No Fire, No Fight, No Feminism

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Ann Menasche

Fire With Fire:
the New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century
By Naomi Wolf
New York: Random House, 1993, $21 cloth.

NEWS FLASH: THE backlash against women is over. A “genderquake” represented by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the 1992 elections of Clinton and an increased number of female politicians, has brought us to the brink of the end of patriarchy. Now, all we need to do to make things “increasingly all right” is to “change our self images,” stop “bashing” men, and get over our “fear” of power and money.

If this sounds a bit far fetched to you because lately, like most women everywhere, you’ve been getting poorer, not richer (maybe you’ve been laid off from your job, can’t get anything but part-time or temporary work at low wages and no benefits; or you have seen your rent and gas bill rise while your welfare check has been cut and you’re afraid of ending up on the street), you are sure to find Naomi Wolf’s new book, Fire With Fire, at best a disappointment.

Wolf’s belief that female psychology is the primary obstacle to women’s liberation may hold a grain of truth (we all internalize our oppression), but her emphasis is wrong’ it has led her to minimize the structural impediments of discrimination, inequality, and compulsory heterosexuality that continue to deny women our full humanity, and to stress individualistic solutions over collective ones. Thus she greatly simplifies and reduces the tasks ahead of us at a time when militant collective action by women the world over has never been more sorely needed.

Wolf posits two kinds of feminism: “Victim feminism,” which is anti-(hetero) sex, anti-male, hostile to individual achievement, and portrays women as helpless victims who are naturally non-competitive cooperative and peace-loving; and “Power feminism,” which embraces women’s “power” and success, a feminism that works safely within the constraints of capitalism and the two-party system and is both “lucrative” and “fun.” She dismisses the entire left wing of the women’s movement — Marxist-feminists, radical feminists, lesbian-separatists, etc. — by throwing them all into the (bad) “victim feminist” pile, thereby ignoring the tremendous diversity of ideas and approaches they represent, and leaving her only with a conservative “new age” “create your own reality” feminism, one that strives to join the establishment on the establishment’s terms.

Some of her examples of “Victim feminism” are indeed excesses; others are nothing of the kind. On certain subjects she approaches the women-blaming views of Kate Roiphe and Camille Paglia. For example, she criticizes as “Victorian” the policy of Take Back the Night Marches that exclude men; she disagrees with women who focus on the victimization of battered women Hedda Nessbaum; and she believes advocates against sexual harassment have gone too far by attempting to define unwanted sexual comments and gestures in schools or by co-workers in the work place as “harassment.”

Giving Away Our Struggle

Perhaps more disturbing is Wolf’s rejection of what she terms “litmus tests” in her definition of feminism. The two tests she throws out without blinking an eye are support for abortion rights and support for lesbian rights. A feminist, in her view, is any woman who deems to be powerful, a definition, that would include Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O’Connor, Mother Teresa and even “Feminists for Life” (a group she believes should be welcomed at campus women’s centers.) Wolf, though pro-choice, is ambivalent and apologetic about abortion, granting legitimacy to the view that abortion is “violence against women” and “killing.”

Likewise, Wolf claims to support lesbian and gay rights, yet has no real understanding of how the heterosexual institution oppresses and limits all women, nor how the embrace of lesbian issues by the women’s movement is absolutely essential for women’s liberation to be achieved. Instead, she touts heterosexual relations as mystically heading to “greater knowledge of self,” while adapting to homophobia (and anti-abortion sentiment) in a “get rich quick” scheme to win women to the feminist label even as she reduces that label to virtual meaninglessness.

Wolf’s repeated references to “male-bashing” in a world where it is still the case that men, not women, do most of the attacking (clearly women are not beating, raping and murdering men in epidemic proportions, as is true with male violence against women) shows that she either truly believes that we are on the precipice of liberation and there is a real risk that we will use our newly acquired power to turn around and oppress men; or, more likely, she knows that success in a man’s world requires women to temper our anger, as well as our vision.

For what is most lacking in this book is vision. Wolf believes it is impossible to create forms of egalitarianism that do not squelch individual autonomy, leadership and self-development. At the same time, she believes that women can end discrimination against our sex, can end patriarchy, while we continue to live in a society of rich and poor, exploited and exploiter. I think she is wrong on both counts. Any feminism worthy of the name must champion the most oppressed among us, not because women are helpless victims, but because in creating solidarity among women, in forging sisterhood in the struggle against injustice, there is a power that cannot be ignored. And I’ll take that any day over Wolf’s “power groups.”

ATC 52, September-October 1994