Next feminist fight may find Wolf as leader of the pack

January 01, 1994|By Patti Doten | Patti Doten,Boston Globe

Naomi Wolf arrives late and a bit disheveled -- unlike the perfectly coifed and made-up young woman in the photo on the back of her book jacket. Yes, the long black hair still drapes her shoulders, but it's scraggly and windblown. Her porcelain skin is flawless, but it's worn this day without makeup. What the black-and-white shot fails to capture, however, is her most arresting feature -- Kevin-Costner-pale blue eyes that she uses well, keeping them steady and focused only on the job at hand.

What she has set herself out to do in her latest book, "Fire With Fire: The New Feminine Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century," is to lead the women of America in their final siege to gain control of the male-dominated institutions and social structures in this country. She thinks it's almost a done deal. And as leader of the pack, she just might help to pull it off. For she exudes in person the same passion, confidence, humor and energy she displays in her writing -- characteristics that put her first book, 1991's "The Beauty Myth," written in her mid-20s, on the best-seller list.

Although there are various interruptions after she settles into a chair in the Ritz-Carlton cafe -- phone calls, waiters taking orders, another journalist thinking that this Naomi is the other Naomi visiting Boston that day, country singer Naomi Judd -- Ms. Wolf is personable and unflappable throughout. Even the loss of the top jewel button on her bright red jacket brings no distress: "Oh, well, what can I do?"

Suffragettes had Susan B. Anthony; feminists in the '60s had Betty Friedan; and women on the verge of entering the 21st century may very well have Naomi Wolf to spearhead the third, and perhaps last, stage of the women's movement.

"We've been good girls long enough," says Ms. Wolf, 31, a graduate of Yale and a Rhodes scholar. "It's time for us to use our collective clout and force change. After all, women represent 51 percent of the population. It's totally illogical for anyone to yield power, so we can't sit back and wait for men to give it up. It just won't happen. We have to take it."

'Genderquake'

She points to the sweeping set of victories won over the past two years -- for example, the Supreme Court's decision on harassment in the workplace, the appointment of a second woman to the nation's highest court, the Family Leave Act, the doubling of the budget for breast cancer research and education, the right of women to fly combat planes and the election of a feminist to the White House.

This "genderquake," as she calls it, began in fall 1991, during the Anita Hill hearings. Watching Ms. Hill testify before a panel of uncomprehending white men unleashed the anger that had been silenced but smoldering in women during the reactionary Reagan years.

"After the hearings and the fall election, the change in the political atmosphere was sustained," says Ms. Wolf, who pointed out that it was the female vote, Democratic and Republican, that put Bill Clinton in the White House and 23 new women in Congress. "It's so important for women to realize that they have a critical mass. That what happened in the elections two years ago could escalate. If only women would spend money, we could do so much for so very little. If every adult woman contributed $6, we could put $600 million into a war chest."

Sisterhood 'idiotic'

But how do feminists get these millions of women to come together for the common cause when the movement has been splintered with infighting and many women have avoided the feminist label because they did not want to be compartmentalized?

"Sisterhood is idiotic," says Ms. Wolf, who grew up in San Francisco and had both a mother and grandmother who were ardent feminists and a father who was her primary caretaker. "We have to celebrate our differences. We are in a fight for a common end -- to get equality. I don't have to like another woman or agree with everything she believes in to join with her in bringing all of us our rights. Being sisters with every woman is not possible. That kind of feminine view of politics is infantile."

She said the radical feminism being taught on campuses today can be paralyzing to young women because they are taught that all power is masculine and therefore they should not buy into the system. Any engagement is a selling-out, so they retreat. But feminists should be populists, she said.

"That's why I appear on shows like 'Oprah' and 'Sally Jessy Raphael,' why I write for women's magazines and lecture on campuses," says Ms. Wolf. "Because it's incredibly important to talk to all women, especially young women. Many academic feminists theoretically align themselves with a populist view but are unwilling to talk to women who get their information from the mass media."

Ms. Wolf says women are afraid of power because they socialize in peer groups as young girls and the worst thing that can happen is to be ostracized from the group.

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