Wolf I: Power Feminist or Victim Feminist?
Some feminists, in today’s world, believe that women have the same rights as men; that this equality of rights is getting close to being consistently recognized in countries like the United States; and that further feminist efforts, in this part of the world, should be narrowly targeted at those remaining areas where the legal and political systems privilege men over women. They would also show concern about privileges granted to women over men, or cases in which the rights of both are violated. Such views are characteristic of individualist feminism.
Others who call themselves feminists maintain that men are the oppressor class; women are the victim class; and women are consequently entitled to take over the oppressor role, at least for the next few thousand years. Such views are characteristic of collectivist feminism.
Adequate sensitivity to feminist concerns would at the very least require attention to these differences. Individualist feminists and collectivist feminists both seek a change in “power relations,” but from a libertarian standpoint, what kindof change they are aiming at makes all the difference in the world.
Which brings us back to Gus diZerega’s assertion that Naomi Wolf is a liberal feminist whose recent actions libertarians are either wrong to criticize, or to waste their time on (I’m still not sure which). More specifically and less ambiguously, it brings us to Roderick Long’s multi-round defense of her article in New York magazine.
For a little over a decade, Wolf has presented herself to the public as a “power feminist.” Her book Fire with Fire (published in 1993, all page references to the hardcover edition) was intended to be a power-feminist manifesto. While it makes concessions to individuality, Fire with Fire presents women as one great big interest group that shouldn’t be shy about amassing political power and voting itself benefits from the public treasury. “‘Feminism’ should mean, on an overarching level, nothing more than women’s willingness to act politically to get what they determine that they need” (p. 59). Elsewhere she boils power feminism down to “More for women” (p. 138). Wolf shows impatience with groupthink among movement feminists, but I take it to be largely directed against conformist attitudes that stand in the way of grabbing up those “power units.” Underlyingly, she agrees with the establishment figures that women constitute a collective, in need of representation as such. So there are reasons for libertarians to worry about the particular laws and policies that Wolf believes will flow from the “power” side of feminism. But most of these can be held for another discussion.
More to the point here, Naomi Wolf expressly proclaimed that the days of “victim feminism” are past. “Victim feminism is when a woman seeks power through an identity of powerlessness. Victim feminism… is what all of us do whenever we retreat into appealing for status on the basis of feminine specialness instead of human worth, and fight underhandedly rather than honorably” (p. 135).
In Fire with Fire, Wolf provides a checklist of power-feminist and victim-feminist attributes (e.g., power feminists are tolerant of other women’s choices regarding sexuality and appearance; victim feminists are “judgmental,” even puritanical about them). She cheers on women who buy guns, and excoriates feminists who gave their support to Jean Harris (who murdered her cheating boyfriend) or Hedda Nussbaum (who stood by and let her husband beat their adopted daughter to death, when he wasn’t beating her). She proclaims that women can be just as aggressive, nasty, or power-mad as men.
And as Wolf’s own account makes clear, victim feminism isn’t a list of articles of belief. It is a kit of tools, moves, and poses that can be used, instrumentally or opportunistically, by women who do not subscribe to any justificatory doctrines of female moral superiority and male moral inferiority, or female passivity and male aggression, or unabated patriarchal domination of American women in every walk of life, in 1993 or 2004.
Wolf has told us she doesn’t believe the justifications. Unfortunately, she hasn’t set down the tools. Her New York magazine article leaves little doubt about her willingness to play the victim role, so she can seek power through powerlessness.
Let’s begin with the way that Wolf describes her life as an undergraduate at Yale: “I also knew that there was an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors. I had discussed with my friends the pressure to be charming but still seen as serious.” In speeches that she gave for several years, referring to an unnamed male professor’s crude move on her: “I describe what the transgression did to me—devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men.” Isn’t she telling the reader that she saw herself as a pawn, well before Harold Bloom, drunk on Amontillado, supposedly pushed his face too close to hers, issued an oracularly loopy come-on, and put his hand on her thigh?
Her description of the man deserves quoting at length:
Harold Bloom was one of Yale’s most illustrious professors. Most of my friends in the Literature department were his acolytes, clustering around him at office hours for his bon mots about Pater and Wilde. He called students, male and female both, “my dear” and “my child.” Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him. He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.
I, personally, was at once drawn to him intellectually and slightly scared of him. I had audited a famous course he taught, and he had reached out to me then and invited me to talk with him. Since he was so intellectually selective, I was “sick with excitement” at the prospect…
His aura was compelling—and intimidating.
Is this how a 19-year-old student typically feels about a professor? And when an undergraduate harbors such feelings, does anyone believe the attraction is purely intellectual? Around that same age, I worked with people who were on the outer edge of the Ayn Rand cult; I exhibited more than a few “Randroid” tendencies of my own. Yet I could not have kept a straight face, had I heard someone describe Rand that way. As a grad student, I had a crush on a female professor for a time. Needless to say, I thought she was really smart, as well as truly hot, but… “a vortex of power and intellectual charisma”?
Reading Wolf’s narrative, you'd think that questioning authority was an idea that had never entered her mind. Yes, I know it was 1983, and Ronald Reagan was in the White House. But didn’t Naomi Wolf entertain an occasional thought that the “powerful men” who taught her put their pants on one leg at a time? It may also be that in Lit Crit the big names are especially likely to attract groupies, though that is not sufficient to explain why Wolf would want to become one. Whatever the basis for her attitude, she writes as though she worshipped Harold Bloom as a god and was intoxicated by his authority. How far would she go, to get this superior being’s attention? Could “the pressure to be seen as charming” have been internally generated?
To be continued in Part II.
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