In her 1993 introduction, Naomi Wolf distinguishes between “victim feminism” and “power feminism”. It is no longer possible, Wolf writes, to pretend that women are just pure and innocent victims of the gender imbalance. Power feminism recognises that the will to power, aggression and sexual conquest are just as female as they are male. This becomes increasingly apparent as women gain in social, political and economic power alongside our male counterparts.
The fiery and rousing introduction to Naomi Wolf’s feminist manifesto, “Fire with Fire”:
On a warm afternoon in Washington, in a committee room on a hill, on Friday, October 11, 1991, the meaning of being a woman was changed forever.
Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment set in motion a train of events that led American women into becoming the political ruling class – probably the only ruling class ever to be unaware of its status.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election consolidated the backlash, the years in which a successful antifeminist drive rolled back women’s rights. But from the fall of 1991 to the present, a new era – the era of the “genderquake” – has begun.
The term genderquake refers to the abrupt shift in the balance of power between U.S. women and men initiated by the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the unprecedented female political activism they brought about.
But will women consolidate their gains? We have entered a time of great awakening and lightning-fast learning, as female perceptions begin to take place alongside male in the daylight of public life. But while the new female power can feel like an unstoppable force, we are, in fact, at a turning point.
We will either understand that we are in the final throes of a civil war for gender fairness, in which conditions have shifted to put much of the attainment of equality in women’s own grasp or we will back away from history’s lesson, and, clinging to an outdated image of ourselves as powerless, inch along for another several hundred years or so, subject to the whims and wind shifts of whatever form of backlash comes along next.
The decision is up to us.
In Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, I will argue that we are at what historians of women’s progress call “an open movement.” Twenty-five years of dedicated feminist activism have hauled the political infrastructure into place, enough women in the middle classes have enough money and clout, and all women now have enough desire and determination to begin to balance the imbalance of power between the sexes. But three obstacles stand in our way: 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.
In Part Three, “Victim Feminism Versus Power Feminism”, I will look at “victim feminism”, a version of feminism that has come to dominate popular debate, and show how destructive it is to women, and how wrong it is for the new era at hand. I’ll take on the growing voice of critics who are charging that all feminism is puritanical, man-hating, and obsessed with defining women as “victims,”, and I will separate the nugget of truth in those charges from the destructive, categorical hype. I will explore what is indeed unhelpful about the way a minority of feminists have phrased the theme of victimization. I will look at how women must recount the all too real ways in which they are often victimized, without creating an identity from that victimization.
I’ll show that there are and have always been two different approaches within feminism. One – “victim feminism”, as I define it – casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these “good” women as a way to petition for their rights. The other, which I call “power feminism,” sees women as human beings – sexual, individual, no better or worse than their male counterparts – and lays claim to equality simply because women are entitled to it. Victim feminist assumptions about universal female goodness and powerlessness, and male evil, are unhelpful in the new moment for they exalt what I’ve termed trousseau reflexes” – outdated attitudes women need least right now.
The reactionary reflexes of this feminism are understandable; feminists have been faithfully tending the fires for all women – including those most victimized during the backlash years, with little thanks and more than their share of abuse. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that one narrow but influential strand of feminism has tried to help women survive the retrenchment by turning suffering into a virtue, anonymity into a status symbol, and marginalization into a mark of the highest faith. While we can sympathize with those who need this approach when times are bad, we must also realize that it proves dangerous when times change.
I will also point out that victim feminism is obsolete because female psychology and the conditions of women’s lives have both been transformed enough so that it is no longer possible to pretend that the impulses to dominate, aggress, or sexually exploit others are “male” urges alone. I will discuss why it is both empowering and moral for women to look honestly at the “dark side” within them, emerging now into light.
Part Four, “Toward a New Psychology of Female Power,” asserts that our new opportunities will be wasted unless we develop a vision of femininity in which it is appropriate and sexy for women to use power. The fragility of many women’s self-esteem means that we might fail to attribute the genderquake to our own will and strength. And the penalties that many women associate with the use of power keep us convinced that leadership, or even winning, are not “really worth it.”
I’ll look at how girlhood social organization leads us into a situation in which, in Gloria Steinem’s phrase, “men punish the weak while women punish the strong.” Each of us, I believe, has a regal, robust, healthily self-regarding “will to power” that has been submerged. I will argue that little girls start out with much more than the preadolescent “authenticity” that researchers such as Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown have pinpointed; they start out with a desire to rule the world. I will look at how we can retrieve that wild child – the inner bad girl – in order to embrace those qualities of leadership, and sexual self-possession, and the solid sense of entitlement that we are raised to disavow in ourselves, and to resent in other women.
It is my passionate hope that these ideas can spark debate about how to close the gap between those women and men who long for gender equality, and the only movement that can win it for us; and thus consolidate the clout of the unlabeled resurgence of power feminism that has already rocked our world.
Wolf, Naomi. Fire with fire: New female power and how it will change the twenty-first century. Random House, 2013.
Naomi R. Wolf (born November 12, 1962) is an American author, journalist and former political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. She first came to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. With the book, she became a leading spokeswoman of what was later described as the third wave of the feminist movement. As a journalist, she has written about topics such as abortion, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Edward Snowden and ISIS. She has written in venues such as The Nation, The Guardian and The Huffington Post.
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