Don't knock new feminism's high hopes

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THE good thing about the Naomi Wolf phenomenon is that it exists. The bad thing about it is that some people wish it didn't. She disturbs the confidence of the anti-feminist backlash by being there, and disorients the feminists who aroused the backlash by being there.

Her new book, Fire with Fire, represents the renewal of public polemic about the practice and priorities of feminism. It does not matter that she is frugal with her footnotes and thrifty in her acknowledgements. Nor whether her polemical energy comes up to the scholarly scrutiny that sophisticated feminism might muster.

What matters is that she is reclaiming for her generation and for her era a contemporary form of pro-woman politics. She is proposing an optimistic political project to a generation whose pre-history was the promise that history had come to an end, that politics was dead. Those who fear to read Fire with Fire should not be weary troupers from an earlier era, but that conservative cadre of snobs and smuggies, a coolly self-referential coterie whose reaction to challenge is what has cauterised British culture. Her readers have made her a wealthy woman because she speaks to their common sense about the rules of engagement in the contemporary gender war. What excites her and should inspire us is the prospect of the end of what she calls the Masculine Empire.

She is challenging because she is centred in the feminist project yet makes no obeisance to its mothers, its cultures, its griefs. She does not pay her dues to the 'feminist generation', the movement's owners. She owns the politics herself, indeed she owns herself. More or less.

This is what makes her an ingrate to a generation of women who had to struggle so hard for selfhood; whose sanity was saved by the only politics in the world to engage the transformation of the human subject as well as the system.

What she is interested in are her peers. Fire with Fire is not an answer so much as an argument. Its polemic is partial, personal, incomplete: an argument with its forebears as well as the society in which it now intervenes. She will not forgive or excuse the mad and bad bits of the Women's Liberation Movement, which was, after all, exhausted and alienated by those same sectarianisms. The sects that destroyed sisterhood did not destroy feminism, however, as Wolf is here to tell us - they only disabled it.

Fire with Fire has no attachments to those struggles, precisely because they belong to the past. Those irascible feminists who read her critique of their ancient tournaments and protest splenetically that, 'She wasn't there and we were', or 'We said it first and better', should stop. Those who demand that she assimilate what they feel as survivors of the Sixties, and now of the backlash, are asking her to take responsibility for their disappointments; they are asking her to carry the mantle of our mistakes.

Fire with Fire won't do that. The book is cavalier in its dismissal of the attempts by the Women's Liberation Movement to ride shotgun with socialism. Socialist feminists may shrink with ire at her indifference to their heroic efforts to eschew the marketplace and inscribe a hyphen between socialism and feminism. But what is the point? The experiment is over. The Bolshevik moment has been extinguished.

Actually, it was already in disgrace when the Women's Liberation Movement danced so wickedly on to the world's political stage at the end of the Sixties. Its formation synchronised with Bolshevism's last botched chance to renew itself. The marriage was doomed. Fire with Fire proposes a different prospectus, one that scours all blocs in the political firmament for radicals and egalitarians, for a new coalition around Power Feminism. There are, after all, what she calls patriarchalists in all Western political traditions. This places her in the unstable space where most people live: where a party card is no longer an identity.

The book's energy and optimism resonate with the new terms of political engagement in the United States. Perhaps we should forgive its banalities about love, sex and passion in the face of its candour and goodwill towards men and the women who love them - a heady testament to optimism.

A bit of bad faith has been evident in the spectacle of some women's collusion with their foes in reading Fire with Fire through the filter of the old regime, when what the book represents is a new moment for fin-de-siecle feminism - a threat and a promise.

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