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The 'genderquake' of the 21st century



IN THE early 1960s, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" articulated the frustrations of American women who found their world too tightly constricted by their kitchens, their kids and the conservative culture dominant since the '50s. It sparked a new wave of feminism that reshaped American society.

In the early 1990s, Susan Faludi's "Backlash" alerted American women that those changes had been far less sweeping than popularly supposed and exposed a counter-reaction far out of proportion to the actual accomplishments of the feminist movement.

Now comes Naomi Wolf's "Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century." It announces a "genderquake" -- a resurgence of female political power. And it says it's time to reject the "victim" feminism that casts women as powerless objects of male malevolence in favor of a new "power" feminism that enables women to fully wield their political, economic and social influence.

Will Ms. Wolf's book have the impact of Ms. Friedan's and Ms. Faludi's?

While it offers fresh perspectives and proposes innovative ideas for re-energizing the women's movement, the answer is probably no. And that's in large, and ironic, part because Ms. Wolf's book is written not so much with anger as with common sense.

"Fire With Fire" also requires some leaps of faith that weaken its arguments, ignores some inconvenient political realities and suggests some strategies that many will dismiss as impractical or naive, such as erecting a "Billboard of Media Mortification" over Times Square to tally national coverage of women and women's bylines.

Nevertheless, as she did with her controversial first book, "The Beauty Myth," Ms. Wolf is more than willing to challenge conventional wisdom. Women don't need to promote themselves superior to men as a gender, she says, in order to be treated tTC with the respect any human being deserves. The backlash of the Reagan years is over and so is the time for wallowing in victimhood. It's time to confront the old myths and get on with the new mission.

Ms. Wolf sees the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy as a defining moment in contemporary politics, spurring the increasing involvement -- and election -- of women. She says this genderquake's effects will multiply, drawing in ever more women.

Women make up more than half of the United States' population, and already vote in greater percentages than men. What they need, Ms. Wolf says, is simply to recognize they already have the numerical strength to elect the people they prefer -- if, and this is a big if -- most women choose to support the same candidates.

Ms. Wolf is fond of dividing society into opposing forces. She says the last presidential election pitted egalitarians, who supported Bill Clinton, against patriarchalists, who supported George Bush. Mr. Clinton's victory marks the birth of a new egalitarian society, she says, conveniently ignoring the Perot voters, who most probably shared the Bush supporters' penchant for patriarchalism -- and with them, made up the majority of 1992 voters.

Similarly, she divides women into insider feminists and mainstreamers. To attract more women, feminism must acknowledge that all men are not beasts and all women are not angels. And it must break its perceived connection to the politics of the left and become a movement that supports the aspirations of all women, no matter what their political bent, Ms. Wolf says.

Let a thousand Phyllis Schlaflys, as well as a thousand Gloria Steinems, bloom? That might horrify women who do call themselves feminists, but Wolf maintains it's more important to empower all women than to identify with any one political agenda. Let women achieve representation in politics and business commensurate to their numbers and let the ideological chips fall where they may.

N Carole Goldberg wrote this review for the Hartford Courant.

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