from the pages of June 1994


Fire with Fire, The New Female Power

and How It Will Change the 21st Century

By Naomi Wolf

Reviewed by Susie Day


If you are not already a woman, pretend that you are one. Now, pretend that I am a white heterosexual man and you're listening to my Public Radio talk show. Hi. And welcome. Today, my guest is Naomi Wolf, a feminist writer Who doesn't hate men. Hear her read from her latest book, Fire with Fire:

We are at what historians of women's progress call `an open moment.' But...many women and their movement have become estranged; one strand of feminism has developed maladaptive attitudes; and women lack a psychology of female power to match their new opportunities. Gosh. Really? Go on: When we understand the nature of power, and when women acknowledge our own will to power, men's resistance to women's equality looks every bit as unjust, but less intimately infuriating. Women would certainly exhibit it themselves were the roles reversed Hear that? Talk about getting all the points of view. She's saying that I am not a male chauvinist pig. I am a natural person, like yourself. Either that, or you're as innately rotten as I am. In any case, we're equals--so l win. WIN WIN WIN!!! BIG BIG BIG!!! Thank you, Ms. Wolf. OK. Show's over. Book review time. I have actually listened to Naomi Wolf discuss her book on talk shows not unlike the above. Fire with Fire is eminently pleasing to the liberal mainstream, which depends for its existence on the deep, neutralizing beliefs that ~a) there are two sides to everything, (b) we're all just people, and (c) extremism in any form is degrading. Wolfs writing is often cordial and balanced. And, in the wake of Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe, Wolf sounds almost militant: "Asking men to hold themselves accountable for sexism or analyzing the evidence that almost all violence against women comes from men is not man-bashing." The problem with Wolf's analysis isn't that it urges women to get with the mainstream program; it's the tight, sexy little contest that Wolf has rigged between "good" and "bad" feminisms--a contest that makes the mainstream program seem the only choice available to sane women. Fire with Fire is really another girlfight which boys, on or off the air, get to lay back and enjoy. Wolf, moreover, has revamped some careworn activist debates to fit feminism with so little complexity--and so little compassion--that she seems to have written not a book, but a 300-page Cosmo article. At first, Wolfs premise looks plausible: Feminism, forced underground during the backlash years of the Reagan/Bush era, managed to boil over again during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. In what Wolf terms the "genderquake," women of diverse political camps were shocked by officials' malign indifference to sexual harassment, and galvanized into demanding that they finally be taken seriously by government and society. And those demands were heard, says Wolf. Just look, she exclaims, at some of the many things women have "won" in the last few years:

Working within institutional parameters for political gains is a central aspect of what Wolf deems "power feminism." Power feminism, ideologically, is Feminism Lite: dogma-free, except for an unequivocal belief that "women matter as much as men do." Among other things, power feminism "seeks power and uses it responsibly," "hates sexism without hating men," is "unapologetically sexual," and "wants all women to express their own opinions." Above all, it does not whine. Wolf reminds us of model Marla Hansen, whose face, badly slashed by two thugs, finally came to a point where she was ready to give up her identity as a victim, and sought medical treatment to remove her scars. `the women's movement as a whole," observes Wolf, "is at exactly such a psychological juncture." It is ready to rid itself of "victim feminism."

"Victim feminism," according to Wolf, claims power and purity by identifying with powerlessness itself. Coming out of the radical 60's Left, and misshapen by crude interpretations of 70's feminist theories--"all men are rapists," for example; "all women are lesbians"--victim feminism has repulsed the mainstream and ossified women's communities for years. A sort of evil twin of power feminism, victim feminism is responsible for "man-bashing," overt censorship, and a pervasive elitism that has forced the vast population of women to turn from Bella to Oprah to get their needs met. It is, according to Wolf, "sexually judgmental"; "casts good and attacks wrong"; and "wants all other women to share its opinions."

If not checked, observes Wolf, victim feminism, with its "Victorian" desire for pious separatism and an organic distrust of institutional power, could screw everything up for women. Yet only someone with a victim mentality would bother to quibble that most of the "gains" Wolf has listed will do virtually nothing to better the lives of women of color, poor women, or lesbians--unless you can also gain the right to fly your combat plane over the White House.

One aspect of victim feminism is elegantly represented in a line that Wolf takes from an Audre Lorde poem: `the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." On the contrary, says Wolf, only the master's tools will do the job. But the master's tools argument has existed for generations, whether as a choice between "revolution" or "revelation," or between working for abolition or living on Brook Farm. It is certainly not particular to the women's movement. The debate about whether to "work within the system" or to separate from it is as honorable as it is old, and deserves much more attention and respect than it receives here. For in this debate, as in real life, the mainstream and the margins need each other.

Wolf is right to point to a victim mentality that has characterized and distorted much of the women's movement. But while the master's house is still standing, it seems rather futile for Wolf to devote chapter after chapter to dismantling a sector of the women's movement that she already sees as self-defeating. Why, in fact, does she find so much menace, and so little hope in these "rigid" consensus thinkers? Surely, the Dow Chemical Corporation is more destructive to the women's movement than Mary Daly. And can women and our politics be divided so easily? Most of us work every day in and out of the "system"; most of us are variously victims and oppressors.

A "victim mentality"--that turbulent place in the heart where "until all are free, none are free," bleeds into pain-for-pain's sake--is also not particular to women; ir5 present in different kinds and degrees in virtually every disenfranchised group. The predominantly white women's movement could well have taken self-pity to new depths, but we also have some fine examples of competitive sniveling in the predominantly male Left. Heck, just scratch the Public Radio poise that sheathes "we're all just people," and you'll probably find "Hey, I'm a victim, too, lady. Gimme my funding back."

Fire with Fire treats these complicated issues with such dualistic simplicity that it ends up saying virtually nothing. Illustrating the two types of feminism, Wolf relates her first-hand experience as a "victim feminist' volunteer at a drab, harrowing rape crisis center, where stories of abuse endured by clients were overwhelming, there was neither end nor goal in sight, and decisions were tortuously made by consensus. (."the majority felt tyrannized by the minority; the minority felt overruled by the majority, and the happy face of...agreement in public was betrayed by a frenzy of back-stabbing...") She compares this undeniably devastating experience with a peppy, optimistic third-hand account of a "power feminist" strike by clerical workers at Yale University, where all ended happily within a few months. they found their connection not on their common victimization, but on their common goal.~') But rather than trying to fathom how to avoid the very human tendency, under impossible conditions, of seeing suffering as a virtue; rather than trying to understand where a "lower-archy" mentality might come from and how it might be addressed, Wolfs message here seems to be: gain; not pain--don't get involved if you can't win.

Speaking of winning, here is my favorite out-of-context line in this book: "I have done abject deeds for sexual passion. So, I am sure, has Norman Schwarzkopf." And, speaking of sex--she doesn't, much. Making it discretely explicit that she is heterosexual, Wolf lumps Pat Califia and Jeanette Winterson into one lesbian literary category, and spends barely a sentence on the current, highly-charged lesbian pro-sex movement. Instead, she demands to know where " most [my italics] girls go for a feminist vision of erotic life." Wolf thinks feminist vengeance is justifiable, even fun, and that such films as Silence of the Lambs and Fatal Attraction are good women's revenge fantasies. Yet she sees the lesbian cartoon Hothead Paisan as an example of "sexual sadism.

One of the best barometers for feminist power, ~nlnKs VVOIT, 15 me marKt~-p~ u she joyfully describes various liberated Kotex, Virginia Slims, Toyota, and Danskin advertisements which show women in new "powerful" ways--even sporting lady-like suggestions of phalluses. There's a Timex ad in which a woman "saved her husband's life by whacking a grizzly bear on the nose and then using her bra as a tourniquet to stop the man's bleeding." Wolf is particularly taken with a series of No Nonsense Pantyhose commercials, in which the face of Texas Governor Ann Richards appears inside a women's power symbol. "For the price of four pairs of high-quality control-top pantyhose a year," conjectures Wolf a few pages earlier, "American women...could provide themselves and every woman and girl in America, with a bi-partisan war chest that could provide legislative parity and a political voice that could be suicidal to disregard, by the year 2000."

But even if Wolf were get what she seems to want--a movement in which saying "I am a feminist should be like saying, `I am a human being"'--women could still not form a consistently formidable political block. What, in fact, could hundreds of millions of women and girls in the U.S. agree upon? Abortion? NAFTA? Sexual harassment? Wolf herself cites a poll saying that 27 percent of U.S. women thought Anita Hill had not been sexually harassed. Over fifty years after she wrote The Second Sex,Simone de Beauvoir appears to be more realistic than Wolf, for all Wolfs entreaties to women to be practical. For women, says Beauvoir, "have no past, no history, no religion of their own... If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with the men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women." "Zoe Baird and her Peruvian nanny," allows Wolf toward the end of the book, "should not expect the bond of their sex to blot out their conflicting agendas." Then what is the bond of their sex, in Wolfs realpolitik? And who, really, is doing the bonding?

The underside of Wolfs humanitarian "power" feminism seems to be a sleek new brand of separatism, in which "power feminists" gain the right to move on from others who--in good faith or in bad--see themselves "in struggle." In order to attain "full women's equality," power feminism seems charged with the ironic task of implicitly arguing that white women not be held back by the plight of women of color; that straight women not be identified with lesbians and bisexual women; that middle and upper class women not have to feel bad that poor and