Myths and Misconceptions

Writer Naomi Wolf talks about motherhood, strong girls, and the importance of dissent

| January/February 2002

The chronic chronicler of a generation, feminist author Naomi Wolf writes books that get people talking. Her first, the international best-seller The Beauty Myth, launched a debate about female body image that continues to rage today. She followed that stunning debut with Fire with Fire, which focuses on women and power, and Promiscuities, a book about young women’s emerging sexuality. Over the past decade, Wolf’s way with words and telegenic personality have earned her the title 'the Gloria Steinem of the ’90s.' The former Rhodes scholar gained notoriety when she was tapped as a high-paid 'image consultant' for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

While Wolf’s books are always thoroughly researched works, they usually weave in some measure of personal experience, an element that has helped assure her a loyal fan base. When word got out that Wolf was pregnant with her first child, readers knew it was only a matter of time before she published something about it. Sure enough, seven years and two children later, Wolf is out with Misconceptions (Doubleday, 2001), her critique of pregnancy and birth in America.

Though many say they saw it coming, Wolf insists that she didn’t set out to write about motherhood. 'It wasn’t my goal,' she says. 'But as I lived the experience of becoming a mother, the words just started flowing out of me.' Wolf and her husband, David Shipley, have two children, Rosa, 6, and Joey, 1. She spoke with senior editor Andy Steiner from her home in New York City.

You recently moved from the suburbs to an apartment in New York City. How do you like raising children in a bustling urban area?

Large cities can be really wonderful and community-based places to raise children, partly because you are away from the tyranny of automobiles. I love that in this city kids can run in and out of stores where they know the storekeepers, and they see a wide variety of people on the street. For me, living in the suburbs contributed to the postpartum depression that I wrote about in Misconceptions. Our culture makes the experience of new motherhood a particularly isolating one, and I found that the suburban environment is especially isolating for women and the children they care for. Every day, our suburb became this ghost town of white women and their babies. Sure, you could go to the playground and be with the other moms, but you got the feeling that you were still living at the margins of American life, away from the rest of the world.

What sorts of books are you reading to your children?

We’re really interested in books about girls being smart and tough and strong. One of our favorites is a version of Cinderella called Cindy Ellen. She is a cowgirl who wins the prince by being the most daring rider at the rodeo. Rosa also loves the Magic Tree House books, which are full of girls and boys having daring adventures. I’ve realized lately how subversive some of the old children’s favorites are, like Mary Poppins. She’s quite a role model. She has magical powers and can turn everything upside down. I also loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books when I was growing up. I’m hoping to lure Rosa into that world, because the idea of being a little girl facing a big adventure is exciting and timeless.What magazines do you read?

These days I find myself turning to the newsmagazines, unfortunately. Also The New Yorker, and other local publications like New York and The New York Observer and the New York Post. I’ve been moved to see this city and the people who live here reel and recover and adapt to life under siege. For a truly global city, New York seems very local, almost like a small town these days. I wouldn’t have talked like this before 9/11, but there is a new sense of this being a hometown as well as an international city.

It sounds like you’ve developed pretty serious reading tastes. Do you read anything for fun?

Some people may find this surprising for a feminist, but I love Better Homes and Gardens. Decorating and housekeeping magazines have been a guilty pleasure of mine for years. It’s almost like my fascination with reading about how to make a pillow intensifies the more I come face to face with my lack of skills in that department. I’m not interested in the high-end, classy stuff of this genre like Martha Stewart Living. What I’m really interested in is mainstream mass market magazines with recipes for Halloween cookies.

A lot of young feminists seem to have rediscovered the domestic arts. What’s that all about?

Well, home has become more and more important to us as a nation, and young feminists aren’t immune to that. I also think the second wave of feminists, the women who came just before this, felt they had to turn their backs on a lot of things that traditionally provided pleasure for women, like home life, domesticity, being maternal, sexuality. Now younger women are embracing those things again, but with more attitude. For instance, knitting in public has become one of the ultimate in-your-face things a feminist can do. If you don’t want to be politically correct at work, you can always pull out your knitting at a meeting.

In the Fall 2001 issue of Brill’s Content, author Katie Roiphe wrote a scathing review of Misconceptions. How do you respond to your critics?

Constructive criticism is always helpful, and since I know my books are controversial and I take strong positions, it only seems fair that people should be able to write what they want in response. Still, I am often surprised that the tone of some reviews can be so vehement. I often wish that all criticisms were of my ideas and not of me personally. But generally I feel so well supported by my readers and I receive so much critical support that I am happy that someone is engaging in the debate.

While I often hate Roiphe’s conclusions, I respect her take-no-prisoners style. I’m happy as a feminist that there’s a new generation of young women who feel comfortable holding strong, independent opinions.

In the past, you’ve written about your interest in spirituality. Are there any contemporary religious teachers that you find enlightening?

There are so many inspirational voices out there right now, people who are making spirituality available and accessible to everyone. I’ve been interested in learning about the historical Jesus, especially in the teachings of Reverend John Shelby Spong and the Jesus Seminar people. I’m also a big fan of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, a friend and mentor of mine and the author of A Heart as Wide as the World. I also have great respect for Thich Nhat Hanh.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of Irish and Scottish folk music. I lived in that part of the world for a few years, and I continue to be inspired by how those musicians are reclaiming an old tradition and making it relevant for today. My kids enjoy a great CD called Reggae for Kids.

What television shows do you watch?

Now, unfortunately, we’ve been watching a lot of CNN. And then there are the children’s shows Arthur and Dragon Tales, which I don’t find as repulsive as some of the children’s programming that’s out there. I’ve paid my Barney dues.

With two young children at home, do you and your husband ever make it to the movies?

We do see more on video than we used to, but I still see more than a lot of mothers do. I loved Bridget Jones’s Diary. I liked that it was literate, and that an average-sized girl got the guy. I also really liked High Fidelity. I’m 38, so I don’t identify as a boomer, but I’m not a Gen X’er, either. There aren’t that many cultural artifacts that appeal to people my age. High Fidelity was completely it. And I loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I should also say I absolutely loved Charlie’s Angels. This new wave of strong, crazy heroines in film is salutary. In the same vein, I liked Angelina Jolie’s character in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I think it’s cool that we have villains and commandos who are women. Another aspect of the female psyche is being acted out.

Are you seeing any media trends that disturb you?

Dissent has become unpopular overnight in this country. I don’t think patriotism has to mean consensus or the quashing of the principled interrogation of our leaders. Suddenly it feels like we’re living in 1958. I’m afraid in this atmosphere of fear there will be dark repercussions for us over the long term. It’s important to remember that we can wage a war without giving up the things like dissent that truly make America great.

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