11th Nov 2011
Bookish Birthdays: Naomi Wolf
It’s been over twenty years since the publication of the international bestseller The Beauty Myth catapulted Naomi Wolf to the forefront of third wave feminism, and yet she is still as influential and controversial as ever. After her recent arrest at Occupy Wall Street, Wolf spoke out about the events that led to her allegedly being detained for “standing on a sidewalk in evening dress, obeying the law”.
In 2010, she also caused shock waves in the feminist community with her controversial views on the Julian Assange rape case, where she argued that the politically-motivated allegations against Assange were ‘pimping’ feminism. Her Huffington Post piece on the subject led to Wolf being labelled by some as a rape apologist, although if you’ve read any of her writing on her own sexual harassment at Yale or on how institutions use victim anonymity to cover up sexual crime, I personally can’t see how you could believe this to be the case.
However, as this is a Bookish Birthday, I’d like to move away from controversial politics and focus on Wolf herself, and on the books, because she didn’t just change my life as a woman and a feminist, she also changed me as a writer.
The first proper feminist book I ever bought was The Beauty Myth. I have to admit that I didn’t find it the easiest read; the writing is quite complex, packed full of statistics, and the vocabulary and sentence structure is something I’d expect to find in a heavy academic text. However, the points The Beauty Myth raises about culture and beauty and patriarchy and consumerism are so poignant, and perhaps even more significant today than when she first wrote them, that I would still recommend it as the first port of call for anyone who wanted to explore modern feminist literature. Wolf draws attention to some of the most oppressive, loathsome aspects of our culture, pointing out things that are so blindingly obvious you can’t believe you didn’t realise it before.
Then, many years later I read Promiscuities: A Secret History of Female Desire, and it was this book that pushed me to be the writer (and the woman) that I’d always wanted to be. Wolf references the fact that the male Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel, almost always features the first sexual awakening as part of the character’s transformation from a boy to a man. But this is rarely the case for women, and even now most characters can be categorised as either ‘virgin’ or ‘slut’. This book has some really powerful anecdotal evidence of sexual repression and dominance, heightened by compelling description. Her multi-sensory recollections of growing up in 1960s San Francisco would not seem out of place in the most accomplished literary fiction.
Wolf was born in California in 1962, to Deborah Goleman, author of The Lesbian Community, and Leonard Wolf, an expert in gothic horror. Wolf went on to study English Literature at Yale University before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and her well-read academic mind is apparent in everything she writes. She married former Clinton speech writer, David Shipley, and had two children together. The couple divorced in 2005.
In recent years, the focus of Wolf’s career seems to have shifted slightly from being a spokesperson at the forefront of feminism to libertarian, speaking out against the shifting political landscape in America. In The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Wolf argues that comparisons can be drawn with modern America and some of history’s worst dictatorships.
There are number of other books not mentioned here, all fiercely passionate and almost propaganda-like in their capacity to make you want to take to the streets and fight for your rights as a women, a mother or just citizen of the Western World.
But it was The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities that personally changed me the most. Not so dramatically that I stopped subjecting myself to oppressive Western culture, obsessing about my appearance and sexuality with the aid of brainwashing women’s magazines, but just enough so that when I buy one, I hate myself a little bit.
So thank you for that, Naomi Wolf. Happy Birthday, and many happy returns.