The feminist writer Naomi Wolf was born in San Francisco in 1962 and studied at Yale before going on to New College, Oxford. She shot to fame in 1990 with the publication of The Beauty Myth, a scorching attack on the exploitation of women by the beauty industry, which was described by The New York Times as "one of the most important books of the 20th century" and became an international bestseller. Her second book, Fire with Fire (1993) focused on politics and female empowerment, and Promiscuities (1997) on adolescence and female sexuality.
Wolf has endured something of a backlash: she was famously derided as a "yuppie feminist" by Camille Paglia. In 1999 she became a consultant to Al Gore during his bid for the US presidency, for which she was much criticised.
Her new book, Misconceptions, attacks current trends for surgical intervention in childbirth. She lives in Washington with her husband and two young children.
In The Beauty Myth you claim that women are manipulated by the beauty industry to spend money on cosmetics. Surely people have sought physical enhancement since the ancient Egyptians invented Nefertiti's eyeliner?
Suzy Hanks, Sheffield
Physical enhancement is not the problem. Consumer fraud – for instance, women being asked to spend millions on creams that have no effect whatsoever – is the problem, as an oppressive ideal that is used against women in the workplace.
What do you think of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider? Strong independent female role model, or 34DD feminist caricature for blokes?
Sally O'Flynn, Watford
I don't know a lot about her, but she looks pretty cool to me.
Beryl Bainbridge lambasted women's books in the mould of Bridget Jones's Diary for dumbing down feminist literature. Are you with the sisterhood on this, or do you think the 'chick lit' novel has its place?
S D Maynard, London
I strongly disagree with Bainbridge. I think "one" voice – and an exclusively serious one – is death to feminists or any literature. We know we are winning when we have many diverse voices addressing women's issues as well as satirists and comediennes.
Please explain what you see as the role of the male in today's society and where it differs from the female.
John Sherress, Rochester
This question is just too damn big to address here. Please see my last four books as well as the classics of feminist theory. Let's just say that I say men's and women's roles are ideally as partners in society.
The Beauty Myth – a life-changing read, but 10 years on the situation has not improved and has in fact worsened. Do you think television documentaries would be a more effective way of promoting feminist viewpoints? If so, why do you think this is not happening?
Sandie Dent, by e-mail
I do think TV and film have wider reach, especially among young people. It's more expensive to produce documentary than it is to write books, which is one reason TV doesn't focus on a lot of feminist issues. Also women are not the main decision-makers in that medium, unlike in publishing.
Why have so few feminists devoted attention to birth and motherhood when they are central to the female experience and feminist politics?
Louisa Townshend, by e-mail
There have been feminist critics of hi-tech births for 25 years. Suzanne Arms' Immaculate Deception paved the way. And any legislation that has made work/ family conflicts slightly easier – such as maternity benefit and maternity leave – has come in response to feminist pressure. These activities don't get credit for the positive changes they have brought into women's lives.
It's also true that second-wave feminism didn't risk focusing on childbirth and motherhood because the emphasis had to be on competing in the workplace. Those feminists may have feared that a focus on motherhood risked driving women back into full-time domesticity.
I was very impressed byThe Beauty Myth, especially as it, in retrospect, foretold the stick-insect era of the 1990s that brought us Ally McBeal and Victoria Beckham, among others. The one thing that confused me was that the cover, at least in hardback, featured a very flattering portrait of yourself. Was that an ironic statement on the conundrum of what a talented woman must do to get recognition, or simply a cynical decision by an unreconstructed male publisher?
L Myal, Norfolk
It was actually a snapshot taken on a walk in Edinburgh by my then boyfriend Colin Troup, who has long been annoyed that he did not get a credit for it. I'd like to say you have it now, Colin, in print. No matter what a woman would look like, when she challenges myths such as these her appearance is used against her in an effort to undermine her position.
In Fire With Fire, you suggested that women should use their sexuality in order to make progress in the workplace. Is this a strategy you have employed yourself?
C Beeman, by e-mail
I suggested no such thing, as the editors of this fine paper doubtless know. Having to address such a question is the kind of demeaning sexist bullying that many women face in other forms in their own workplace environment.
The USA – will true equality ever arrive in a country whose women spend so much time on their hair?
Tara Lyle, London
Can progress ever arrive in a country whose men spend so much time on their beer?
When was the last time you spoke to Camille Paglia?
Seymour Gillen, Hastings
I haven't ever actually had that pleasure.
Who would you nominate as our modern icons of womanhood?
Stella Harbinson, London
Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Mary Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Germaine Greer, the Go-Gos.
In your books, you have written about your own eating disorders, sexual experience and experience of childbirth. Do women have to bare their souls in order to be heard?
Moira Kly, by e-mail
No, and that's not why I write about personal experience. When you are looking at ideology affecting women, you can't know for sure that an ideology is false unless you examine lived experience and see a gap between the reality and the ideal. I notice my own life and the lives of other women, but an argument only emerges, as it did in Misconceptions, if my additional research confirms that something much bigger, affecting many women, is going on.
What, if anything, did we learn from the Monica Lewinsky fiasco?
Morgan Brook, by e-mail
To separate work and play.
Several American feminists have become bestselling writers. Why do you think their British counterparts remain so resolutely unpopular?
Mena Stevens, Brighton
British feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Natasha Walter have written eloquently about feminism. I think it is more threatening to any country to pay real attention to home-grown critics of gender relations than it is to import commentators and then send them safely back home.
Is pain a necessary part of the experience of childbirth?
Cathy Cunard, Reading
Pain is part of the experience, but there are many effective ways to manage the pain that women are rarely offered. What is happening more and more often, in the UK as well as the Republic of Ireland and the US, is that painful and dangerous interventions are being inflicted on women, not for their medical benefit, nor for their babies', but rather for the convenience of the medical institution and of obstetricians.
A few years ago you wrote that women need to acknowledge the guilt they feel about abortion. With hindsight, do you think you were playing into the hands of the pro-life lobby?
S Cuff, by e-mail
I did not write that. The word "guilt" does not appear in my essay, which was badly distorted by some of the UK press. I wrote that abortion is a moral decision, that you shouldn't have to pretend it isn't in order to be pro-choice, and that women are moral grown-ups and entitled to make such decisions for themselves. I am pro-choice.
You were heavily involved in Al Gore's presidential campaign. After the disappointing result, would you venture into politics again?
K Kahn, by e-mail
Of course. You have to do your best in any venue you can to act on what you believe in.
George W Bush: the devil himself, or just one of his henchmen?
Jared Wilson, Nottingham
He's a decent guy who is probably sincere, but who is badly in the pocket of special interests – notably big oil and the religious right – who have no sense of responsibility for doing what is best for America's kids, working people or the environment. Unfortunately the rest of the world is forced to live with the fallout of his having been bought and sold.
What do you think of Al Gore's beard? And why the beige suit?
Dyson Clay, London
I have no clue. Contrary to reports, I was in fact an adviser on women's issues.
How long do you think will we have to wait for the first female President of the United States?
C Jacob, Swindon
It will happen in my lifetime, and she will probably be a Republican. Watch for rising star Christine Todd Whitman.
'Misconceptions' is published by Chatto & Windus, £12.99Reuse content