YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 7, 2012

Feminism and its publicists

Naomi Wolf, 2008

{See a related blog http://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/, retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke.]

Naomi Wolf is purported to be the founder of “third wave feminism” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Wolf. I have no idea what that means. I have tried to read The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991), an international best seller. It is heavily derivative of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in that Wolf is clearly aiming her arrows at domesticity, a situation that makes many daughters of professional parents uncomfortable, for they have competed with men to enter the best private and public schools, then perhaps Ivy League or Seven Sister colleges, only to find themselves saddled with the same job that lower-class women perform as wives and mothers. Indeed, when I married in 1959 (after attending two Ivy League schools) and looked around at the wives of my  husband’s lawyer friends or the wives of other graduates of Harvard Law, I shook my head and wondered how these women would adjust to lives as consumers, thrown into the same pot as the women thought to have been left behind in the great race of life.

I knew very little about feminism until the late 1960s, when everyone was reading Kate Millett or Germaine Greer or Phyllis Chesler. I thought that young mothers who were fleeing their children were unnatural, and remember saying that to our friends. At that time, my three children were very young, and I felt that the duties of marriage and child-rearing were exhausting. I had not yet read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and have often thought that had I read her work, or even that of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, that I would have been a stronger woman, more ambitious, and less docile in my marriage. But having chosen motherhood and marriage in my early 20s, I didn’t think it was a demeaning or unchallenging set of roles; quite the contrary. And now that I have become acquainted with attachment theory (as promoted by psychologists Bowlby, Mahler, and Winnicott), as well as discoveries regarding the crucial first five years in laying down brain connections that would affect intellectual performance throughout the life span, I am more committed than ever to the significance of parenting, with special attention to the full range of family relationships as they affect marriage and child development.

But the intellectual, emotional, and moral challenge of motherhood was not the focus of either second wave feminism or the Naomi Wolf variant (which seems to be no more than the ridiculous statement that the beauty myth is a backlash against the 1960s-70s feminist movement). I remember one famous artist’s wife handing out leaflets telling women that housework (and baby-tending?) was demeaning. While teaching part time at California Institute of the Arts, I recall the Feminist Art program run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. One of their students came into my office, weeping, because a rule had been laid down that women artists could not represent phalluses or their symbolic representations; females did vaginas and focused on male cruelty, a sadism that was literally binding them to the home, a home that was a prison. Their creation Womanhouse was very clever and creative in expressing this theme, for instance the fried eggs that climbed up and down the walls of the kitchen (meant to represent breasts) and the bedroom that was devoted to makeup as imperative and mask. I myself did a slide show on “sex and violence in the art and photography of women artists and photographers,” and got large audiences for this demonstration of female rage, mockery of males, and the celebration of the female orgasm or other bodily functions (i.e., menstruation). (This was in the 1970s.)

To return to Naomi Wolf’s first book, a book that was as repetitious and as hard to read as Friedan’s earlier one, the feminists of the second wave did not respond to Betty Friedan as much as they responded to their treatment by New Left males, whose bohemianism and womanizing needs no elaboration here. Educated antiwar women had been consigned, as usual, to demeaning tasks, and to sexual promiscuity. (This was before the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s). Here was the source of second wave feminism, and women in the movement soon either subordinated their feminism to left-wing politics (especially anti-imperialism) in general, or took to writing about the oppression of women, attaining notoriety and fame in the process (for example Gloria Steinem).

The overriding theoretical construct was the term “patriarchy.” That implied, as both Wolf and Judy Chicago maintained in The Dinner Party, that all men victimized all women from time out of mind. With gender oppression the mighty variable, it was logical that separate Women’s Studies departments be established to accommodate growing female demands to be written back into history. Indeed, when I took Katherine Kish Sklar’s course on 19th century female reformers during my doctorate preparation at UCLA in the early 1980s, I was called on the carpet for separating working class women from upper-class women, and for objecting to an influential article Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of Domesticity.” [Background: we did learn in Sklar’s course that there was a big debate among feminists as to whether the status of women changed after men left the home to participate in industrial society. When women’s labor was visible to men, did they enjoy higher status? The point I am making is that some feminists are motivated by status politics and fame, and seem uninterested in the material condition of less privileged females, unless these are addressed within the protocols of the Democratic Party. I.e., these feminists were treating the woman question as a problem of caste, whereas a case can be made that it is a class problem, with women, as such, a subordinated class similar to that of chattel slavery in the earlier America. David Brion Davis made exactly that claim in a recent book of essays, Created in the Image of God. So a case can be made for Women's Studies, but even so, it would have to be integrated into a larger historical picture and set of determinations.]

Of course what these particular feminists overlooked was the perception by many men that women had too much power as it was (including sexual power), a widespread belief motivating many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Also http://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/. In my view, the key was the clinging mother, who not only demanded that she be idealized, but set impossibly high moral standards on her sons, sometimes inflicting double binds on her children. (As described throughout my book on Herman Melville and the source of his prison imagery; e.g. the conflict between truth and order, or local loyalties with concern for the faraway. One was supposed to reconcile the irreconcilable without fuss or choosing sides.)

There are things taken up by Naomi Wolf that every woman knows: that too much time is taken up with make-up and the losing battle with aging; that successful men are relatively free to dump their aging wives for younger models; that many men are disgusted by women’s bodies and functions, that women’s magazines are retrograde, and so on. What she does not harp upon is the lingering fear that many women have of treading on male turf, for instance, the study of political, diplomatic and military history, of city planning, architecture, economics or of all the sciences. But that too is changing.

To conclude: nothing in this blog should be construed to mean that I am not a feminist. Far from it. Our society is largely hypersexualized and dumbed down. I am simply unqualified to make grand statements about women from antiquity to the present, or even women from the 1960s onward. That would require a lifetime of close study and more critical tools than I have at hand. For more see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/18/history-as-trauma-2-rosebud-version/. Also the first segment of this two-part series, see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/.

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9 Comments »

  1. [...] I have related here before (http://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/), I was appalled by the second wave of feminism. I was still married and had yet to antagonize my [...]

    Pingback by Feminism on the docket (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 13, 2012 @ 2:53 am | Reply

  2. [...] Feminism and its publicists [...]

    Pingback by Feminism on the docket (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 13, 2012 @ 2:51 am | Reply

  3. [...] I have related here before (see http://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/), I was appalled by the second wave of feminism. I was still married and had yet to antagonize my [...]

    Pingback by Feminism on the docket | Tard Scat — February 13, 2012 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  4. [...] I have related here before (see http://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/), I was appalled by the second wave of feminism. I was still married and had yet to antagonize my [...]

    Pingback by Feminism on the docket « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 11, 2012 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  5. [...] Let me say, as one who finds Naomi Wolf extremely tiresome even when she is right, and one friends with a serious scholar–Clare Spark–who writes a very serious intellectual blog as an extension of her Yankee Doodle Society–and thinks the best use of the undisciplined, embarrasing international bestseller, The Beauty Myth would lie in the satisfaction derived from hurling it out of a window–I buy that being raised in this kind of psychological boot camp is far more likely than a bunch of stupid media images to result in a puking or starving. I reject this Second Wave feminist horseshit about body image and the media. A girl raised by loving parents (same sex or not, divorce or not) with a healthy self-image, a capacity to love and respect her mind and her body doesn’t start to puke or want to look like an AIDS victim and weight 70 pounds because of magazines or TV or videos. You can see Clare’s very serious, wide ranging, and intellectual blog here: http://www.clarespark.com. And here is a blog which includes a discussion of Wolf and “third wave” feminism. Like Clare, who knows infinitely more about this and nearly everything than I do, “I have no idea what that means.” http://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/. [...]

    Pingback by Happy Saturday! Amy Chua (aka Tiger Mom) at 3PM at UCSB Arts and Lectures: Going with Open Mind | Victorian Chick — January 14, 2012 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  6. “The intellectual, emotional, and moral challenge of motherhood was not the focus of either second wave feminism or the Naomi Wolf variant… ”

    Somewhere, the goal of women becoming the co-equals of men in marriage and work, and not servants and concubines, has been lost. The “Third Wave” of feminism seems to be overly concerned with defining a new fetishism of the female body, substituting male obsessions with breasts with female obsessions of vaginas. Having seen and experienced the devastating effects that the 60s-era feminists have had on male/female relationships, marriage, and the care of children, I am deeply resentful of the corruption that has taken place in the movement over the past century since universal suffrage. The underlying sexism, obsession with gender segregation, and toxic demeaning of the other sex that men are accused of having toward women, festers in modern feminism and drives its system of ethics and moral values.

    A “fourth wave” of feminism, if you will, is necessary to reconcile men and women to fairer and more respectful relationships. Our relationships may forever be dominated by our separate biologies and psychosocial behaviors, but if we recognize our commonalities, the intelligence, beauty, and nobility of the individual soul, then we can create value and meaning in our lives, regardless of our sex.

    I encourage you to seek out and explore the writings of Alice Hubbard, an early 20th century feminist who once was read by millions of American women. She primarily wrote in “The Fra” magazine, but has several published books including “An American Bible,” and “Woman’s Work”. While her works have been largely forgotten and she might seem quaint to modern feminists, she tried to address the larger issues of how women could lead useful and meaningful lives. Hubbard was a follower of Emerson and Thoreau. She advocated that girls be educated to learn trades and seek economic freedom. But she dispensed with the idea that men were inherently predisposed to dominate and trivialize women; she loved men and her husband Elbert Hubbard. Instead, she focused on defining woman’s self-esteem in her own terms, as mother, wife, artist, and worker.

    Comment by stereorealist — January 8, 2012 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

    • The second wave of feminism, and even Naomi Wolf’s model seem to harken back to the flapper decade of the 1920s. There is the same nihilism and decadence, the same revolt against puritanism. Budd Schulberg captured the mood brilliantly in his fictionalized memoir of his failed collaboration with F. Scott Fitzgerald, part of which is set in New Hampshire (Dartmouth)! The book is titled _The Disenchanted_, and I have never read anything so evocative of the 1920s and the carelessness of the entitled super-rich as I have here.

      Comment by clarespark — January 8, 2012 @ 11:34 pm | Reply


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