This article has been rightly flagged for ableist language and ableist tropes. This I humbly admit to, having now learned more on the subject. I have removed some – only some – of the ableist language, but have almost certainly not eradicated the ableist tropes. hope that this disclaimer means that those who have been offended can still share in what I’m saying.
Naomi Wolf spoke to seventy people or so, assembled in a central Oxford college yesterday. The event was billed like this:
What are our urgent priorities for gender equality – in Oxford and beyond? Join us for the closing session of the Oxford University Gender Equality Festival, opened by Naomi Wolf, leading American political commentator, author, journalist, and writer of the feminist classic “The Beauty Myth”. There will be contributions from student leaders and campaigners from a range of political backgrounds, followed by an open consensus-based discussion (which worked fantastically for our opening night with 60-odd contributors).
I can state the easiest and most obvious things first: Wolf spoke about no gender equality priorities “beyond” Oxford. Wolf allowed for no contributions from student leaders and campaigners, but spoke unstoppably, condescendingly, and monomaniacally for two entire hours (well over her allotted time). Wolf made it clear she dislikes consensus-based discussion, preferring rather to cast a kind of preacher-like spell over her captive audience, which had a ‘divide and rule’ effect.
One cannot divorce form from content. I will attempt to get my expostulations about form out of the way first, however. I hope that over 20 hours, I have had time to modulate the feelings elicited by what was with no exaggeration the most disempowering, claustrophobic session I can remember participating in. So, in calm and reason: Naomi Wolf has lost it. (Her feminism.) I would have liked to submit the whiteboard resulting from her session to a graphologist, for it consisted of nothing but a series of illegible words, lines and aggressive dots peppering incomprehensible circles. She had the nerve to appoint herself a voice coach and self-help guru personally to everyone else in the room – “Interrupt me back”, she urged, when people protested that they would like to finish – “Silence me back, I’ll silence you, I’m a big girl”. She did silence several people. She told people flatly that their contributions were wrong, whilst simultaneously telling us that she was fishing for her message from “us”. “There are no right answers”: “Feminism”, she declared, doodling psychotically on the board, is like “Democracy” – it can be left- or right-wing.” Er, can it?
(I know that right wing pseudo-feminisms exist – libertarian and primitivist anarcho-feminisms – but they stand shoulder to shoulder with nobody. The feminism of Thatcher, in my opinion, is not deserving of the name.)
Naomi Wolf flailed and yelled and hectored like a preacher. It was very funny. But many looks passed between rows of people staring longingly at the door. Wolf’s was a very difficult lecture to slip out of. Her eagle eyes were inculpating everyone, her flamboyant, oversharing, tragi-comic assertiveness let no one escape. The clock ticked.
“Speak slowly”, she enjoined each individual: “speak clearly.” She remembered no one’s names but asked the general crowd patronisingly whether “that one” and “that one” hadn’t sounded “better” when they had responded to her top tips for empowerment. When I spoke, however, she appeared to dismiss me with affront for being “oh yes very eloquent” in propagandizing my “worldview”, and someone behind me whispered “I thought that was what you were trying to get us to be, Naomi”. With by now characteristic contradiction, she set out “not” to tell us what to think, but to foster affiliations across the political spectrum; not to refer to herself as the blueprint of effective feminism, but to ‘make leaders of us all’. Then she went ahead to fuel highly ideological criticisms of the existing WomCam and the Gender Progress Campaign, and attempted to tweak and micro-manage feminist activity within Oxford’s “campus” (to the point where she was taking hands for a volunteer to start up an e-vote on something). “By the time I’ve finished with you,” she claimed, we would all be listened to.
And, when we have become leaders, we should “not be afraid” (as some awful second-wave feminists may tell you you should be) of money. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too privileged to represent the Other! (Shouting again, here.) That old line’s just yet another way to silence women! Don’t underestimate the power of the Human Imagination! (Touching her chest.) I may never have experienced life as an Indian woman in a bordello, but that doesn’t mean I can’t speak! An actual quote here was: “YOU CAN SPEAK FOR ANYONE – er – I MEAN ABOUT ANYONE YOU WANT!”
I really ought to muster a sliver of empathy. I should impress upon you that this macabre bout of bullying we were subjected to was accompanied by Naomi Wolf’s nervous, repetitive interjections – a tic of hers – that shore up her own personal potential, authority and omniscience. “I am an intellectual”, she would say to herself, as an aside; “I’ve thought about this A LOT”; “obviously I’ve presumed familiarity with my work”; “I’ve looked into this extensively”. She’s talking to herself, during these, really. It was gruesome to behold. The cracks in the silver-plated American Self-Made ideal began to crack. It was almost too cliché to be true: “That’s when your husband leaves you” was one of these subliminal-audible moments. Poor Naomi Wolf.
Then again, no. If this is a person actually training “progressives” either side of the Atlantic, then I condemn her dogma as toxic. How is it that Wolf acquired a reputation as “progressive”? I hear she has attended Tea Party rallies. Her so-called feminism is an amalgam of free market individualism, patriotism, heteronormative New Age sensualism, and a blinkered, sad disillusionment with real, anticapitalist and antipatriarchal politics. It is violently Her-centred, content that (with Jewishness to tote) it is non-WASP-ish, while remaining fundamentally lacking in queer-, race- and, most of all, class-consciousness. Altogether, it makes no sense. One moment Wolf is asserting opposition to ‘identity politics’, the next she is professing that “issues like race and class” are “obvious” (“maybe I should have been reaffirming basics”). One ugly moment involved her responding to the proposition that everyone in the room (except two representatives from Brookes) was privileged – a fairly obvious fact – with a hair-flicking tirade. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about me”. Are we? I might gently remind the reader that this is a San Franciscan daughter of emigré academics, later Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar: opportunities to seize the means of production have not been lacking in her life. Wolf’s experience of being belittled in the masculinist environment of 80s Oxford clearly sowed the seeds of much inspirational, polemical passion, and The Beauty Myth, Fire with Fire, etcetera, have rejuvenated a certain strand of third-wave feminism. But hers is a randomised, completely un-unified compilation of sharp outcries that skim the surface of the superstructure. She summed it up when she explicitly opposed radical politics by saying “THE ONLY TOOLS THAT DISMANTLE THE MASTER’S HOUSE ARE THE MASTER’S TOOLS”. “We need to be dealing in real power”. “I know about social movements that don’t work.”
I hope that followers of Naomi Wolf remain more open and committed than she is to revolutionary change. Anyone who invokes Gandhi and Martin Luther King in aid of the argument “learning how to make money: that’s empowering” needs to review their thought pretty extensively. Wolf may have been a socialist once. If so, and if her hints are correct to the effect that the Oxford-80s-female chip on her shoulder, coupled with the non-responsiveness of neoliberal America to radical feminism thereafter, created a frustration and jadedness in her sufficient to lead to an embrace of free-market bourgeois faux-minism, then she is much to be pitied. In response to the rising criticism of her talk as having ignored the economic basis of inequality entirely, she actually protested “I trained as a Marxist”. Well if that’s true (I haven’t been able to verify it) God help the Left.
As Julie Phillips said, reviewing Promiscuities in 1997, “I distrust anyone using herself as the standard for “women”". I do too. In her session with us in Oxford, Wolf first made me cringe by introducing herself as a “a woman, so I have a woman’s brain and a woman’s sensibilities“. (What?!) Moving on from that moment, she referred absolutely everything – everything – to herself, her digestive system, her seemingly ‘intuitive’ knowledge of the porn industry, her inspirational effect on people’s lives … whilst repeatedly asking us to “notice how she was bringing it back to [us]“. Yes! “to YOU!” This was starkly untrue enough to raise a round of snickers. In Promiscuities Wolf obliquely describes her own desire to be “gazed at, caressed … given a kind of sexual adoration or devotion”, and she frames this as gender-essential: as a repressed universal. “That is how women are made”. That’s, again, I assure you, a genuine quote. Need I say that it is enragingly stupid to use the language of “making” or construction in this determinist, pseudo-biological context? What Beauvoir knew was “made” about women is precisely not what Wolf means here, but might in fact be, amongst other things, the self-censorship that sometimes holds female desire back from all kinds of (sexual) practices … not necessarily Wolf’s yearned-for male caresses and goddess-worship. Women’s freedom to fuck and play and pursue the vicissitudes of clitoral libido is completely contingent on class solidarity and a struggle for economic revolution. Women are paying for 66% of the cuts in this country, and if we don’t acknowledge the neoliberal, capitalist nature of female oppression at this time, and we think we should take up “the master’s tools” to further ourselves, as George Osborne says, “we’re getting the wrong end of the stick”. If the twenty-first century is to truly revive feminism, it needs to be a genuinely radical, anticapitalist, antiessentialist, genderqueer feminism of solidarity that excludes nobody whilst realising and understanding the binary vision of the state. To be blunt, Naomi Wolf’s bourgeois brand of feminism can fuck off.