Wolf challenges feminism's 'third wave'


Feminist author Naomi Wolf suddenly bolts from her seat in Los Angeles' elegant Four Seasons Hotel cafe and stomps off, her black-booted feet smacking against the carpet.

"This makes me so mad!" she says, shaking a clenched fist. "This is why I wrote this book!"

Moments before, the discussion had turned to "riot grrrls," the teen-age movement in the Pacific Northwest that mixes grunge music with feminist messages. Ms. Wolf had expressed hope that riot grrrls would be feminism's salvation in the coming century.

But when she heard the grrrls exclude men from their ranks to the point of refusing pamphlets to boys, she leapt to her feet.

"There's this third wave of feminists coming up, and they're making the same mistakes. They're overly demonizing men."

She reminds herself to calm down ("Deep breaths") and returns to her midmorning snack of herbal tea and cucumber finger sandwiches.

"Sorry to get so angry. But it's sexism. We're not the oppressed. We're running the show."

It's this point -- that women have the power but can't act on it -- that is a main focus of Ms. Wolf's new book, "Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century" (Random House; $21).

The book is certain to stir up as much controversy as Ms. Wolf's first best seller, "The Beauty Myth," which went through five press runs and was sold in 14 countries.

In "The Beauty Myth," Ms. Wolf, 31, explored the cosmetics and fashion industries' stranglehold on women's self-esteem.

The book was exalted by feminists as the first unflinching look at women and their relationship to their looks.

Now, in her second book, Ms. Wolf criticizes some of those very feminists who supported her, and even takes a swipe at herself. Specifically, she speaks against a "very small minority" of feminists who have taken on victimization as an identity.

"Even in 'The Beauty Myth,' I stressed what has been done to women more than what women can do about it," she said. "If I had it to write over, I'd change that."

The philosophy of victim feminization was most evident, she writes, in a rape-crisis center, where she volunteered for two years. With its austere decor and atmosphere of oppression, the center embodied the suffering of its clients. It did not, needless to say, make an effort to lift their broken spirits.

"The physical surroundings were like a stage set for the evocation of grief," she wrote. "Surely if anyone deserves a warm color on the wall, a gentle light, good hot coffee in a whole cup, a clean, soft couch to sit on and a welcoming plant in the window, it's a woman who is brave enough to begin healing the wounds of sexual assault."

Throughout the book and in person, Ms. Wolf is careful to point out that she is not criticizing the men and women who work with rape survivors.

She also makes clear that she be lieves women are victims. "I can't walk home at night," she said. "I'm a victim."

But recognizing that fact and wallowing in it are two different things, Ms. Wolf said.

Ms. Wolf was born and raised in San Francisco and educated at Yale and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. With her fashion-model looks and clothes (for the interview she wore a swashbuckling bright red peplum jacket), Ms. Wolf looks nothing like the part of an angry feminist. And that's the point, she said.

By pitching too small a tent, feminism has alienated mainstream women who read fashion magazines and love their husbands, she says. Many women she hears from consider feminism the "F" word. They won't identify themselves as feminists because they see the movement as one only for man-hating, left-wing reactionaries.

To be effective, Ms. Wolf said, feminism must embrace all women, those on the right and left. "Tipper Gore and Liz Dole," she said. And the big issue shouldn't be date rape as much as something more women know about: equal pay for equal work.

"Some people think I'm being terribly gauche and tacky to say that women need money. They think talking about money is elitist. I think it's very populist."

She said she's bracing for flak from the circles she criticizes. But she's not afraid.

Criticizing feminists "didn't make me happy. It's been agonizing. It's not something I undertook lightly. At the same time, I hope all of us can still learn."

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