"To ask women to become unnaturally thin is to ask them to relinquish their sexuality." -- Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf (born November 12, 1962) is an American author and political consultant. With the publication of The Beauty Myth, she became a leading spokesperson of what was later described as the third-wave of the feminist movement. She remains an advocate of feminist causes and progressive politics, with a more recent emphasis on arguing that there has been a deterioration of democratic institutions in the United States.
"'Beauty' is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West is is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.""Most urgently, women's identity must be premised upon our "beauty" so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self-esteem exposed to the air.""No matter what a woman's appearance may be, it will be used to undermine what she is saying and taken to individualize - as her personal problem - observations she makes about the beauty myth in society.""Pain is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria.""Western women have been controlled by ideals and stereotypes as much as by material constraints.""Women have face-lifts in a society in which women without them appear to vanish from sight."
Wolf was born in San Francisco, California in 1962 of Jewish descent. Her mother is Deborah Goleman, an anthropologist and the author of The Lesbian Community. Her father is the Romanian-born horror scholar Leonard Wolf. She attended Lowell High School and debated in regional speech tournaments as a member of the Lowell Forensic Society. She attended Yale University, where she received in 1984 her Bachelor of Arts in English literature; she was a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford from 1985 to 1987.
Wolf was married to the former Clinton speechwriter David Shipley. They had two children, Rosa (b. 1995) and Joseph (b. 2000). Wolf and Shipley divorced in 2005.
In 2006, Scotland's Sunday Herald carried an interview in which Wolf claimed that, while meditating, she had a visual experience in which she was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to Jesus. She told the paper, "I don't claim to get where this being fits into the scheme of things but I absolutely believe in divine providence now, absolutely believe God totally cares about every single one of us intimately." Wolf has subsequently declined to discuss the matter in interviews.
In the early 1990s, Wolf garnered international public notoriety as a spokesperson of third-wave feminism as a result of the tremendous success of her first book The Beauty Myth, which became an international bestseller. 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 claimed 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:
Wolf's book became an overnight bestseller, garnering intensely polarized responses not only from the public and mainstream media but among feminists themselves. 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."
In contrast, 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 claim that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia. Sommers wrote that the actual number is closer to 100, a figure which others, such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, claimed to be much too low. In the same interview, Sommers stated that Wolf had retracted the figure.
In the mainstream press, The New York Times published a harshly critical assessment of Wolf's work: Caryn James 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." After rejecting her thesis, the review leveled even harsher appraisal of her methodology and statistics, writing, "Ms. Wolf doesn't begin to prove her claims because her logic is so lame, her evidence so easily knocked down...Her statistics are shamefully secondhand and outdated." In a comparatively positive review, The Washington Post called the book "persuasive" and praised its "accumulated evidence."
Promiscuities reports on and analyzes the shifting patterns of contemporary adolescent sexuality. Wolf claims 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. The New York Times published a stinging review that 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 the modern problems 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 and rages against the doctor who performed her C-section, and advocates a return to more personally attached practices akin to midwifery. Wolf's book was panned by the New York Times, responding to the book "with a feeling of exhaustion and dissatisfaction at the pie-in-the-sky laundry list of complaints."
The End of America
In A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Wolf takes a historical look at the rise of Fascism, outlining the 10 steps necessary for a Fascistic group (or government) to destroy the democratic character of a nation-state and subvert the social/political liberty previously exercised by its citizens:
Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.
Create secret prisons where torture takes place.
Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens.
Set up an internal surveillance system.
Harass citizens' groups.
Engage in arbitrary detention and release.
Target key individuals.
Control the press.
Treat all political dissidents as traitors.
Suspend the rule of law.
The book details how this pattern was implemented in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and elsewhere, and analyzes its emergence and application 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.com. End of America was favorably reviewed in the New York Times by Stephen Holden as well as in Variety Magazine.
Give Me Liberty
"Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries" was written as a sequel to A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, for those who understand the threats now posed to America and want to know "What do we do?".
In the book, Ms. 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:
She also examines the core principles of what America is supposed to give us, because of the manipulation that is moving Americans away from those principles, through the use of fake patriotism, fake democracy and hyped crisis. Ms. Wolf then goes about outlining a "battle plan" for ordinary people to follow in order to fight back, by overcoming the confusion and becoming organized activists to bring back the rule of law as set by the United States Constitution.
Wolf's other books include Fire with Fire on politics, female empowerment and women's sexual liberation. The New York Times assailed the work for its "dubious oversimplifications and highly debatable assertions," its "sloppy thinking and even sloppier prose," and its "disconcerting penchant for inflationary prose." Time magazine dismissed the book as "flawed."
In 2005, Wolf published The Tree House: 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. "I had turned my face away from the grace of the imagination," she wrote. Germaine Greer, who had vociferously praised The Beauty Myth, criticized the work as Oedipal, and as an acceptance of the patriarchy that Wolf had once opposed. Wolf said that she wanted to evolve from feminism and polemics, to get past the "us versus them approach." On August 9, 2009, she published an editorial where she compared Obama's Guantánamo Promise with the hard facts created by Bush-era policies.
Wolf considers herself a liberal feminist, a stance that has attracted criticism from radical feminists who argue that a patriarchal prejudice is inherent to democratic liberalism.
In publishing an article in The New Republic that fiercely criticized contemporary pro-choice rhetoric, Wolf staked out a qualified pro-choice position. She 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 finishes her article 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."
Pro-life commentators seized on Wolf's claims to accuse her of "failing 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 has denounced Ms. Magazine for its "fanaticism" toward abortion rights.
Departing from the anti-pornography emphasis of such second-wave feminist writers as Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, and Catharine MacKinnon, 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."
She later followed up on this theme with the assertion that Saturday-night parties with significant alcohol consumption tended toward an increase in one-night stands, which she refers to as "hooking up".
In 2004, Wolf wrote an article for New York Magazine accusing acclaimed literary scholar Harold Bloom of sexual harassment more than two decades earlier. 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 writes, "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."
Wolf's article drew intense criticism. Slate Magazine wrote, "Both her evidence and her reasoning are deeply flawed...Her gaps and imprecision give fodder to skeptics who think sexual harassment charges are often just a form of hysteria." Scholar and journalist Laura Kipnis wrote, "The power actually doesn't flow in only one direction in these encounters, nor does the vulnerability...What she's resenting, ironically enough, is the fact that she has power over him." The New York Observer wrote that she had "expertly microwaved an instant drama, attempting to be a simultaneously avenging and sympathetic angel," and drew attention to the welter of inconsistencies in her account. New York Press wrote, "Victim feminism has fallen out of fashion...and nobody warned Naomi Wolf about the tanking stocks."
In the mainstream press, Wolf attracted similar derision. The Wall Street Journal wrote, "One is left with the unpleasant suspicion that Ms. Wolf wanted to get back into the spotlight and went rummaging in her basket of anecdotes until she found a juicy one to squeeze for publicity." The Washington Post called for an end to "exaggerated victimhood as embodied by Wolf." Author Camille Paglia said she was "shocked" at the allegations and told The Guardian, "It really smacks of the Salem witch-hunts and all the accompanying hysteria. It really grates on me that Naomi Wolf for her entire life has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men and made a profession out of courting male attention." Newspaper reports described Paglia as enraged over the accusations, blasting Wolf's decision to "wait for 20 years to bring all of this down on an elderly man who has health problems, to drag him into a 'he said/she said' scenario so late in the game...This is regressive. It's childish. Move on! Get on to menopause next!"
Women in Islamic countries and Israel
Wolf has spoken favorably about the dress required of women living in Muslim countries. She observed
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled 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 channelling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
She has written the same of women conforming to the requirements of Orthodox Judaism: "I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. [...] Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair. She must feel, I thought, so hot."
Wolf was involved in Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election bid, brainstorming with the president's team about ways to reach "soccer moms" and other 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 claim 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 claimed she mentioned the term "alpha male" only once in passing and that "[it] was just a truism, something the pundit 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".