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Theorizing Backlash: Philosophical Reflections on the Resistance to Feminism
Anita M. Superson & Ann E. Cudd, eds.
Lanham & Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
$24.95, 272 pages, ISBN 0-7425-1374-2.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Theorizing Backlash: Philosophical Reflections on the Resistance to Feminism is divided into five parts and twelve chapters. Part I means to conceptualize the so-called backlash against feminism, measuring it against backlashes to other progressive social movements. It begins as it should with a mention of Susan Faludi’s (in)famous book, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (1991). That book is full of flaws and has irritated (indeed, still irritates) a great many feminists and antifeminists alike. One of its principal faults is its gross exaggeration, but it is a fault it shares with hundreds of feminist works. There was a time when exaggeration was somewhat welcome in the field, as it helped the cause of women in a grimly sexist America, but surely one can now write on a less paranoid mode. The principal merit of Faludi’s best-selling book is that it reminds its readers of the fact that the struggle continues. Admittedly, there are some corners of society where some measure of backlash can be observed. Admittedly, some corners of society have simply never accepted to move forward with the (feminist) times. So vigilance is in order.

It would be silly to deny that the situation of American women on the whole has vastly improved in the last four decades, but it would be equally silly to sit back and entertain the delusion that equality (whichever way you define it) has been established. The authors of Theorizing Backlash: Philosophical Reflections on the Resistance to Feminism do not necessarily agree with Faludi’s idea that American men and / or institutions are at war with women, but they see the backlash as palpable enough to wonder / write about its nature, implications and meanings. For some of them, the phrase used in the subtitle, “resistance to feminism” is more appropriate than the term “backlash”. For Ann E. Cudd, backlash “is to be defined in terms of progress or regress, which is defined in terms of oppression” [9]. One can only speak of a backlash when some particular social group is clearly more oppressed now than it was in a recent past (a group that was more oppressed in a not-so-recent past than in that recent past). Cudd concludes with her conviction that “there is a backlash now to feminism in philosophy” [13].

Of course, the term “backlash” is extremely difficult to define, like many terms used by feminist theorists. For instance, some simplistically see “stiletto feminism”, “postfeminism” or “postmodern feminism” as fancy names for “backlash”. Part II is entitled “Backlash against Feminist Theory”. In chapter 2, “The Backlash against Feminist Philosophy”, Keith Burgess-Jackson confesses that he “misunderstood both the origin and the meaning of the word”. He begins with dictionary definitions of “backlash” and then writes:

To lash, literally, is to “strike with a whip, to beat or strike violently”. […] If this is what lashing is, then a backlash (I thought) must consist in lashing back at someone or something. This made sense, since whenever I encountered the term, it was in a context in which one person or group, such as men, was trying to keep some other person or group, such as women, from advancing or drawing near. But the term “backlash”, as the definitions show, has to do (or had to do, since we might say that its meaning has changed) with mechanical devices, not whips. A backlash occurs when sudden pressure is applied to a smooth-running mechanism, such as a series of gears or wheels. The pressure disrupts the mechanism, which responds by lurching, jarring, or striking back. […] On reflection, this is an appropriate metaphor for the kind of backlash that is the focus of this anthology. [19-20]

Indeed. Burgess-Jackson then proceeds to “identify, document, and criticize some of the backlash that has taken place against feminist philosophy—and to explain why it is a backlash”. [21] He examines the work of three philosophers in particular: Harriet E. Baber, Alan G. Soble, and Iddo Landau. He very clearly describes “three ways in which feminist philosophy is victimized by backlash. The three ways are uncharitableness, application of a double standard, and (for lack of a better word) bullyism” [34].

In Chapter 3, Mark Owen Webb takes on “Feminist Epistemology as Whipping-Girl”. He makes the point that many detractors ask what feminist epistemology could possibly be, although no-one seems to question the validity of such categories as feminist ethics, feminist political philosophy, or feminist aesthetics. Then he acknowledges that feminist epistemology has feminist opponents, who “take such a conception to play into the hands of misogynist and androcentric elements by agreeing with them that women think differently from men” [53]. Part of the problem, he explains, is that the notion of “women’s ways of knowing” has been understood “in an essentialist way, even though it need not” [53]. Then he goes on to imply that most feminists are constructionist. Now, I would dearly like to know where he gets his figures; I have encountered (personally or otherwise) scores of very essentialist feminists, be they second or third-wave. I do agree with Webb, however, when he states that “gender-socialization encourages different cognitive styles in the different genders” [54]. As is often vulgarly said, the brain is a muscle, and like every muscle it needs exercise to develop. All those appalling, antifeminist, criminally essentialist, bestsellers which mean to prove that women and men come from different planets, that their left and right hemispheres are different and differently used might have a point, what they fail to take into account is the possibility that women may have been taught to be bad at reading maps. Webb then looks at the work of feminist epistemologists and of their adversaries, mentioning Sandra Harding, Radcliffe Richards, Susan Haack, Harriet Baber, and the very debatable arguments of Christina Hoff-Sommers in her book Who Stole Feminism? (1994). Webb concludes:

I have taken no stand here on whether I think any of the many approaches to feminist epistemology are right […]. I do think many feminist epistemologists are wrong. What has concerned me here is the tone of dismissal that has pervaded much of the criticism of feminist epistemology. Many, perhaps all feminist approaches to epistemology and philosophy of science are wrong; they are not crazy, they are not stupid, and they are not the thin end of a totalitarian wedge. That they are treated as crazy, stupid totalitarians only serves to underline the fact that feminism in general is still not safe in the world. The backlash continues, and when the academy needs a whipping-girl, feminism is pressed into the job. [62]

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Backlash against Feminist Legal Theory”. Yes, there is such a thing as feminist legal theory. In fact, it developed quite dramatically in the 80s and 90s, and is now established in academe, as is shown by the amount of casebooks in the field. But, as Martha Chamallas explains, “critics of legal feminism have also proliferated.” [67] She shows the way evolutionary biology theories have been adopted by law specialists, mentioning Richard Epstein and Richard Posner (whose writings are mentioned elsewhere on this website). You may wonder for a second what the connection is, but imagine a judge having to deal with a rape or date rape trial: if he is convinced that thousands of years of evolution have made women “naturally” seek a reliable progenitor and breadwinner, whereas men are “naturally” always on the lookout for new females to impregnate so as to ensure the propagation of the species, won’t he be more inclined to leniency? This is just a simple example, but there are many others. Essentialism should be fought by every self-respecting feminist, if you ask me, whether it is based on dubious hunting and gathering cavemen theories, specious genetics, or religion. Chamallas then speaks of victim feminism and its detractors. Fortunately, many feminists strongly disapprove of the ravings of women like Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin, those new puritans who “focus on issues of coercive sexuality, particularly rape, sexual harassment, and pornography” [75], who form a formidable PC police and are vicious supporters of censorship. Beside their blaring essentialism, such women unashamedly spread Victorian notions of femininity not unlike the notions defended by some antifeminist male law professors. This leads Chamallas to examine the “new right-wing attack”, led by women and men alike, notably in connection with Affirmative Action. She concludes:

Each year, students shy away from courses with “feminism” in their titles because they sense that their careers might suffer […], in case a prospective employer might get the wrong impression […]. Until the stigma of feminism has been erased, it seems premature to speak of the “feminist establishment” or to locate feminist legal theory within the mainstream of legal thought. [82]

Part III, IV, and V are slightly less theoretical than the first two parts. Part III is called “Backlash from the Ivory Tower: Personal and Political” (surely everyone remembers the inspired feminist slogan of yesteryear—still so true, notably when it comes to abortion in the US— “the personal is political”). In three incisive essays, Anita M. Superson, Cynthia Willett and Julie E. Maybee look at phenomena such as “Male Socialization and the Backlash against Feminism in Tenure Decisions” or “Parenting and Other Human Casualties in the Pursuit of Academic Excellence”. I have a colleague whose supervisor declared when she started her PhD: “Of course, having babies is out of the question before you conclude your thesis.” She nodded her assent, and got pregnant four years later, the minute she became a Doctor. I suspect she and her husband rushed to the nearest hotel room right after the cocktail party. Need I say more? Part IV, “Student Backlash against Feminism”, observes sexism in the classroom and marginalized voices; and part V heads the last two chapters of the book, “When Sexual Harassment is Protected Speech: Facing the Forces of Backlash in Academe”, by Ann E. Cudd again, and “Women in Philosophy: A Forty-Year Perspective on Academic Backlash”, by Linda A. Bell who writes:

[…] I need to conclude by giving voice to the sadness I felt as I was thinking about and writing this analysis. I have fought many battles in academe, and I have lived long enough to see some significant changes, including, at my institution, the hiring of women and minority men, the formation of African American Studies and Women’s Studies departments, more genuine faculty governance […]. My sadness comes from my recognition that my own discipline seems one of the most recalcitrant to change. [256]

Bell is not the only contributor who draws parallels between racism and sexism, obviously. To conclude, this book is indispensable if you are feminist, female, and teach (especially philosophy) at some university. But any of the three is enough to make you take pleasure in its sharp and edifying analyses, even if you disagree with some of the opinions that are expressed therein. There was a time back in the 80s when it looked as if all American campuses (at least on the East Coast and the West Coast) were being taken over by raving feminists, who wanted to put a definitive end to the study of all “dead white European males”; but—pace Bloom and Paglia—it seems “dead white European males” will continue enjoying their privileges for a long time, along with live white American males. I for one would be sad to see the back of Michelangelo, Heidegger or Shakespeare, but I am sure US (and European) academe could do with fewer sexist and / or racist and / or homophobic mandarin males.

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