_ No more Ms Nice Guy

Equality is within women’s grasp, says Naomi Wolf, did we but know it. Sue Wilson talked to her about the latest in feminist firefighting.

A very erudite young history teacher once told my class, by way of an aside, that Britain was the only country he knew of where the idea that someone could be 'too clever by half’ enjoyed such popular currency. His observation came back to me recently, in relation to the peculiarly hostile media treatment meted out to Naomi Wolf, US feminist author of The Beauty Myth, on her recent visits here, following the publication last autumn of her second book Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21 st Century. We're not used to such declamatory, assertively positive subtitles on this side of the Pond, nor to formidany articulate, busily intelligent young women who write books and give talks and interviews containing the clear, confident, coolly argued message that we —- we women can change the world.

So Naomi Wolf is arrogant, fragrant, too pretty, over-privileged, on the make, simplistic, elitist, another bloody loud-mouthed American and plenty of other derogatory adjectives fired off with as l said peculiar defensiveness. Peculiar partly because so many of the brickbats sailing her way are aimed at her, personally, rather than the arguments in her book, but even more so because so many are being hurled by other women who identify themselves as feminists.

‘1 think much of the response 1 get is to do with the fact that when people are confronted with threatening ideas, or ideas that force them in a direction they‘re not ready to go in, they grasp for any reason not to pay attention.’ Wolf says. ‘Also. when someone is perceived as taking up too much of the stage, that elicits very primal feelings of resentment and resistance i get those feelings, i don‘t think anyone is spared them, but I think they're a stupid basis on which to conduct an intellectual discussion.’

The outline of Wolf ’s argument has been widely aired by now: as more than 50 per cent of the population, women possess a built-in electoral majority, and we have achieved a critical mass of political and economic power, so that equality is actually within our grasp, did we but realise it. We haven‘t so far, because, in different ways, institutionalised sexism and certain influential strands of feminist thought have instilled in women a deep ambivalence, even fear, about acknowledging and wielding the power

we have. Conquer this inner resistance. and the prize is ours. (That’s a grossly crude precis of a lively, meticulously

reasoned 350-page argument, by the way.)

‘I don’t think it’s women’s responsibility to be nicer with power than men, I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to be nicer with power.’

Debate has raged chiefly over Wolf 's use of the terms ‘victim' and ‘power’ feminism, in part because of the very different meaning attached to similar terms by agents provocateuses Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe, according to whom the date-rape issue, for instance, is purely a product of female self- victimisation. What is really groundbreaking about her analysis, however, is that she makes the courageous step of attempting to delineate the fight for gender equality feminism as a movement at least partially separable from all the other left-wing causes often automatically lumped in with it anti-racism, anti- capitalism, lesbian and gay rights, the peace movement. Wolf is not saying for one moment that these are not urgent causes too, simply that making them all conditional on each other for success. taking the line that if you can't change everything there's no point changing anything, is winning women progress very slowly indeed.

‘Helena Kennedy has estimated that,

.at the cunent rate it will take women

about a thousand years to achieve equality,‘ she says. ‘The left likes to say that racism. classisrn, sexism, homophobia are all related, and that they’ll all collapse when there’s this egalitarian world. in fact. it’s much easier, in a capitalist society. to get rid of sexism and homophobia than it is to get rid of class differences. or the racism that’s so tied up with those differences. We have to look at a sort of fork in the road, face a very uncomfortable truth: equality for women is not going to collapse the class system, and it’s unlikely to collapse global capitalism. What equality for women will do, is not get rid of the poor, but get rid of gender as a marker for economic discrimination. That won’t be the millennium, but it will be an improvement.’

This in itself slaughters a sizeable herd of socialist-feminist sacred cows; also upsetting to many left-wing sisters will be Wolf’s assertion that the women’s movement has to stop demanding a check-list of acceptable ideological credentials before lending support to women attempting to achieve some kind of power. and it must forfeit the right to stipulate what women do with that power when they get it. ’On a purely civil-rights basis. it will be better if women have halfof everything - even if they don’t do anything better with it; in the case of

iiaoni Woli: advocating a lard-headed, pro-active feminis-

black people. we don’t demand that they do better things with their power than white people have, because it is a basic egalitarian good not to have discrimination; democracy is a greater good than the absence of democracy. Then what I would say is, l have a set of beliefs about how power should be used -— ecologically. equitably, to minimise class differences - but those are not gendered responsibilities, those are human responsibilities. I don’t think it’s women’s responsibility to be nicer with power than men, 1 think it’s everybody‘s responsibility to be nicer with power.‘

Rejecting the position that the total mass of injustices done to women over the ages will surely, eventually, somehow apply enough pressure to redress the balance if we draw enough attention to them, Wolf advocates a hard-headed. pro-active feminism that draws its models as readin from community groups mobilising to lobby their council for better children's play facilities as from the power-corridors of Westminster or Washington. Summarised. it sounds somewhat daunting, and it certainly does throw down challenges, but Wolf ’s compassionate, thoughtful, readable and above all optimistic book leaves you feeling it could be a challenge that’s within your power to meet.

Fire With Fire is published by Chatta & Windus at £11.99.

.8 The List 11—24 February 1994