Naomi Wolf’s Vagina is not an organ so significant it needs italics; it is a book, and a catalyst for a swiftly assembled feminist lynch mob. In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny wrote, ‘Naomi Wolf’s Vagina is crassly attention-seeking… It’s upsetting to see a prominent feminist having what can only be described as a dramatic public meltdown.’ She had another go in the Independent: ‘Claims that the vagina is “not only co-extensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul” are frankly offensive… today’s young women deserve better.’
In the Times Janice Turner complained that Wolf had ‘medically unnecessary major spinal surgery’ to restore her vaginal orgasms. ‘You can, it seems,’ wrote Turner, ‘bring down the patriarchy with a Rampant Rabbit.’ In the Evening Standard Anne McElvoy wrote, ‘It takes a lot to put me off feminism, but one more book from Naomi Wolf might just do the trick.’ There was more bad news for Wolf as she hawked Vagina around town — a poor review in the Guardian, a slap from Jenni Murray on Women’s Hour and, eventually, a request from Rod Liddle to be invited to all of Wolf’s parties anywhere in the world, at any time, without notice.
That we should waste time attacking Wolf for Vagina when there is so much else to do, is a sentence any of these women could, and should, have written. To say that we should fall on each other’s writing as carcasses to be chewed is to ignore the way the media affects our culture. Show me a woman who joins the struggle because Janice was hilariously sarcastic about Naomi and Laurie got two columns out of it and I’ll show you a white line round the corpse of feminism. The pay gap, so glibly reported by Liza Mundy in The Spectator last week as 10 per cent, is 20 per cent if you include part-time workers, rising to 27 per cent in the private sector and 25 per cent in the South East.. The idea that women are ‘the richer sex’ is adorable but untrue, unless your sample pool is Jemima Khan and her hairdresser and you therefore really believe that there will be ‘quotas for men’ in boardrooms within a generation. There is mass female unemployment (up 160,000 since 2009, while for men it’s down by 30,000), growing female poverty as welfare is cut (most British carers are female) and, around the world, we have ordinary violence and a comprehensive assault on women’s reproductive rights. The answer is not to abolish Naomi Wolf because she wrote Vagina. We need an army.
Are the women attacking Vagina guilty of the same crimes they attribute to Wolf — snobbery, monomania, not paying attention to the Things That Matter, Which Do Not Include Your Minge, Naomi? Newspaper columnists accusing each other of elitism and attention-seeking is a game that will always end in stalemate. Ideally, women who define themselves as feminists should want the same thing; more of everything for women — money, orgasms, sweeties, books about vaginas. If Naomi Wolf wants to write a love letter to her vagina, or earlobe, or knee, I will applaud her. Wolf is a hot, rich feminist with great boobs, and her cares are those of the hot, rich feminist with great boobs. Better orgasms are not a terrible thing to want, even if there is more to want; of course Vagina is niche.
Feminists love to fight, because many of us are writers, neurotics, professional screamers and builders of straw men. Good columns are rarely fair; I doubt Naomi Wolf daydreams she is our leader, as Janice Turner wrote, and I doubt Wolf ‘won’t be able to rest easy until all of womankind has heard her gospel and has started having sex that is not just pleasurable, but worthwhile’, as Zoe Heller wrote, with a murderous italic, in the New York Review of Books. But oblivious malice, it seems, is the way we debate. Laurie Penny once wrote she wanted to slap me with a wet fish because we disagree about the inherent health of prostitution as a career choice, even though I made her risotto, and it was delicious.
How dirty we get! The Wolf Affair, although riveting, pales next to the great Susan Sontag/Camille Paglia match of 1993, which is still, if I may type the word, the daddy. It began when Susan Sontag said she didn’t know who Camille Paglia was. ‘One can’t read everything,’ she said.
Paglia leapt into the trap. ‘Of course she has heard of me,’ she said. ‘She is being passed by a younger rival and she is not handling it very gracefully. Susan Sontag was an enormous figure to us in the 60s.’ Enormous? Really? ‘It’s really unfortunate,’ she went on, ‘what she did to herself. Like Germaine Greer [when did we get on to Germaine Greer?] there was a general collapse in the 70s. Sontag is no longer the leading female intellectual of our time, OK? I am.’ By this point, we knew that this was not a fight about feminism and we also knew that Camille Paglia was not a leading female intellectual of this, or any time; it was All About Camille.
The most vicious feminist fight was Paglia v Burchill, after Julie Burchill criticised Paglia in The Spectator. The warfare was too lengthy to reproduce entirely, but the best lines are — Julie Burchill ‘is completely unknown in America. I no longer take her seriously as a thinker or as a personality.’ (Paglia) ‘Now you know how Naomi Wolf must feel every time you spew up your spiel to a waiting world.’ (Burchill, speaking of the time Paglia called Wolf ‘Miss Yuppie Princess, that opportunist careerist teacher’s pet’.)
‘You’ve got a wop name. What a fucking GIRL you are! Perhaps it’s because you got famous so late.’ (Burchill, inevitably.) ‘I have no idea who you are. I am read and translated around the world from Japan to South America.’ (Paglia) ‘I’m very glad you’re big in Japan.’ (Burchill) ‘I am truly sorry to see yet another British woman writer self destruct, in the way Germaine Greer did. [Back to Greer!] Blow your old, dusty proletarian tuba with all your might.’ (Paglia) ‘Fuck off you crazy old dyke.’ (Burchill) ‘You are a pig-fucking cunt.’ (Paglia, apparently, to Toby Young, who had got involved. She has since denied it.) This was not a fight about feminism either.
I can guess what the others will say. Don’t deny my voice! Shouldn’t girls roll around in the books pages, punching with metaphors, like men? Naomi has dodgy science! Maybe she does. Is that really the point? It doesn’t account for the tone of the attacks on Wolf, which is essentially laughing behind hands because she wrote Vagina, with some anti-American snobbery and some ill-disguised jealousy of her great boobs and enormous global profile. In any case, I can’t see A.N. Wilson calling James Delingpole a ‘pig-f***ing c*** (who knows nothing about the science of climate change)’.
We are not apeing men in the aggression of our discourse. We are worse than them, and it will bring us nothing. As Laurie Penny wrote, we deserve better.