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Naomi Wolf: Power Feminist or Victim Feminist?
March 24, 2004
by Robert L. Campbell

Part 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 kind of 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?

Part II: Playing the Victim Role while Denying It

It's time for an inventory of what happened, assuming that Naomi Wolf's story is semi-accurate. A 19-year-old female student has deified a male professor. She has gone to great lengths to attract his attention. Despite her intelligence and her self-proclaimed expertise at handling men (an unwanted hand on the thigh is no big deal, she insists), she has let him invite himself to a candlelight dinner at her place. She has gotten drunk with him. She is so drunk, and so grossed out to discover that the deity is an ugly, out-of-shape, 53-year-old man who finds her body of much more pressing interest than her poetry, that she vomits on the spot. (In her first published account of the incident, in which Bloom was given another name, she declared that her poetry manuscript was "the most important gift I had ever given any man.") Witnessing her reaction, the (former?) deity remarks that she is a "deeply troubled girl," and hastily departs.

(Wolf has actually told her story twice in print now, and the versions don't fully agree. According to Rachel Donadio's New York Observer article, Wolf first published an account in her 1997 memoir, Promiscuities. There she invited Bloom, who was given a made-up name and specialty, to her apartment to dine alone with her. The 1997 version also credited the quantity of Amontillado that Wolf had knocked back as a partial explanation of her vomiting. The 2004 version ascribes the vomiting entirely to the sheer horror of Bloom leaning close to her face and putting his hand on her thigh.)

From this encounter, Wolf might have learned that Bloom was not a god, that he was capable of acting like a fool, that his approval was not worth the cost to her self-respect, and that she could live a fulfilled life without being sponsored and validated by a "powerful man." Or she might have seen her failure to be validated as an irretrievable loss, irrefutable proof that she was unworthy of the deity's beneficence.

She writes as though Bloom had delivered irrefutable proof. Yet Roderick Long insists the incident did no real damage to her self-esteem: "Wolf says nothing of the kind."

I believe this is something of the kind: "the encroachment, the transgression... had effects that went deep." As is this: "What it set off was a moral crisis, shaking my confidence in the institution that I was in." And this: "I was spiraling downward: I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F, and was put on academic probation. My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship at the end of the term." (Incidentally, here is one part of Wolf's story that fails to ring true. Even at an Ivy League institution, Rhodes Scholarships go only to the hoitiest of the toitiest, among those who envision themselves as future world-shapers. How could Wolf have won a Rhodes Scholarship, even on a second try, if her course grades had truly gone so far into the tank?)

Continuing, from her former roommate: "You were really nervous; you were anxious for the rest of the semester." And finally: "Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes." Wolf insisted to Rachel Donadio that she never wrote another poem after the incident. When Donadio asked her to explain why, she burst into tears; she resumed the interview a few minutes later, without answering the question.

Picking up again with Donadio, she exclaimed, "Professor Bloom is not a bad guy! He's a good guy in many ways! ... One stupid action shouldn't demonize someone or victimize someone. ... I've talked to many people who have glowing things to say about him and whom he'd mentored. I wish I could have been mentored by him."

It is also true that in the New York magazine article, Wolf denies presenting herself as a victim: "I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted." In light of the foregoing, her denial has no credibility. As Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian, "it really is debeateable whether or not some drunk bloke putting his face quite near yours and his hand on your thigh, when you thought he'd come round to read poetry, undermines your value to an entire institution. In the barometer that runs from 'misunderstanding' to 'act of violence', it leans irrefutably towards the former."

On rereading her New York magazine article, I was struck by how often Wolf would say something, then explicitly deny the plain intent of her own words. Readers need to be attentive to what Wolf is actually saying, and disinclined to credit what she says she is saying.

She talks of pestering Richard Brodhead, the Dean of Yale College, to take some kind of action against Harold Bloom. Brodhead says there have been no complaints against Bloom during the 11 years that he's been in office, and he isn't going to admonish a professor on the basis of unsubstantiated charges now 20 years old. Wolf talks as though punishing Harold Bloom is not the point, then says, "His harmful impulse would not have entered his or my real life--then or now--if Yale made the consequences of such behavior both clear and real." I.e., he should have been punished, or faced the threat of punishment.

She focuses on the dreadful thing that was done to her, and her heavy-hearted decision not to complain to anyone in authority about it. Then she insists that she spent nine months phoning and emailing a bunch of Yale administrators, threatening to publish Bloom's name, and finally delivering on her threat--all for the sake of other women.

To get the other women's cases into the article, she had to splice together alleged offenses that range from a male professor putting his hand on a female student's leg when she sat next to him at a local bar and making a snarky remark when she got up and left her seat, to a professor drugging and raping a grad student. In Fire with Fire, she not only rejected the idea of a simple continuum from unwanted propositions to rape, but went so far as to note that some women have called an awful sexual experience rape when they had obviously consented to it. In those days, she would have emphatically rejected tossing the other women's cases into the same basket:

It is absolutely true that all sexual harassment lies on a spectrum, but let us not take the opportunity granted by the new attention given these issues to collapse that spectrum. Taking harassment and date rape seriously means demarcating the inappropriate from the criminal. (1993, p. 193).

This ought to make the reader wonder what the other women's function might be, except to make it look as though she is getting back at Yale University for maintaining inadequate grievance procedures, not at Harold Bloom for putting a crude move on her.

To anyone who thinks I am being too harsh, I suggest a close reading of the last 7 paragraphs of Wolf's article. What is she recommending be done about "sexual transgression in school and work"? What could she mean when she says it should be handled as a "civil rights" issue? (Federal law already classifies sexual harassment as a form of discrimination against women.) Does she really believe that Yale University has handled sexual transgressions against female students as badly as the Catholic Church has handled priests molesting boys? For that matter, does she really believe that "no one harasses upward in a hierarchy"? (Sexual-harassment experts like to say that a male student who makes sexual comments about a female professor is engaging in "contrapower harassment.") Anyone who can extract a consistent proposal for reform out of these paragraphs will relieve me of my muddle by explaining what it is. In the meantime, I think I am on safe ground concluding that changing the way universities do their business was not the motivating force behind Wolf's essay.

Part III: To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Harold Bloom doesn't get off the hook, just because Naomi Wolf has the bad faith to bring out the old victimological ploys while denying that what she is up to.

Assuming that things went roughly as she recounted them, Harold Bloom did do something wrong. He didn't just get drunk and put a crude move on a student whose work he was grading, he blew off his basic responsibilities as an instructor. A professor who takes on a student for an independent study course is expected to give the student assignments, to track progress on them, and to meet with the student weekly. It isn't clear from Wolf's account whether he met with her in his office once or twice, or never bothered to at all. But soon enough, if she is telling the truth, he was dodging meetings with her. There was only the fateful dinner, and afterward, no further contact--she says her poems went into his box in the department mailroom, and his final grade report was mailed to her. Simply for failing to hold up his end of an independent study course, Bloom deserved to get chewed out by his department chair. (Unless, of course, Bloom had been extended the privilege of enrolling students in independent study courses without having to meet with them. In that case, his department and the upper administration needed to review the wisdom of keeping such a prima donna on the payroll.)

Wolf had multiple opportunities to seek justice, or at least some acknowledgment of wrongdoing. She says she was too scared to try any of them. She was convinced that her academic adviser would rate Bloom's interests over hers. She doesn't mention either Bloom's department chair or the dean of the college (though at one point she insists that a trip to the dean's office is "intimidating" to students per se). She says she wanted to file a grievance... and was talked out of it. In fact, "some women friends" talked her out of speaking to "anyone official." "In the absence of transparent procedures, decoding the right rumors was how you survived." You would think Wolf and her friends were helpless inmates of some total institution, not students at an elite university.

Undergraduates are not known for their deep knowledge of the way a university works. If any of Wolf's friends had ever filed a grievance against a faculty member, she doesn't mention it. One supposedly told her about a woman whose complaint against a male graduate student was not upheld by the Grievance Board--with the alleged result that the woman had a breakdown and dropped out of Yale. (Other portions of Wolf's account suggest that some of her friends were Bloomian acolytes themselves. Could any of them have been more interested in protecting the guru than in supporting her?)

I should note that Jennifer Weiner, an Ivy League contemporary of Wolf's, has little patience with this kind of story:

As someone who attended a similar institution in roughly the same era that Wolf did, I can assure you that Ivy League undergrads are practically marinated in entitlement. If you had a beef with anything, be it person or policy, you felt perfectly entitled, justified, and encouraged to tell someone. Even if you were on financial aid. Even if you were female. By the time I got to Princeton, in the heyday of P.C., especially the women.

In any event, Naomi Wolf never talked to a faculty member or an administrator about her run-in with Bloom. Her parents asked a professor they knew to intervene--she says he declined to get involved--and that was the end of it.

The New York Observer article indicates that she would never have had to be alone in a room with Harold Bloom during grievance hearings, undermining at least one of her stated reasons for avoiding the process. I will add that faculty members often make the opposite complaint from Wolf's: they think that grievance procedures of the kind that Yale was using are tilted against the professor, not the student, when sexual misconduct is being alleged.

That said, I have a little sympathy with Wolf concerning institutional grievance proceedings. Flagrantly political decisions can happen in the best of them. Where witnesses cannot be cross-examined (a lot of grievance procedures do not allow it), some may lie with impunity to the grievance panel.

However we might evaluate it, the extreme confidentiality that Wolf complains about is commonplace. (I have seen how grievance proceedings work, both in a three-initial corporation where I was once employed, and in academia where I am now, so I think I have some basis for generalizing). A fair and reliable procedure will be able to find for an employee against a manager, or for a student against a professor, when the manager or the professor is in the wrong. But the penalty assessed against the offender is frequently not revealed to the person who filed the successful grievance (it never was in the three-initial corporation's process, just as Wolf says it never is at Yale). Naturally, if the offender is pushed into quitting, or is removed from a management position, the outcome will be visible--but how and why it occurred will be known to very few. Lesser sanctions will be kept officially quiet, and may not even become the subject of rumor.

Wolf, then, is at best na´ve when she complains about lack of transparency as though it is unique to Yale University ("as secretive as a Masonic lodge," she laments). Suppose an irate alumna of Clemson University called the president's office, or a dean's office, and demanded to know the outcome of a particular grievance not involving herself. Or suppose she demanded to know what penalties had been imposed against administrators or professors who had been on the losing side in grievance procedures over the past so many years. She would be told that these were personnel matters, grievance proceedings are highly confidential--now please go away. If a former employee were to call the offices of a high-level manager in a three-initial corporation, asking questions of this kind, the response would be identical in content, and probably brusquer in manner.

We can certainly debate the rationale for such policies. I have heard it said that corporate managers would never consent to be subject to grievance proceedings, unless they could be spared public humiliation when the rulings went against them. Maybe so, but that's a strictly pragmatic appeal to existing "power relations." Wolf correctly recognizes that "the reputation of the university" and "damage control" are highly motivating to university administrators. Naturally, fear of lawsuits stimulates wagon-circling, and some of those suits are filed under Federal sexual harassment law (as Wolf is aware, both the Federal law and Yale policies and procedures mandated by a Federal judge were in place by the time of her run-in with Bloom). But it isn't just sexual improprieties that prompt such fears. She'd have gotten no further, in her conversations with Yale administrators, had she demanded to know how administrators had been penalized when they were found to have misused university funds, or how professors were disciplined, when they were caught issuing fraudulent grades or driving drunk with students on board. Wolf doesn't let such details complicate the picture.

What's clearly false is Wolf's assertion that university grievance boards (or administrative rulings made without a grievance procedure) never go in favor of female students who have brought complaints against male professors. On the contrary, sometimes they have found for female students whose charges against male professors were overblown, or fabricated outright. Daphne Patai's book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism presents a number of documented cases. For instance, Leroy Young was fired summarily from a tenured faculty position by the president of Plymouth State College--without an investigation, immediately after Young had prevailed on appeal against a student who claimed that he had sexually harassed her. But you'd never know that from Wolf's sample of unidentified size, drawn from an unknown number of unnamed universities: "Not one of the women I have heard from had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence... No one was met by a coherent process that was not weighted against them." Really? Another female student sued Leroy Young--who had passed a polygraph test denying her charges--and ended up collecting $115,000 from his former university.

What's more, any decently conducted grievance proceeding would not have permitted Wolf to make unsupported assertions, as she does in her article, that Harold Bloom was propositioning other female students, or subjecting them to unwanted touching, or having affairs with them. Her entire evidence to those effects consists of rumors that she heard in 1983 plus rumors that a couple of her sources heard at other times. If Bloom was laying his racket all over town, why couldn't Wolf, with her extensive connections, turn up one other Yale alumna who wanted to describe her bad experience with him? Maybe Wolf was just being lazy, as somewhat better quality sources have suggested that Bloom had affairs. For instance, a published interview in GQ from 1990 described how the door to Bloom's home was opened by a younger woman, obviously not his wife, who stuck around the entire time that the interviewer was on the premises. But you'd think Wolf would have regarded corroboration as vitally important...

Indeed, a grievance proceeding might have led to challenges to her story. Until the other two diners depart, and Wolf puts her poems in front of Bloom, we have no idea from her published accounts what sort of interaction was going on between them, for she retells not one word of their conversation. Or is asking "What did you say to him?" as off-limits as asking "What were you wearing"?

To be continued in Part IV.

Originally published on the Liberty & Power group weblog on the History News Network.

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