Naomi Wolf on the problems with Western feminism

This is a very interesting article from Naomi Wolf about the future of global feminism and where she sees Western feminism as having gone wrong. It’s very optimistic about global feminism but not so much about Western feminism. To be honest, I have trouble deciphering what some of her criticisms mean for me as a Western feminist – am I being stupid or is Wolf being too restrained in explaining exactly what she doesn’t like? I also read her Q&A with readers and while I found it thoughtful I didn’t find it to be all that illuminating – but I think that was about the questions she was asked rather than Wolf being deliberately evasive.

Here are the two criticisms from Wolf that I find most compelling:

The 19th-century tradition also leads to organizational paralysis, as women’s groups fetishize “consensus”. It has led to feminism being so afraid of offending anyone that we have ironically recapitulated the voicelessness of the original “angel in the house”. A discomfort with conflict has reproduced conventional feminist wisdom at the expense of bracing and productive debate.

That has led to a kind of passivity in many western democracies, where a tradition of seeing oneself as being at the mercy of a powerful authority leads women in EU countries, or nations that have “women’s rights officers”, to yield the job of female assertion to official, even government, bodies. Western women have been left ill-prepared to do what is urgently needed: to field their own candidates, run for office themselves, to raise their own money, start their own institutions, draft their own laws and inaugurate their own media.

And also this from Wolf, which I think is a good framing of the problem with ‘choice feminism':

Western women became very good at identifying what was crying out in their souls and kicking away the hindrances to self-fulfilment. That had value. Unfortunately, however, this message of self-assertion above all dovetailed neatly with the needs of consumer capitalism. From the 1970 onwards, our culture told both sexes that individual expression was paramount. And for women, that was defined as the right to choose an interesting a career, a high-status mate, the desirable handbag or vacation, the perfect family size, and a definitionally fruitless quest for “perfection”. This focus is why so many “feminist” debates tend to become lifestyle discussions: should women have facelifts? What about hiring nannies? What about stay-at-home moms versus working mothers? Frankly, if I – as a passionate feminist – am bored by two decades of such discussions, it is no surprise that everyone else is, as well. Lifestyle choices are not meaningful if no bigger questions are being asked.

I still don’t have big conclusions about any of this, I’m uncharacteristically quiet. I just want to think about it all more. And to read your thoughts. The end.

(Cross-posted at blue milk).


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blue milk also writes for The Guardian and Fairfax publications. You can read more about her at her own blog, blue milk.

8 Responses

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  1. Mindy
    Mindy at |

    Wow, who would have thought it, Western Feminists are doin it rong agane.

    For a passionate feminist she sure is keen to treat all Western Feminists as a monolith. There are some really exciting things happening in non western countries, but to claim that those same things aren’t happening in Western countries is too big a claim.

    She obviously doesn’t read HaT (this is a joke Joyce).

  2. Hedgepig
    Hedgepig at |

    Well, that was an interesting read. I need to think about it some more, but my first response was to be actually offended by this bit:
    “This focus is why so many “feminist” debates tend to become lifestyle discussions: should women have facelifts? What about hiring nannies? What about stay-at-home moms versus working mothers? Frankly, if I – as a passionate feminist – am bored by two decades of such discussions, it is no surprise that everyone else is, as well. Lifestyle choices are not meaningful if no bigger questions are being asked.”

    I am offended that someone who professes to be a feminist should sneer at issues such as plastic surgery, division of unpaid domestic labour and ethical questions surrounding paying other women to do this labour, and decisions such as whether to be a full-time carer of an infant/child or continue in paid employment. Wolf is bored by these things? These are incredibly important issues for feminism. “Whether women should have facelifts” is part of an issue that encompasses patriarchal control of women’s self-image, which has implications for women’s agency in social relations. Didn’t Wolf write The Beauty Myth? A woman’s appearance is still treated as the way to judge her moral worth, for pity’s sake.
    Same goes for the other issues Wolf lists as being just so trivial and dull. It seems to me that she is somewhat nostalgic for the days when western women had to fight the big, rather more glamorous fights like the right to vote, which is why she interprets non-western feminism as being somehow more authentic and worthwhile.

  3. Lauredhel
    Lauredhel at | *

    I’d take an infinite number of feminists interrogating issues of motherhood and objectification over one fauxminist outspoken supporter of rape culture. Wolf irrevocably lost all of my respect that day.

  4. Sue
    Sue at |

    I dunno – isn’t she just saying that we’ve been caught up on the piles of our own consumer culture, where feminism has become something about me, me, me instead of something that empowers women to give voice to that which can more greatly inform us, us, us, as a culture, as she demonstrates by the examples she gives of what feminist women in non-Western countries are doing?

    I don’t know how she can make such a fine distinction in presuming that Western feminists aren’t doing that though.

  5. AMM
    AMM at |

    I think Naomi Wolf does have a bit of a point: it sure seems like a large portion of capital-F Feminism suffers from the same malady as much of Progressives in general: more energy is spent taking swipes at others within the movement than on their common enemies.

    I also think that “consumer Capitalism” does play a role. By promoting the idea that people can as individuals attain the Good Life just by their own cleverness or luck (cf. Government-run lotteries), it undermines the impulse to work together (and compromise!) to improve things for everyone.

  6. Rebekka
    Rebekka at |

    “This focus is why so many “feminist” debates tend to become lifestyle discussions: should women have facelifts? What about hiring nannies? What about stay-at-home moms versus working mothers? ”

    Isn’t what she saying that instead of asking “How does the patriarchy force unobtainable ideals of female beauty on us as women? we’re asking “Is it ok for women to have facelifts”; instead of asking “Why don’t men do 50% of the childcare and the housework”, we’re asking “Is it ok for women to hire nannies?” and instead of asking “In what ways does the patriarchy pit women against each other in a divide and conquer tactic, and also why aren’t men doing 50% of the housework and childcare and why isn’t anyone asking whether men who don’t stay home with their kids are bad parents?” we’re asking “Isn’t she selfish for going back to work/a bad parent/wasting her education by staying at home?”

    Seems pretty spot on to me.

  7. Hedgepig
    Hedgepig at |

    “Isn’t what she saying that instead of asking “How does the patriarchy force unobtainable ideals of female beauty on us as women? we’re asking “Is it ok for women to have facelifts” etc.

    But Wolf seems to be saying that it is feminists who are asking the more superficial of these two questions. It is mainstream society that continues to insist on making feminist issues all about individual taste and choice, rather than delving into underlying structural causes (i.e. patriarchy).

  8. Cara
    Cara at |

    it sure seems like a large portion of capital-F Feminism suffers from the same malady as much of Progressives in general: more energy is spent taking swipes at others within the movement than on their common enemies.

    No, there isn’t. There’s energy for everything.

    The willingness to engage each other and change our own minds is one great thing ABOUT being progressive as opposed to conservative. Unfortunately, to conservatives, this looks like dissension in the ranks instead of what it really is–progressives being progressive. And it does mean that things aren’t as straightforward as they are with a simple rah-rah squad.

    Anyway. Wolfe should clean up her own side of the street before giving any other feminists crap about anything.

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