I am a feminist. I don’t have a qualification in women’s studies. I’ve never been the spokesperson for any pressure group. I’m not tremendously well-read in anything other than German Romantic literature (an area which is not, I fear, particularly pro-enthusiastic consent). I’m still a feminist. So there.
I read feminist literature when I have the time and the energy, which isn’t very often. I like Backlash and The Women’s Room. The New Feminism drove me up the wall, The Myth Of Mars And Venus is ace and I found How To Be A Woman hilarious but tremendously ego-driven. And that’s about all I’ve looked at <guilty face>. Oh, and some Julia Kristeva, which I don’t really count as feminist, just annoyingly vague (guess that’s the semiotic chora for you). And then there’s also a tiny bit of Naomi Wolf – that bit in The Beauty Myth where she discusses anorexia. I used to read that section whenever I popped into WH Smiths (I never actually bought the bloody book). When you have anorexia, as I did, even supposedly feminist diatribes against the beauty industry can serve as a bit of much-needed thinspo. “It is dead easy to become anorexic” – isn’t that what she claimed? Good work, Naomi!
Basically, as a feminist, I have not done as many “feminist” things or read as many “feminist” works as Naomi Wolf herself. Does that mean she’s a “better” feminist or more “right” than me? It’s a possibility – she’s had more opportunities to gain the knowledge, at least. Perhaps she’d be the best feminist in the whole sodding world, if only she wasn’t such a fucking idiot.
I don’t really want to be going on about Naomi Wolf again but I happened upon this article this very evening and it’s made me really bloody furious. Wolf has written a response to all the negative criticism of her new book – in case you missed it, it’s called Vagina!!! – and she’s gone out of her way to make feminism itself appear as alienating and elitist as possible. How DARE the critics not respect my higher wisdom!, the great Naomi cries. Don’t these mere mortals realise that I KNOW MORE STUFF THAN THEM! Because it would appear that to Wolf, that’s what it’s all about. Sod your arguments, little pseudo-feminist gripers. They’re just arguments. If you can’t make vague statements about history and drop in references to books that you already know most people won’t have read, your petty little arguments don’t count.
In case you’ve not read the piece itself, here’s what Wolf would patronisingly term “a primer” i.e. the best/worst bits, cherry-picked by me:
1. Wolf entirely misrepresents the charges of essentialism leveled against her
… these critics’ contention is that [my] reporting is “essentialism” – that I am re-grounding gender “back” in the body, which is a contemporary feminist-theory sin. To mainstream readers, this argument may seem arcane. So a primer: some contemporary feminist theory’s primary orthodoxy asserts that gender is always, everywhere, entirely “socially constructed” – that is, only real in the mind or in social attitudes.
As a little feminist of limited reading, I would nevertheless assert that here Wolf is doing three things:
- repeating anti-feminist misrepresentations of feminism the likes of which one finds at the start of Daily Mail-esque rubbish such as Why Men Can’t Iron And Women Can’t Read Maps
- suggesting that feminists who simply question her views are bigoted fundamentalists (“contemporary feminist-theory sin”)
- confusing the idea of gender as a social construct with the belief that biology doesn’t influence ideas or behaviour
I mean, yeah, I’ve not read all the literature – unlike Wolf – but that’s what I reckon.
2. Wolf uses historical knowledge – aka sweeping generalisations about the past – to quell opposition
But critics who attack me from this position don’t seem to know how recently their position was created in feminist intellectual history. The “essentialism” versus “gender theory” wars emerged only belatedly, in the 1980s, as legal activists sought to downplay any potential biological differences between women and men in pursuit of equal treatment in the workplace and, elsewhere, academic feminists were inspired by post-structuralism to create a discipline that cast gender as existing only as a social norm.
Honestly Naomi? It seems to me pretty darn unlikely that these ideas and this tension did not exist in any way, shape or form before the 1980s. Essentialist beliefs about women’s biology as destiny have been around for centuries (she says, airily). Are we really meant to believe that up until thirty years ago it never crossed anyone’s mind that there might be a conflict between different ideas of liberation for women, based on different beliefs about what makes women the way they are? I mean, I’ve not even read any Simone de Beauvoir but even I know of that famous quote from the start of The Second Sex – you know the one about not being born a woman, but created? I’m pretty sure that predates Adam Ant and shoulder pads. I find what you’re claiming very hard to believe. But what I find even harder to believe is the suggestion that if – and it’s a very big “if” – gender theory is new, it’s necessarily easy to dismiss. Furthermore, I do not understand why one would even need to know any of this to be able to say “hang on a minute – what you’re saying here still sounds like essentialist bollocks”.
3. Wolf presents herself as party to “radical new scientific knowledge”
And you, the reader, should be honoured that she’s sharing it with you. Are any of your friends scientific researchers into the “brain-vagina connection”? Well, are they? And if they’re not, shouldn’t you just shut up and listen?
I come from the feminist school that believes knowledge is power. Knowing about the science of the brain-vagina connection – a concept that is not my construction but rather an everyday fact for the scientists at the forefront of this research – simply means we are willing to engage with the modern world; the brain-body connection is being thoroughly documented in hundreds of ways, from cardiovascular health research to the role of stress in illness.
Yeah! Take that, sceptics! Except it’s perfectly reasonable to be sceptical bearing in mind the following:
- the ways in which neuroscience is selectively used to reinforce traditional gender prejudices (which Cameron documents in The Myth Of Mars And Venus, which I have, like, totally read! So there!)
- the fucking stupid manner in which Wolf takes one perfectly reasonable proposition – for instance, the idea stress can cause physical illness – and totally stretches and distorts it in order to conjure up a “look at me!” argument upon which to pin a book about her bad back (and okay, I haven’t read Vagina. But I’ve read her arguments as to why I should read it and they’re rubbish).
4. Wolf falls back on the old lie about “only stating the facts!”
Problematically for my critics, this book is not an opinion piece or a polemic; it is mostly a survey of this new science. These critics, to truly carry their points, can’t simply attack me – they really need to take issue directly with the findings of the dozens of studies that I cite.
No, Naomi, they don’t. If you are not interpreting and presenting “the science” in a coherent and persuasive manner, they most certainly don’t. Are you seriously suggesting that no one can criticise you without first having read everything from which you have quoted? This is just total nonsense. Take this, for instance:
My son likes Star Wars. His favourite character is Han Solo, therefore he is gay.
Does that sound a bit rubbish to you? Well, that’s because it is. But how would you know? You don’t know my son. You don’t know whether or not his favourite character really is Han Solo. So you don’t know THE FACTS! So how dare you question my entirely incoherent and offensive logic!
5. Wolf seeks to blind her opponents with over-referencing
My critics show some historical amnesia; [...] 17th-century midwife Jane Sharp and through to Victorian physician Elizabeth Blackwell [...] Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger [...] Germaine Greer [...] The Female Eunuch [...] Judy Chicago [...] Tee Corinne [...] Betty Dodson[...] Shere Hite [...] Pussy Riot [...] Lisa Brown of the Michigan state house.
Some of these people I’ve heard of, a few I haven’t. It’s not “historical amnesia”, Naomi – I never knew about them to begin with! And you know that and seek to create a sense of inadequacy in your readers by “kindly” suggesting we’ve forgotten what we never knew! Well, fuck you. I know who some of these people are and Pussy Riot? Pussy fucking Riot? Yes, they have “pussy” in the title and no, they shouldn’t be incarcerated for their “punk prayer”, but what the fuck have they ever done for anyone’s sexual liberation? Huh? (Plus you didn’t mention Donita Sparks of L7. I’d have mentioned her.)
6. Wolf suggests that all feminists who disagree with her are fundamentally opposed to evidence
The feminist mission remains the same, even in the light of new data about the vagina, female desire and the female brain. New data should not derail us from fighting for a world in which all individuals are valued equally, and all differences treated with respect. Yet if we are to have intellectual integrity we must not flee from new insights but engage with them.
But that’s the trouble – we really do need to engage with knowledge, and to do so with intellectual integrity. That’s why half-baked arguments cobbled together to sell a book aren’t enough.
Each technique Wolf exploits here is to alienate and unsettle the reader, to make him or her feel that they just don’t know enough to raise their voices in dispute. Her “feminism” appears exclusive and hectoring – yet true feminism is for all.
You don’t need little-known facts to see through flawed logic and you shouldn’t ever be bullied into thinking your objections don’t count. Like Wolf, I think knowledge can be power – but surely it’s power to be wielded with care, respect and a good dose of humility.