Welcome to American Profiles, a weekly look at Americans who have made a difference in how we think, act and live. This week, the feminist and progressive political activist Naomi Wolf, author of "The Beauty Myth, "The End of America," and other works. Adam Phillips has our report.
Naomi Wolf was raised in an ultra-liberal family in San Francisco, California, in a culture where equality and respect between the sexes and the races was assumed. She acknowledges that those factors made it unlikely she would grow up to be the feminist firebrand she became. "There was a sense while I was growing up that all of us would be free of the constraints of race and gender," she says, adding with finality, "I thought [all] that was done!"
But disillusion came as an undergraduate at Yale University during the early 1980s, when, according to Wolf, a highly respected professor she had hoped to impress intellectually made a crudely inappropriate sexual advance, and the university did nothing to act when she later complained. It was an experience she waited almost two decades to write about in the public press.
"It is impossible to overestimate how angry a young woman could be when she expects a meritocracy and is up against massive institutional gender discrimination," she says, the outrage still subtly audible in her voice. "That [experience] certainly could have redirected me from the path I had been taking as a poet and literary critic into a more activist and feminist path."
About that time, Wolf also began to notice a disturbing pattern among her fellow female university students: many seemed overly concerned with their physical appearance.
"What sparked my interest, and what became my first book, was looking around Yale and … seeing how many very bright, talented, idealistic young women suffered from eating disorders and exercise fixations," recalls Wolf, who had suffered from her own eating disorder as a teenager. She saw "how this depressed their ability to change the world or make the most of their own freedom."
This insight ultimately led Wolf to research and then write "The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women." Published in 1991, it became both a national bestseller and an instant classic of feminist literature.
"'The Beauty Myth' basically argues that at times when women move forward politically — in the West anyway — there is a backlash in terms of ideologies about women," she explains, "and that this backlash can, and most recently has, taken the form of increasingly rigid stereotypes of beauty."
To demonstrate the point to audience members during her frequent lecture tours, Wolf often invites them to describe their ideal of womanly beauty. She says that around the world, she usually gets more or less the same answer: "It's a tall, thin, Caucasian, usually blonde young woman with big breasts. Most women just don't look like this. It's really a myth." And this "myth", she adds, is "constructed" by the cosmetics industry, the dieting industry and the cosmetic, or plastic, surgery industry all of which, she points out, are advertisers. "And they know that millions and millions of dollars in profit depend on making women feel bad about how they look," she says.
Skeptics have often asked Wolf why people should care if women are preoccupied with a mythology, and choose to half-starve and weaken themselves. What is its significance in the Big Scheme? "What it really does is keep women from liberating their potential in the world. I do believe we have a lot of challenges right now. More than half of humanity is needed to be free to act as agents of change."
And change is what Wolf is committed to. She says she long ago tired of feminists who complain about inequality in pay or under-representation in politics or business, without acting on their discontent. So in 1997, Wolf and feminist radio producer Margot Magowan co-founded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership. Its purpose is to give women the skills they need to create their own activist institutions. They are taught financial literacy and entrepreneurship, for example, so they can run their own businesses, and how to run for elective office, so they can take over the government, and they learn how to write opinion articles for major newspapers and magazines, so in order to influence public debate.
And, adds Wolf, Woodhull Institute attendees also learn ethics based on universal ideals such as kindness, honesty, peacemaking, justice, and the idea that everyone is equal in dignity. Wolf explains that the ethical component is key so that women are not merely empowered to lead, but are also "trained to be good, because then they can change institutions."
Wolf says that underlying all her various projects and work for empowerment and change is her passion for personal liberty and democratic freedom. "I really do believe that that there is nothing more important on the planet than free will, and for people around the world to live in freedom so they can engage in free will." She acknowledges that, for her, this is a spiritual conviction, not merely an intellectual posture. "If we are here for anything, it's to choose between good and evil, and if you don't have freedom, you can't make those choices — or they're meaningless."
Wolf expresses an urgent concern for the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Her recent bestseller "The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot" outlines a ten-step "blueprint" she says dictators have historically used to close down free, open democracies. It's a course she asserts that the Bush Administration has embarked upon in the post-9-11 world. Though her charge is controversial, Naomi Wolf is boldly promoting it in media interviews and popular public lectures across the country, and in the process, displaying her signature passion for the power of ideas.