Feminist fire: warm, but unflickering


While I'm not at all sure that I would have chosen Naomi Wolf to lead my cause, that's beside the point; she is doing so. In this timely and often inspiring book Ms. Wolf lets out a rally whoop for women in the United States.

We are at a crucial moment, she says, a moment in which the power to transform society is already in our hands. We can either use that power and begin to accomplish the long-standing goals feminism -- or we can throw it all away. If we do squander the moment, Ms. Wolf suggests, it will be because of ideological divisions within our ranks, and because the "victim" model of feminism has encouraged the obvious attractions of martyrdom over the braver and harder path of heroism.

Ms. Wolf explains that her experiences traveling around the United States promoting her previous best seller, "The Beauty Myth," opened her eyes. (Although she still stands behind her analysis of the beauty industry, she now regrets that her approach was more that of a "victim feminist" than that of a "power feminist.") When meeting readers, Ms. Wolf became aware that many women, especially young women, don't like describing themselves as feminists, although they celebrate the advances women have made and share most of feminism's aspirations.

The author herself has very little doubt that the goals of feminism are equal pay for equal work and equal treatment under the law. The problem, of course, is that the consensus ends there. A woman's right to an abortion, for instance, is a divisive matter; as is the radical critique of heterosexuality that says penetration is rape; as is date rape; as is single motherhood; as is lesbian parenting; and on and on.

Ms. Wolf says that we should concentrate on what we do agree on, making room for anti-abortionists and lesbian separatists and black and white and Latina -- anyone who can mute her shrill voice for the purposes of accomplishing the general good for women.

It is entirely to Ms. Wolf's credit, though she may get called wishy-washy for it, that she is so evenhanded, finding something to draw upon from the arguments of Katie Roiphe and Katha Pollitt, Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer.

Although she has admiring words for the late poet Audre Lorde, the book's overwhelming argument is expressed in its two opening epigraphs. To Lorde's "The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house," Ms. Wolf replies: "Fight fire with fire."

The book ends with "What We Can Do Now," some practical, Emily's List-style suggestions every woman should read. They include "Women Have Power as Consumers of Products" (so boycott and select and watch those ads), "Women Have the Power of Their Charity Dollar" (so make sure as many little girls as little boys are getting their money's worth out of programs sponsored by the United Way) and "Women Have Power as Consumers of Media" (which outlines the "zapping" technique used by the Women's Action Coalition and other groups.

About the latter, she writes: "When an organization like the New York Times persists in relegating women to a tiny minority of those quoted, the reader's rights campaign can inundate it with cards and faxes, not asking for a certain view, but for more space for debate. The newspaper or magazine should be told that an outraged letter is going to its advertisers, explaining that the reader will not purchase their products if the gender bias -- resulting in censorship -- persists."

Ms. Wolf explains that it was recent political events -- the galvanizing effect of the Anita Hill hearings, a presidential election won by female voters, Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court, many more women in the Senate and House, a tough first lady -- that impelled her to rush this book out of her word processor and into the hands of activists and potential activists. Would that her editors had rushed a little less; surely the word "genderquake," with which Ms. Wolf refers to this moment of historic upheaval, is a coinage we can do without. Just as surely, some of Ms. Wolf's autobiographical asides about her own joys of sex are superfluous in a work that aims to be serious enough for the mood most women I know are in.

Because we are serious, deadly serious. I know of no more telling moments in "Fire With Fire" than those in which Ms. Wolf ponders the notions of "equality" and "parity" that feminists fight for, side by side with the reality, which is that women outnumber men in the United States, 51 percent to 49 percent. That 2 percent edge? We want to give it away? How nice of us. How unnecessarily nice.

Title: "Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century"

Author: Naomi Wolf

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 400 pages, $21

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