Naomi Wolf

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 5 1999 9:30 PM

Naomi Wolf

Al Gore's alpha female.

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For more on Naomi Wolf, see the Nov. 4 "Frame Game."

Naomi Wolf begins The Beauty Myth, her 1991 treatise on how the beauty industry thwarts female progress, with a bitter salvo against image consultants. As proof that women's employers value looks over capabilities, she cites the then-growing ranks of consultants hired by women to polish their professional appeal. Wolf ends the book with a call to reject "the insistence that a woman's appearance is her speech" and "political manipulation" based on looks.

Eight years later, Wolf has become an image consultant herself. As Time reported earlier this week, Vice President Al Gore paid Wolf thousands of dollars a month for advice on presentation, from the tones of his speeches to the color tones of his wardrobe. The Washington Post relayed that Wolf "has long contended that earth tones are more 'reassuring' to audiences' " and that she is "the person behind Gore's recent wardrobe change."

Wolf's non-sartorial advice to Gore--and to President Clinton before him, as an unpaid adviser--is even stranger. She coached each to emphasize his manly strengths, relying on hoary, tired gender stereotypes. She reportedly told Gore that he is the "beta male" who must fight Clinton's "alpha male" for dominance. And as an adviser to the Clinton White House, she informed the president that the nation was searching for a "good-father role model" to "build a house" for the country. "I will not let anyone or anything touch the bedrock," Wolf wrote in one memo for him. "I will DEFEND/PROTECT the foundation." This came only three years after the publication of her book Fire With Fire, in which she savaged Republican spin doctors for positioning George Bush as "the reassuring arch-patriarch."

Bill Clinton and Al Gore are not her only charges. Wolf is now a full-time coach; earlier this year, she and five other "remarkable women" founded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, devoted to training twentysomething women "to assume positions of power and influence." But the institute's programs don't cover political, economic, or legal issues. Instead, the short retreats teach participants "how to be financially literate; how to speak and present; how to write a business plan; fundraise; and run for elective office; how to write a book or magazine article proposal; how to mentor and be mentored; how to start a community organization; and how to be a philanthropist."

How did Wolf start out as Betty Friedan and end up as Dick Morris? The road wasn't as long or twisted as it might seem. In fact, the advice she dispensed to Al Gore--safe, poll-tested ideas mixed in with a few fancifully nutty ones--is remarkably similar to the instructions she's been giving to women for years. For Wolf has never been a wonk or an ideologue. While she's dabbled in journalism and teaching, she isn't really a reporter or an academic either. She began her career by being a success--a Rhodes scholar with a splashy book--and has been tutoring others in how to succeed ever since. Wolf is a master cheerleader, and she acts like one: upbeat, entertaining, sweetly sexy, sharply aware of image, and endlessly trilling about victory.

Wolf's three books are breathless, hyperbolic tracts on What Holds Women Back. The Beauty Myth, written while Wolf was at Oxford, is an angry protest at how the cosmetics, plastic surgery, and magazine industries have sabotaged feminism. Wolf holds the beauty biz accountable--at least in part--for the pay gap, female poverty, censorship in the free press, fear of aging, sexual unhappiness, rape, and eating disorders. But she doesn't suggest abandoning the visuals; she wants them to be more attainable and uplifting. "Our movement forward as individual women, as women together ... depend now on what we decide to see when we look in the mirror," she writes. No wonder she has spent so much time thinking about what color Al Gore's suits should be.

In Fire With Fire, as Wolf settles into her persona as pep-talker, she tells women essentially the same thing she told Gore: Drop the victim-loser image, stop playing second fiddle, and use romantic archetypes to visualize the path to glory. "To imagine and enjoy winning ... had long been alien to female consciousness," she writes. Because "history moves in response to narratives, dream images, heroes, heroines, and myths," women need to think of themselves as latter-day incarnations of "Diana, avenger of insult; Sheba, a responsible, politically influential sovereign; and Nike, the feminine spirit of victory." In other words, as alpha females.

Even before Wolf joined Clinton's team, she was coaching feminists on how to save the women's movement through Morris-like triangulation. In Fire With Fire, she argues for editing the stridency out of feminism and emerging with a vaguely uplifting, centrist message. If Clinton is a New Democrat, she is a New Feminist. "Many U.S. women don't think [feminism] addresses their concerns, or don't like images of it that they see," she announces. In order to accommodate them, the women's movement should de-emphasize specific political causes--abortion, rape, homosexual rights--because they're "issues that may or may not include [some women], rather than a theory of self-worth that applies to every woman's life." Wolf wants to expand the size of the feminist tent, and she wants to do so by redefining its ideology as the simple pursuit of success for women.

Wolf first began advising Clinton when her husband, David Shipley, worked as a White House speechwriter. When the president's woman troubles started, Wolf hit the spin circuit. The Lewinsky affair was a tricky issue for most liberal feminists, who were caught between protesting sexual harassment and supporting the president they had elected. Wolf did both, by turning the issue into an object lesson on women's professional success. "The people who should be looking into these allegations is not a partisan prosecutor but the EEOC," she opined on the talk-show circuit. "What is clear is that when there is a situation where a worker is advanced as allegedly Lewinsky was with special help, getting jobs, it goes to a sex discrimination situation in the workplace--were the other interns and the other women, the women at Revlon, the women at U.N., who may have been at the copy machine, nights and weekends, trying to raise their kids and move up to that job that was allegedly offered to Ms. Lewinsky."

Wolf sees the telling of her own personal experiences as a triumph for all women. Her third book, Promiscuities, is a memoir in which she single-handedly "retrieve[s] [the] secret struggle for womanhood" by narrating her own sexual coming of age. "By telling my story and asking other women to tell theirs, I wanted to elucidate the emotional truths that emerge from a particular generation's erotic memory," she explains. She bills her stories as tough to tell: In a Tikkun magazine piece on her coming out as a spiritual person, she testifies that "it's taken me nine years to build up enough credibility in the analytic/linear world that I can now speak and have some expectation of being heard to a certain degree. It's been a long haul, and very much a gendered haul." This from a woman whose first book was a best seller, published in 14 countries.

Indeed, Wolf often expounds on the trauma--and the necessity--of expressing herself in public. In all three of her books, Wolf demands the need for positive role models in the media--of which, naturally, she is one. It's a brilliantly self-justifying line of reasoning: I am on television because I am a role model, and I am a role model because I am on television. And a great marketing strategy: Buy my books, because they're good for your daughter.

It's no wonder that Wolf has become a well-paid political consultant. Who better to help a candidate extract weighty lessons from his personal history, to teach him to tell voters that their own successes depend on his own? At last, it seems, Wolf has found a forum where the personal really is as political as she thinks it is.

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