OTI Online
Spring 1994

IN MY VIEW: A Wolf In Feminist Clothing
by Phyllis Chesler


These are the times that try feminist souls. "Femininity" is back - even among feminists - and for years, I'd thought it was a fugue state, not a secret political weapon. It's 1994 and we're still surrounded by ancien regime images of glamorous, mainly white, young, thin, lucky-in-love, rich women who, by media sleight-of-hand, have become our radical feminist "leaders." I despair when mediocrity triumphs - when people confuse what sells with what's important or true.

Yes, Camille Paglia {Sexual Personae), Katie Roiphe (The Morning After), Marianne Williamson (A Woman's Worth) and now Naomi Wolf (Fire With Fire), are frequently quoted, not because they're original or revolutionary thinkers, but because what they say threatens no one - at least, no one in power and no wannabees. The media-anointed "leaders" insist that:

• Anita Hill prevailed (even though Clarence Thomas is a sitting Supreme Court Justice).

• There is no epidemic of rape and incest (only an epidemic of malicious, feminist-induced hysteria, false memory syndrome, and fake statistics about rape, gang-rape and date-rape).

• Women have won the gender war (even as women from Paris to Peoria are overworked, unpaid, underpaid, devalued, undervalued - and yes, "glassceilinged"; even as women are being gang-raped in Bosnia and Boston, genitally mutilated in Mogadishu and Nairobi, killed at birth in Beijing and Calcutta, sold into sexual slavery as children in Bangkok and Manila and veiled, beheaded and stoned to death for "adultery" in Saudi Arabia and Iran).

Ask the Wrong Question

Women have not won the war against women; we have only begun to fight. The heat of battle is intense. Many women are running scared, smiling as fast as they can. Clearly, it's too hot in the kitchen for Naomi Wolf and she's made her exit; that she insists on describing her departure as "radical feminism", is sheer newspeak. While Wolf's first book, The Beauty Myth, exposed how media images of "perfection" were harmful to women, Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century seems to be written for the media - as if Wolf is applying for a job as a news anchor or syndicated columnist. No crime, by the way, but no book either.

Vital feminist ideas are rarely, not frequently, touted in the mainstream media; it's important to understand what's being shown as the latest in radical feminist "fashion," as worn by a well-spoken, exceedingly earnest, and personable young woman.

Wolf proclaims a "genderquake" and then, paradoxically, backtracks, as she tries to explain why, in her view, so many women have resisted the feminist label. She describes the feminist sisterhood accurately, but constantly cuts her own insights down to size in a voice that is shockingly similar to women's magazine advice.

Her message, to women only, is: Improve yourself, your self-esteem, your appearance, your attitude - and pay no attention to the high female body count. Don't analyze it or draw political conclusions. All is sunny, couldn't be better. No pain, all gain.

Wolf's redefinition of radical feminism includes: 1) a "go along, get along" approach to power; 2) the idea that feminism doesn't need principles - soundbites, such as: "I feel your pain, I see your point" will do; and, 3) the recommendation that women should stop concentrating on victimization and seize the "power" that is ours.

Pillow Talk

According to Wolf, one reason that some women shy away from calling themselves feminists, is that others might suspect them of being lesbians. "Not all women can economically afford to be seen as gay - and if they are not gay, the misidentdfication is a financial, emotional and physical risk few are willing to run," writes Wolf. Ah, risk. What if the Danes had chosen not to wear Yellow Stars because it was too dangerous, and because they weren'tjews anyway? The Jews of Denmark might all have died in Auschwitz.

Wolf describes herself as a practitioner of "radical heterosexual feminism." She writes: "Male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom. The male body is ground and shelter to me, my lifelong destination. When it is maligned categorically, I feel as if my homeland is maligned." Is she not "of woman born"? I thought that "our bodies, ourselves," our own, female bodies, were the sovereign territory of feminists .

Radical heterosexuality? Okay, I'm open. Persuade me that who I sleep with, or my declaration that I can't do without sexual pleasure, is somehow equivalent to a political analysis, or to a program that will abolish rape or establish economic equality for women and for all races and classes.

I didn't think Gennifer Flowers mattered; I was more interested in Bill Clinton's voting record on women. I am more concerned with our leaders' out-of-bed, than in-bed, positions. Given how over-exposed and overly controlled women are as physical/sexual beings, I don't want to know too much about the personal or sexual life ofjanet Reno, Barbara Mikulski, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Donna Shalala, or Hillary Clinton. (Though I agree with Wolf: I would be concerned if they, or any public official or employer, sexually harassed their employees).

Wolf demands more of women than she does of men. Consider her matterof-fact (and quite useful) description of the difficult "impasse" often faced by African-American and white women trying to work together:

To antiracist white women, the impasse is a devastating rejection, like a lover's. "Aren't we listening?" they ask. "Aren't we trying to address the issues?" To African-American women, that very articulation of the problem is often annoying, for it sounds as if white women believe that their good intentions will make racism disappear overnight, at which point everything will be fine. White women's wish for intimacy and love from African-American women often carries the implicit hope of being magically absolved of racism... If we learned to substitute respect for intimacy and teamwork for sisterhood, these tensions would not paralyze women's organizational efforts....

Wolf shows us AfricanAmerican and white women working on racism together; she does not show us women and men working on sexism together. We don't read: "It sounds as if men believe that their good intensionswill make sexism disappear overnight." Instead, Wolf shows us men and women "loving" each other and having "sex" together. I'm all in favor of alliances with pro-woman or feminist men in the boardroom, in the bedroom and on the barricades. But I think it's cowardly and insulting to appeal to men by saying that feminists personally love and adore men - all men, any men - or that feminism doesn't really threaten the status quo because feminist leaders love/adore their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands or boyfriends.

Wolf exaggerates the extent to which feminists have offended or destroyed "good men". (Fire With Fire might well be called "Women who don't love good men enough and what's wrong with them.") In her book, pro-feminist men are "nearly dismembered" when they attend radical feminist speeches. But where are the bloody body-parts? Real body-parts litter the landscape but they're mainly female body parts. Men have killed and dismembered us.

Wolf wants to "heal this sexual divide" and to "ease rage between the sexes" That's nice, but how? As Churchill knew, appeasement doesn't work. And that's all most women have tried - that and looking away, blaming the victim, and denying that things are "that bad"

It's disheartening to see a mediaobsessed generation of young women who are more conservative than their mothers and grandmothers. Perhaps to them, the (male) power structure is background; in the foreground is the tyranny of their mothers' (or of older womens') radical feminism. Perhaps, Roiphe and Wolf are engaged in a daughters' rebellion. Wolf is consistently ambivalent about both radical and liberal second wave feminists, especially those who have paid a high price for their political beliefs. I believe Wolf and others of her generation fear this deeply.

Are Principles Necessary?

According to Wolf, some women have remained alienated from feminism either because the media has distorted the essentially happy-go-lucky nature of revolutionaries or because those same revolutionaries have, wrongfully, insisted on certain principles or "dogmas". Abortion rights, tor example. Or so-called generalizations about male aggression.

Wolf writes: "I am calling on us to look clearly at the epidemic of crimes against women without building a tooschematic world view upon it." Butjust mopping up after the violence that has been done to woman after woman after woman is not as effective as "schematically" confronting that same violence.

Physicians used to treat brown lung disease in miner after miner; unionists eventually went out on strike to close mines down and to improve working conditions.

How, exactly, shall women (and men of good will) go out on strike to end rape? Wolf, Roiphe, Paglia and Williamson do not join Andrea Dworkin in calling for even a "twenty-four hour truce" - no rape for 24 hours. Instead, Roiphe insists that reports of date rape are greatly exaggerated. Wolf suggests that we decorate rape crisis shelters in a more cheerful fashion. She may have a point, but it's besides the point. Rape centers aren't starving "for lack of fun", but for lack of available funds, lack of political action. Or is rape something Wolf, as a radical feminist, is willing to live with?

What's Wolf's program? She has one. She demands that we not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender; she insists, correctly, that this is a radical goal. I agree with her. But this is a hard goal to reach, especially if we don't note our starting point. Currently, both women and men discriminate against men positively - we adore, trust, fear and forgive men; we despise, mistrust, fear and punish women - we discriminate against women negatively. Reaching some middle ground is a laudable aim. Wolf doesn't take us there. What she does, instead, is to passionately defend the "good" men - whom she perceives as under massive, and unfair feminist attack - and attack the "bad" women, mainly second wave feminists, now in their fifties and sixties, (I'm one), whom she blames/jettisons, for not having attracted a mass following and/or for having poor image control: as if popularity and "image" are all that count, as if her so-called "genderquake'' wasn't brought about by 28 years of hard, second wave feminist labor.

Wolf takes a cheap shot when she opposes "victim" to "power" feminism. By all means, let's not be victims, let's have power feminism. But Wolf fakes power like some women fake orgasm.

She criticizes the so-called "victim feminists" for attempting to deal with violence against women in a political way. From about 1967 on, in addition to fighting for women's right to abortion and to equal pay for equal work, grass-roots feminists focused on the sexual objectification of women and on issues of sexual violence towards women on the job and on the street. They pioneered and maintained the rape crisis centers and the shelters for battered women, conducted Speakouts, testified at hearings and drafted legislation. Only after a decade were feminist activists able to expand their focus to include marital rape, date rape, domestic battery and incest.

During the 1980s, it became clear to feminists working in the area that most prostituted women were also incest victims, that many battered wives were treated as if they were their husband's or boyfriend's prostitutes, that wifebatterers, pedophiles and serial killers of women often admit they're addicted to pornography and that all women, whether they were prostitutes (the socalled "bad girls") or non-prostitutes (the so-called "good girls"), who dared to kill in self-defense were treated as if they were prostitutes, i.e. demon terrorists from hell, who deserved no mercy.

I understand Wolf's desire to "look away"; most have. But as the poet Judy Grahn wrote:

Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women? Yes, many. 1 am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die before my eyes or under my hands because I thought I could do nothing.

The Power Recipe

A radical feminist vision has to be radical. If you're a radical, the things you say and do are bound to threaten those in power, as well as those who are at their mercy. They burned the 19th and 20th century meeting houses down to intimidate abolitionists and suffragists into silence, and they jailed and forcefed them too.

Fighting fire with fire is brutal, bloody, deadly, dull, terrifying, unsafe and unglamorous. Like birth. And revolution. And creation. Wolf refers briefly, very briefly, to Harriet Tubman's 19th century Underground Railway: "she, (Tubman), took the liberation of AfricanAmerican slaves into her own hands." However, breaking the law or creating an underground, is not on Wolf's menu of options when she tells readers to exercise their right to vote, run for office, amass capital, tithe themselves, network.

Recently, in Brooklyn, where I live, a twenty year-old black street-prostituted woman was gang-raped by seven black teenage boys, who afterwards, laughing, doused her genitals and buttocks with gasoline and set her afire. She bolted to the hospital where personnel demeaned her as a "whore". Her mother threw her out of their project apartment for "shaming" her. Now, she walks the streets, still selling, (she has a pimp/manager), getting crazier and crazier, suffering horribly. Where is'' North " for this poor wretch? It doesn't exist yet. Real power feminism will be needed to create it.

Does Wolf really believe that her within-the-system recipe, "Add women and stir," amounts to that real power? I agree: by all means, let's get women or feminists, both women and men, elected to government. But whom will we elect - and to do what, and at whose expense? Will our electioneering mainly benefit the wives and daughters of (white) men of wealth, or will it alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable and endangered amongst us now, not a century from now?

Radical thinkers pay a high price. They learn to take themselves seriously: not only because others support their views, but because others oppose them. One learns that one has power, not from one's admirers or supporters, but from one's opposition. If there is no opposition, something's wrong.

I agree with Wolf that "it is not dissent that is harmful to feminism but consensus." Feminists must be able to disagree in public, take nothing personally, and keep on working together. I think Wolfhas given us an opportunity to discuss what feminism is - and what it might be.

I challenge Wolf and others of her generation, and of my own, to use their moment in history to provide sanctuary in their lifetime to the victims of patriarchal violence, and to create a powerful feminist government by all the means at their disposal.

The question Wolf asks herself is: will she choose to be a "warrior for justice" or succumb to her need to "connect and be loved"? She experiences the tension between these two desires as a "coat of fire." But women as a group are punished whether, as individuals, we acquiesce or resist. Thus, heroism - not martyrdom - is our only feminist alternative.


Editor-at-large Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D., is the author of six books, including Women and Madness and Mothers on Trial.

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