BOOKS

Who's afraid of Naomi Wolf?

An author criticizes ‘victim feminism' and pushes for more women to pursue power

MARY NEMETH December 6 1993
BOOKS

Who's afraid of Naomi Wolf?

An author criticizes ‘victim feminism' and pushes for more women to pursue power

MARY NEMETH December 6 1993

Who's afraid of Naomi Wolf?

An author criticizes ‘victim feminism' and pushes for more women to pursue power

Having determined that the restaurant does not offer free-range poultry, free-range meat or free-range anything, Naomi Wolf begins searching for a meatless item on the menu. The 31-year-old American feminist author is in a fancy French eatery in uptown Toronto, talking up her new book and running on adrenaline. Wolf finally settles on a croque monsieur sandwich—but insists that it be prepared without ham. Very gastronomically correct. Then, as an afterthought, she asks the waitress to substitute french fries for the coleslaw. So much for correctness.

A similar dichotomy defines her vision of feminism as a movement that would unite and inspire women whether they are politically correct or not: leftists, rightists, proand anti-abortionists, women who wear makeup. Wolf even likes men—she married one recently. “But liking men,” she says with a wide grin, “doesn’t keep me from wanting to dismantle their privilege.” Feminists, in Wolfs view, should be able to insist on free-range chicken, and have their french fries, too.

Fire with Fire, The New Female Power and How it Will Change the 21st Century (Random House of Canada, 373 pages, $23.50), is an imperfect work, prone to repetition and to oversimplification. And Wolfs central thesis—that when Anita Hill in 1991 accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment she provoked a “genderquake” that turned American women into “the

political ruling class”—seems grossly exaggerated. But Wolf does raise a key question: how best to bridge the gap between feminist leaders and American women who support their basic goal of equality but reject the feminist label—women who, explaining themselves, begin with the words: “I’m not a feminist, but —”

To some extent, Fire with Fire is a reaction to the criticism Wolf encountered after publishing her first book in 1990. The Beauty Myth, which turned her into a feminist icon, attacks cosmetic firms, the diet industry, plastic surgeons and pornographers for undermining women’s self-esteem. An international best-seller, it was hailed by a somewhat immodest Germaine Greer as “the most important feminist publication since [Greer’s own] The Female Eunuch." But not everyone was so impressed. In Fire with Fire, Wolf describes how women’s-studies students accused her of elitism—for using compound sentences—and of being co-opted by corporate media for giving interviews about her book on television. Other critics questioned whether a woman as attractive as Wolf should be telling others not to worry about their looks.

Without question, Wolfs slight build, piercing blue eyes and tousle of long, dark hair make her a beneficiary of the very beauty myth she sought to expose. Even she concedes that her looks, her youth, her middle-class whiteness and even—since her marriage to New Repubie executive editor David Shipley—her publicly declared heterosexuality, have lent her a nonthreatening acceptability. That, in turn, has won her wider access to the mainstream media than is regularly granted to many more prolific, more experienced feminist writers and activists. Perhaps a backlash was inevitable. What difference does it make, asked a writer in The Globe and Mail, what “a young Oxford grad who poses in Glamour magazine in velvet pants” has to say about power feminism?

At the Toronto restaurant, Wolf bridles at such questions. That is “exactly the double-standard discrimination that all women face in their jobs,” she declares. “I am a writer, and yet my appearance is continually used to try to label or trivialize the weight of what I’m saying.” While Wolf acknowledges that some feminist leaders are unfairly ignored by the mainstream media, others must shoulder the blame for their low profile. “I try hard to speak in a way that every woman and man can understand and relate to,” she says, adding that she speaks to media—everything from Seventeen magazine to the Oprah TV show—that many academic feminists view with contempt. Wolf

claims that people listen to her largely because of her determination “to bring my ideas to the broadest possible audience, to make them available to the 16-year-old girl in the shopping mall that nobody else is talking to. I want to take credit for that.”

In Fire with Fire, Wolf blends personal ¡I anecdotes with analysis of popular culture and feminist literature. Arguing that “it is not dissent that is harmful to feminism, but consensus,” Wolf openly breaks some of the movement’s most cherished taboos. ¡Although she criticizes controversial writers Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe—who

say that feminists overreact to date rape and sexual harassment—she ö also argues that members of the women’s movement should debate I some of the issues they raise, including the nature of consent and the g difference between merely inappropriate behavior and criminal ac| tions. Wolf claims that women themselves are partly to blame for

some of their failures because they fear power. She insists that women

are capable of aggression and should be held accountable for their actions. And she calls on the women’s movement to re-evaluate abortion. Although committed to a woman’s right to choose, Wolf concedes that she has personal qualms. She urges that both men and women accept their responsibility “to at least try hard to avoid pregnancy.”

Women should debate all those issues, Wolf argues, even as they unite under the banner of a new “power feminism.” They should go into politics and into business, make money, amass power, and then use “the master’s tools” to “dismantle the master’s house.” Above all, Wolf contends, women should abandon “victim feminism” with its emphasis on women’s helplessness and innocence. “Women are fed up with images of their own oppression,” she writes. “We are moved far more by appeals to our strength, resourcefulness and sense of responsibility.” Wolfs definition of “victim feminism” is exhaustive. Everything that she dislikes about the women’s movement falls within its scope. Among other ills, it is “sexually judgmental,” portrays women “as closer to nature than men are,” and “believes it is possessed of ‘the truth.’ ” In countering those attitudes, Wolf occasionally tilts at windmills, as when she devotes several pages to a defence of heterosexuality. And with such lines as: “Male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom,” she seems to lose her grip altogether.

In the interview, Wolf explains that she “grew up in the heart of

feminism land.” Bom in 1962, she was raised in Haight-Ashbury, later San Francisco’s hippie district; her father was a university professor, her mother an anthropologist. It was a middle-class and educationally privileged family, she says, but perpetually broke. There were Ms. magazines around the house, and Wolf strolled in peace marches. In Haight-Ashbury, says Wolf, “if you were a thinker, you were a feminist—you’d have to be a bozo not to be. The feminists were having more fun.” (Wolf was not, however, immune to un-feminist pressures. In The Beauty Myth, she recounted her bout with anorexia as a self-conscious 13-year-old.)

Wolf won a scholarship to Yale University in 1980, about the time that “there was a detour into a much darker version of feminism”— victim feminism. Once an avid poet, she stopped writing sonnets after reading feminist author Adrienne Rich’s denunciation of poetry as patriarchal. Later, she sought and won a scholarship to study women in the Middle East, expecting to prove that their nurturing maternal natures could transcend even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I discovered that the women were just as bloodthirsty as the men,” says Wolf, laughing in retrospect at her own naïveté. In 1985, she won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to England to study at Oxford.

It was there, while doing graduate work, that Wolf began research that led to The Beauty Myth. Although she stands by her book, Wolf now says that, in true victim-feminist fashion, it focused on the obstacles women face. If she had it to do over again, she says, she would add more positives—about women’s creative powers and about their ability to transcend the beauty myth.

In Fire with Fire, Wolf writes about the opposite myth imposed on feminism. When she asks audiences to describe feminists, they come

‘Liking men doesn’t keep me from wanting to dismantle their privilege’

up with: “ ‘Hairy legged.’ ‘Fat.’ ‘Middle aged.’ ‘Scowling.’ ‘Short hair.’ ‘Sensible shoes.’ ‘Big breasts—but the wrong kind.’ ” She blames that portrayal largely on the media. But she also criticizes feminist leaders for another aspect of their image problem: intolerance. Often, she says, they appear to be armed with a checklist of attitudes to which women must adhere if they wish to join the club: rigidly leftist, pro-abortion, lesbian, anti-male and antipornography. She points out that, according to polls, less than half of American women are Democrats, support abortion

on demand, or believe that homosexuality is acceptable. American women, she notes, have seven million more votes than men do. And “if women are going to tap their power as the majority,” she writes, “they will have to make alliances at times with other women who hold beliefs that make them want to run screaming for cover.”

Critics have called Wolf unduly optimistic. If feminists forsake ideology, asks a writer in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, “what basic principles will make women identify with each other? Why on earth should any woman who gets on feel it her duty to encourage other women?”

Another point: as long as women believe in equality, does it really matter whether they call themselves “feminists” or not? In response, Wolf said in the interview that the spontaneous genderquake prompted by the Hill-Thomas hearings could quickly subside if women do not keep up the pressure—“and we’re not going to do it without a language we can use to target goals and to organize around.” Wolf adds that, as long as feminism is a dirty word, women will be reluctant to attend meetings, or even to sign a petition for equal pay at work, for fear that they will be associated with the movement’s negative connotations. Pressed, she concedes that she is “not a strict constructionist about the ‘F’ word.” Obviously, she says, “the most important issue is to have women feel that they own a political voice across the political spectrum.” In Fire with Fire, Wolfs voice has broadened that spectrum. And although she may not offer the feminist movement the definitive recipe for winning mainstream support, at least she has stirred up the pot.

MARY NEMETH