Myths and Misconceptions

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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