Let me tell you a story about backlash. In 1978, a woman named Beverly LaHaye was in her living room in San Diego watching journalist Barbara Walters interview feminist Betty Friedan on television. As LaHaye has told the tale innumerable times since that evening, she leapt up in her stockinged feet and yelled, “Betty Friedan doesn’t speak for me, and I bet she doesn’t speak for the majority of women in this country.”
For many women, that would have been an ordinary moment of outrage, a cry of frustration against someone who had seeded revolutionary change for a new generation. But LaHaye was no ordinary woman. She was the wife of Moral Majority co-founder Tim LaHaye, who you might remember better for his Left Behind books than for his central role in pulling American politics to the far right. And that moment, when Beverly yelled at Betty, became the origin story for the founding of the self-described largest U.S. women’s public policy organization with chapters all over the country, the “ladies auxiliary” of the Moral Majority. That organization is Concerned Women for America.
I first came upon LaHaye’s story in the early nineties, when I read Susan Faludi’s still-indispensable 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. But I was to encounter LaHaye’s message that “submission is God’s design for women” some years later, as I traveled the country to report on a new wave of young evangelical women who found conservative faith to be a panacea to the expanding feminism — and secularism — of the Clinton years. Former women’s studies majors, in liberal cities, were shaping their private and public lives according to the gospel that women should serve their husbands like they serve the Lord.
LaHaye did not just help to launch a culture war. Concerned Women for America succeeded in defeating and dismantling progressive women’s policies nationwide. They have been an effective foe of everything from the National Organization for Women to the National Endowment for the Arts, victorious in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, freezing communication about teen sexuality from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, choking reproductive rights and funding (they’re among the parties we can thank for the “partial birth” abortion ban), ensuring President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, fighting gay marriage in states before the Supreme Court declared it legal nationwide ― there’s a long list.
Four decades later, the Moral Majority has dissolved, but Concerned Women for America maintains a declared membership of 500,000. And it was not the only organization to emerge in the backlash to the Second Wave of feminism or the only one to train its sights on dismantling policy, stripping federal funding and signing up activist recruits for a vast and exquisitely organized network. We didn’t get an Equal Rights Amendment, for example, thanks to the successful STOP-ERA campaign of LaHaye’s sister-in-arms Phyllis Schlafly. We see our rights to terminate a pregnancy, or even prevent one, threatened and shrinking each year thanks to the activism they ignited.
That backlash unleashed itself when white women entered the workforce in numbers that have since made them economically essential. It was about how men felt entitled to the economy. It was about who washed their briefs and raised their sons. It delivered to us not just the Christian right, but President Ronald Reagan and the unholy marriage between social and fiscal conservatives that has shaped our unequal nation ever since.
Now, recall what our current revolutionary moment is about ― destroying men’s entitlement to sexual pleasure on their own terms, no matter where they choose to find it. You think masculine pride and male power structures took a hit when women got jobs? Imagine how many men (and how many complicit women) will seek to avenge the loss of their very source of manhood and pleasure. It will happen on hiring committees and in budget meetings, when setting shift schedules and drafting policy, fomenting male rage in locker rooms and suppressing female voices in classrooms. We’d be naïve not to suspect that it’s already quietly occurring.
In other words, if you think that a few thousand words spilled by a small assortment of female writers with access to elite publications or the public quips from a couple of French actresses constitute the #MeToo backlash, then fasten your seat belts. When the real backlash arrives, those women who are now making so many others apoplectic with their op-eds and petitions won’t be the ones hoisting the torches. Their voices are not defining the culture — and they’re not defining policy. We’re going to want to save the word “backlash” for when its true architects come for Title IX.
We should know from backlash by now. We’re enduring a backlash administration: How else do you think Trump won the votes of the Electoral College and lifted his corrupt cronies into power? Our Congress is the spawn of the very backlash that came for the women’s movement of the 1970s, born of the anti-woman fake moralism of the Reagan years.
Every maddening policy, every head-shaking conservative victory, every right we have to march to maintain ― it’s all due to backlash against the progress in the last chapter of our nation’s history. The hatred that shaped our president’s winning platform against immigration and health care is real backlash. The sudden erosion of transgender rights is real backlash. The rally in Charlottesville was real backlash. There’s backlash in every cop’s bullet that murders an innocent black man and in the injustice system that fills our prisons.
Are you suddenly a little less worried if a few women with big megaphones think “Grace” should have called a cab? Perhaps perspective can help us weigh our disagreements ― even if we feel them furiously ― and prevent us from splintering into so many shards of glass.
Faludi wrote this about backlash, all those years ago: “Its lips profess pity for any woman who won’t fit the mold, while it tries to clamp the mold around her ears. It pursues a divide-and-conquer strategy: single versus married women, working women versus homemakers, middle- versus working-class. It manipulates a system of rewards and punishments, elevating women who follow its rules, isolating those who don’t.” Millennials versus Gen Xers, Third Wavers versus Second Wavers ― is this really the conflict we want?
Solidarity is a bitch, as Faludi knew, as women have known since before the suffragettes tied on their sashes. Do we honestly expect half the world to march in lockstep? And, more specifically, do we expect half the world to agree on something as infinitely complicated and nuanced as sexual politics, and the politics of sex? If a brief essay by Caitlin Flanagan, or Daphne Merkin, or Bari Weiss ― or Katie Roiphe’s forthcoming Harper’s piece — is what we allow to factionalize us, if we draw ideological lines over such preening discourse, as though this is the backlash we must speed to battle, we’re sunk.
Let’s let discourse be discourse, rather than create a new system of rules deciding who’s in and who’s out ― especially around the thorny topic of consent ― in public conversations and personal ones. Of course this discourse is emotional and intense. We’re talking about trauma, and intimacy, and pleasure. A robust and nuanced examination is appallingly overdue: We need a radical redefining of sexual mores so that getting it on means getting what we desire, no matter what that desire may be.
But let’s also keep our eyes trained on the many-headed beast of real power we need to battle, girding ourselves with all the culture and policy we can muster, and save our most mighty and vigorous lashing back for the true threat. If we’re consumed by fighting alternative viewpoints, without preparing for the real backlash ahead, God help us.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.