The seer and the sisters

Profile: Naomi Wolf; New visionary - or pedlar of 20-year-old ideas? Joan Smith on the eager feminist
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JUST who is Naomi Wolf? Here is what everyone agrees on: five years ago she published her first book, The Beauty Myth, which was an international best-seller. So was the follow-up, Fire With Fire. She is married to David Shipley, executive editor of the right-wing New Republic magazine. They live in Washington and Wolf is having a baby.

From here on, it gets more complicated. Admirers view Wolf as the current standard-bearer of feminism, the fresh iconoclastic voice who breathed life into a moribund movement. Carmen Callil, who published The Beauty Myth, remains an enthusiastic supporter: "Naomi cares passionately about the things that happen to women. She wants women to get an unfettered pleasure out of what comes naturally to them."

Wolf is as celebrated for her appearance as her writing, so much so that her name has become shorthand for the notion that feminists can, after all - some people still find this surprising - be bright and sexy and beautiful. This is not her fault although some have remarked that she made full use of her abundant dark hair and coltish charm as she did the round of television studios and magazine interviews for The Beauty Myth in 1990.

More weighty charges are that she hasn't read enough to know that her theories are second-hand. Now, with her public agonising over abortion in the current issue of the New Republic, she has triggered another highly charged debate which, whatever her stated purpose, provides plentiful ammunition for conservatives who want to believe that feminists are hopelessly divided against each other.

"How pregnancy turned a feminist against the Sisters" was the gleeful headline in Monday's Daily Mail. Wolf was savaged in the following day's Guardian, where Maureen Freely called her "a loudmouth with a B-plus mind", and the row shows no sign of dying down.

So what did Wolf actually write in "Our Bodies, Our Souls", the article whose headline pointedly recalls the title of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the famous feminist self-help medical manual? She begins with a quote from a 40-year-old cardiologist who had an abortion when she was already the single mother of a two-year-old girl. "Clare", who would take the same decision again, describes her reaction to the abortion in terms of Greek tragedy: "For months, it was as if baby furies were pursuing me." This passage turns out to be not just the starting-point of Wolf's argument but its ultimate destination. A few thousand words later, after accusing herself and the pro-abortion movement of "standing in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls", Wolf reveals she is still pro-choice but only as long as women feel guilty about having a termination. "We don't have to lie to ourselves about what we are doing," she fervently insists.

It is as if Wolf has suddenly noticed something that other feminists have failed to observe: that abortion involves the destruction of a foetus. Acknowledging sin and the need for atonement, says Wolf, "brings on God's compassion and our redemption".

Carmen Callil, resolutely pro-choice, suggests the incomprehension that has greeted Wolf's article stems from her being American. "They say something to you that's utterly important but they don't say it in our way. We say it in an ironic way. They are earnest." She likens Wolf to the evangelist preacher Billy Graham, a surprising comparison which does, however, capture the emotionally charged aspect of her writing. Maybe Wolf, like so many Americans, has found God. More to the point, she has found babies and a folksy handbook entitled What To Expect When You're Expecting. "Anyone who has had a sonogram during pregnancy," she writes, "knows perfectly well that the four-month-old foetus responds to outside stimuli." Along with this realisation, Wolf, who confesses that some time ago she took the morning-after pill, has acquired a paralysing guilt.

So is the New Republic article just an anguished bulletin from the Wolf psyche, another piece of disguised autobiography - the form which, so far, has been the driving force behind her work?

NAOMI WOLF was born in 1962 in San Francisco into a liberal Jewish family of writers and academics. "My mother was reading The Second Sex in the delivery room when I was born," Wolf once told me. She has described the Haight Ashbury suburb of her childhood as "an egalitarian paradise", a paradise none the less in which, at the age of 13, she starved herself almost to death. "I was taking in the caloric equivalent of the food energy allotted to the famine victims of the siege of Paris," she writes in The Beauty Myth. Aged 17, Wolf won a scholarship to Yale and encountered, apparently for the first time, "the class system, racism, homophobia". In 1983 she went to New College Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar which she has described as the highpoint of her experience of injustice. The journalist Allison Pearson, who met Wolf during her time at Oxford, recalls her then as "warm, funny, sexy and quite terrifying with her eager questions, [such as] 'Do British women shave their armpits?' " It was at Oxford, working for an MPhil, that Wolf started research on representations of beauty in literature, one inspiration for The Beauty Myth; the other was her teenage anorexia.

Wolf's technique has always been to take some upsetting and imperfectly understood personal experience, worry at it like a dog with an unyielding bone, and then persuade her readers that they should agonise over it as well.

The Beauty Myth, which she has described as a classic Marxist analysis of the way in which the beauty industry turns women into anxious consumers of its products, is really a book about her own anorexia. The sharpest and most passionate writing in the book is to be found in these personal reminiscences. Things become less sharp when she attempts global analysis. Always cavalier in the use of statistics, Wolf sprays them around in this part of The Beauty Myth: up to 20 per cent of her generation is "starving to death" from anorexia; another 30 to 50 per cent are "overcome with a time-devouring and shameful addiction to puking their guts out in the latrines of the major centres of education". The UK "has 3.5 million anorexics or bulimics (95 per cent of them female), with 6,000 new cases yearly". Curious about the provenance of the British figure, unsubstantiated in text or notes, I once asked Wolf where it came from. She'd worked it out herself, she said, after checking the percentage of patients with eating disorders at one clinic.

This was just before The Beauty Myth was published, and I was acutely aware that Wolf was unprepared for objections which were bound to be made to her methodology. Eager, excited, anxious for approval, it had never occurred to her that the absence of evidence for her more startling statistics might be criticised. She told me she'd been brought up on feminism, and yet The Beauty Myth contains a harrowing account of her mother's repeated bouts of plastic surgery. Could this sense of disjunction of theory not being carried into practice explain Wolf's disappointment with an earlier generation of feminists? "Older women are burnt out," she wrote angrily on page one of The Beauty Myth.

This too literal application of the feminist slogan "the personal is political" is repeated in Fire With Fire, where she turned her reservations about being a successful author into a universal theory about women's difficulties in taking power. In a passage that won her runner-up in a Sunday Times "purist of the year" competition in 1993, Wolf described her first substantial cheque as "a phantom presence disrupting my sense of where I stood in the world. It felt defeminizing, like a mark of maleness stigmatizing me".

Naomi Wolf has a large and appreciative readership on both sides of the Atlantic, especially among younger readers to whom The Second Sex and The Female Eunuch are no more than titles. Carmen Callil thinks she is in "a long line of female seers", but there's also something about Wolf which brings out her admirers' protective instincts. "You're not going to be mean about Naomi, are you?" exclaimed someone at Chatto & Windus, her publisher and mine, when I called this week - not a question I can imagine them putting about, say, Iris Murdoch or Edward Said.

This courtesy does not extend to her detractors. Beatrix Campbell accused women who didn't like Fire With Fire of "bad faith" and colluding with their traditional enemies. Kate Saunders wrote nastily of critics of The Beauty Myth that "the babe had hit the old boilers right where it hurts". But the fact that Wolf is passionate and vulnerable has to be balanced against her sloppy research, her occasionally dreadful prose and her inability to distinguish between new ideas and ones that are new to her.

Wolf is still only 33 and many life events loom ahead, each threatening to provide another chapter in the Seven Ages of Naomi. When she published The Beauty Myth, people were willing to forgive her tendency to rush into print without pausing for reflection on the grounds of youth and inexperience. But her choice of the conservative New Republic as a forum to air her thoughts on an emotive subject such as abortion suggests that, five years on, she is older but not necessarily wiser.