Then there’s Naomi Wolf. Indisputably beautiful and confidently so, the Rhodes scholar published her first bestseller at age 28, inspired the “Third Wave” feminist movement, became a staple on the college lecture circuit, and went on to counsel the president (and a would-be president) on the zeitgeist of the day. Her success extends to her personal life: Wolf has the perfect husband, former Clinton speechwriter and current New York Times editor David Shipley, and two presumably beautiful children. And, of course, she is rich. (In 1999, she claimed she took a pay cut to work for Al Gore’s campaign at $15,000 a month.)
Yet despite her success, Wolf is deeply loathed by, well, just about everyone who has ever seen her book-jacket glamour shots. Camille Paglia has derided Wolf as the “yuppie feminist” and “the Dan Quayle of feminism—a pretty airhead who has gotten any profile whatsoever because of her hair,” and even Betty Friedan has dismissed her for largely ignoring the more pressing social issues of the day.
In smarty-pants Washington circles, Wolf-bashing is a local pastime—even when most critics have never read any of her books. When word got out during the last presidential campaign that Wolf had been counseling Al Gore to be more “alpha-male,” you could hear the pundits gleefully sharpening their knives. The Establishment immediately disparaged her as a purveyor of psychobabble (quoting embarrassingly from Wolf’s book Promiscuities, in which she proclaimed, “I want to explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us as we grow up, sometimes jeopardizing us and sometimes presenting us with a new sense of authentic identity”).
Yet when Wolf’s new book, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, hit the shelves in late September, all over Washington, smart women and their shadow sluts were observed secretly running out to get a copy—undeterred even by Arab Kamikazes.
What is it about Wolf that people find so annoying, and yet so absorbing that they continue to take her seriously? There’s something contradictory about the undisputed leader of Gen X feminism. Wolf often seems like a women’s magazine, full of earnest advice for the modern professional woman, but like Cosmo or Glamour, she is read by the female intelligentsia as a kind of a shameful treat and then immediately dismissed as a trivial pursuit. There’s no doubt she’s surpassed Gloria Steinem as the feminist we love to hate.
From her media platform, Wolf, 39, has promoted a feminist theory less concerned with abortion, rape, and other forms of victimization and instead more focused on the experiences of educated, middle-class women who love their husbands and are doing pretty well for themselves. Over the past decade, she has spelled out her vision in four books—The Beauty Myth, Fire With Fire, Promiscuities, and now, Misconceptions—that have mixed her own personal memoir with social criticism of some issues which even she acknowledges women are prone to dismiss as not especially important in the big scheme of things, such as dieting, body image, and sexual desire. And she has been savaged for it.
Various theories have been offered as to why Wolf provokes such strong feelings in people. The most common hypothesis is that Wolf is the pretty feminist in a world where feminists aren’t supposed to be pretty. She really couldn’t win on that front, given that her first book was The Beauty Myth. If she had been unattractive, the book would have been dismissed as sour grapes. If she was, as turned out to be the case, a bombshell who took to flipping her long hair around in photo shoots, she was simply proof of her thesis that our culture rewards beautiful women—and who could feel sorry for her about that?
Wolf does convey the sense that she’s exploited her sexuality to get ahead in the world, but that hardly seems justification enough for the critics’ harshness. At the same time, her widespread appeal probably does not stem from her track record as a visionary. Reading The Beauty Myth now, for instance, 10 years after its original publication (in 14 countries), it’s clear the book hasn’t aged well.
For instance, she writes, “In the 1980s it was evident that as women became more important, beauty too became more important. The closer women come to power, the more physical self-consciousness and sacrifice are asked of them … older American women who have made advances within every profession are being forced to see the signs of age (the adjunct of male advancement) as a need’ for plastic surgery.” The arrival of Janet Reno as attorney general, and later, Madeleine Albright, made her analysis seem a bit overblown.
Wolf’s obsession with anorexia also now seems rather misplaced, given the real epidemic that was taking off back then: obesity. Jennifer Aniston and friends may be starving themselves, but they don’t represent large swaths of American women. Stroll around a college campus today and you’re far more likely to see girls with their stomachs brazenly bulging over their hip-huggers than the “bones in Nikes” whom Wolf claimed were dropping like flies, and whom she compared to victims of the Holocaust. (“The experience of living in a severely anorexic body, even if that body is housed in an affluent suburb, is the experience of a body living in Bergen-Belsen”).
The problem, of course, was that Wolf’s analysis was based largely on her own experiences, which she posited as representative of women elsewhere, a flawed premise that explains much of the criticism directed against her. The Beauty Myth, for instance, seems to have grown out of what Wolf claims was her own case of anorexia in the 1970s, when she was 12 and started starving herself after a kid at the water fountain teased her about her weight (“I almost lost my life to anorexia,” she once told a reporter.).
As has become her trademark, Wolf has created a dramatic meta-narrative out of her life and grafted it onto larger society. She has taken ordinary events—the universals of female experience—and written them like a Harlequin romance, imbuing each event with deeper symbolism and political meaning. The result is that Wolf seems sometimes like a sillier Sylvia Plath—self-obsessed and highly overwrought.
Wolf has a poet’s melodramatic sensibility housed in a pundit’s body. Where the poet finds allegory in a drop of rain, so, too, Wolf finds political symbolism in a dimpled thigh. And her sense of outrage is always fresh. In Promiscuities, she tells of a revered professor coming over to her apartment under the guise of discussing her poetry, only to stick his hands between her legs. Several of her classmates had had similar experiences with the codger, but Wolf somehow thought she could avoid that fate even while tempting it: “My whole body, my whole self-image, once again, again, burned with culpability,” she writes. “It felt so familiar: this sense of being exposed as if in a slow-moving dream of shame. I could practically hear my own pulse: What had I done, done, done?” What indeed, indeed, indeed?
In Wolf’s books, her innocence—and belief in women’s progress—is always betrayed, an irritating feature for readers who suspect that the Rhodes scholar should be smart enough to know better. But then again, haven’t we all been there? Even a decade after Anita Hill, what woman isn’t taken aback when her job interview with a high-powered man turns into an invitation to room-service lunch at a hotel? The difference between Wolf and the rest of us is that few women like to publicly admit to being caught off guard when we should know better (as if it were somehow our fault, the eternal paradox of sexual harassment). So while the event itself may have been momentarily traumatic, we usually downplay its significance in the retelling and move on.
Wolf, on the other hand, takes these events and amps up, manufacturing a sense of melodrama that always seems out of proportion to the misery she’s suffered. With her perfect hair and a personal life that Bridget Jones would die for, Wolf is like the perfect straight-A student from a nice family who’s trying really hard to convince her less fortunate and wickedly envious classmates that her life has been a struggle, too. (“I got a B’ in math!”) You can hear that tone when she talks about being a Rhodes scholar—one of a handful of elite American students given the chance to study at Oxford. In 1991, Wolf told Time that she and the other women had been told by classmates that “we got our scholarships because we were cute.” Oh, the horror!
Perhaps modern feminism so demands expression of personal victimization that Wolf feels compelled to inflate her minor bouts with injustice to epic proportions. Or perhaps the important lessons of feminism are simply a tough sell these days without a talk-show-tailored confessional. Ironically, the high drama Wolf gives to her personal history is very likely what makes her so appealing, especially to young women.
Wolf’s writing makes her seem as if she would be every woman’s ideal girlfriend. She’d listen intently to every detail of your tortured relationships and travails with your boss. She would sympathize, empathize, and take it all very seriously. In her books, she seizes those moments of great personal anguish in their fullness and makes a capital case out of them. As a result, she ends up bringing to bear the same breathless, righteous indignation to everything from the failures of high-school sex ed classes to female circumcision in Africa.
Wolf never acknowledges that in the heat of the moment, the crisis of our lousy boyfriend or lecherous professor may have seemed like the end of the world, but that later on, we gained some perspective. When the emotion cools, intellectually, we all know those moments pale in comparison to the real suffering endured by, say, our cleaning ladies. But again, elevating plastic surgery and our right to be sluts to the realm of “important political issues” may be the secret of Wolf’s success. As much as we’re embarrassed by it, hers is a feminism appropriate for our (until recently) self-obsessed times, highly individualistic and focused on personal development rather than collective action.
By recognizing ordinary female indignities and treating them with a poet’s reverence, Wolf ends up framing sexism in a way that nearly every woman can identify with. When smart women claim to loathe Wolf, the venom may be a sign that Wolf knows us better than we’d like to admit. Deep down, we know what she’s saying is mostly true, if perhaps embellished a bit in the telling. We did find the promises of sexual liberation a double-edged sword; we do obsess about our thighs; and while we’ll profess to be deeply concerned about the plight of Hispanic domestic workers, we’re far more likely to cry over being propositioned by our boss—and to sue him for it. The cleaning lady will have to make do with a Christmas bonus.
Misconceptions, the third installment of Wolf’s memoir trilogy, is probably the best of the bunch, if only because it offers a critique of bona fide “serious” issues. Unlike fading beauty, the desire for liposuction, or a slutty reputation, motherhood really is a huge barrier most women of all classes have trouble overcoming on the path to social and professional equity.
Following on the heels of Ann Crittenden’s book The Price of Motherhood, Wolf offers the indignation of a Third-Wave feminist who has never suffered any serious obstacles because of her gender and who is shocked—shocked!—to learn upon having a child that the revolution has only gone so far.
Her starting point is the bible of American pregnant women: What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She savages its platitudes, even as she admits to consulting it frequently for its weak assurances as she progresses through her first pregnancy. She finds the book patronizing and lacking in data to back up its supposedly reassuring assertions—such as that few women die in childbirth. As she learns later, lots of women do die in childbirth, but the numbers are underreported because there’s no requirement for hospitals to report them, except in Massachusetts.
She finds equally troubling the lack of data available to her on C-sections and episiotomies—both of which take place in the U.S. at astonishing rates found in few other developed countries. Wolf criticizes the medical establishment, and the self-help industry, for assuming that women aren’t to be trusted to eat right and take care of themselves. She finds that Expecting overloads on nutritional information and that it repeats the absurd absolute prohibition on alcohol, even though there’s scant little evidence that a half a glass of wine is going to harm a baby.
Wolf reports some fascinating research on the uselessness of fetal monitors and their role in producing abominable C-section rates—nearly one in three births to middle-class women—yet she presents the information as if it were something startlingly new. In fact, the horrors of the fetal monitor have been the subject of debate and front-page newspaper stories for some 15 years. The information was all easily available to her in Jessica Mitford’s 1992 book, The American Way of Birth, which you’d think she might have read before heading into the delivery room.
As with Expecting, Wolf found Lamaze classes mostly useless. After spending countless hours learning how to do “ladylike breathing exercises,” she later learned they were of no help in alleviating pain during delivery. She discovered that Lamaze is one of many strategies hospitals employ to ensure that laboring women don’t do anything that might embarrass the medical staff, such as howl in pain.
Much of the book’s information derives from the wisdom of midwives, who Wolf says possess skills that are disappearing and are no longer taught in medical schools—like how to deliver a breech baby without having to do a C-section. But again, this reads like a straight ripoff from Mitford, who made the same point a decade ago. Still, it is a bit shocking that so little has changed.
Wolf takes on the myth of the “nurse-midwife services” that have become all the rage in private hospitals by revealing that an alternative birthing room at her D.C. hospital was set up mostly to lure in customers. Poor design ensured it was almost never used. Wolf spent a few minutes there, only to be whisked away on allegations of fetal distress derived from the heart-rate monitor. She goes on to tell the story of her own labor and delivery in the purple prose of her earlier books. When describing her inability to labor on the schedule dictated by the medical staff (under the threat of a C-section), she writes:
“What was left of me as a physical presence felt like a trapped, cornered animal. I did not know then that mammals’ systems shut down in labor when they sense danger: Cats go away to a safe, dark place to give birth; horses and cattle seize up in labor when stress or danger is present; we women, too, are mammals … I did not feel safe in the hospital. I did not feel safe. In spite of my best intentions, I could not labor … Drugged and pinned, that is what I remember of the birth [italics hers].”
A nurse later confided that the hospital employed midwives to make women feel as though they might have some kind of nice, New-Agey birth experience, but that doctors largely ignored them. That’s mostly because the laws in many states, including D.C., where Wolf had her baby, relegate midwives to bystander status without power to override doctors’ decisions to, for example, perform an unnecessary episiotomy. Wolf also discovers that the hospitals themselves, under the gun from managed care to cut costs, pressure the medical staff to pare down on the time spent in labor through the use of more aggressive interventions.
But Wolf paints with a broad brush here and never acknowledges that many hospitals have, in fact, come a long way since the days when women gave birth flat on their backs in stirrups while husbands were relegated to smoking cigars in the lounge. Many hospitals have even adopted some of the midwives’ techniques.
Misconceptions also suffers from another bit of intellectual dishonesty: The book documents Wolf’s experience having her first child, but it’s not until a brief epilogue that the reader learns there was a second. While Wolf claims it was almost as bad—another C-section, this time recommended by a midwife—she admits that her second birth wasn’t quite so traumatic. That experience may have conflicted with the grim story she paints of the whole childbirth experience, but Wolf doesn’t moderate her story. Instead, she chooses to suffuse her portrait of motherhood with the angst and furor she worked up five years ago and has managed to sustain all this time.
Along with deconstructing pregnancy and obstetrics, Wolf ruminates over her conflicted transition from working woman to incapacitated, dependent mother, as well as the tumultuous change in gender relations that inevitably comes after the birth of a child. Parents’ quick relapse into traditional gender roles after the birth of a child is a subject worthy of further elucidation. Yet Wolf sticks to anecdotes about a few couples she knows without fully exploring just how widespread—or persistent—the problem is, and it’s deeply unsatisfying.
After she’s teased out all the intimate details of her pregnancy, labor, and delivery, you’re left dying to know how the baby affects her own marriage—which presumably is the model of equity every feminist strives for. But Wolf never lets on. While she never seems to have shied away from revealing every detail about her sex life, on this subject she remains studiously tight-lipped, only hinting about her own uxorial conflicts.
One suspects that while the transition may have been a little bumpy, Wolf’s equitable power marriage has survived just fine. After all, in the five or so years since the birth of her first child, she has counseled Al Gore, written two books, founded a women’s leadership institute, penned scores of op-eds and magazine articles, had a second child, and kept up appearances on the national lecture circuit. It’s unlikely she could manage all this if her husband weren’t pitching in a little bit at home with the kids—or at least happily footing the bill for lots of household help. And that, in the end, is what’s so infuriating about Naomi Wolf. She can identify sexist injustices with a poet’s flair, but despite her insistence to the contrary, she will never, ever really suffer from them.