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Naomi Wolf: Power Feminist or Victim Feminist?
March 31, 2004
by Robert L. Campbell

Continued from last week.

Part IV: No Other Recourse?

Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that Harold Bloom really did exactly as charged. On top of that, let's grant that Naomi Wolf couldn't have gotten any justice while she remained at Yale. Not by confronting Bloom, not by talking to her adviser, not by talking to Bloom's department chair, not by talking to the Dean of the College, not by filing a grievance.

The situation nonetheless changed when she graduated. She may have imagined him as a malevolent deity, ready to zap her to the ground anywhere she might endeavor to hide, but in fact Harold Bloom was a mere mortal, and he no longer had any authority over her. Wolf didn't even owe him for the Rhodes Scholarship; he had recommended her before the night of the fatal dinner, but she failed to get it then. When she won the scholarship, on a second try, it was entirely with letters from other professors.

Sheepskin in hand, New Haven in her rearview mirror, Wolf could have written Bloom privately and demanded an apology: "Remember me? What kind of way to behave was that? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" If he failed to come through with the response she deemed appropriate, she could have written a letter of complaint about him to his department chair. If she didn't get a response out of the chair, she could have written a reminder letter and cc'd it to the Dean of the College. And so on, up the ladder. She could have done these things at minimal risk to herself or her career, within a couple of years of the alleged offense. Instead, she waited 20 years to demand some kind of response from Yale, then sprang the charge in a public forum where Bloom would have no chance to rebut it.

Roderick Long has insisted that Wolf's months of calls to administrators, and her article published after they failed to give her what she wanted, constitute "blowing the whistle on sexual harassers" at Yale. Only in her dreams. Real whistleblowers expose wrongdoing while it is going on. Most often, they assume the risks inherent in exposing it while they are still in the institutional environment. Not everyone has the guts to be a whistleblower; you do it knowing that you could get shafted. Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer--the professors at the University of Southern Mississippi who dared to investigate a Vice President who lied on her vita--are whistleblowers. As I write this, the president of their university has locked them out of their offices because they blew the whistle, and is seeking to fire them and put an end to their academic careers. By contrast, Wolf says that she used to tell the students who came to her speeches, "I have not been brave enough." That's right, and it continues to be right. The biggest risk she runs is negative publicity, in a line of work where controversy attracts attention, and bad publicity is widely preferred to none. Neither Harold Bloom, nor the entire administration of Yale University, can do her any harm whatsoever.

Nor, to pick up a point from Part II, is there much reason to think that Wolf wrote her article to help other women. Besides herself, she describes six who were allegedly mistreated by men at Yale. Rachel Donadio says she was originally going to mention just one--until an indispensable administrative assistant in the Women's Studies department handed her more cases on a plate. Two of the women say that their professors raped them. Yet who, after reading Wolf's article, is going to remember Cynthia Powell or Stephanie Urie? Powell's story reads like chunks of a police report; Urie's apparently consists of extracts from a legal brief. What happened to them, if they are telling the truth, is immensely worse than what happened to Wolf, if she is. But for them there are no "heavy, boneless" hands hot on thighs, no floors spinning, no kitchen sinks to back into. Such vividness Wolf reserves only for herself.

Part V: Anita Hill and the Inner Bad Girl

Naomi Wolf's 1993 book urged women to stop playing the victim role. Her 2004 article re-embraced it. All the same, there are two passages in the book that I found eerily premonitory of what she would do ten years later. They suggest an agenda far removed from whistle blowing.

Fire with Fire begins by celebrating the galvanizing force of Anita Hill's testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Wolf exultantly describes how it set off a "genderquake," rallying women to donate money, support political campaigns, demand legislation.

The vote was delayed, Professor Hill testified, the hearings were televised, and the balance of power around gender changed, possibly for good. The story of sexual harassment and how men and women saw it differently shook the country; the he-said/she-said dialogue went national.
We may never know the truth or falsehood of what was alleged in the hearing room, but what is certain is that something critical to the sustenance of patriarchy died in the confrontation, and something new was born. (p. 5, my emphasis)

To this day, no one besides Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas knows whether Hill was telling the truth. (And while Clarence Thomas wasn't kept off the Supreme Court, his reputation has been permanently tarnished.) But Naomi Wolf drew a lesson from those confirmation hearings. When the subject is one that can be counted on to make a lot of women angry, and the forces are properly aligned, tremendous political capital can be derived from public accusations that no one else is in a position to verify.

In Fire with Fire, Clarence Thomas is a complete cipher. He rates less than 2 pages all told; his character and actions are irrelevant; his judicial philosophy is never mentioned. Of what he allegedly said or did to Anita Hill, not a single detail is provided. All that matters is how Hill and her supporters socked it to the powerful white men who backed him.

The fourth image that fueled the rebirth of feminism was one of clear and simple retaliation: It was an advertisement underwritten by the National Women's Political Caucus. It was a roughly sketched scene of seven women sitting in judgment of Clarence Thomas, who is seated alone, looking up, beneath them, in the docket. Let's not kid ourselves: This was not a pious image of democratic representation. No, the scene was one of vengeance: See what it feels like? (p. 48)

Did Wolf expect another "genderquake" to follow her public accusations directed at Harold Bloom?

Just as relevant today is a passage comes at the very end of Fire with Fire. Wolf declares that to overcome victim status once and for all, women need to own and honor the "bad girl" who still dwells within each of them. For full impact, everyone should read all seven paragraphs that Wolf devotes to the bad girl; here some pale excerpts will have to do:

She is between eighteen months and five years old. Sparks come off her; she cannot keep still. She turns objects upside down; she revels in the mess; her hair is electric...
Every molecule of the child seeks every pleasure. She is sensuous, grasping, self-absorbed, fierce, greedy, megalomaniacal, and utterly certain that she is entitled to have her ego, her power, and her way. ... She has no manners. She is a very naughty girl.
And she in all her badness is the other, unacknowledged side of female consciousness. At her worst, she is narcissistic and destructive; at her best, she is the force of creativity, rebellion against injustice, and primal self-respect. If we are trying to grow strong at all, we will spend the rest of our lives looking to find her again, even as we think we spend our lives trying to bury her. (pp. 319-320)

There is a word for the kind of person who is low on courage but high on need for attention, and is prone to rage at anyone who inflicts a puncture on his or her inflated ego. That word isn't "whistleblower." As the author of this hymn of praise to her inner bad girl very well knows, it's "narcissist."

It's fair to say that the reaction to her article was not what Wolf anticipated. No genderquake; barely an aftershock. Her story was received with palpable disbelief. Female newspaper columnists across a wide spectrum of political opinion responded cynically and caustically. Cristina Odone, writing in The Observer, blasted Wolf, throwing three of her four books back at her:

Wolf's most unforgivable disservice to feminism... lies in her constant portrayal of herself as a victim. Thus, we have had Naomi the victim of her youthful good looks (The Beauty Myth), Naomi the victim of her sexual allure (Promiscuities), Naomi the victim of motherhood (Misconceptions). The whingeing oeuvre has brought her international celebrity and not a few dollars.

It could be that Naomi Wolf is getting what she said she wanted in 1993. For today there are signs that victim feminism is on the run. As Wendy McElroy has noted in her latest column, prominent feminists who play the victim card and tell uncorroborated tales of woe can no longer expect political rewards, or credulous treatment in the media. I hope that most readers here will regard that as a salutary trend, not proof that Right-wing culture warriors are taking over.

I won't be quite so cynical as some of these commentators, because I actually think that Wolf was psychologically vulnerable back in 1983. Not because "powerful men" at Yale had jointly resolved to keep powerless women down, but because Wolf personally craved the approval of certain older men in positions of authority, whose power she magnified in her own eyes. (Narcissists regard themselves as superior to others, but their belief in their own superiority does not preclude exaggerated deference to a few authority figures.) The problem is, neither power-feminist doctrine nor victim-feminist tactics will keep a 19-year-old woman with Daddy issues from being drawn to the likes of Harold Bloom. Nor will they safeguard her from being hurt when he fails to respond as she wished.

In insisting that she needed protection from Bloom, Wolf is implying that she also needed protection from herself. The administration of a university may of course decide to protect its students from themselves, as well as from professors and administrators. Since 1996 Yale has categorically forbidden any kind of sexual relationship between professors and students whom they are evaluating. But everyone had better be up front about the implications of such a policy. As Margaret Wente noted in the Globe and Mail, "not so long ago, female students were objecting that the university administration had no business being sex police. My girlfriends would have been insulted by the notion that they couldn't make such decisions for themselves." Like many other universities, Yale has gone right back to acting in loco parentis, which risks infantilizing young adults. In particular, anyone who thinks that universities ought to be compelled by law to adopt such policies ought to take a close look at some other legislated "solutions" to social problems that involve young adults, such as selective prohibition of alcohol for those aged 18 to 21.

I find Daphne Patai's view of university life a good deal saner and more inspiring:

university students are not children who need to be guarded against predatory adults. Nor are they mental health patients requiring tender care. Universities are, in fact, splendid places where mature and young adults--all postpubescent, most of them with the right to vote, to reproduce or not (through elective abortion), and to kill and be killed in military service--congregate, teach and learn, get to know one another, pursue personal relationships..., behave sensibly and foolishly, and generally get on with their interesting lives. (xv-xvi)

I suspect that many libertarians will take the same view.

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

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