Women’s and men’s experiences within society are inherently different across all societies in the world. Societal gender roles and expectations are the culprits to the differences in experiences. On average, women’s experiences are of great disadvantage compared to the males’, where women are largely treated as second-class citizens. Women’s disadvantage in education, job opportunities, promotion, and leadership led to the rise of feminism. As a movement that advocates and fights for equal rights of women and men in society, feminism has a long history dating to the 1700s (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). Over the years, since the rise of feminism, there has been a considerable expansion of women’s rights in the United States and across the world. Despite the advances, there still exist worrying gender gaps in the US and across the world (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). The existence of the gaps has been instrumental in the rise of different types of feminism among them liberal, radical and mainstream feminism theories with different beliefs and thoughts. In discussing feminism, therefore, this paper will delve into the three aforementioned feminism theories and further discuss Naomi Wolf as a liberal feminist. The paper will also look at the social changes Naomi has been able to affect on society as a liberal feminist.
Liberal feminism is a framework of feminism that seeks and asserts the equality of all. In fighting for the equality, liberal feminism pursues political and legal reform. Specifically, liberal feminism seeks the abolition of political, legal, and other forms of discrimination against women, to accord them the same opportunities as men. For liberal feminists, therefore, there is need for an alteration of societal structures as a minimum for equal treatment of women within the wider society. Liberal feminists’ call for legal and political reform is based on biology. According to Lorber (n.d.), liberal feminism theory claims that because gender differences are not biological, negating the difference between women and men, their common humanity should supersede their procreative differentiation. To this effect, Lorber (n.d.) informs that liberal feminists argue: “if women and men are not different, then they should not be treated differently under the law. Women should have the same rights as men and the same educational and work opportunities” (p. 9). For liberal feminists in the US, their ideas are embodied in the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution spelling equality in rights regardless of sex.
Recent liberal feminism has added actions and choices to its advocacy. In this stance, liberal feminists argue that women are capable of showing and maintaining equality via their actions and choices (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). Liberal feminists thus see personal interactions within the society as an opportunity and venue for societal transformation. Of importance for liberal feminism today are issues such as reproductive and abortion rights, equal pay for equal work, affordable child and health care, education, voting, sexual harassment, and raising awareness on the occurrence of sexual and domestic violence against women.
Termed as militant feminism, radical feminism is one of the least popular types of feminism due to the “unpeaceful” nature of its ideas. At the core of radical feminism is oppression. According to Appelrouth and Edles (2015), radical feminists view women as an oppressed group, who have no choice but to rise (and struggle) for their liberation against their oppressors. For the most part, radical feminists see men as the oppressors, who women must revolt against.
Although the radical type of feminism is not as active as it was between 1967 and 1975, it is ideally the breeding ground for some ideas used by other types of feminist theories. At the core, however, radical feminism calls for societal restructuring, especially through the elimination of male supremacy in social and economic contexts (Willis, 1984). For radical feminism, therefore, society is essentially a patriarchy with males dominating and oppressing women, in addition to the division of societal rights, privileges, and power chiefly on gender lines, thus oppressing women while favoring men.
Mainstream feminism on the other hand, is a feminist wave that espouses more gendered inclusion of all within the society (Bryson, 1992). It is a type of feminism theory that greatly contrasts with radical feminism. Like liberal feminism, mainstream feminism focuses on political and legal reform (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). It largely advocates for more moderate political positions, overlapping with liberal feminism in its ideals. Thus, while radical feminism looks to demolish patriarchy, mainstream feminism looks to inclusion (especially of men), focusing on issues such as female education and political participation.
One of the most vocal modern-day liberal feminists is Naomi Wolf. Born in 1962, Wolf has earned a name for herself as an author, journalist, feminist, and political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. Wolf’s book The Beauty of Myth shot her to worldwide prominence, shifting the world’s attention to her as well as putting her on the same level as some of the leading feminists at the time. According to Hix (2005), Wolf’s book rightly put her within the enclaves of third wave feminism, largely referring to liberal feminism.
Wolf’s lifestyle is the true embodiment of liberal feminism. For liberal feminism, marriage is an equal partnership, where males are not only seen as providers but also take an active role in child care. While her previous marriage had ended in a divorce, Wolf recently married Brian William O’Shea in 2018 (Mallozzi, 2018). Their relationship started as a professional working relationship since O’Shea is a private investigator. Despite O’Shea’s disability (he is an army veteran honorably discharged as a staff sergeant), Wolf overlooked the disability and married him. Mallozzi, (2018) informs that, in part, Wolf’s choice for O’Shea was because of O’Shea’s respect for her and her children and the potential she saw in him as a partner. Thus, while love and enjoyment of each other’s company really did draw the two together, Wolf’s choice was largely based on the respect and potential for partnership that she saw in O’Shea.
Appelrouth and Edles (2015) posit that liberal feminism today advocates for action and choices as part of the measure of equality for women in a male-dominated society. Liberal feminists therefore see personal interactions within the society as an opportunity and venue for societal transformation. Naomi Wolf espouses these liberal thoughts echoing them in her lifestyle. During her talk “The Vagina” given in London in 2012, as a precursor to her books launch, Wolf invited men to join in the talk. The Standard (2012) reported that while the talk’s purpose was to educate women on the vagina as integral to their female identity and creativity, it also aimed to show men how they can learn some truths about women. By including men in the talks, Wolf espoused defining tenets of liberal feminism. Including men in feminist conversations and activities marks just one of the ways liberal feminists hope to change societal views of women. By placing men in their shoes and activities (as Wolf did), liberal feminists, see that as an opportunity to begin social transformation and education of women’s needs and aspirations within a society that is disproportionately biased against women.
One of the issues liberal feminism advocates against and raises awareness for is sexual harassment and rape. Additionally, liberal feminism advocates for equal rights of both women and men, seeing both as human beings regardless of their different biological nature and therefore deserving equal treatment before the law and in the society. In her lifestyle, Wolf has been an advocate against rape and sexual harassment. Wolf has written extensively on rape and sexual harassment, including rape culture in the US military (Wolf, 2013). On rape, she has come to the defense of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, accused of rape. Wolf defended Assange stating the rape allegations were merely politically motivated aimed at tarnishing Assange’s reputation given his release of classified government documents (Democracy Now, 2010). On her stance on the allegations, Wolf argued that believing such politically motivated allegations only helped in demeaning the cause of genuine rape victims.
As a liberal feminist, Wolf has also been active in defending human rights. She has especially been vocal on defending and defining feminism. At a time when feminism means different things to different people and has come under attack as gang of “man-hating shrews,” Wolf has continued to defend not only feminism as a movement but also its role in the fight for human rights. Therefore, on feminism Wolf informs: (it is) “nothing more than extending human rights to every person on the planet, and I believe that every person on the planet deserves human rights, that’s feminism” (Al Jazeera, 2016). On human rights reporting and advocacy, Mallozzi (2018) informs that her reporting on human rights violations in the Middle East ruffled many feathers, resulting in numerous online threats to a point that she hired a private investigator for her security.
Liberal feminism is additionally vocal on abortion and reproductive rights. For liberal feminism, women should have a right over their reproductive health and abortion. They advocate for choice over whether to keep the baby or not. In her article “Our Bodies, Our Souls” (1995) Wolf advocates for choice, terming herself as a “pro-abortion-rights” activist. She espouses liberal feminism ideologies in the article supporting pro-choice advocates, but warns on victimizing doctors and nurses who assist in procuring abortions.
Through her work, some of which are controversial, Wolf has sparked debate on different topics. While most of the debates have centered on feminism, some of the debates she has sparked have been on pertinent issues such as women’s bodies. Sandler (2012) posits that Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography has sparked a lot of controversy among her readers. This is in addition to the columns she writes for Project Syndicate, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The National Review among others. Her books, columns, and public talks have provided an outlet for many women, especially in their quest to understand their bodies. In 2012, as a speaker, she talked about the clitoris, adding eating disorders and citizen uprisings in her talk from women responses (Sandler, 2012). Such conversations, while controversial, have enabled many women understand their bodies, work through issues, as well as participate in information dissemination. By sparking these debates, women (and men) get new perspectives on issues that concern them and the society. Through these debates, people tend to work out and find solutions to some issues they have been battling. Through these, therefore, Wolf impacts the society positively, while bringing social change, especially in perspective and action.
Wolf’s books include The Beauty Myth, Promiscuities, Misconceptions and lastly Vagina. With feminist underpinnings, these books communicate women’s desire to live in a society that understands and respects them, while giving them equal rights. According to Case (2010), books are indeed powerful mediums of social change given their role in feeding social change and social dialogue. Dialogue sparked by conversation on her books have been instrumental in bringing social change. Sandler (2012) informs that Wolf’s book Promiscuities was ahead of its time talking about the hookup culture before it even got the name, as well as natural childbirth, before it became fashionable. Before the book, many women were opposed to natural childbirth, opting for caesarian section. Talking about natural childbirth in the book contributed to the wave towards natural childbirth, perhaps a better choice for birthing as opposed to operation. Vagina, on the other hand, has been instrumental in bringing awareness among female readers, who prior to reading the book had no confidence in talking about issues that affected them.
Vagina has especially been controversial since it bases its arguments on science. However, even so, some of the scientists whose work Wolf has quoted in the book agree that Vagina is doing a service to the society. According to Sandler (2012) one of the sex therapists quoted by Wolf argues that “People sometimes have to go to extremes to get people to talk about a topic.” The reaction is in reference to Wolf’s book, which gathered momentum, especially in sparking conversations and changing people’s (especially women) mind on their views of their own bodies.
Perhaps one of the most visible social changes occasioned by Wolf regards Yale University’s change of sexual harassment policy. In the article “The Silent Treatment” published in 2004 on New York magazine, Wolf told of an incident in which her professor put his hand on her inner thigh. Term the professor’s action as unwanted sexual advances, Wolf told of how the Yale was unresponsive to her calls and emails on the issue after publication of the article. The non-responsiveness of Yale led her to conclude that there existed an atmosphere of collusion in matters relating to sexual harassment (Wolf, 2004). Although Yale denied the allegations, the university had a case where 16 students described the university as harboring a sexually hostile environment. According to Ariosto and Remizowski (2012), Yale and the US Department of Education reached a settlement. In the settlement, there were concessions that the university largely under-reported sexual harassment allegations, had confusing sexual harassment procedures, and it did not adequately keep records of sexual harassment complaints. Thank to Wolf, the university changed its policies on sexual harassment reporting.
Feminism advocates for equal rights for both women and males. Over the years, it has evolved from a singular wave to different waves with different ideologies and methods of achieving their ends. Despite the differences in ideologies, all the different types of feminist theories hope for a society that accords equal rights and opportunities to women and men. As a liberal feminist, Naomi Wolf has made tremendous contributions to feminism through her writings, which continue to affect many and effect social change.
(2012). The Vagina: Naomi Wolf gives her only London talk. The Standard. Retrieved from https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/books/the-vagina-naomi-wolf-gives-her-only-london-talk-8078675.html.
(2016). Transcript: Dr Naomi Wolf on women and civil liberties. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/headtohead/2016/01/transcript-dr-naomi-wolf-women-civil-liberties-160104185310450.html.
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