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Outlook: Feminism From Betty Friedan to Helen Gurley Brown to Michelle Obama

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Naomi Wolf
Author, Political Consultant
Monday, May 4, 2009; 11:00 AM

Author and political consultant Naomi Wolf, will be online Monday, May 4, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article: Who Won Feminism? (Post, May 3)about how feminism has progressed through the years from Betty Friedan's 1963 bestseller "The Feminine Mystique" to Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" and how Michelle Obama's generation represents a synthesis of the two.

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Florida Chick: Why the Hillary bashing? There are millions of us who both voted for and supported her and are weary of having her injected into every single discussion of women, politics and power as a ready-made "how not to" model. Is there simply no end, ever, for this flaying?

Naomi Wolf: Hi Florida Chick -- not Hillary bashing at all. My point was that these women are flattened into stereotypes -- not that they ARE stereotypes! Of course she is far more than a shrill career woman, just as Mrs Reagan is far more than a two dimensional Stepford Wife...it was not her choice or her doing to be two-dimensionalized -- it happened in spite of her. That was what I had been hoping to convey!

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Washington, D.C.: Michelle Obama has never, as far as I'm aware, self-identified as a "feminist." Do you find it troubling that the term remains toxic, even though what it signifies happens to reflect the vast majority of views held by most modern women?

Naomi Wolf: This is a great question -- yes I do find it troubling that the term remains `toxic'. But worse than troubling, because I don't think labels are ever that important in themselves, is that if such a term is toxic it means that it is hard for women, especially younger women, to analyze history and to organize effectively. Imagine what would have happened to the fight for racial equality if `civil rights' was a toxic term, or to gay rights if `gay' were not claimed with pride!

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Washington, D.C.: You engaged in some rather heated debates with scholar Camille Paglia in the early 1990s. Have your differences narrowed over the years?

Naomi Wolf: I would not say our differences have narrowed; rather I believe that our audiences are generally more familiar with the issues that she and I raise so the discussions on both sides can be more nuanced. I have to say I do regret the sharp tone of some of our exchanges back then and that experience led me to think hard about how to engage in strong debate without name calling or personal attack.

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Washington, D.C.: This is one of the last quotes that you use in your piece: "If other feminists could be faulted for overemphasizing the ways in which women were victimized, Helen Gurley Brown can be faulted for underemphasizing women's workplace and personal challenges." I'm having a hard time figuring out how HGB can be seen as having "won feminism" if she was underemphasizing the most major concerns of feminism.

Naomi Wolf: Good question. I should note that title are chosen by editors rather than writers. I would say Brown's style prevailed in contemporary feminism but the substance of the struggle -- for equal pay, work-family policies, access for representation -- remains the same and that an analysis of women's continued victimization where it is still taking place continues to be necessary.

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Washington, D.C.: Your write in your article: "The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality." Yet feminist theorists and activists are notoriously conflicted on questions of pornography, abortion law, the role of marriage, constructions of beauty, sexual harassment law, date rape, nature vs. nurture, and normative vs. queer approaches to gay rights. Do you worry you're implying a false consensus about the legal and political prescriptions about how to move forward?

washingtonpost.com: Who Won Feminism? (Post, May 3)

Naomi Wolf: Not at all. The conflicts in different positions, as you describe the, are real. But as I argued in my second book, "Fire With Fire," feminism should not be dictating a certain position -- I don't believe in consensus in a vibrant democracy -- rather, I believe that women should be empowered to organize and fight for what they believe. So when I say the time for theory is over, I mean that we now know how to move forward to advance our views whatever they may be.

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Naomi Wolf: By the way, as a writer I think consensus is intellectually deadly, and the drive for consensus is part of what made second wave feminism so exhausting occasionally.

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Spokane, Wash.: Hi Naomi, thanks for being here. Can you describe your idea of "power feminism" to me? I have been following you for awhile and recently heard that you are considered a power feminist. Do you agree with this characterization? Thank you.

Naomi Wolf: So the term comes from my blueprint for reviving second wave feminism, Fire With Fire, which I mentioned a moment ago. I contrasted "power feminism" with "victim feminism" and argued that we need to look at where we have power and use it rather than over identifying with our victimization which is also real.

So yes, I would say I do embrace that term.

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Downtown D.C.: So where would you put yourself on the line from 2nd to 3rd wave feminism? Do you believe you have been lumped into the 3rd wave because of your attractive appearance and unthreatening demeanor?

Naomi Wolf: First, I raised the prospect of third wave feminism, "The Beauty Myth," because I believed that it was time for generational challenge to a style of feminism that I had grown up with and that in some ways I found oppressive. So I would like to believe I placed myself in alliance with the third wave and as I often urge women to remember it's not their problem how other stereotype them based on appearance or any other quality that is separate from their goals and intentions. Besides I'm middle-aged by now!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What are your thoughts to the polling data on Millennials that shows they do not view women's issues the same way as do older aged generations? While they poll as the most tolerant generation, open to racial justice, increased immigration, acceptance of gay marriage, etc., they do not seem to find women's rights as much as a concern. Indeed, they see females as attending college more so than are males, they see many females earning higher sales than males, they grew up with the slogan "a woman can do anything a man can," and, in perhaps what is at least a partial victory for women's rights, they do not see the need for women's liberation in the same light as older generations see it. What do you think?

Naomi Wolf: Another great question. In a way it is heartening since the goal of feminism has always been ideally to become obsolete because at some point we should get there. However, I do worry that this data show more young people's personal observations of many women who are doing well at the expense of their understanding a bigger picture especially as it applies to women in poverty or in lower income jobs and households as well as the enormous inequities facing the majority of women on the planet who are living in the developing world. So I hope these young people take a good women's studies 101 class to be reminded of these ongoing structural inequities.

Also, other data show that this rosy view of equality collapses when young women have children.

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Concord, N.H.: Your most recent books, End of America and Give me Liberty, are both patriotic in their own way. Liberals and cosmopolitanists on the left tend to de-emphasize patriotism because of its tendency to create jingoism and conflictual nation-states. Do you ultimately envision the dissolution of the state as an illegitimate locus of power and authoritarianism?

Naomi Wolf: As you know, from reading Give Me Liberty, my research into the original founding generations' definition of American patriotism showed it to be the opposite of jingoism and bling militarism. I am patriotic because America's founding ideal is truly revolutionary and centers on the dignity and rights of the individual, exactly as does feminism properly understood.

When nations are grounded in genuine democratic ideals and serving as truly representative Republics -- as unfortunately the United States right now is not -- then I would celebrate the nation state because it would simply be a manifestation of the will of the people.

There are reasonably healthy democracies in which the nation state is truly functioning as a manifestation of the voice of its citizens.

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Melbourne, Australia: Hello from down under! Germaine Greer remains a fiery dissident in Australian politics and social commentary. I recall she labeled your book The Tree House as Oedipal. Do you still find Greer an important voice in the feminist movement?

Naomi Wolf: Germaine Greer is my personal heroine. I could not have written any of my books or developed my voice, which combines the personal and the political, without her trailblazing her own style in The Female Eunuch. I do see her as a continued force, not always reaching conclusions I agree with but always determined to think in a fresh way. Of course, I also wish criticism and debate could procede without personal attacks but I'd rather be attacked by Germaine Greer than praised by lesser mortals.

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Washington, D.C. feminist: Major news outlets keep publishing articles suggesting we're in a post-racial, post-feminist society. My understanding is journalists since the 1970s have been claiming we're in a post-feminist era, and feminism is no longer relevant.

I believe that's a real flaw in reporting on feminism and civil rights. How could we fix it? Engender the curricula at j-schools?

Naomi Wolf: You are completely right in this assessment but actually the media coined the term "post-feminism" in 1919. It's not journalists or editors, I feel, who miss the boat intentionally. I believe that as news outlets are increasingly owned by major corporations, any citizens movement that is inclined to shift power back to the grassroots tends to be under-reported or actually ridiculed.

In the last third of Give Me Liberty, I give citizens the tools to start their own media, to write their own op-eds, frame the debate themselves, and build their own forums for deliberation so that we don't need to yield out authority or information to a few gatekeepers.

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Washington, D.C.: How important is is the Justice David Souter's replacement is a woman and pro-choice?

Naomi Wolf: So I believe you are asking a more fundamental question too about quotas and ideology. In an ideal world, Justice Souter's replacement would be likely to be a woman, not due to deliberate choice based on gender but rather because a truly functioning meritocracy would naturally present 53 percent of the most gifted candidates as female.

I actually don't believe in hiring on the basis of gender, but rather in making institutions aware of where their gender bias already is and getting rid of it.

As for the pro-choice question, I have to say that while as a woman I see the practical value of that, as an American with a newly heightened concern for the Constitution and the rule of law, I would rather be sure our justices would be making their rulings based on their best understanding of the law and Constitution rather than political ideology.

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Starkville, Miss.: Suze Orbach claims in here new book "Bodies" that our quest for the perfect body has greatly damaged our quest for civil rights for people who are different. I am alarmed at the current obsession with the amount of obesity in our culture. Where do you see this heading?

Naomi Wolf: First, I think Ms. Orbach is right. Indeed, the obsession with physical perfection in our culture has made able-bodied women think of themselves as defective. That said, I actually that the extremely high rates of obesity in our culture do require attention and I actually believe that it is the obsession with perfection that can lead to an unhealthy view of nutrition, the self, and the body that exacerbates obesity and ill health.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Did you find actress Katharine Hepburn a role-model for powerful, fiercely independent women when you were growing up?

Naomi Wolf: I sure liked her! She was cooler than Charlie's Angels. Though I confess that as a child of the 1970s I probably didn't know much about her until I was older. The subversive role models that caught my attention growing up were women like Deborah Harry, Patty Smith, and certainly the fabulous Gloria Steinem.

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Naomi Wolf: Thank you all so much for these wonderful questions and for the chance to have a conversation about this very important set of issues. I check in regularly on my Facebook site if people have additional questions and I look forward to seeing how you all bring these issues to life in your own continuing conversations in the future.

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Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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