This winter’s surprise hit movie offers no marquee names and no special effects, only a small cup of poison for maternal peace of mind. In The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Rebecca De Mornay plays the Nanny from Hell, who insinuates herself into the home of a trusting family only to wreak havoc on it. In the weeks after the film climbed to No. 1, earning a stunning $65 million, magazines and newspapers have scurried to find real-life examples of psycho-nannies, which in turn drove home the not-so-subtle message that women who work and leave child rearing to others are courting disaster and had best hurry home. Any movie that confounds expectations invites commentators to think Big Thoughts about its surprise appeal. In this case, one set of critics proclaims that the movie reveals the ambivalence that women especially feel about having to balance work and family. But another chorus of critics is offering its own interpretation, wrapped in a warning: that this movie is part of a decade-long attack against feminism intended to roll back the gains of the women’s movement and convince women that their newfound liberation is the source of all their unhappiness. And therein lies the bigger story. The idea that progress produces a backlash is hardly new — one need only $ look at Detroit’s gracious response to Japan’s economic success. But when the issue is the status of American womanhood, this line of argument follows a swollen stream of trend stories that declare feminism shuddered and died sometime during the Reagan era. Many headlines of the ’80s called feminism THE GREAT EXPERIMENT THAT FAILED and announced that America had graduated to a postfeminist age of Mommy Tracks, garter belts and men beating drums in the woods. Only in 1991, a year defined by date-rape trials, harassment hearings, abortion battles and gender wars, did the popular media begin to acknowledge that relations between the sexes were not as settled as they seemed. Into this rhetorical arena comes Susan Faludi, 32, a soft-spoken, sharp- penned, Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter for the Wall Street Journal who spent four years writing Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, published by Crown in October. In 552 crowded pages, Faludi constructs a thesis out of alarming though sometimes selective use of statistics bound together with ideological glue, designed to explain why many women turned against feminism in the 1980s. Not only has her book become an unexpected best seller; it has also become a staple topic on the op-ed pages, one of those landmark books that shape the opinions of America’s opinion shapers. More interesting still, after months halfway down the best-seller list, Faludi moves to No. 2 this week — right behind a new book by Gloria Steinem. Many critics dismissed Revolution from Within, Steinem’s treatise on the political implications of the self-esteem movement, as an exercise in squishy new-age thumb-sucking. But as she tours shopping malls, Steinem is being mobbed by crowds that, according to one bookstore owner, exceed those of Oliver North and Vanna White, the backlash icons of American manhood and womanhood. Something must have happened in the climate of relations between men and women for these books to have such an impact.