Who’s afraid of Naomi Wolf?

Who’s afraid of Naomi Wolf?

Mantilla, Karla

Who’s Afraid of Naomi Wolf?

Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use it

by Naomi Wolf

Ballantine Books 1994 $12.00

Wolf’s new book Fire with Fire has stirred a lot of emotions and debate within the feminist movement. One of her more central points is the identification of what she sees as two strands of feminism: victim feminism and power feminism.

Victim feminism she sees as charging “women to identify with powerlessness even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power they do possess…is sexually judgmental, even antisexual…believes women to be naturally noncompetitive, cooperative, and peace loving…projects aggression, competitiveness, and violence onto ‘men’ or ‘patriarchy,’ while its devotees are blind to those qualities in themselves” and “wants all other women to share its opinions” among other things.

Power feminism instead “examines closely the forces arrayed against a woman so she can exert her power more effectively…encourages a woman to claim her individual voice rather than merging her voice in a collective identity…is unapologetically sexual; understands that good pleasures make good politics…knows that poverty is not glamorous; wants women to acquire money, both for their own dreams, independence, and security, and for social change” and “hates sexism without hating men.”

In her book she advocates power feminist strategies as a way women can make more progress in overcoming sex discrimination and oppression.

oob collective member Karla mantilla recently interviewed Naomi Wolf on some of the issues in her book that have generated controversy among feminists.

km: Would you call Marilyn Quayle or Phyllis Schafely power feminists, that is, women who believe in their own sense of personal empowerment, but who work actively to keep other women from being empowered?

nw: Right, obviously not, I think I have to say that’s too simplistic a reading of what I’m calling for. Let’s broaden it a little bit. Half the women in America are socially conservative, about half the female electorate is Republican and half the women in America don’t support abortion on request. That same half of the women in America are facing sex discrimination in the workplace, domestic violence at home, job discrimination, unequal health care, poverty, all of the issues that feminism claims to address. Do we as feminists write them off because they don’t vote the way we on the left want them to vote, or do we take a lead from the civil rights movement, which is what inspired Fire with Fire, in which civil rights leaders fight racism and racial barriers for black people across the political spectrum?

km: So you are saying to form coalitions with these women on the issues are affecting them, even if they may be fighting against other women on issues that affect those women.

nw: Well, let me slightly rephrase what you just said, the same women who will fight me on my insistence on defending abortion rights can be an extremely effective coalition with me to fight for more funding for breast cancer research. So I’m asking us to grow up as political beings, to mature as political beings and understand that a truly broad based movement is one that can form coalitions on some issues and fight fiercely to defeat opponents on other issues and that we cut our strength in half by refusing to build coalitions on the issues that are broad based, or that there is broad based agreement on, if we refuse to speak with those who are not with us all the way down the line.

Let me give just one example. The line of feminism that I come from routinely castigates Republicans and Republican women, for instance Gloria Steinem (whom I admire a lot), referred to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the Republican senator, as a man in drag because she’s a Republican. I saw Kay Bailey Hutchinson do her pitch for reelection and she ended by saying “I want to make a world which is better for our sons and open for our daughters.” Now I completely believe, given the events of the last 3 or 4 years, that feminism can be a bipartisan goal. There are all sorts of feminist longings in the hearts of many Republican women and that they just don’t phrase it the way we phrase it. I am utterly persuaded that it will raise the status of women in general across the country if both parties know that they can’t take a step without consulting the women in their parties.

km: That brings me to my next question. You describe a conservative or Republican women’s feminism as about opportunity for women, self-determination and individualism and that we should respect these as a right wing version of feminism….

nw:…that doesn’t mean vote for them…

km:…As a mother, I see much of my life dedicated to caring for beings who are not autonomous and independent, and this caretaking significantly constrains my ability to act autonomously and independently. How do you see the taking care of children, the elderly and others who are not equally empowered from the outset, as fitting into a vision of a world where power rules?

nw: Right, I have to take issue with the way it sounds like you’ve defined power. If you look at how I define power, the kind of power I want us to use throughout the book, it’s the power to create social change and a more just society. So for example, the upheaval at the ballot box that came about by women taking political power in new ways in the last 2 or 3 years, has resulted in things like the family leave act which allows me as a mother in 5 months to not have to choose in quite so heartbreaking a way between being a productive member of the work force and being a caretaker. So I’m precisely saying let us seize political and economic power so that we can restructure society so that we can take care of those who are dependent on us as well as determine the outcome of our own lives. I don’t see any contradiction.

km: Would you call Hillary Clinton a power feminist and how do you account for the particularly venomous backlash against her?

nw: That’s a really good example, because to me, I’m so used to hearing, quote, radical feminists say that nothing that isn’t corrupt can come out of using the system, including the electoral system. But Hillary Clinton was trying to use electoral politics to bring better health care to poor women and to women who are working poor. And to me cynicism about that is a real betrayal of the potential radicalism implicit in a genuinely working democracy. So yes, in many ways you could call this Clintonite feminism, in many ways it’s about not getting paralyzed by ideological labels and actually solving problems.

km: Hasn’t she been somewhat paralyzed by the backlash against her that’s been so strong?

nw: I have to say that I don’t believe that a lot of the hostility she encounters has to do specifically with her being a strong woman. I think it also has to do with her not being elected. I think Americans hate nepotism and that that’s something that really dogs her heels. But, it hasn’t been helpful for her that she’s a target of so much clearly misogynist or antifeminist attack. But what I have to keep asking is what are we doing about? If there was enough of a groundswell among women and profeminist men, the opponents would have their opponents. In other words, it is very important, it is critical, to point the finger at the oppressor. And I feel like that’s what I did in my last book. [The Beauty Myth] That’s certainly what books like Susan Faludi’s book do. [Backlash] And that’s immensely significant.

But what I grew up feeling was the only thing a feminist could do was sort of endlessly detail how huge the obstacles are, and that any sort of proactive counting up of our resources was suspect. And I think it’s also important to ask how do we collude, how do we conspire and how do we internalize the oppressor?

And in this again I’ve been inspired by the civil rights movement, that for many years it was only appropriate to point a finger at white racism. But recently there’s this sea change in discourse in the African-American community where people are starting to say, how about the responsibility we need to take for our own communities, how about economic empowerment for us, how about the way we internalize low expectations? It’s very similar in that early on, the voices that were saying this were being called traitors. But now Jesse Jackson is saying it and I think it’s far more radicalizing for people to not simply detail what the oppressor does but also how they can fix it. Or take responsibility for how they fail to fix it if the power to do so lies in their grasp. What I keep trying to return to in Fire with Fire is, if we are a majority in a representative democracy in which 6 cents from every U.S. woman tripled the number of women in Congress, what is keeping us from a coup that makes the world safer for someone like Hillary Clinton?

km: In your last chapter you have a lot of wonderful strategies to change sexist structures. But all these changes that you would like to see, or that any of us would like to see, require changing our consciousness, which is kind of what you are addressing in your book. But sexist structures and socialization create the self-defeating consciousness which then perpetuate the sexist structures. Isn’t this kind of a chicken and egg debate in which you’ve come down firmly on one side? How do you resolve this circularity of causation about which comes first, the structures or the consciousness?

nw: Unless I’m not understanding you clearly, I don’t see how the fact that sexist structures create self-defeating consciousness has to be a self-perpetuating circle. That’s how feminism always works — it intervenes in that circle. So this book I wrote is an intervention.

km: So you would see the intervention as changing our consciousness is the first thing?

nw: Certainly, beginning with changing our consciousness, because I am persuaded that the fact that we have more power than we’re using is a psychological problem, rather than a material problem.

km: How would you then apply an approach like this to your last book The Beauty Myth? For women with eating disorders, isn’t it merely their own consciousness which creates their eating problems, then?

nw: No that’s a material problem because what happens is that, biochemically, once you go on an extremely low calorie diet you become physically addicted to starving yourself. So you don’t have the choice without raising the calorie level to snap out of it. I’m not saying that it is merely a change in consciousness that’s going to solve material problems like poverty, violence and harassment. I’m saying that it starts with a change in consciousness. Which is something that feminism has proved over and over.

Even with The Beauty Myth, the questions I was asked over and over a mere three years ago were “Women can never wean themselves from this way of thinking, this is the way it’s always been, this is the way it’s always going to be.” There was this tremendous defeatism, much like the sense of cynicism, that the question about circularity seems to show to me. And you know three years later it’s being taught in high school, and it’s a commonplace banality of talk shows and MTV.

km: Are you assuming there are less eating disorders now?

nw: I certainly have no evidence that that’s the case, but I know that the environment in which people, women, either can or can’t question the stereotypes of beauty has loosened up.

km: You said in several places in your book that feminism should ultimately be a humanist movement. How would you answer the charge that your goal of a society in which disparities in income are not based on gender, is a failure of vision to improve the world? How do you see feminism as a humanist movement if the system remains the same, only it’s not based so much on gender, just other new ways of keeping resources at the top?

nw: That’s a very important question. I’m going to turn it back to you. We live in a capitalist democracy. It is impossible to ignore the fact that virtually every country, given the choice, by now has gravitated toward that form of government, except Cuba. In a capitalist democracy, it is much more likely that one can eradicate sex discrimination than that one can collapse all class distinctions and that one can mandate equality of income. You can mandate more equality of opportunity but I don’t think that within a capitalist democracy, you can mandate equality of outcome. If you have a plan for it, please let me know. There are many things that I would support that would provide social safety nets, that would minimize disparities in income, like the Swedish government policy. But it’s just a myth that marxist feminists tell themselves that because capitalism and sexism are linked that therefore they’ll collapse at the same time. They won’t. It’s infinitely more likely that we can eradicate sex discrimination in the world that exists than that we can collapse all class differences.

Now given that that’s the reality, unless you can come up with an alternative to it, I would say that eradicating oppression based on gender is not Utopia, but it’s an improvement. And it’s an improvement that will not make all women equal in income or opportunity to each other as much as I would like that to be possible, but it will make all women equal to the men who are now able to oppress them because of sexism. So I’m not advocating a world based on class difference. I’m noticing that to hold out for a Utopia in which there is no such thing as income disparity, you’d have to be another Marx, and come up with another social system that just isn’t likely in the United States, unless there’s a violent overthrow of our economic structures. And that to not use the power that we have to eradicate sexual oppression because we’re waiting around for this millennium that will collapse economic structures as we know it, is a betrayal of women who are suffering from sexism.

It strikes me as remarkable that the civil rights community doesn’t get tangled up in this, in other words, that they are so much more in touch with people’s real suffering and the realities of power that they don’t go around asking themselves are we betraying the vision of a more just society if we can create a world in which Black people may be equal in opportunity to white people even if all people aren’t equal in outcome to each other. It seems to me that a question like yours is based on a certain amount of luxury and even elitism.

km: How would that be?

nw: Because if you’re struggling with day to day injustices like racism or sexism, you fix the racism or sexism. You fix what’s hurting you. And to call someone a traitor to the movement for social justice or abandoning a vision of social justice because you aren’t going to realistically wait around for a complete overthrow of the United States government, an alternative system which no one has come up with yet, (and when I press women on this, no one can give me any sort of game plan) is Utopian to the point of self-absorbed and masturbatory. And to me that’s an elitist way of thinking.

km: In your book, I understood at one point that you were saying that the reason you believe that women do not harm men as much as men harm women in terms of violence is because they cannot get away with it, and you say that we should acknowledge our dark side so that we can recognize the “social labor of kindness and love” is not gender specific. Why should women spend much time on acknowledging the dark side rather than having expectations that men should come up to women’s standards on performing this social labor? Shouldn’t we be emulating the best of both genders rather than the worst?

nw: Let me clarify. To acknowledge our dark side doesn’t mean to act on it, it means to take responsibility for it, which I think is much more ethical than the kind of feminism that I was weaned on in which women weren’t supposed to have any dark side, and therefore when they actually got power they did things like celebrate Lorena Bobbit. I think it’s much more dangerous for people to pretend that they can do no evil, than not deal with the fact that they can do evil and then get power, because nothing keeps them from doing to the erstwhile oppressor exactly what the oppressor has done to them. I think it’s infinitely more moral to acknowledge that you’re just as capable as a man of being exploitative so that you then use the energy of the dark side for ethical purposes. You don’t delude yourself.

km: So the emphasis is not on women being able to commit acts of aggression as much as to be able to stave off aggression in the event we get power?

nw: No, it’s much more profound than that. To acknowledge that we’re capable of aggression so that we can tap that energy for good. Because the energy that it takes to win an election and the energy, abusively directed, it takes to dominate someone are not really that different. It’s a matter of how you direct it.

km: What if it is true that women can be as violent and aggressive as men, but it is in fact our emphasis on connection and affiliation, rather than our lack of an ability to get away with it, that keeps us from engaging in the level of violence that men do? I am concerned that your vision of power feminism could create a world in which we can all be violent and aggressive equally and negates the vision of world in which we all value connection and affiliation.

nw: How on earth do you get to there from what I wrote? I think you’re just not reading what I wrote. In the section where I talk about victim feminism I quote this one essay by Sally Gearhart out of exactly the kind of anthology you’re talking about. Women are relational, women are at peace with the universe. Do you know what she advocates? Reducing the population of men to 10% of their current level.

km: But there’s no point in bringing in an extreme example like that.

nw: But it’s not extreme. It’s in a standard anthology.

km: Of course it’s clearly true that men commit more violence and aggression than women in the world as it stands now…

nw: That’s entirely a function of the fact that men are not designated primary caretakers.

km:…So what I’m saying then is not that different, it’s this thing that women have been doing traditionally, the connection, the caretaking and all that, that perhaps keeps women from being violent rather than…

nw: I hate to do this but I have to direct you to the numbers. Women commit like 48% of the violence against children.

km:…I know that, but that’s a little bit lopsided because women spend many more hours with children, but even so…

nw: They’re not beating kids up as much as they could, but they are beating kids up. And what’s significant and I think we have to stress is that they beat kids up more than they beat men up. Which means when there’s human aggression and human stress, it comes out in the safest possible way to be aggressive.

km: So you do hold by that it’s how much people can get away with it that determines how violent they are?

nw: Let me turn it around. Absolutely men are socialized to be more violent, Women are more violent to themselves. Obviously. But I think all of this is socialization and if we go back to what we were like when we were 5 or 6, what our fantasies were like, there was absolutely an equipoise between the desire to have intimacy and nurturing and the desire to rule the universe. I’m Jewish, and so Jews were hideously victimized in the Holocaust, so we created a mentality that we were better than everyone else because we have been uniquely oppressed, and then we created a state that was based on the idea that we were better and that we could never do to the evil goyim what they had done to us. And then we beat the shit out of Palestinian people on the West Bank. So it’s exactly the kind of danger I’m warning us about, and you see the same thing with the African American community. If we’re not careful, we recapitulate the oppressor. By careful, I mean, acknowledge that what they do to us, what white people do to black people, what Christians do to Jews, what men do to women, is not impossible for any group to do to any other group.

I would say further that our desire, which was predominant during the 80s, to see ourselves as uniquely the chosen people in gender terms, uniquely nurturing and caretaking, does come out of the desire for a kind of nationalism, a sort of gender nationalism that is just as suspect and dangerous as any sort of nationalism that tries to attribute to one group on the basis of their biological characteristics certain better qualities.

km: And if this were a social thing, rather than biological, isn’t it true that the world needs people to be more like women have been than men have been?

nw: If you read my preface, you’ll see that I’m saying that it’s precisely that women should not be held up as the moral caretakers of the world, that it’s a human task.

km: So along with your sense that women need to acknowledge their dark side, you would also agree that men need to be more like women in those aspects?

nw: Haven’t I said that all along? There’s a paragraph that says that I want people to clean up the planet, heal the world, nurture the sick, the oppressed, but this is not women’s work. This is a human task. I make the point throughout that men are able to be just as nurturing and caretaking as women.

km: You say that women represent even a majority of the population and if women could vote cohesively on anything we could probably get pretty far. Why do you believe that conservative and/or anti-feminist women might be more likely to be persuaded by your vision of power feminism than other feminisms that have been advocated?

nw: I’m not actually saying that we have to form big voting blocs across party lines. I’m saying that what happens when Republican women scream and yell in their party and Democrat women scream and yell in their party, the quality of respect and resources due to women rises. That you’re not going to have a replay of the Houston convention because the Republicans, if they’re not complete fools, are going to get it that they have to listen to Republican women when they’re setting the agenda or else they can’t win. And you’re seeing this, the GOP position, Republican women in the forefront of the elections this time around. Because they lost the White House, because of the their assumption that they could just dismiss Republican women. So I’m not saying there are going to be cross party voting blocs except on certain issues. I don’t think it will determine elections necessarily, I don’t think it will determine legislation, but I am saying that when we open up the discourse about feminism in a way that doesn’t shut off half the women in the country, that raises the demand for male legislators to pay attention to women, no matter which party it is.

km: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

nw: I guess that, I consider myself lefter than left, so I’m not championing conservative feminism, except to notice that it’s there and it’s a resource that we’re not even dealing with. But I would like you to notice that many millions of women are actually doing feminist things who don’t share my ideological view of the world. In other words, the three hundred thousand women who signed a petition for more

Photo (Naomi Wolf)

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