Naomi Wolf argues for de-politicized feminism

Naomi Wolf*Sigh* Naomi Wolf, won’t you please just stop?

Wolf published a piece at Project Syndicate yesterday with the super friendly title “America’s Reactionary Feminists.” Yes, it’s another one of those articles lamenting that feminists don’t embrace female politicians who actively work against feminist goals.

In this instance, Wolf takes the opportunity to promote one of the worst, most de-politicized takes on feminism out there:

The second reason that Bachmann and Palin appeal to so many Americans – and this should not be underestimated, either – has to do with a serious historical misreading of feminism. Because feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was articulated via the institutions of the left – in Britain, it was often allied with the labor movement, and in America, it was reborn in conjunction with the emergence of the New Left – there is an assumption that feminism itself must be leftist. In fact, feminism is philosophically as much in harmony with conservative, and especially libertarian, values – and in some ways even more so.

The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left. But, apart from these sound bites, there is a powerful constituency of right-wing women in Britain and Western Europe, as well as in America, who do not see their values reflected in collectivist social-policy prescriptions or gender quotas. They prefer what they see as the rugged individualism of free-market forces, a level capitalist playing field, and a weak state that does not impinge on their personal choices.

Many of these women are socially conservative, strongly supportive of the armed forces, and religious – and yet they crave equality as strongly as any leftist vegetarian in Birkenstocks. It is blindness to this perfectly legitimate approach to feminism that keeps tripping up commentators who wish to dismiss women like Margaret Thatcher, or Muslim women, or now right-wing US women leaders, as somehow not being the “real thing.”

But these women are real feminists…

I’m not sure where Wolf got the idea that “The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom,” but that’s not my feminism, and it’s not our history. Perhaps she’s referring to some of the rhetoric employed by the reproductive rights movement, like “Get your laws off my body” and even the label “pro-choice.” Of course, these phrases were chosen as an attempt to connect the right to abortion to American individualism in order to gain more popular support (and, myself and others would argue, this rhetoric has become damaging). In fact, one of the first causes of the newly named feminist movement was organizing for the right to vote – for collective political power.

Wolf’s is a form of feminism I abhor. It’s all about individual women achieving power and doesn’t give a shit about ending systemic gender oppression. It doesn’t care about abortion access as long as incredibly privileged women can get the procedure – so basically it’s fine with access being materially the same as it was pre-Roe. It doesn’t care that women on average (especially women of color) still earn considerably less money than men, as long as one woman makes it to the board room. And it’s all about promoting female politicians regardless of whether they want to totally screw over other women. (Let me once again bring up a quote we cite a lot from the brilliant Ann Friedman: “A woman candidate is not the same thing as a woman’s candidate.”)

It seems Wolf would have us completely forget about intersectional feminism. About issues that uniquely impact women of color or trans folks, or the ways gender oppression hurts gay men, to name just a very few examples. Because this isn’t about oppression of whole identity groups, it’s just about individuals.

My feminism isn’t just about getting government to leave me alone. It’s not just libertarianism for women. It’s about recognizing the existence of gendered systems of oppression and working for justice, working to change these systems, which often involves government taking action against injustice.

While Wolf’s take on feminism is all about achieving power, it’s devoid of a power analysis (I’m starting to sound like a broken record on that one). Forget the fact that gender oppression negatively impacts our entire world and make it all about one woman succeeding. Or in other words, let’s forget about politics and make feminism all about me me me.

h/t Theresa

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Emily

    I haven’t read the whole article, but the excerpt here is full of homogenizing stereotypes. As if “Muslim women” are a monolithic group and leftist feminists are somehow unified by shoe-brand loyalty. “Vegetarians in Birkenstocks” sounds just like code for “dirty, no-g00d, drug-doin’, free-lovin’, no-bra-wearin’ hippies.”

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      It was very much a straw-man to throw out there, reducing the left to an anachronistic cartoon hippie when in actuality I find a spectrum of personalities and types on the left, just as I do in feminism. And footwear. :)

      Although she doesn’t sound like in the beginning of the argument she supports Bachman & Palin either,the big lynchpin in her argument that feminism & conservatism are similar seems to be a notion that conservatism values individual choice and freedom. But since their agendas and legislation on any number of issues, including those that most affect women, seems to fly straight in the face of that notion, it’s pretty easy to pull that lynchpin right out.

      I wonder if she’s aware that, rather than being “dismissive”, many moderate-to-left leaning feminists have been just as quick to call out sexism leveled against Palin, Bachman, etc., even while disagreeing with their ideas and actions?

  • Ned Hamson

    Ms. Wolf, I fear, just wants to get paid for speaking to conservative groups, get her name out to more paying outlets and gain some sort of point for being against the grain. No points, she can have the money but she needs to accept blame for harm she does. Thatcher a feminist? On what planet?

  • Smiley


    You don’t like her, do you?

    But the problem is, she makes some valid points, and argues them well. And she does actually take sides; she seems to be pointing things out, and issues a warning.

    Nothing wrong with that.

    In the piece quoted, where is the offensive beef?

    ” [...] feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was articulated via the institutions of the left [...]“? Very true.

    “In fact, feminism is philosophically as much in harmony with conservative, and especially libertarian, values [...]” Possibly true.

    “The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom.” Is anyone going to deny that?

    “Many of these women are socially conservative, strongly supportive of the armed forces, and religious.” I don’t know, but very possibly.

    It sounds like a religious argument: we are the orthodox, and anyone who disagrees is a heretic. Is that how you want to be perceived?

    • Anna

      “In the piece quoted, where is the offensive beef?”

      “‘The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom.’ Is anyone going to deny that?”

      Maybe you should go back and read the post.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      “The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom.” Is anyone going to deny that?”

      No, but I’m going to deny that it’s also a core of American conservatism.

    • Puck


      You sure do like talking down to people, don’t you?

      Seriously, though, Jos wasn’t making this personal, so I’m curious as to why that would be your read.

      Further, your whole orthodox/heteric argument is ridiculous. Try to apply that to any political position or philosophy and you’ll soon find all words meaningless. There is a tradition of working for political change which is commonly called “feminism.”

      Similarly, I can’t just call myself a “conservative” because I like the sound of the word or because I’m a white male who benefits from “conservative” social and economic policy. I would actually have to embrace and work toward what is recognized as “conservative” policy aims or I’d be rendering the word meaningless.

      • Daniel Ballow

        It was an obscenely biased reading, though.
        Naomi was blatantly being accused of doing whatever it takes to climb the latter, denying other’s rights in the process.

        Anything inherently positive or true from the excerpt is framed as if it’s mutually exclusive to “feminism.”

        This is just like Christianity, so many warring groups within. “No REAL feminist would X. No REAL feminist would do Y.”

        And anyone who doesn’t identify them-self as a feminist might as well burn Hell anyway.

  • red_haired_dancer

    If what conservatives really want is “a level capitalist playing field, and a . . . state that does not impinge on their personal choices,” they’ve certainly got me fooled.

  • Maddy

    What she needs to understand is that there is no such thing as “real feminism”. That, above all else, is what I find troubling about this article.

    Also, the way she completely generalizes those of “leftist” and “conservative” viewpoints, as if there is no middle ground. As if those of the left disregard Muslim women as not being real feminists.

    For all the things That Naomi Wolf says that have been brilliant, every now and then she displays this sort of shit storm logic that makes me do a face palm.

  • Masa Mochizuki

    The problem with Wolf’s argument is that it buys into the political rhetoric of the right without being critical of its contradictions. Even if feminism were defined by “individual choice and freedom” (and if we go by generally agreed upon definitions of feminism, they almost always involve equality as the key word), social conservatism does not even come close to completely aligning with that value.

    On some issues, yes: freedom to own guns, freedom to be Christian and promote Christianity, freedom from taxation (smaller government). But social conservatism is defined by defending traditional social values, and part of defending those values means being antagonistic to change, variation, or “individual choice and freedom”. That includes the roles of women in society and the home, decision-making power over women’s bodies, and basically a whole slew of other things concerning what a woman should and shouldn’t be or should and shouldn’t do.

    Social liberalism isn’t completely friendly to the values of “individual choice and freedom” either. It converges on standards that limit how we interact for the protection of minority and disenfranchised groups. It limits the choice and freedom of those with the most power. But by doing so, it empowers groups that traditionally don’t hold power and creates a more level (though not necessarily capitalist) playing field.

    So in a nutshell, social conservatism is about “individual choice and freedom”, but it really only helps those who already have power (men). Social liberalism still values choice and freedom, but puts it below social equality so that even if there is less overall choice and freedom, those who have traditionally been left out of the game will have more choices and and freedoms (women).

    So whether feminism is defined by the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or by “individual choice and freedom”, (unless Wolf is redefining feminism even further to mean only choice and freedom for men), I’m pretty sure that feminism more strongly aligns with social liberalism than social conservatism. There’s no case for Wolf’s argument unless feminism is completely redefined to exclude women entirely or as Jos stated, to be redefined as tokenism to only empower a select few women for whom it’s about “me me me.”

    “Individual choice and freedom” only sounds good if you’re lucky enough to be one of those few and you happen to not care about anyone else.

  • Kirby

    It is not such a bad thing to have a concept of a de-politicized feminism. As it stands there are huge numbers of American women who do not (and will not) have anything to do with anything under the term “feminism.” Loyalty to a cause can easily lead us to become allied to one political party, and to the shunning of all others.

    Feminism has done this with the Democratic Party. It’s great to be involved in having feminist issues addressed at the highest governmental levels (it should be), but we also need to be aware in that race we might be (in this case, are) pushing down other women who also need to be heard. They are still women, and if so many of them cannot speak since they cast that vote against abortion rights then we are doing something very wrong.

    And we are pretty darn reactionary.

  • Krista

    As I understand feminism, it is the idea that women should have the same rights, access and opportunities as men (i.e. the right to vote, equal pay, etc.)

    While the left likes to expand feminism into something much broader and more encompassing, they can do that, but then they alienate women who may not agree with some cookie cutter leftism feminism.

    Naomi Wolfe may in fact be pandering to the right. Anti-porn feminists do it all the time.

  • Kara Michelle Sabia

    So is she saying that we should vote for them because they are (and i don’t agree with this at all) actually feminists?

    If you define feminism SOO broadly as to include these two, then I don’t have any sort of allegiance to the concept. I am a feminist because I agree with the viewpoints that make up its more accepted, contemporary definition, not because I am a woman or because feminism is inherently good. If feminism WAS about the type of ideologies held by these two women, I wouldn’t be a feminist.

  • beet

    As a man, I simply have no right to tell women what ‘real feminism’ is, and I abhor men who do. This is a question for women to settle among themselves. But I can give my opinion on Naomi Wolf, which is that she is an opportunist who will throw women under the bus to be popular, as witnessed by her pandering to the misogynists and rape-dismissers during the Julian Assange case.

  • kendra

    What? Naomi Wolfe doesn’t recognize the ” existence of gendered systems of oppression” or work for justice to change these systems? What? She’s been writing about that exact thing for over 20 years.. ?

    I think her point – that seems to be missed by the author here – is that when you form a movement – (or write an article) that includes a left leaning political agenda, you detract from your main purpose – which I agree with the author should be: to recognize a gendered system of oppression, and change the power structures and social construct that allow them. You cannot however create this kind of massive social change with a few people who share every common opinion. By alienating and dividing women, you eliminate our commonality and reduce our power – rather than unite us towards a common goal.

    My main problem with this article (and the politicized feminist mindset in general) Is that this common “feminist goal” the author mentions is never defined. It seems that without being able to define this, you can’t argue that anything – republican political candidates included – are against it. To me the feminist’s goal should be to create equality – not Utopia. I don’t agree with every male candidate either – but that’s not a feminist issue. it’s a political one, and it shouldn’t be the same. I suppose there are people who strongly push for a democratic majority in government. My goal is 50% representation by women… many of whom I will not agree with politically. It saddens me that this will probably never happen while feminism remains so divisive.

    • HolyMoly

      I feel like Naomi Wolf pisses people off for being human. She’s not completely left wing despite writing a book called “The End of America” which bashed conservative political culture and she’s not completely right wing despite her insistence we take right wing politicians seriously.

      I want to be a big gracious and say what I got from the article was that we have to start taking Bachman and Palin seriously, because they do push for a (somewhat eschewed) sense of equality. We can’t discount them because they have followers and are legitimately able to be in positions of power. If we toss them aside as not “Real feminists” or just make jokes about them, we’ll end up in trouble! To quote the last part of the essay: “we ignore the wide appeal of right-wing feminism at our peril.”

      I completely agree. You have to understand what the “other side” is doing to be able to competently compete with it.

  • athenia

    I do feel that feminism can be too entrenched in the “left” sometimes BUT like hell do social conservatives want “equality.”

    “Many of these women are socially conservative, strongly supportive of the armed forces, and religious – and yet they crave equality as strongly as any leftist vegetarian in Birkenstocks. ”

    EQUAL TO WHOM NAOMI? To lesbians? Black men? White men? Trans people? Latinos?

    While I’d love to give conservative women the benefit of the doubt, they want *me* to be equal to *them*. And I do not want that.

  • Dan C

    Good stuff, Jos.

    To be fair, Wolf doesn’t exactly embrace Bachmann or Palin in the rest of the article. However, the part that Jos did excerpt does sound like a warmup to a series of lectures for conservative groups. Sad, really.

    I think that, unfortunately, for the moment, feminism is stuck as a politicized movement. As Masa – and Jos – pointed out, the most concrete, strategic way to achieve an equal footing for most women is through an aggressive, collective agenda that includes lots of social welfare programming. This is definitely in conflict with a political party that promotes individual freedom above all.

    There are plenty of people who are fully supportive of the philosophy of feminism – Jos’s feminism, not Naomi’s – but are more closely aligned to the Republican party on other issues. Lower taxes, religious affiliation, gun rights, etc. This sucks, because I’m sure they feel very excluded from an incredibly important social cause.

  • toongrrl

    Why am I getting flashbacks of Val of Val magazine from “Daria” (The Lost Girls)

  • beet

    Okay I am going to break my vow and have another comment on this, because I am confused. If feminism embraced women like Palin and Bachmann, how would this make feminism “non-political”? Assuming you were still interested in protecting the rights of women, you would need to be involved in politics in order to do it. Plus, Palin and Bachmann aren’t “non-political”, theyre politicians. Heck, arguably they’re more political than anyone here.

  • K

    It’s all about individual women achieving power and doesn’t give a shit about ending systemic gender oppression.

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

  • Verity Khat

    I think feminism is going to continue to be politicized until certain segments of the population give up the idea that the only freedom that matters is their own (and the rest of us should just shut up and meekly live our lives the way they tell us to). It shouldn’t be, since equality should be a no-brainer, buuuuuuuut see my previous point.

  • sex-toy-james

    I had to read the article because sometimes Feministing seems to overreact on these things, and I had to see if that quote just looked bad out of context. I’ll also admit that I roll my eyes at things like “gendered systems of oppression”, “patriarchy”, and “quotas”; enough that I wouldn’t insist on being a Feminist. Still, I reacted much like JOS did to that article, maybe with less outrage, but still with a “Can you possibly believe the nonsense that you’re writing?” I can’t credibly stretch Feminism far enough that it includes Bachmann and Palin, or even close. If you’re stretching it to people who believe in religiously defined gender roles and oppose contraceptive services, you’re just trying to hijack the term. There’s just so much bullshit in that Naomi Wolf article.

    If we really were trying to make an argument for conservative feminism, you could. Spending on contraception and family planning services saves the nation a disproportionate amount in medical and childcare costs, not to mention that it keeps a potential worker from being essentially incapacitated. Also, sex workers are small businesspeople and entrepreneurs, so you’d think that the conservatives would support their rights. There’s even a good argument to make that businesses would be better off with support systems in place so that women wouldn’t be held back if they choose to start families. I see no trace of that Bachmann or Palin.

  • Megan Brownlee

    This is an old argument in feminism, I’m sure not particular to it either. On the one hand, one might argue for female representation in society and positions of power, and that this will act as a catalyst for eventual equality. The other take is for institutionalized equality, like the fight for the vote. I would rather widespread equality than token representation by a privileged few, who are unlikely to endorse a movement which might jeopardize this perilous “power”.

  • Broggly

    Sure, I can see a Libertarian Feminist, but a Conservative one? Unless you mean conservatism in a purely pragmatic sense it’s oxymoronic to be a Conservative Feminist in the present circumstances (at least in America and my nation, Australia). Conservatives by definition want things to stay the same, and maybe be a bit more like they were before.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I thought a little more about this…she’s not arguing for “de-politicized” feminism, something I’m not even sure can exist. She’s arguing for the existence of a right-wing feminist ideology, which brings us back around to this question: can a woman be strong, hold a position of authority, have a forceful personality, etc., but not be “feminist”? And if so, is another term needed to define them, if that’s even necessary? Palin, Bachmann, Coulter, etc. are strong personalities with followings that I can’t deny are there, even if I personally find a lot of what they say absurd. But many of the things they advocate for would restrict other womens autonomy, which makes it hard for me to regard them as feminist.

    Politically, a lot of the people I know who identify as feminist fall somewhere on a spectrum from moderate to far-left. A few have grasped onto feminism as some sort of self-esteem booster for themselves, embracing the ideas of body acceptance and sex-positivism, but having no interest in any of the other issues it encompasses.