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Advertising Age, Bennett and Bloom roundly attacked Moor- man for issuing her study, which only ”further muddled the discussion,” they complained. . .. Bennett and Bloom—’s essay . criticized Moorman for usingthe .standardTIife tables,- which they la: beled a ”questionable:technique.””, So [Moorman decided rtorepeat her study using- the Harvard-Yale men's own parametric model. She took the data down the hall-to-Robert Fay, a statistician whose specialty is mathematical models. Fay looked over Bennett and'Bloom’s computations and immedi- ately spotted a major-error. They hadforgotten to factor in the different patterns in college- and high schooljeducated women’s marital histories. (High ...
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