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Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It Paperback – September 20, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
Feminist author of the bestselling The Beauty Myth , Wolf has written an empowering, impassioned manifesto that points the way toward a flexible feminism for the 1990s and beyond. Part political analysis, part psychological manual, part activist handbook, the book argues that women should renounce "victim feminism," which casts them as sexually pure, fragile, beleaguered creatures whose problems are all the fault of men. As an alternative, Wolf outlines an anti-dogmatic "power feminism" which sees women as no better and no worse than men, celebrates female sexuality and encourages women to claim their individual voices through a variety of tactics. These include "resource groups" for sharing contacts and increasing access to information and services; consumer campaigns; and pressure on the media to alter their portrayals of women. Wolf theorizes that little girls, as much as boys, have fantasies of absolute dominion but learn to repress their "will to power" at a very early age. Wolf here sketches a psychological road map designed to help women deal with their ambivalence about success, power, equality and money. Author tour.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.
From Library Journal
Naomi Wolf presents a powerful look at the changes in the feminist movement and the continuing search for equality. She discusses changes brought about by Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas; President Clinton's campaign and selection of cabinet members; and the shift in power in the workplace. Wolf reads smoothly and clearly, presenting her arguments and evidence passionately and persuasively. The listener will be charged with new energy to look at life and one's place in society. Just as her earlier book, The Beauty Myth (Morrow, 1991), had a powerful impact on its readers, so Fire with Fire will encourage listeners to consider the new "feminist" movement. Suitable for all collections.
- Miriam Kahn, Columbus, Ohio
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.
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She wrote in the Preface to the paperback edition of this 1993 book, “The main message of ‘Fire with Fire’ is this: in the First World, and certainly in the United States, political equality---indeed, political primacy---is within women’s grasp, if they choose to seize it… To do so, however, women must stop thinking of themselves as the passive victims of history and understand that they can determine not only their own fate, but that of the rest of the world… I also try to clear away the dead weight of what is truly not working in feminism. Some feminists feel that by addressing in public the shortcomings of the movement, I have shown a kind of disloyalty. But my motive for broaching this subject is s constructive one… The refrain I heard from the women I listened to on my travels… is that they felt estranged from a women’s movement that sometimes uses rigid women-versus-men language, and presents only one set of attitudes as correctly ‘feminist.’ In light of this, I sought to give voice to the unlabeled feminism of the majority of women who long for equality but shun the movement.” (Pg. xv-xvi)
In the Introduction, she adds, “I will argue that we are at what historians of women’s progress call an ‘open moment’… all women now have enough desire and determination to begin to balance the imbalance of power between the sexes. But three obstacles stand in our way: Many women and their movement have become estranged; one strand of feminism has developed maladaptive attitudes; and women lack a psychology of female power to match their new opportunities. (Pg. xxvi)
She continues, “I’ll show that there are… two different approaches within feminism. One---‘victim feminism,’ as I define it---casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these ‘good’ women as a way to petition for their rights. The other, which I call ‘power feminism,’ sees women as human beings---sexual, individual, no better or worse than their male counterparts---and lays claim to equality simply because women are entitled to it. Victim feminist assumptions … are unhelpful in the new movement for they exalt… outdated attitudes women need least right now.” (Pg. xxvii)
She observes, “Women’s claim to parity does not just represent …halving of the positions of power available to men. It goes even further. Profound as is Susan Faludi’s insight—that men fear feminism because they fear the loss of the breadwinner role---that loss is only one of a hail of blows raining down on the Masculine Empire… other events combine with it to dislodge him from … his position … as ruler of the world… A shift … is taking place around men as they lose the centrality of their gender.” (Pg. 16)
She proclaims, “In 1992… We achieved an unprecedented roster of victories. The lesson? Women made this happen. Women elected the president… Our power, harnessed as the majority, is virtually unstoppable… no one else did it for us. We did it. And … it wasn’t even that hard.” (Pg. 50)
She returns to further define Power Feminism: “It means taking practical giant steps instead of ideologically pure baby steps; practicing tolerance rather than self-righteousness. Power feminism encourages us to identify with one another primarily through the shared pleasures and strengths of femaleness, rather than … through our shared vulnerability and pain. It calls for alliances based on economic self-interest rather than on a sentimental and workable fantasy of cosmic sisterhood.” (Pg. 53)
She admits, “the number of women willing to identify themselves with the word ‘feminist’ slipped steadily throughout the 1980s even as support for women’s rights steadily rose… about twice as many women believe in the goals of the women’s movement as are willing to use the word ‘feminist.’ … The result is a paralysis of women’s political will. ‘Feminism’ should mean… nothing more complicated than women’s willingness to act politically to get what they determine that they need… [But] The media caricature of feminism, combined with some bad habits in the movement itself, has led many women to view the weapon of pro-woman politics with distaste.” (Pg. 59)
She explains, “One of the biggest problems with feminism in many women’s perception is that it has become a checklist of attitudes. Women feel there is no line-item veto for feminism… most women are deeply resistant to committing themselves to what they see as an unwieldy package of attitudes that others have cobbled together… Just as they resent ‘men’ … defining them from one side, they resent what they see as a feminist stereotype defining them on the other… many women identify feminism with specific issues that may or may not include them, rather than with a theory of self-worth that applies to every woman’s life without exception.” (Pg. 60-61)
She suggests, “women’s actual dilemmas are… highly ambiguous… Women want to work AND raise children; women have misgivings about pornography AND are interested in sexual self-expression; women like to dress up AND hate being required to… But highbrow publications ignore women’s issues, women’s magazines don’t dare get too close to a feminist ‘line,’ and feminist publications like Ms. don’t dare stray too far.” (Pg. 90)
She argues, “These are some of the theories that came to be perceived as political road maps rather than as intellectual provocations. ‘All men are rapists.’ Susan Brownmiller’s study Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape explained that some men’s rape of women keeps all women subjected to all men… [This has] clouded feminist thinking about men and sexuality, and done men as a whole a grave injustice. ‘All Heterosexal Sex is Rape.’ … Catherine MacKinnon argued that rape, sexual harassment, and pornography are used to enforce female inequality… But her insight… is often misrepresented… ‘All Intercourse is Rape.’ Andrea Dworkin’s … book Intercourse also questioned… the issue of whether women can really consent to intercourse in an unequal world… ‘All Women are Lesbians’ … it became noticeably démodé for a feminist to admit out loud to wanting intercourse… ‘Feminists Want Men and Women to be the Same.’ … This left people with the impression the feminists want to eradicate sex differences, a thought that, understandably, disturbed many.” (Pg. 121-123)
She argues, “‘Feminism’ should not be the property of the left or of Democrats… Many millions of conservative and Republican women hold fierce beliefs about opportunity for women, self-determination, ownership of business, and individualism; these must be respected as a right-wing version of feminism… left-wing feminism… my own personal brand, does not hold a monopoly ono caring about women and respecting their autonomy.” (Pg. 126-127)
She discusses “difference feminism”: “that focused on women’s separate speech, separate organizational styles, and separate value systems… The basic idea behind difference feminism is sound… Difference feminism provided a way of looking at ‘feminine’ qualities that turned them into a separate, coherent system that is not inferior to men’s… the theories of difference feminists… were interpreted not as DESCRIPTIONS of women’s behavior, but as PRESCRIPTIONS for it, and were used to justify women’s withdrawal from public life.” (Pg. 175-176)
More controversially, she acknowledges, “Why shouldn’t I talk about the absolute delight that male sexual global response instills in me? When I hear an unqualified narrative of male sexual destructiveness, and do not interrupt it, I feel that I betray my body’s deepest friendships…. I want men, male care, male sexual attention. This desire doesn’t necessarily make a woman a slave or an addict… The male body is ground and shelter to me, my lifelong destination. When it is maligned categorically, I feel as if my homeland is maligned. There has got to be room in feminism for these loyalties too; for a radical heterosexuality … that does not diminish female power, but affirms it.” (Pg. 185-186) Later, she adds, “We must do a better job of separating hating male violence and sexism from hating men.” (Pg. 188)
She asserts, “feminism should teach women to give their money for the good of all. But it should also teach them that it’s okay---even correct’---to acquire and invest it… Why should women, alone among other groups in this country, be wary of doing things for profit? Why should self-sacrifice be women’s ideological standard even when it comes to business dealings?... The ambivalence about money in some feminist ideology serves women poorly. With more money, more women could buy for themselves many of the items on the feminist wish list that languishes at the mercy of legislators’ whims and the winds of public opinion.” (Pg. 248-249)
She proposes, “the power group solves many of the psychological problems women have about getting and using power. First, it makes feminism fun. Second, it makes feminism lucrative. Third… [it] forces women to … focus on what is possible rather than what is oppressive… Fourth, the power group expands every woman’s network… Fifth, it creates community, so that women do not feel they are using one another … Sixth, it creates new friendships… Seventh, it eases women’s anxieties about seeking power… Eighth, it makes women happy about other women’s achievement… Ninth, it makes women feel far more powerful because of the way it directs their gaze… Tenth, the power group changes women’s view of other women, who now become resources and repositories of power… not threatening competitors…” (Pg. 300-301)
While the contemporary political outlook is much less “rosy” than it was when Wolf wrote this book, her ideas and proposals are still quite thought-provoking and deserving of critical study.
Because she refuses to shove feminism into a rigid dogmatic paradigm and promotes balancing rights and responsibility, she gets criticism from both sides. Those on the sociopolitical right are afraid of her because she is a popular feminist who wants women to have all the resources they deserve. Some of those on the staunchly ideological left are afraid (somewhat understandably, but unfortunately) that her deviations from their dogma will undermine their efforts. This criticism is really a good thing, as it means she understands the complexity of these issues. Feminism is supposed to be about choices and balance, and Wolf espouses both. The book (like any book ever written) is not without its weak points, but these are minor in comparison to the validity of the underlying message.
Wolf is rare among feminists in that she is not afraid to acknowledge that, while the patriarchy is primarily to blame for the continued pervasiveness of sexism, the feminist movement at large does hold some degree of responsibility for its own predicament. In reading her assessment of "victim feminism" (which really does skate dangerously close to the stereotypes of male-bashing and self-defeatism for women), we see both the shortcomings of feminism in the 1980s and how the patriarchy expertly exploited those shortcomings. We also see, once and for all, that being more accommodating is not in any way tantamount to giving up on the core values and principles of the movement. Men and women both have responsibilities to improving gender relations; and by the same token we all deserve to be recognized for our efforts and judged as individuals.
Unfortunately, this book does sound a bit dated in that it was published in 1993 and Wolf appears to have seen that era's political gains as a harbinger of a progressive decade. Throughout the book, I couldn't help wondering how her tone may have differed if she had written the book two or three years later. But the core of her argument remains unchanged by the rise of the Republican Congress and the "election" of George W. Bush. If anything, the call has only become more urgent for feminists of both genders to follow the lead Wolf has laid out for us.
I intend to urge all my male friends - and my more conservative female friends - to read this book. I can't recommend it highly enough.