Naomi Wolf Essay - Critical Essays

Wolf, Naomi


Naomi Wolf 1962-

American nonfiction writer and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Wolf's career through 2001.

A provocative author and commentator on the subject of women's issues, Wolf emerged as one of the most powerful new voices of American feminism during the early 1990s. Though often at odds with the beliefs and issues that structured the nascent feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Wolf has developed pointed criticisms regarding the culturally dominant notions of beauty, power, sexuality, and motherhood, which she feels continue to prevent women from gaining full equality with men at all levels of society. Wolf offers extended considerations of each of these themes in several best-selling books, including The Beauty Myth (1990), Fire with Fire (1993), Promiscuities (1997), and Misconceptions (2001). While Wolf has received criticism for her use of questionable statistics and broad historical references in support of her arguments, her works consistently raise compelling questions about the role of feminism in the lives of women and society as a whole.

Biographical Information

Born in San Francisco, California, Wolf was raised by educated, liberal Jewish parents. Her father was a professor, her mother an anthropologist, and Wolf grew up in the city's Haight-Ashbury district, the center of the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her childhood and adolescent experiences within this turbulent milieu informed many of Wolf's perspectives on the shortcomings of second-wave feminism. Wolf attended Yale University and graduated in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in English literature. The recipient of a Rhodes scholarship, Wolf pursued graduate work at New College at Oxford University. Her first book, The Beauty Myth, is based on research she initially conducted for her dissertation at Oxford. Following the popular success of this work, Wolf left Oxford and returned to the United States, continuing to research and write about feminist issues. Since the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf has received considerable attention from the mainstream media in the United States and Britain, appearing as a frequent guest on the news and talk show circuit and becoming one of the most visible women in the contemporary feminist movement. In 1993 Wolf married David Shipley, a journalist and speechwriter for former U.S. President Bill Clinton, with whom she has a daughter. During the 2000 presidential election, Wolf served as a campaign advisor to Democratic candidate Al Gore. In addition to her published books, she has also contributed to various periodicals, including the New Republic and the New York Times.

Major Works

Each of Wolf's books explores the limitations and possibilities of modern feminism through a broad focus on different facets of women's experience. The Beauty Myth examines the backlash against the feminist movement and the way in which traditional ideas about beauty are used as a political weapon against women's claims for equality. Tracing ideas of feminine beauty throughout the centuries, Wolf argues that obsessive and unrealistic expectations of beauty serve as a last resort for men to defend themselves against women's demands for greater social and political power. For Wolf, the tremendous influence of the beauty myth in contemporary Western societies can be found in the amount of money women spend for cosmetics and dietary aids, in the hope of attaining the ideal physical appearance that these industries promote. Wolf insists that the cultural force of the beauty myth encourages women to destroy themselves physically—for example, through excessive dieting and plastic surgery—and drains their psychological and emotional energy, thereby slowly eroding the initial gains of feminism. Wolf contends that this obsession with beauty is unhealthy for both men and women, and she encourages women to seek other images of female beauty in places such as women's films, novels, and art. Wolf also suggests that younger women draw upon the work of second-wave feminists to form an intergenerational alliance to advocate for alternative notions of beauty that are more faithful to the needs of feminine desires and the female body. Wolf continued to develop her notion of a new kind of feminism in her second book, Fire with Fire, in which she promotes what she terms “power feminism.” Wolf urges women to move away from the type of feminism that views women primarily as victims of male dominance, and to embrace instead a movement that encourages women to take control of their lives and their futures. To create this new movement, Wolf argues that feminism must welcome all women, not just those who adhere to a specific ideology. For this new feminism to be successful, Wolf asserts, women must learn how to acquire economic and political power within the mainstream and to effectively use this power to advocate for women's issues. Rather than cling to a wishful vision of a fundamentally different political arena, Wolf insists that such a movement must be pragmatic and adjust to the realities of politics as it is currently practiced. Only through a focused pursuit of economic and political power, Wolf declares, can feminism achieve its emancipatory goals and renew itself as a vibrant and meaningful social movement. Wolf's work became increasingly personal with the publication of her third book, Promiscuities, in which she offers a revealing account of her own coming of age within the context of sexual liberation. Supplementing her own stories and those of her girlhood friends with historical and anthropological analysis, Wolf argues that the sexual revolution offered little in the way of genuine freedom for women. Although social changes encouraged young women to consider themselves as sexually free as young men, women were given scant guidance on how to responsibly explore and foster their sexuality. Through her own personal experiences, Wolf reveals how girls typically become aware of the often confusing nexus of power and vulnerability that characterizes feminine sexuality. Rather than being able to forge distinctively female modes of sexual desire, Wolf asserts that the sexual revolution continued to leave women in the position of seeking to satisfy male desires before identifying their own. To rectify this, Wolf argues for a new sexual morality that would encourage women to control their sexuality and to find genuine ways of expressing their sexual desires. Wolf insists that girls not only need more information about their bodies and sexuality, but also require a values-based approach to sex education that would offer a more thoughtful structure for the decisions girls make about sex. In her next work, Misconceptions, Wolf examines the mythologies and expectations that structure the understandings of pregnancy and motherhood in America. As in her previous books, Wolf again relies on her own personal experience to develop her feminist critique, focusing on the ways in which she feels society fails to adequately support pregnant women and new parents. Despite feminist advocacy for greater control over the birthing process, Wolf argues that American women continue to be offered condescending advice and misleading information about the often conflicted nature of pregnancy, labor, and new motherhood. Although many women expecting a child may feel inadequate, vulnerable, and even angry, Wolf asserts that many leave these genuine fears and anxieties unspoken for fear of being labeled a bad mother. Along with criticizing the medical establishment for its failure to provide women with a safe and emotionally supportive setting for their pregnancies and labor, Wolf also insists that business and society place great pressure on new parents and do little to address their economic and psychological needs. Wolf argues for a renewed examination of how best to support pregnant women and new parents in more effective and helpful ways.

Critical Reception

All of Wolf's books have received considerable critical attention. Though many reviewers have praised the honesty and passion of Wolf's work and her skill in raising compelling questions regarding the status of women, many critics have been sharply critical of Wolf's use of social statistics, her polemical rhetoric, and the limitations of her sweeping political generalizations. The Beauty Myth has received an extraordinary amount of critical attention in the United States and Britain, with many lauding Wolf's desire to bring the attention of a new generation of women to the old problem of culturally inscribed standards of feminine beauty. However, many commentators have noted that her argument is undermined by her failure to cite sources for her claims about the rates of cosmetic surgery and rape. Other reviewers have criticized Wolf's lack of reflection on her own privileged status—including the ironic fact of her own telegenic physical appearance. Such detractors have also bemoaned her failure to adequately consider how the complexities of race, class, and sexuality may play into the workings of the beauty myth. Critics of The Beauty Myth have frequently charged it with being overly pessimistic or too simplistic by ascribing many of the problems women face to the singular factor of beauty. Fire with Fire has faced similar criticism, though many commentators have welcomed Wolf's call for a renewed feminism that recognizes the importance of economic power and that is open to women of all political stances. Others, however, have dismissed her position as elitist and naïve, arguing that simply encouraging women to acquire more political power will not alone address the structural inequalities of education and wealth that disadvantage large numbers of women. For these critics, the promise of Wolf's “power feminism” has remained inaccessible to the many women who have relatively few economic resources and who have little, if any, power of their own to deploy for political causes. Promiscuities has been perhaps the most harshly reviewed of Wolf's books. While some have lauded Wolf's recommendations for a new approach to sex education and praised her frankness in assessing the failures of the sexual revolution, especially for women, most critics have regarded Wolf's mixture of personal revelation with historical and anthropological material as a less than convincing approach to the complex subject of female sexuality. Other critics have decried the lack of diversity in Wolf's discussion of sexuality, noting the conspicuous absence of lesbian and male voices. Though reviewers have welcomed Wolf's willingness to raise provocative questions about the relationship between feminism and female sexuality, many have regarded her solutions as problematic. Like her previous books, Misconceptions has received criticism for being too personally revealing and seemingly self-indulgent. Some critics have viewed Wolf's personal revelations as offering little insight for women who may be in significantly different or more disadvantaged social, economic, or emotional circumstances than Wolf herself. Despite these concerns, commentators have praised Wolf's honesty and acknowledged that her frank, often frightening look at the experience of pregnancy and motherhood presents a useful counter to the many sanguine advice books currently available for expectant mothers.

Principal Works

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women (nonfiction) 1990

Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century (nonfiction) 1993

Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (nonfiction) 1997

Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (nonfiction) 2001

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Justine Picardie (review date 21 September 1990)

SOURCE: Picardie, Justine. “The Suffering Sex.” New Statesman & Society (21 September 1990): 39–40.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Picardie commends Wolf's moving personal accounts and insight, but criticizes in her “muddled” argument and use of statistics.]

A great deal of attention has been paid to this book: the Sunday Times has paid a large sum of money to serialise it; the author, a young American woman called Naomi Wolf, recently appeared on both The Late Show and breakfast television. Magazine profiles have been written; glamorous pictures taken of the attractive Ms Wolf. For The Beauty Myth is, according...

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Richard Davenport-Hines (review date 12–18 October 1990)

SOURCE: Davenport-Hines, Richard. “Torments of the Flesh.” Times Literary Supplement (12–18 October 1990): 1097.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Davenport-Hines praises the eloquence and force of Wolf's writing, though finds shortcomings in what he perceives as her unconvincing statistical evidence and her failure to account for the personal responsibility of women.]

Naomi Wolf grew up in California. Her mother Deborah kept a notepad in the kitchen where the rest of her family could surreptitiously peep at it. On the notepad Deborah recorded the agonies of her diet, and the guilt that engulfed her when she broke it with food binges. Deborah...

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Wendy Wasserstein (review date 12 May 1991)

SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy. “Through the Good-Looking Glass.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 4.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Wasserstein concludes that Wolf offers interesting and unsettling generalizations, but that her book is “not earth-shaking.”]

I remember reading The Feminine Mystique my senior year on the steps of my dormitory at Mt. Holyoke College. I had a yellow highlighter pen and every other sentence I would madly underline because not only did Betty Friedan seem to have put her finger on a previously unnamed plight, but she was, by doing so, opening up doors and possibilities for me and my classmates....

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Marilyn Yalom (review date 16 June 1991)

SOURCE: Yalom, Marilyn. “Feminism's Latest Makeover.” Washington Post Book World (16 June 1991): 7.

[In the following excerpt, Yalom offers a positive assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Periodically throughout our century the debate on women's position in society swells to daunting proportions. For the past two decades, it has pervaded the media in countless books, articles, films, plays and television shows, with no signs of abating. American women's gains in the workplace and homeplace are weighed against their losses. White middle-class women are contrasted to their working-class and minority counterparts. Feminist aspirations are evaluated in the context of...

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Clara Germani (essay date 18 June 1991)

SOURCE: Germani, Clara. “The Truth about the Beauty Myth.” Christian Science Monitor (18 June 1991): 14.

[In the following essay, Germani discusses The Beauty Myth and reports Wolf's comments on her feminist views.]

When a radio talk-show host here felt it necessary to note that Naomi Wolf is a beautiful woman, the author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women turned the tables by describing him for the audience as tall, dark, and cute.

While the host's comment didn't immediately seem out of line, it did as soon as Ms. Wolf demonstrated the double standard implied by how out of place it seemed in that same...

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Mary G. Gotschall (review date 8 July 1991)

SOURCE: Gotschall, Mary G. “Poisoned Apple.” National Review (8 July 1991): 42–44.

[In the following review, Gotschall offers an unfavorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

In The Beauty Myth, a provocative new feminist tract which should take its place alongside such polemics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Naomi Wolf argues that American women are enslaved by the cultural edict to be beautiful. They are victims of an impossible standard. The pressure, according to Miss Wolf, has become relentless during the past decade, as women have begun competing head-on with men in the professional sphere.

For Naomi Wolf, the beauty...

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Maurice Cranston (review date August 1991)

SOURCE: Cranston, Maurice. Review of The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. American Spectator 24, no. 8 (August 1991): 36–37.

[In the following review, Cranston offers a negative assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

The Beauty Myth has already caused something of a stir in England and, being English, I think I can understand why. The argument is outrageous, and it is written in a wild and witty way by a glamorous American graduate student, aged 28, who is at Oxford on a “Rhodes scholarship”—that is, with a fellowship endowed by the racist imperialist Cecil Rhodes, although her own views are those of the most radical-feminist left. Like Cecil Rhodes, however,...

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Elayne Rapping (review date October 1991)

SOURCE: Rapping, Elayne. “Bad News, Good News.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 1 (October 1991): 1, 3–4.

[In the following excerpt, Rapping offers an unfavorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Is it the best of times or the worst of times? Have we come a long way, baby, or are we systematically being beaten back to ground zero by the right-wing goon squads? On any given day, depending on the headlines or my phone messages, I'm likely to believe either one. The times are certainly a-changing, but who's on first? The horrors of the Reagan-Bush era—increased feminization of poverty, terrifying threats to reproductive rights, reported increases in sexual...

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Diane Johnson (review date 16 January 1992)

SOURCE: Johnson, Diane. “Something for the Boys.” New York Review of Books (16 January 1992): 13–17.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses the significance of The Beauty Myth and renewed interest in feminism, gender roles, and masculinity, as reflected by a number of new books published in the early 1990s.]


Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked to the authors of Modern Woman, the Lost Sex, “I bet you say that to all the sexes.” Reading these books together is like being locked in the coat closet at a cocktail party to overhear a muffled cacophony of half-truths, partial insights, and entrenched...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)

Gayle Greene (review date 10 February 1992)

SOURCE: Greene, Gayle. “The Empire Strikes Back.” Nation (10 February 1992): 166–70.

[In the following excerpt, Greene offers a favorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Those who are living through change may be the last to know it, until something we read brings things together in a way that makes us see that yes, things really are different—it's not just us growing older. These books [Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi's Backlash]—both written by young women, both bristling with indignation—demonstrate that something has changed profoundly in the culture's attitudes toward and representations of women, that we are undergoing a...

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Maxine S. Theodoulou (review date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Theodoulou, Maxine S. Review of The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49, no. 2 (summer 1992): 251–52.

[In the following review, Theodoulou concludes that The Beauty Myth is undermined by Wolf's narrow thesis and “pedestrian style,” but that the work offers useful insight.]

Women's preoccupation with beauty [in The Beauty Myth] fuels a billion-dollar industry. The “standards” of beauty constantly change, leaving women with closets of outdated clothes and, in the worst case, outdated bodies. To meet the current standards of feminine beauty women diet, exercise, and undertake dangerous and costly...

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Melissa Benn (review date 26 November 1993)

SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “The Big Girls.” New Statesman & Society (26 November 1993): 39.

[In the following review, Benn argues that Fire with Fire oversimplifies women's liberation and the complexities of social reality.]

Absurdly over-hyped, Fire with Fire is the latest in a long line of high-energy, sweeping tomes by American feminists that everyone tells us overshadow our sour, small-minded, home-grown variety. But massive publicity of both book and author will ensure that they get out to millions of women looking hungrily (or lazily) for the text of their age. For that reason alone, it is important.

It is certainly the first...

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Anne Applebaum (review date 27 November 1993)

SOURCE: Applebaum, Anne. “Laughing All the Way to the Bonk.” Spectator (27 November 1993): 40–41.

[In the following review, Applebaum offers a negative assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Fire with Fire is an odd work. Neither fiction, nor journalism, nor criticism, nor autobiography, it nevertheless retains elements of all four: there are eye-catching, source-free statistics (‘most women have been sexually harassed at work’), up-to-date anecdotes (Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, and the women of Sarajevo all make appearances), and odd bits and pieces of popular culture (the films Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction get a mention, and...

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Katherine Boo (review date 28 November 1993)

SOURCE: Boo, Katherine. “Taking Off the Velvet Gloves.” Washington Post Book World (28 November 1993): 1, 10.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Boo finds Wolf's inclusive “power feminism” interesting, but concludes that her recommendations for change are inadequate, particularly as she fails to account for the economically disadvantaged.]

Lordy, what a mess this manifesto [Fire with Fire] is. Proving that even feminists have the right to change their minds, it argues against much of what undergirded Wolf's bestselling Beauty Myth two years ago. It's so full of subtextual exclamation points it reads like an over-caffeinated Katie...

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Maggie Gallagher (review date 29 November 1993)

SOURCE: Gallagher, Maggie. “Party Girl.” National Review (29 November 1993): 66–67.

[In the following review, Gallagher offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Feminism has come to a peculiar pass: Feminist ideas are everywhere; feminists, however, are hard to find. How did this happen?

That is the question Naomi Wolf—whose first book, The Beauty Myth, was a national best-seller—takes up in Fire with Fire, a feminist's critique of feminism. This is what she has come up with: Why did feminism fail? Because it isn't any fun. Holding her first large royalty check in hand, Miss Wolf has had an epiphany: Money is good!...

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Mary Nemeth (essay date 6 December 1993)

SOURCE: Nemeth, Mary. “Who's Afraid of Naomi Wolf?” Maclean's (6 December 1993): 70–71.

[In the following essay, Nemeth discusses Wolf's career, critical reception, and feminist perspective in Fire with Fire.]

Having determined that the restaurant does not offer free-range poultry, free-range meat or free-range anything, Naomi Wolf begins searching for a meatless item on the menu. The 31-year-old American feminist author is in a fancy French eatery in uptown Toronto, talking up her new book and running on adrenaline. Wolf finally settles on a croque monsieur sandwich—but insists that it be prepared without ham. Very gastronomically correct. Then, as an...

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Robert Scheer (review date 19 December 1993)

SOURCE: Scheer, Robert. “Revolution Betrayed.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 December 1993): 1, 8.

[In the following excerpt, Scheer offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire, describing it as “a breathless, noisy and contradictory tract that substitutes overblown rhetoric for analysis.”]

Are women a class with broad common interests? Does a welfare mother in Watts share a common oppression with a female executive in Beverly Hills that can be addressed by the women's movement? The unexamined assumption of both of these books [Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire and Barbara Boxer's Strangers in the Senate] is that they do.


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Kio Stark (review date 31 January 1994)

SOURCE: Stark, Kio. “I'm O.K., You're O.K.” Nation (31 January 1994): 137–40.

[In the following excerpt, Stark criticizes what she views as Wolf's lack of concern for socioeconomic disparity and argues that Fire with Fire reflects Wolf's implicit interest in preserving existing power structures.]

Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire takes its title from the proverb, which is juxtaposed on the opening page with a quote from Audre Lorde: “The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house.” Wolf's polemic begins with Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, she says, marks a major turning point in women's history, one...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Lesley Hazleton (review date February 1994)

SOURCE: Hazleton, Lesley. “Power Politics.” Women's Review of Books 11, no. 5 (February 1994): 1, 3–4.

[In the following review, Hazleton offers a favorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Naomi Wolf's brand of feminism is full of energy. It includes laughter, and mischief, and a brash, cleansing honesty. It flexes its muscles and gets women out into the world, not asking but demanding, not self-pitying but doing.

A much better and far more important book than Wolf's best-selling The Beauty Myth, Fire with Fire incorporates two clarion calls. The first is for feminism to re-contact its power base: women. All women. Not just those...

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Clare Collins (review date 25 February 1994)

SOURCE: Collins, Clare. “Genderquakes and Aftershocks.” Commonweal (25 February 1994): 22–23.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Collins approves of Wolf's inclusive feminist perspective, but finds shortcomings in the book's generalizations, repetitions, and underlying indifference toward the underclass.]

I was apprehensive about reviewing Naomi Wolf's new feminist treatise. After all, Ms. Wolf not only went to Yale but she became a Rhodes scholar. Besides, I'm not at all versed in feminist literature and have shied away from describing myself as a feminist because I am not adamantly prochoice. The unquestioning acceptance of abortion rights as...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Karen Lehrman (review date 14 March 1994)

SOURCE: Lehrman, Karen. “Women's Hour.” New Republic (14 March 1994): 40–45.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Lehrman finds flaws in Wolf's contradictory feminist positions and trivial self-help pragmatism.]

Underlying nearly all the commentary on relations between the sexes these days is the notion that we have entered a period of unprecedented contradiction and confusion. A president devoted to equal rights for women now resides in the White House, along side a First Lady who seems to personify those rights; twenty-eight new female members of Congress have helped press legislation concerning women's health and family issues that had been...

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Ann Menasche (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: Menasche, Ann. “When Feminism Joins the Establishment.” Off Our Backs 24, no. 5 (May 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Menasche offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

NEWS FLASH: The backlash against women is over. A “genderquake” represented by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the 1992 elections of Clinton and an increased number of female politicians, has brought us to the brink of the end of patriarchy. Now, all we need to do to make things “increasingly all right” is to “change our self images,” stop “bashing” men, and get over our “fear” of power and money.

If this sounds a bit far...

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Jeremy Waldron (review date 3 June 1994)

SOURCE: Waldron, Jeremy. “Take These Chains.” Times Literary Supplement (3 June 1994): 4.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Waldron approves of Wolf's candor and accessibility, but finds faults in the book's simplistic dichotomies and unconvincing anecdotal evidence.]

Naomi Wolf's first book, The Beauty Myth, was a remarkable piece of work: a bitter and compelling argument about the way in which the freedom that women are winning is poisoned by the culture of idealized physical beauty. Wolf's account of the social and psychological consequences of this insinuation was packed with insight. She traced the terror of ageing, the pathology of...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)

Karina Rollins (review date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Rollins, Karina. “Power Play.” Public Interest, no. 116 (summer 1994): 124–27.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Rollins finds shortcomings in Wolf's preoccupation with an outmoded notion of patriarchal oppression and a tendency to resort to unsubstantiated generalizations and truisms.]

Women's fight for equality did not end when women won the vote seventy-three years ago. Equal in theory but often not in practice, many women turned to feminism to help them fight the remainders of inequality. While these remainders were real, the feminist movement of the 1960s and beyond frequently degenerated into extremism and radical excess.


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Helen M. Sterk (review date 13–20 July 1994)

SOURCE: Sterk, Helen M. Review of Fire with Fire, by Naomi Wolf. Christian Century (13–20 July 1994): 694–95.

[In the following review, Sterk offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

We have met the enemy, and she is us. This is Naomi Wolf's message to women, especially feminists. Wolf tells women that they are “suffering from too much subordination for no more pressing reason than that we have stopped short of compelling it to end.” Ignoring the history of gender relations in the West, Wolf says all will be well if women just accept and use the power they already hold. Marked by good intentions and marred by poor execution, Fire with...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Eve Pollard (review date 9 May 1997)

SOURCE: Pollard, Eve. “The Virgin Myth.” New Statesman (9 May 1997): 45.

[In the following review, Pollard offers a mixed assessment of Promiscuities, finding fault in Wolf's focus on the loss of virginity as the defining point of a woman's maturation.]

Just before the feminist movement seriously got under way, a rash of Hollywood films explored the sleep-over teenage sisterhood of America. Dazzlingly acne-free, Sandra Dee, Connie Francis and the rest would stay overnight at one another's houses, or in each other's hotel rooms and spend innocent hours wondering where the boys were. As lightweight as an asexual version of the TV series Friends, these...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Mary Kenny (review date 10 May 1997)

SOURCE: Kenny, Mary. “Created, Not Begotten.” Spectator (10 May 1997): 36.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Kenny commends Wolf's personal observations and provocative questions, but concludes that her assertions are undermined by a dogmatic view of gender as a social construct.]

The trouble really began when Simone de Beauvoir announced, ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ From this single sentence comes most of the discourse, over the past 40 years, on the feminine condition. If one becomes a woman, how does that process occur?

In the 1960s, some very clever feminist writers dissected this process of becoming...

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Barry Gewen (review date 19 May 1997)

SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “The Seat of Women's Delight.” New Leader (19 May 1997): 19–22.

[In the following excerpt, Gewen offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

Not long ago I read an article on South Africa that was so smug and sanctimonious, so pleased to bask in the warmth of its own progressivism, that it made me want to come out in favor of apartheid. I had a similar reaction while reading Naomi Wolf's latest book, Promiscuities. In its effort to celebrate female sexuality—or, as Wolf puts it, “to redeem the slut in me”—it is so self-important and inflated, so sentimental to the point of ickiness, that I found myself thinking purdah...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)

Scott Shuger (review date June 1997)

SOURCE: Shuger, Scott. Review of Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf. Washington Monthly 29, no. 6 (June 1997): 49–51.

[In the following review, Shuger offers a generally positive assessment of Promiscuities, though notes shortcomings in Wolf's evasion of personal accountability and failure to recognize the importance of responsible parenting.]

An aspect of political correctness that is particularly troubling from a public policy perspective is its hostility to distinctions among and within different social groups, distinctions often crucial for formulating and implementing solutions. Thus, even if Group A has a pronounced and disproportional tendency towards...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)

Ellen Wilson Fielding (review date 2 June 1997)

SOURCE: Fielding, Ellen Wilson. “All-American Girl?” National Review (2 June 1997): 54–56.

[In the following review, Fielding offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

You remember Naomi Wolf. She was the author of a much discussed article in The New Republic titled “Our Bodies, Our Souls.” In it she coaxed her fellow pro-choicers to admit that abortion does kill a human being and is usually undertaken for reasons of convenience and therefore could be, may be, might be wrong. She got in some sharp jabs at the self-serving obfuscations of her allies on the Left, but ultimately her efforts petered out into suggestions on how to establish...

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Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 6 June 1997)

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Danger in Paradise.” Times Literary Supplement (6 June 1997): 12.

[In the following excerpt, Elshtain offers a mixed assessment of Promiscuities.]

Naomi Wolf is another child of the revolution. She grew up in its Mecca, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. She watched her parents shed the garments of what had become a despised conformism and take on new personae: Mom in mini-skirts, hair flying, wearing dark kohl eyeliner, the sexual object with whom her daughter fell into a weird competition; Dad as renewed adolescent, taking up vampires as his hobby. Wolf, too, must stamp out “repressive hypocrisy” wherever she finds...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Annie Gottlieb (review date 9 June 1997)

SOURCE: Gottlieb, Annie. “First Person Sexual.” Nation (9 June 1997): 25–28.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Gottlieb criticizes Wolf's “reverent rhetoric” and selective history of non-Western cultural practices.]

I'll never say another bad word about the memoir. Reading Promiscuities, which aspires to be so much more—to vault from the “first person sexual” into cultural critique and change-the-world exhortation—I was at first exhilarated by the grandeur of its reach, a familiar yet oddly dated emotion I traced to the early seventies. Here was a throwback to an earlier, nervier genre, a feminist Big Book à la Beauvoir and...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)

Wendy Smith (essay date 30 June 1997)

SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Naomi Wolf: Confessions of a Feminist.” Publishers Weekly (30 June 1997): 56–57.

[In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Wolf's life, career, and critical reception upon the publication of Promiscuities.]

Discussing the books that have made her a prominent figure in the feminist generation she has dubbed the “Third Wave,” Naomi Wolf is articulate and forceful. When she feels something she wrote has been misinterpreted, she can be emphatically (albeit politely) combative. But she reveals another side after a fan approaches her in the Gramercy Tavern, praises her books, and urges, “Keep up the good work!” Wolf thanks...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)

Naomi Glauberman (review date 27 July 1997)

SOURCE: Glauberman, Naomi. “Hot and Bothered.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 July 1997): 9.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Glauberman finds shortcomings in the book's lack of focus and organization.]

Naomi Wolf, either through brilliance or luck, captured the gold ring of feminist punditry with the publication of her first book, The Beauty Myth in 1991. Her denunciation of the cosmetic industry in her discussion of beauty, health and feminism resonated with a new generation of young women, many of whom had never read a feminist text. Her second book, Fire with Fire (1994), shifted gears. In her new role as public feminist, she...

(The entire section is 1616 words.)

Diana Schaub (review date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Schaub, Diana. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Public Interest, no. 129 (fall 1997): 116–24.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Schaub commends the seriousness of Wolf's feminist concerns, but faults her “sloppy” eclecticism and contradictory aims.]

Clearly, it will not be supplied by Naomi Wolf, whose new book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, shows her to be still in quest of “a better time.” The book is an evocative recounting of the sexual coming of age of Wolf and her friends in the San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s, interspersed with potted summaries of the sexual mores of other times and places. In...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Wendy Shalit (review date December 1997)

SOURCE: Shalit, Wendy. “Daughters of the (Sexual) Revolution.” Commentary 104, no. 6 (December 1997): 42–45.

[In the following excerpt, Shalit offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

The signals of distress currently coming from the fairer sex merit a hearing. They issue from books and magazine articles, and they are echoed in the often impossibly contradictory statements by leaders and spokesmen of the feminist movement on themes ranging from women in combat roles to the threat ostensibly posed to womankind by the all-male Promise Keepers.

On the one hand, we are still being assured by feminists that any behavior on the part...

(The entire section is 1523 words.)

Rebecca Abrams (review date 17 September 2001)

SOURCE: Abrams, Rebecca. “More Mummy Lit.” New Statesman (17 September 2001): 55.

[In the following review of Misconceptions, Abrams commends Wolf's “determination” but finds flaws in the book's “hackneyed” and “self-indulgent” qualities.]

It was absolutely predictable that Naomi Wolf would write a book about motherhood [Misconceptions]. She belongs to a generation of women, which is also my generation, for whom becoming and being a mother have undone every comfortable feminist certainty we ever had, and whose trademark response is to write about it. Reared on a weirdly neutered brand of feminism, you regarded motherhood as just a vague...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Marilyn Gardner (review date 27 September 2001)

SOURCE: Gardner, Marilyn. “The Baby Myth.” Christian Science Monitor (27 September 2001): 19.

[In the following review, Gardner offers an unfavorable assessment of Misconceptions, commenting that the book is narcissistic and lacks specific examples to support many of Wolf's points.]

Pregnancy can be a joyous, wondrous time. In the eyes of Naomi Wolf, it can also be a period fraught with confusion, ambivalence, and conflict with medical professionals. As she warns at the beginning of her sobering, often angry book, Misconceptions, the experience of becoming a mother in America is “undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women's...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Further Reading


Bellafante, Ginia. “Do We Need More Oprahs?” Time (30 June 1997): 71.

Bellafante deplores Wolf's sketchy information and “dabblings in scholarship” in Promiscuities.

Douglas, Susan J., and Meredith Michaels. “The Belly Politic.” Nation (26 November 2001): 26–29.

Douglas and Michaels offer a negative assessment of Misconceptions.

Duffy, Martha. “Tremors of Genderquake.” Time (27 December 1993): 82.

Duffy faults Wolf for shifting from “serious argument” to “flights of rhetoric” and for cluttering Fire with Fire with lengthy...

(The entire section is 515 words.)