The Magazine

Feminism's Children

A wolf in wolf's clothing.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By MARY EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood
by Naomi Wolf
Doubleday, 326 pp., $24.95

NOW THAT A REAL WAR has been engaged and an ideological truce declared on the home front, it is generally agreed that our criticism should be reserved for certain groups only--particularly those that advocate violence, promulgate stereotypes, and espouse hatred. This makes it an especially opportune time to check in on contemporary feminism, where a parable of sorts can be found in the twists and turns taken lately by one of its more popular practitioners.

Six years ago, Naomi Wolf--author of such works of "Third Wave" feminism as "The Beauty Myth," "Promiscuities," and, now, "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood"--momentarily rocked the sisterhood with an essay in the New Republic provocatively entitled "Our Bodies, Our Souls: Re-Thinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric." A collection of propositions guaranteed to outrage orthodox believers in "choice," the essay proved an instant media hit. Pro-choice feminists, Wolf declared, had "relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion." They had "dehumanized" the contents of a pregnant woman's womb and failed to acknowledge that "the death of a fetus is a real death."

These and other apparent concessions to the pro-life movement, issuing as they did from one of the premiere exponents of neo-orthodox feminism, naturally raised eyebrows. In retrospect, however, what made Wolf's New Republic performance worth remembering was not its heresies, but rather, what she concluded--or more accurately, failed to conclude--from them. For far from finding that abortion must, after all, be profoundly wrong, Wolf simply asserted that, despite it all, "abortion should be legal"; that, as she put the point brutally at the close of her essay, "sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die."

Wolf's position, stripped of its pro-life rhetorical concessions, amounted to the claim that the fetus is human and that it is still okay to kill it; or more exactly, that one may kill a fetus if and only if its humanity is first recognized. Such a ritualized view of fetal destruction--in which killing is unobjectionable, even routine, so long as it is accompanied by the right words and sentiments--was peculiar even by the battle-hardened standards of feminist rhetoric about abortion. One might almost call it an intuitive Nietzscheanism, if such were not unfair to Nietzsche.

WHAT MADE IT EVEN MORE PECULIAR was that Wolf (not unlike Gloria Steinem of the generation before) has long projected one of the more appealing personas of her crowd. Wolf's book-jacket photos, for example, make her look pretty and warm. She is neither humorless like the Robespierrean Susan Faludi nor ferocious like Catherine MacKinnon. Moreover, having married and given birth to two children, Wolf is not representative of what might be called the monastic wing of feminism; her writing on men and children is shaped by the fact that she actually knows some. And while her books, as Christina Hoff Sommers and other critics have demonstrated, fall somewhat short of scholarship, they do have an earnestness--indeed, a girlish enthusiasm--that distinguishes them from the dour Leninism in which so many of her contemporaries wallow. In short, if current feminism can be said to have a human face, Naomi Wolf is it--which is exactly why her latest book, "Misconceptions," carries a weight that other feminist treatments of pregnancy and motherhood do not.

IN KEEPING WITH THE MYTH-BUSTING RHETORIC of her previous efforts, Wolf intends "Misconceptions" to be an exploration of "the hidden truths behind giving birth in America today"--truths about how motherhood is "undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women's expense." As in Wolf's own "The Beauty Myth" or Faludi's "Backlash," the intended formula here is clear: to listen to "the full spectrum of stories that women confess to one another, including stories that they intuit they must not speak out loud in our culture," in the hopes of exposing the dark "truths" about pregnancy and birth in America.