Note: Naomi Wolf at the Brooklyn Book Festival // //
Note: Naomi Wolf at the Brooklyn Book Festival // //
Wolf at the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York City in September 2008
November 12, 1962|
San Francisco, California, U.S.
New College, Oxford
The Beauty Myth|
The End of America
|Spouse||David Shipley (1993–2005), divorced|
Wolf first came to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. With the book, she became a leading spokeswoman of what was later described as the third wave of the feminist movement. Such leading feminists as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan praised the book; others, including bell hooks, Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers, criticized it. She has since written other books, including the bestselling book The End of America in 2007 and her latest Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford.
In 2004, Wolf reported an alleged incident of "sexual encroachment" by professor Harold Bloom she said she had experienced when she was a Yale undergraduate working on poetry with Bloom two decades earlier. Due to Wolf's feeling that the university had not taken her complaint seriously, she made her complaint public.
Wolf was married to journalist David Shipley. They have two children, Rosa (b. 1995) and Joseph (b. 2000). Wolf and Shipley divorced in 2005.
In 1991 Wolf gained international fame as a spokeswoman of third-wave feminism as a result of the success of her first book The Beauty Myth, which became an international bestseller and was named "one of the seventy most influential books of the twentieth century" by The New York Times. In the book, she argues that "beauty" as a normative value is entirely socially constructed, and that the patriarchy determines the content of that construction with the goal of reproducing its own hegemony.
Wolf posits the idea of an "iron-maiden," an intrinsically unattainable standard that is then used to punish women physically and psychologically for their failure to achieve and conform to it. Wolf criticized the fashion and beauty industries as exploitative of women, but added that the beauty myth extended into all areas of human functioning. Wolf writes that women should have "the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women's appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically". Wolf argues that women were under assault by the "beauty myth" in five areas: work, religion, sex, violence, and hunger. Ultimately, Wolf argues for a relaxation of normative standards of beauty. In her introduction, Wolf positioned her argument against the concerns of second-wave feminists and offered the following analysis:
The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... [D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty... [P]ornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal...More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.
Wolf's book was a bestseller, receiving polarized responses from the public and mainstream media, but winning praise from most feminists. Second-wave feminist Germaine Greer wrote that The Beauty Myth was "the most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch, and Gloria Steinem wrote, "The Beauty Myth is a smart, angry, insightful book, and a clarion call to freedom. Every woman should read it." British novelist Fay Weldon called the book "essential reading for the New Woman". Betty Friedan wrote in Allure magazine that "'The Beauty Myth' and the controversy it is eliciting could be a hopeful sign of a new surge of feminist consciousness."
However, Camille Paglia, whose Sexual Personae was published the same year as The Beauty Myth, derided Wolf as unable to perform "historical analysis," and called her education "completely removed from reality." Her comments touched off a series of contentious debates between Wolf and Paglia in the pages of The New Republic.
Likewise, Christina Hoff Sommers criticized Wolf for publishing the estimate that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia. Sommers states that she tracked down the source to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association who stated that they were misquoted; the figure refers to sufferers, not fatalities. Wolf's citation for the incorrect figure came from a book by Brumberg, who referred to an American Anorexia and Bulimia Association newsletter and misquoted the newsletter. Wolf accepted the error and changed it in future editions. Sommers gave an estimate for the number of fatalities in 1990 as 100-400.
The New York Times published a harshly critical assessment of Wolf's work by Caryn James. She lambasted the book as a, "...sloppily researched polemic as dismissible as a hackneyed adventure film...Even by the standards of pop-cultural feminist studies, The Beauty Myth is a mess." In a comparatively positive review, The Washington Post called the book "persuasive" and praised its "accumulated evidence."
In 1993 Wolf published Fire with Fire on politics, female empowerment and women's sexual liberation. In the U.S. The New York Times assailed the work for its "dubious oversimplifications and highly debatable assertions" and its "disconcerting penchant for inflationary prose," nonetheless noting Wolf's "efforts to articulate an accessible, pragmatic feminism, ...helping to replace strident dogma with common sense." The Time magazine reviewer dismissed the book as "flawed," noting however that Wolf was "an engaging raconteur" who was also "savvy about the role of TV – especially the Thomas-Hill hearings and daytime talk shows – in radicalizing women, including homemakers." The reviewer characterized the book as advocating an inclusive strain of feminism that welcomed abortion opponents. In the UK, feminist author Natasha Walter writing in The Independent said that the book "has its faults, but compared with The Beauty Myth it has energy and spirit, and generosity too." But she also criticized it for having a "narrow agenda" where "you will look in vain for much discussion of older women, of black women, of women with low incomes, of mothers." Characterizing Wolf as a "media star", Walter wrote: "She is particularly good, naturally, on the role of women in the media."
Promiscuities reports on and analyzes the shifting patterns of contemporary adolescent sexuality. Wolf argues that literature is rife with examples of male coming-of-age stories, covered autobiographically by D. H. Lawrence, Tobias Wolff, J. D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway, and covered misogynistically by Henry Miller, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. Wolf insists, however, that female accounts of adolescent sexuality have been systematically suppressed. She adduces cross-cultural material to demonstrate that women have, across history, been celebrated as more carnal than men. Wolf also argues that women must reclaim the legitimacy of their own sexuality by shattering the polarization of women between virgin and whore.
Promiscuities received, in general, negative reviews. A New York Times review characterized Wolf as a "frustratingly inept messenger: a sloppy thinker and incompetent writer. She tries in vain to pass off tired observations as radical aperçus, subjective musings as generational truths, sappy suggestions as useful ideas". Two days earlier, however, a different Times reviewer praised the book, writing, "Anyone—particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960s—will have a very hard time putting down Promiscuities. Told through a series of confessions, her book is a searing and thoroughly fascinating exploration of the complex wildlife of female sexuality and desire." In contrast, The Library Journal excoriated the work, writing, "Overgeneralization abounds as she attempts to apply the microcosmic events of this mostly white, middle-class, liberal milieu to a whole generation....There is a desperate defensiveness in the tone of this book which diminishes the force of her argument."
Misconceptions examines modern assumptions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. Most of the book is told through the prism of Wolf's personal experience of her first pregnancy. She describes the "vacuous impassivity" of the ultrasound technician who gives her the first glimpse of her new baby. Wolf both laments her C-section and examines why the procedure is commonplace in the United States, and advocates a return to more personal approaches to childbirth such as midwifery. The second half of the book catalogs a series of anecdotes about life after giving birth, focusing in particular on inequalities that arise in men and women's approaches and adjustments to child care.
In The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Wolf takes a historical look at the rise of fascism, outlining 10 steps necessary for a fascist group (or government) to destroy the democratic character of a nation-state and subvert the social/political liberty previously exercised by its citizens:
The book details how this pattern was implemented in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and elsewhere, and analyzes its emergence and application of all the 10 steps in American political affairs since the September 11 attacks.
The End of America was adapted for the screen as a documentary by filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, best known for The Devil Came on Horseback and The Trials of Darryl Hunt. It had its worldwide premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival on October 17, 2008. It has since been screened at Sheffield DocFest in the UK, as well as in limited release at New York City's IFC Center. The film became available online on October 21, 2008 at SnagFilms. End of America was favorably reviewed in The New York Times by Stephen Holden as well as in Variety magazine.
Mark Nuckols of the Russian Academy of National Economy argues in The Atlantic that Wolf 'twists its meaning and ignores its context' of historical parallels based on highly selective and misleading citations. In The Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan characterized the book as "an astoundingly lazy piece of writing."
Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries was written as a sequel to The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.
In the book, Wolf looks at times and places in history where citizens were faced with the closing of an open society and successfully fought back, and looks back at the ordinary people of the Founding Fathers of the United States' generation, the ones not named by history, all of whom had this "vision of liberty" and moved it forward by putting their lives on the line to make the vision real. She is an outspoken advocate for citizenship and wonders whether younger Americans have the skills and commitment to act as true citizens. She wrote in 2007:
This lack of understanding about how democracy works is disturbing enough. But at a time when our system of government is under assault from an administration that ignores traditional checks and balances, engages in illegal wiretapping and writes secret laws on torture, it means that we're facing an unprecedented crisis. As the Founders knew, if citizens are ignorant of or complacent about the proper workings of a republic "of laws not of men," then any leader of any party – or any tyrannical Congress or even a tyrannical majority – can abuse the power they hold. But at this moment of threat to the system the Framers set in place, a third of young Americans don't really understand what they were up to.
Published in 2012 on the topic of the vagina, Vagina: A New Biography was widely criticized, especially by feminist authors. Calling it "ludicrous" at Slate.com, Katie Roiphe wrote, "I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career than her latest book." In The Nation, Katha Pollitt said the book was "silly" and contained "much dubious neuroscience and much foolishness"; she concluded, "It’s lucky vaginas can’t read, or mine would be cringing in embarrassment." Although writing that "Wolf’s ideas and suggestions in 'Vagina' are valuable ones," Toni Bentley said in The New York Times Book Review that the book contained "shoddy" research and "is undermined by the fact that she has rendered herself less than unreliable over the past couple of decades, with one rant more hysterical than another." In The New York Review of Books Zoë Heller called Vagina "a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think." Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum decried the book’s "painful" writing and its "hoary ideas about how women think." In The New York Observer, Nina Burleigh suggested that critics of the book were so vehement "because (a) their editors handed the book to them for review because they thought it was an Important Feminist Book when it's actually slight and (b) there’s a grain of truth in what she’s trying to say."
In response to the criticism, Wolf stated the following in a television interview:
...anything that shows documentation of the brain and vagina connection is going to alarm some feminists... ...also feminism has kind of retreated into the academy and sort of embraced the idea that all gender is socially constructed and so here is a book that is actually looking at science... ... though there has been some criticisms of the book from some feminists ... who say, well you can’t look at the science because that means we have to grapple with the science... ... to me the feminist task of creating a just world isn’t changed at all by this fascinating neuroscience that shows some differences between men and women.
In 2005, Wolf published The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from my Father on How to Live, Love, and See, which chronicled her midlife crisis attempt to reclaim her creative and poetic vision and revalue her father's love, and her father's force as an artist and a teacher.
In publishing an article in The New Republic that criticized contemporary pro-choice positions, Wolf argued that the movement had "developed a lexicon of dehumanization" and urged feminists to accept abortion as a form of homicide and defend the procedure within the ambiguity of this moral conundrum. She continues, "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die."
Wolf concluded by speculating that in a world of "real gender equality," passionate feminists "might well hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead." More recently, in an article on the subtle manipulation of George W. Bush's image among women, Wolf wrote "Abortion is an issue not of Ms. Magazine-style fanaticism or suicidal Republican religious reaction, but a complex issue."
Pro-life commentators said Wolf "fails to carry through fully in her analysis...this simply is not, or should not be, the unqualified response of our society to the destruction of innocent life."
Wolf suggested in 2003 that the ubiquity of internet pornography tends to enervate the sexual attraction of men toward typical real women. She writes, "The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as 'porn-worthy.' Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention." Wolf advocates abstaining from porn not on moral grounds, but because "greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity."
Wolf has examined how modern Western women, born in inclusive, egalitarian liberal democracies, are assuming positions of leadership in neofascist political movements:
Second-wave feminist theory abounds in assertions that war, racism, love of hierarchy, and general repressiveness belong to “patriarchy”; women’s leadership, by contrast, would naturally create a more inclusive, collaborative world. The problem is that it has never worked out that way, as the rise of women to leadership positions in Western Europe’s far-right parties should remind us. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Pia Kjaersgaard of Danish People's Party, and Siv Jensen of Norway’s Progress Party reflect the enduring appeal of neofascist movements to many modern women in egalitarian, inclusive liberal democracies.
Wolf has spoken about the dress required of women living in Muslim countries:
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I traveled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women's appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one's husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channeling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
In response, feminist author Phyllis Chesler wrote: "Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf) and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families. Is Wolf thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects?"
The December 20, 2010 airing of Democracy Now! featured a segment titled "Naomi Wolf vs. Jaclyn Friedman: Feminists Debate the Sexual Allegations Against Julian Assange" in which Jaclyn Friedman argues the sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shouldn't be dismissed just because they may be politically motivated. Wolf argues that the alleged victims should have said no, that they consented to having sex with Assange, that the charges are politically motivated and demean the cause of legitimate rape victims. The discussion took place shortly after the leaking of the Swedish police report on the incident.
In 2004, Wolf wrote an article for New York magazine accusing literary scholar Harold Bloom of a "sexual encroachment" more than two decades earlier by touching her thigh. She said that what she alleged Bloom did was not harassment, either legally or emotionally, and she did not think herself a "victim", but that she had harbored this secret for 21 years. Explaining why she had finally gone public with the charges, Wolf wrote, "I began, nearly a year ago, to try—privately—to start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort weren't still occurring. I expected Yale to be responsive. After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge."
Reflecting on Yale University's sexual harassment guidelines, Wolf wrote, "Sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission."
In Slate.com, Meghan O'Rourke wrote that Wolf generalized about sexual assault at Yale on the basis of her alleged personal experience. Moreover, O'Rourke noted that, despite Wolf's assertion that sexual assault existed at Yale, she did not interview any Yale students for her story. In addition, O'Rourke wrote, "She jumps through verbal hoops to make it clear she was not 'personally traumatized,' yet she spends paragraphs describing the incident in precisely those terms." O'Rourke noted that, despite Wolf's claim that her educational experience was corrupted, "(s)he neglects to mention that she later was awarded a Rhodes (scholarship)..." Criticizing her "gaps and imprecision," O'Rourke concluded that Wolf's claim that no viable mechanism existed at Yale to prevent and prosecute sexual harassment was "deeply flawed."
Separately, a formal complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on March 15, 2011, by 16 current and former Yale students—12 female and 4 male—describing a sexually hostile environment at Yale. A federal investigation of Yale University began in March 2011 in response to the complaints. "Wolf said on CBS's The Early Show: 'Yale has been systematically covering up much more serious crimes than the ones that can be easily identified. What they do is that they use the sexual harassment grievance procedure in a very cynical way, purporting to be supporting victims, but actually using a process to stonewall victims, to isolate them, and to protect the university'", as quoted in the Daily Mail. Yale settled the federal complaint in June 2012, acknowledging "inadequacies" but not "facing disciplinary action with the understanding that it keeps in place policy changes instituted after the complaint was filed. The school was required to report on its progress to the Office of Civil Rights until May, 2014."
Wolf was involved in Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election bid, brainstorming with the president's team about ways to reach female voters. During Al Gore's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the 2000 election, Wolf was hired as a consultant to target female voters, reprising her role in the Clinton campaign. Wolf's ideas and participation in the Gore campaign generated considerable media coverage and criticism. According to a report by Michael Duffy in Time, Wolf was paid a monthly salary of $15,000 "in exchange for advice on everything from how to win the women's vote to shirt-and-tie combinations." This article was the original source of the widely reported assertion that Wolf was responsible for Gore's "three-buttoned, earth-toned look."
In an interview with Melinda Henneberger in The New York Times, Wolf denied ever advising Gore on his wardrobe. Wolf herself said she mentioned the term "alpha male" only once in passing and that "[it] was just a truism, something the pundits had been saying for months, that the vice president is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role... I used those terms as shorthand in talking about the difference in their job descriptions".