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Reading: The Feminine Mistake

A strident feminist, a lipstick and mascara maven, and a celebrity psyche healer have found common ground promoting female empowerment as the ultimate form of do-it-yourself therapy.

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At first glance it seems an unlikely sight. Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, a feminist polemic describing how women are hurt by the perpetual unfulfillable quest for physical perfection, is smiling winsomely in an ad for . . . panty hose. You know, those nylon and spandex torture devices that make a 90-degree day seem like a 100-degree one, that push in the gut and mask unsightly veins. Liberated women who have conservative jobs can't wait to rush home and tear them off. Wolf has been named the "No Nonsense American Woman" for the month of July, chosen, the ad copy explains, because she "challenges us to embrace a more open-minded feminism--one that respects a woman's heart and individuality while it promotes her power!"

The radical rage that filled Wolf's first book has given way, it appears, to a complacent commercialism. These days Wolf seems less concerned with feminism than with femininity. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that last fall, while promoting her new book, Fire With Fire, she quite comfortably shared a podium at New York's posh 21 Club with two decidedly unradical regulars on the lunch-and-lecture circuit: trophy wife turned cosmetics entrepreneur Georgette Mosbacher and new-age guru Marianne Williamson. The society women who'd gathered for lunch expected to witness a sharp debate--after all, one would hardly think there's much common ground among a strident feminist, a lipstick and mascara maven, and a celebrity psyche healer.

Mosbacher, best known as the wife of Texas oilman and former secretary of commerce Robert Mosbacher, was there to promote an autobiography of sorts called Feminine Force. With her perfectly coiffed dyed red hair and thick encrustations of jewelry, she seemed the very embodiment of the beauty myth Wolf once so diligently attempted to disassemble. Indeed, in her paean to the powers of femininity, Mosbacher warns women to "look out for the theoreticians of anger who argue that beauty is a myth perpetuated to keep us down." Williamson seems uninterested in such earthly squabbles. "Feminine beauty is not a function of clothes or hair or makeup," she writes in A Woman's Worth, which has become a best-seller. "Beauty is an internal light. . . . When we are truly aware of our spiritual glory, a varicose vein or two is not that big a deal."

But it was more than the perversity of fate that brought these three women together. Despite some obvious differences on the surface, they all promote a distinctly individualistic brand of female empowerment, an up-by-the-bootstraps model of personal success. And they've displayed remarkable savvy in marketing their message. At a time when nearly all American women support the goal of gender egalitarianism--though only a third of them embrace the label "feminist"--these three women have promoted their brand of empowerment as the ultimate form of do-it-yourself therapy.

Although most Americans now associate feminists with the excesses of Andrea Dworkin, a vague rhetoric of female empowerment has infiltrated even the most seemingly apolitical places in our popular culture--daytime talk shows, romance novels, self-help books for women. It's a rhetoric that owes as much to Helen Gurley Brown as Robin Morgan, as much to Horatio Alger as Susan B. Anthony. Advertisers, quick to sense profit in the appropriation of anything with a potential big market, have increasingly directed their attention to a new generation of revved-up power females. Nike encourages women to "just do it"; a recent ad for Diet Coke portrays an office of young women ogling a shirtless construction worker, making him the focus of a postfeminist female gaze as objectifying as the legendary male gaze.

This new rhetoric of female empowerment has now become the raw material for self-described feminists like Wolf as well as for semifeminists like Mosbacher and Williamson. Each of them shuns the notion of women as victims, preferring to appeal to women's innate power. All acknowledge the dangers of sexism and the power of sexist institutions, but none of them is willing to acknowledge that the strategies for true change are necessarily messy or difficult. Low self-esteem, inequitable salaries, and abusive partners are very real problems--but happily they can all be repaired and redeemed through sheer feminine will. It's no wonder the three find inspiration in Scarlett O'Hara, the epitome of feminine willfulness.

Traditionally feminists have looked upon such expressions of female individualism with a degree of suspicion: feminism, after all, is a political movement for the collective empowerment of women as a class, not a cheering section for individually powerful women. But it has always been tempting for such women, who look upon their unsuccessful sisters with a degree of pity and embarrassment, to turn their backs on a movement that talks so much of victimization. "Since admitting . . . unfreedom is painful and anxiety provoking," social critic Ellen Willis writes, "organized feminism has always had to contend with women insisting that they can liberate themselves and don't need a movement, thank you." And so Mosbacher tells her readers to quit whining: "I'm dismayed when I see women focus on the idea that as women, we are victims." Williamson is similarly distressed by those who dwell too much on the negative, letting her readers in on a "magical secret. . . . No one is stuck who chooses not to be."

It's relatively easy for Mosbacher and Williamson to dispense with the notion of victimhood; they don't claim to be feminists. Wolf does, and so her task is a bit harder. She has to distinguish her version of feminism--she calls it "power feminism"--from "victim feminism," the ideology of those who "charge women to identify with powerlessness even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power that they do possess." Sexism is no longer the real problem, Wolf maintains; what holds women back is old-style feminism--the ideological, uncompromising, and unfeminine variety. Blaming men, masculinity, or male institutions for women's unequal status is passe. Instead feminists should "develop a vision of femininity in which it is appropriate and sexy for women to use power." Power, to Wolf, means upward economic mobility within the present system, with no need to subvert it.

Ah, the joy of success! Wolf celebrates the novels of Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, and, yes, Ivana Trump, whose books tell the stories of bold female entrepreneurs intent on accumulating wealth and power. She even glorifies the readers of the fast-growing specialty magazine Women & Guns, who share "the pioneer feminism of women who know that no one will take care of them but themselves."

In celebrating individual advancement, Wolf and Mosbacher are reacting against the fuzzy notion that there's a natural and innate connection among all women. Their impulse is good: the utopian vision of women as a global class with fundamental commonalities is simplistic, predicated on the false assumption that all women are united by the experience of sexist subjugation.

But in totally rejecting the notion of sisterhood, Wolf and Mosbacher go too far. The fact is there is some truth to the notion of female universality. After all, no man, no matter how sensitive or feminist he tries to be, can give birth. Women are in some way bound by their reproductive capacity; most eventually become mothers--and even those who don't are expected to possess a feminine, nurturing nature. Women who stray too far from the motherly role--Leona Helmsley, the "Queen of Mean"--tend to be denigrated as cold, power-hungry bitches.

To admit such realities would require these three writers to espouse an ideological feminism that attempts to subvert the status quo, but none of them is willing to critique the American Dream or the individualism underlying it. Indeed, they celebrate it. Mosbacher proudly relates her immigrant heritage, focusing on her feisty great-grandmother Baba, who emigrated from Austria and settled in a small town in Indiana. She couldn't read or write, yet she never wasted a moment dwelling on her shortcomings. She pulled "all of her resources together and boldly took control of her life. Baba was the essence of Feminine Force."

Wolf similarly argues that feminists need to "replace the sentimentalized model of sisterhood with a pragmatic model: that of the immigrant connection. The immigrant succeeds because she breaks ties with the old country and learns to assimilate into the new culture." Moreover, she claims, sexual inequality, "which we think of as being the texture and taste of femininity itself, can begin to become a quaint memory of the old country--if we are not too attached to let it go." Women must stop thinking of themselves as victims and start thinking of themselves as victors. They must hone a "psychology of female power to match their new opportunities" and "learn to imagine and enjoy winning." It's that easy. Attitude is everything.

Wolf's Fire With Fire is an exercise in positive thinking from start to finish, a celebration of the "genderquake" that she says has transformed American politics over the last few years. The backlash against feminism, according to her, is history, a relic of the 80s. It ended in the fall of 1991, when a new era was initiated by the congressional confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, which "performed the same alchemy on the aura of patriarchy" that Joseph Welch's challenge to Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings performed on the aura of anticommunism.

A churlish critic might suggest that the effects of the genderquake have been more symbolic than real. (You may recall that Thomas made it to the Supreme Court.) But advertisers, who know the power of symbolism, are far ahead of feminist theorists on this point. "The great leaders are those who know how to . . . use symbols that resonate unconsciously as well as literally," Wolf explains. "In this view, a DKNY ad that shows the swearing in of a woman president can have as much power to advance women's historical progress on the psychic level as can the passage of the ERA on the political level." Just as advertisers have learned from Anita Hill, feminists need to learn a lesson or two from them. "Feminism lacks positive imagery," Wolf complains, "even something as basic as a widely understood, positive logo."

For Wolf, psychic victories are at least as important as victories in the real world. Indeed, she's hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two, chiding those who see the new emphasis on self-esteem as misguided solipsism: "We in the First World have reached the point at which [the] distinction between inner and outer life is obsolete."

This faith in faith is something Wolf shares with her empowered sisters. Williamson is enthusiastic about the power of positive thinking. "Women are not powerless," she writes. "We just pretend we are." In her search for positive energy she finds inspiration in greeting cards and picks up her spiritual slogans from coffee mugs: "Someone once gave me a coffee mug on which it is printed ENTERTAIN NO NEGATIVITY. If only I could be so strong."

For her part, Mosbacher explains that success is simply "the process of not accepting failure." Those with "guts of steel" are destined to win. "You absolutely can do it," she tells her readers. She proposes that before going to bed at night every woman should identify at least one thing she did that day that she feels good about. Write it down, she commands, and when you wake up tomorrow read it out loud and tell yourself how terrific it is. Once your list of achievements grows, you can shed your defeatism and awaken your budding power. "The Feminine Force is my way of describing the intangible but indelible powers or energies that all women are born with but that many of us lose somewhere along life's way." To Mosbacher, the boundaries that limit women are self-imposed. "You must change your hopes into expectations." You can re-create yourself--through makeup, hair dye, and a little cosmetic surgery. "When I look my personal best," she proudly writes, "I am powerful." No wonder she has some two dozen photos of herself in her book, half of them in color. "What can I say?" reads one photo caption. "I love getting dressed up . . . and I love being a girl."

For Mosbacher, femininity is not only fun, it's a means of self-advancement. Even catching and winning the right man, if done properly, can be an act of empowerment--and Mosbacher offers detailed instructions to help her readers along. She admits that "hard-core feminists may not like" some of her techniques, which include suggestions about how to steer a conversation toward a man's main interest (himself), how to master the art of flattery, and how to cultivate "the look," that is, a gaze that makes a man feel "as though everything he says is brilliant."

Even the mystical Williamson offers some practical man-catching advice: women need to get their "spiritual chops down" so they can attract the right kind of man. In a chapter entitled "Embracing the Goddess," she offers what is essentially a postfeminist new-age dating guide: "Daughters of God don't brake for jerks." Once a woman transforms herself from a mere "princess" into a "goddess," Williamson writes, she's ready to fall in love with a masculine man; and this process, she informs us, presumably with a straight face, will change the world. For all her talk of empowerment and for all her theological flights of fancy, Williamson's message is an old one: A "woman's worth" is inseparable from her relationship with her Significant Other. That's not a message of liberation; that's what Betty Friedan rightly denounced 30 years ago as the feminine mystique.

It's hard not to be reminded of Marabel Morgan's legendary 70s guide to self-improvement-through-self-abasement, The Total Woman. Born-again Morgan suggested that her readers learn to "accept," "admire," "adapt," and "appreciate" their husbands--essentially give up trying to improve their mates and simply try to live better with the ones they had. If she couldn't see her way out of a system that left women dependent on unreliable men, at least she suggested how women could improve their position within it.

According to Morgan, the first step in empowerment was a kind of "interior decorating" remarkably similar to Gloria Steinem's idea of "revolution from within." "Perhaps it sounds self-centered to love yourself," Morgan wrote, "but it's most necessary if you're going to love others, including your husband. When you do, you will have a good image of yourself. That means you like being you. You will function properly and accomplish what you set out to do. You will have a sense of well-being within." Sound familiar?

Feminists of course shouldn't leave the subject of self-esteem to the Marabel Morgans of the world: a truly empowering feminism needs to promote confidence. Underappreciating oneself, after all, goes hand in hand with staying in an abusive relationship, shunning the beach on a perfect summer day, and passively accepting a salary without negotiating. And without a doubt, drive and ambition are positive traits. But they're not inherently feminist. Wolf, in a moment of rash enthusiasm, suggests affixing the feminist label to "every woman who is operating at her full speed," forgetting that antifeminist women such as Margaret Thatcher and Phyllis Schlafly are at least as "empowered" as she and Susan Faludi are.

In their own ways Mosbacher, Williamson, and Wolf are the very models of self-made womanhood. So it's hardly surprising that these three--whose new books were written after they'd each achieved a certain success--would be drawn to the Scarlett O'Hara prototype, eager to celebrate the resilience and power of women who've fought hard to get somewhere in the world. Yet in doing so each has forgotten that the primary barriers to economic and political success are external--and that the lessons of their own, admittedly exceptional, cases do not apply to all. The glorification of female success on the individual level is at best an extraordinarily limited form of feminism. At worst it's a repudiation of the feminist ideal of collective empowerment.

But why let mere ideology spoil this new message of success? There's no need to worry about sexual harassment, abortion waiting periods, and inequitable hiring practices. Just freshen your lipstick, smooth the wrinkles on your chic power suit, pick up a stylish bra holster for your pink handgun, and you're on your way to new horizons. Just do it.

Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century by Naomi Wolf, Random House, $21

Feminine Force: Release the Power Within to Create the Life You Deserve by Georgette Mosbacher, Simon & Schuster, $22

A Woman's Worth by Marianne Williamson, Random House, $17.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andy Epstein.

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