WASHINGTON — Washington -- It all started with the Study: the now infamous Harvard-Yale "man shortage" study of 1986 that told college-educated single women over 30 they'd better start getting used to Soup for One.
Reporter Susan Faludi was on her way to that fateful age and on her way to a wedding -- not hers -- when she opened a copy of Newsweek to face the grim news. She, like her similarly situated friends, were not amused to read that once they hit 30, they'd be more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find wedded bliss -- or wedded anything.
"What struck me was that, here I had not really given great thought to the tragedy of my single state and all of a sudden, after reading the story, I felt, like so many women, 'Maybe I made a mistake,' " says Ms. Faludi, now 32, the author of the timely and controversial "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (Crown Publishers Inc.).
"There's the guilt that a story like that induces that you've committed this crime of going to college and now you're going to pay!"
As a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News at the time, she investigated the study, found it riddled with problems and errors and wrote a magazine article refuting the story that had already spread throughout popular culture like a mad virus, horrifying scores of single women.
But few people wanted to hear the other side of the story, she says, even though the U.S. Census Bureau, too, was putting out numbers that were far less discouraging. Instead, TV, Hollywood, the media, dating services chose to perpetuate the juicier "man shortage" myth, she says. "It was like this stain on the rug. You couldn't get it out once it was in there," says Ms. Faludi. "The more you scrub away at it, the more it seems to spread."
She decided to write a book about single women and the pressures on them to marry -- evidence, she believed, of a subtle, but insidious societal backlash against women's quest for independence. But single women, she discovered, were not the only targets of what she perceived as antifeminist messages of the '80s.
And Ms. Faludi's newly published book takes to task forces throughout society -- such as the "New Right" in politics, a "misogynistic" White House, the media, Hollywood, Madison avenue, the fashion industry -- that, as she writes, have been telling women, single and married alike: "You may be free and equal now . . . but you have never been more miserable."
Ms. Faludi, now a San Francisco-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, believes this backlash stems from economic anxieties coupled with male anger over women's progress. Whenever women take even small steps forward, she says, a "counterassault" -- one that's not necessarily deliberate or plotted -- is mounted to dangle self-doubt, guilt and worry in front of them.
If this "backlash" was concocted and orchestrated by "three male chauvinists in a war room," she jokes, "it would be much easier to eradicate. But so much of it is ill-thought out or subconscious or unspoken or ill-understood. And it's coming from so many different places."
Just look at popular culture, she says, where messages that feminism is passe, evil and responsible for everything from the single woman's depression to the career woman's burnout to the divorced woman's poverty abound:
* They're in movies like "Fatal Attraction," where a desperate, psychotic single career woman is pitted against a nice, happy housewife, and in TV shows like "thirtysomething," where the single women are pitiful and the wife and mother, saintly.
* In the fashion industry, which exclaimed in the mid-'80s that women were returning to frilly lingerie in droves, when, in fact, the most popular brand of women's underwear by 1988 was "Jockey for Her."
* In the media, where such a trend story as Fortune's 1986 "Why Women are Bailing Out" -- about businesswomen fleeing corporate life and returning to the home -- was picked up and recycled by other news organizations even though it was based on thin evidence.
Such stories, trends and images often provoked a shift, rather than reflecting the reality of women's lives, she says, "like a self-fulfilling prophecy."
And while there may be truth to some of the '80s "myths," such as the working woman's overload and depression, greater independence is not the culprit, maintains the author.
"Yes, women are burned out -- it's just not for the reasons we had heard. It's not because they have too much equality. It's because they have too little. They're burned out because they work for men, many of whom still are very hostile and sexist, in a workplace where they're not paid the same as men and don't have the same opportunities for advancement. And many of those women come home to do 75 percent of the housework. It's not any wonder that they're ready to fall down by the end of the day."
Making its debut, fortuitously for Ms. Faludi, against a backdrop of furious discussion over the issue of sexual harassment, "Backlash" has already generated a raft of attention and controversy. While feminist leaders have hailed the book as "groundbreaking" and "a 'Feminine Mystique' for the '90s," conservative women's leaders are vehemently denouncing and dismissing the work.
"Her book really is a terribly inaccurate diatribe trying to jump-start the dying feminist movement," says Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, a large women's organization that lobbies for "family values" in law and public policy. "She's trying to flame a fire on an issue that's really a dying issue. She has really pulled back the curtain to show she doesn't know anything about families, or what makes families tick, or what makes families successful."
Leaders of today's "men's movement," who are portrayed in the book as part of the antifeminist backlash, take issue with everything from the title on down. "A more accurate assessment of the last 25 years would be 'the declared war against men worldwide,' " says Warren Farrell, San Diego author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are." "What women are getting now is social permission to do anything they want to do. All of that is good. But I don't consider permission to do anything you want to do a backlash.
"This book will do further damage. It just gives greater currency for another label to put on men who are trying to express their feelings. Instead of calling men 'sexist,' people will say, 'Oh, he's part of the backlash.' "
Not surprisingly, leaders of the women's movement couldn't be more thrilled with the hefty, readable tome. Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminist Mystique," calls the book "brilliant" (even though she herself takes a bit of a beating from Ms. Faludi). "She really documents this backlash I've been warning against for years," says Ms. Friedan.
"It's an extremely important book, a call to arms for the '90s," says Peg Yorkin, chair of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, who recently donated $10 million to start a feminist think tank. "Once women read this book and realize how much ideas are manipulated by the media, coupled with the Anita Hill hearings and the imminent demise of Roe v. Wade, my hope and guess is that women will rise up in righteous anger."
Ms. Faludi, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a story on the leveraged buyout of the Safeway chain, agrees her book couldn't have hit at a better time.
The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, "seemed to be this ideal microcosm of how the backlash works," says Ms. Faludi. "Women make a tiny bit of progress, or speak up for five minutes, and then there's a reaction that shuts women down for the next 10 years.
"That's exactly what seemed to be happening here. One woman speaks up, followed by this period of less than 24 hours when women were feeling free to talk about stories that had been festering for years. It was sort of an exhilarating feeling -- like we're finally getting our moment on the stage -- and then it turns out to be only a moment."
But Mrs. LaHaye, who is also a "Backlash" target, believes that the Thomas/Hill proceedings proved that the majority of American women -- who tended to believe Judge Thomas over Ms. Hill, according to many public opinion polls -- are at odds with today's feminist thinking.
"Susan Faludi and the feminist leaders really are out of step with the majority of people who support traditional values, the home and the family and a man like Clarence Thomas."
The reporter and author admits that by the late '80s, fewer and fewer women were willing to call themselves "feminists." But she maintains the majority of women support the tenets of the women's movement and favor such feminist issues as reproductive rights and equal opportunity and pay in the workplace.
For her part, the youthful, soft-spoken Harvard University graduate says she's seen more blatant social inequity in her parents' generation than in her own. Her mother, a newspaper reporter who put her career aside to marry and raise a family, ZTC "came of age at the height of the 'Leave It to Beaver' era and, as a result, felt she had to put her professional aspirations on hold to pursue this '50s fantasy of playing the dutiful housewife," says Ms. Faludi.
But seeing the women's movement invade the New York suburb where she was raised was a revelation, she says. "The feminist movement hit like a Mack truck in Yorktown Heights," she recalls of her teen-age years. "It wasn't just my mother, it was up and down the block -- women going back to work or going to college, questioning all the domestic rules, anger erupting, marriages breaking up all up and down the block.
"Seeing all these women come to life for the first time made me aware of the tragedy of all the years before when they were sort of in deep freeze. What a waste of human potential and talent -- what a waste for everyone."
The backlash that she dissects in her book began back then, she believes, the moment the women's movement dug in. And, she says, it is still a force to be reckoned with today.
In fact, looking ahead to the Supreme Court's potential undoing of abortion rights, in her view: "The worst of it is yet to come."
THE FALUDI FILE
Born: April 18, 1959, Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
Education: Harvard University, B.A. American history and literature.
Jobs: New York Times, copy person; Miami Herald, suburban reporter; Atlanta Constitution, magazine staff writer; San Jose Mercury News, magazine staff writer; Wall Street Journal, San Francisco correspondent.
Marital status: Single.
Views on the 1986 Harvard-Yale "man shortage" study: "To this day I hear women cite that study. I've heard about a woman who ran off and got married to some creep because she was concerned about the study."
Her role in the women's movement: "I've participated as a journalist, writing about women's issues. I'm not a marcher or organizer or public speaker."