Archive for the Naomi Wolf Category

Controversial manliness

Posted in gender stereotypes, Harvey Mansfield, masculinity, Naomi Wolf on October 26, 2008 by Steve

I haven’t read it, but Harvey Mansfield‘s book, Manliness, seems to have created quite a stir. From what I saw in a 10-minute excerpt of an ABC News debate with Naomi Wolf in 2006, Mansfield is unembarrassed about talking about the differences between men and women, and promoting the “quaint and obsolete” concept of manliness.

In the interview, Mansfield speaks about male and female differences in a direct and honest way. He’s not embarrassed that men are stronger than women and more interested in competition (also politics and sports, which are examples of manly competition).

These differences, of course, are generalisations, but they are true generalisations. Though some women are stronger than some men, and some women take more risks than some men, the generalisation that women are weaker and less risk-taking are still true.

Naomi Wolf, of course, reacts in shocked disbelief and reproach. With all her political prowess and intellectual strength, she understandably feels demeaned. At the end of the day, however, neither she nor any woman can escape having a female body (or brain). This is the tragedy of today’s gender-neutral society, in which, according to Mansfield, “women are trying to imitate men, but men are not trying to imitate women“.

Perhaps Mansfield’s most piercing (and controversial) statement is that women are:

…of course the weaker sex. I think it’s quite important that women are physically less strong than men. It means that they can’t exercise the same authority as men with the same easy grace and so they have to try a little harder. So the way they get around this is to either persuade with more seductive tones, or to make a scene.

Ultimately, being bigger and stronger does help one’s sense of authority. You can’t really escape the body, hormones and brain structure you were given. Nonetheless, being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be authoritative, but having the body of a man makes it easier than having a woman’s body. I suspect there are complex socio-cultural factors enmeshed in all of this too.

Does all this mean that women shouldn’t be fire-fighters or members of parliament? My, and I think Mansfield’s, answer would be ‘No’. Biblically speaking, the endless number of specific roles are not spelled out, but the Bible writers made it clear that, ultimately, women’s roles will centre around the home and children much more than men’s (Titus 2:4-5). There may be some female individuals who are stronger and more competitive than most men, but the vast majority will not fit this mould.

Nor do I think all this means that men can’t be soft, nurturing and non-competitive. There may be manly ways to wash up, drive the car, relate at work (Mansfield would define this by a man’s competitiveness in how he does these things). There are therefore also womanly ways to do these tasks.

How to do these things, though, is not a matter of prescription. We should expect trends according to gender, just as we do according to generational difference and country of origin difference. Therefore, Mansfield’s reiteration of the age-old advice is necessary for our age: “we have a gender-neutral society, but we don’t have gender-neutral individuals, we have men and women. Different sexes… those differences need to be understood and respected.” Pretty obvious, but obviously not all that obvious.

Finally, I ask myself why it is that so many people want to minimise or ignore the observable differences betweens the genders? Is is because they will feel abnormal if they do not fit the stereotype? I suspect that debate over these issues of gender differences relates more often than we would like to admit to personal insecurity. Just a thought.


Too much too soon, or not enough? – Honouring girls’ sexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, Naomi Wolf on October 20, 2008 by Steve

Having been born in the early 1980s, I confess my ignorance about the details of the social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the more I learn about these decades of “peace”, “free love”, “liberation”, etc., the more I realise how important learning about them is, comparing what is different  between what we take for granted today and what life was like then. Indeed, studying this period feels to me a bit like a lesson in ancient history, yet it is an era that the majority of Australians alive today have lived through, and therefore is directly relevant to those whose parents experienced that era.

It has been Naomi Wolf’s 1997 book Promiscuities which has, in recent weeks, aroused my interest in this historical period. After previously overlooking her as some predictable man-hating feminist with lofty and godless ideologies and nothing particularly relevant to say to me, her book has proven to be thought-provoking, and I have found myself agreeing with her more often than I expected to. Despite her view of sex outside of the marriage covenant as a universal norm, I appreciated her emphasis that female sexuality is an extremely precious gift – something that our world has too often abused, shamed or even sacrificed for the sake of some “higher” calling.

I would like to reiterate a couple of the applications she makes which I think are pretty important, and which are too easily overlooked. In my mind they apply equally to boys as to girls. Firstly, Wolf points out the great need to better protect chidren’s sexual development (by shielding them from inappropriate movies, etc). She sees neglectful parenting and a selfish demand for free speech as the cause of this damaging trend: “Our collective refusal to respect the sexual development of children, in the interest of defending our own freedoms constitutes a collective psychic assault on kids for which we must all take responsibility.” (p.241)

Furthermore, in Wolf’s mind, the distinction between the world of adults and the world of children in recent decades has become so blurred as to no longer exist: “I think that we who were young in the 1960s were perhaps the last generation of Americans who actually had their childhoods, in the… sense of childhood as a space distinct in its roles and customs from the world of adults, oriented around children’s own needs and culture rather than around the needs and culture of adults.” (p.26) This is a tragic reminder for parents to not make their kids grow up too fast.

Lastly, Wolf proposes certain rites of passage for a young girl in the laying of secure foundations for her transition into womanhood. Here, she recommends that a thirteen-year-old girl be taken on a retreat with older women to learn about sex, sexuality, motherhood, and so on. I see the value in giving such recognition and attention to what it means to as a young girl becomes a woman. The silence about human sexuality that still exists in so many homes as children grow up is a devastating tragedy.

These suggestions of Wolf’s are refreshingly thoughtful and practical. Though Promiscuities boldly over-applies Wolf’s very personal and limited experience to a whole generation, it is the intense realness of her (and others’) story which makes it compelling and relevant. As a New York Times review puts it: “Anyone – particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960’s – will have a very hard time putting down “Promiscuities.””