What women don't want

Voluminous, sometimes silly, these books still show that the pursuit of power and happiness has not been futile
October 17, 2012
Betty Friedan, president of the National Organisation for Women, interviewed during a march in New York City, 1970
Vagina: A Biographyby Naomi Wolf (Virago, £12.99)The End of Men

by Hanna Rosin (Riverhead, £12.99)

The ancient conundrum, “What do women want?”, has perplexed at least half of humanity for millennia; but Chaucer’s Wife of Bath proposed a pithy solution. In the Canterbury Tales she recounts the story of an unchivalrous Arthurian knight who was condemned to death for raping a maiden. He is saved by the Queen, who grants him a year and a day in which to discover the answer to the old riddle. Riches, replies one respondent to his year-long survey of the female psyche. Flattery, suggests another. Beauty, nice clothes and a satisfactory sex life, insist others. All good answers—but not, the knight senses, quite good enough to keep his head on his shoulders. The year is almost up when he encounters the loathsome hag, or Grumpy Old Woman, in whom all folk wisdom is traditionally invested and she offers, for a price, to reveal the answer. The secret, she says, is “maistrie”—power, mastery, sovereignty—over men. The knight announces it to the Queen and her assembled ladies. Not one of them disagrees. The knight lives and the poem ends with a brisk prayer that Jesus will shorten the lives of husbands who refuse to obey their wives. As with so many ingenious solutions to intractable conflicts, the theory is elegant but its practical application has remained problematic. Some six and a half centuries after Chaucer’s tale, the question of maistrie, or power—how to acquire it, how to maintain it, and in what form—continues to haunt feminist, and female, discourse. Two recent books by the American writers Naomi Wolf and Hanna Rosin approach the subject from intriguingly different perspectives. Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography is described by her publishers (with a hyperbolic enthusiasm not shared by the book’s many critics) as “an astonishing work of cutting-edge science and cultural history that radically reframes how we understand the vagina—and consequently, how we understand women.” There was a time when the conflation of a woman’s essential being with her genitalia would have raised a startled eyebrow—or possibly an admonitory fist. But since the mid-1990s and the popular success of Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, the vagina (Wolf uses the term to encompass the external and internal female sex organs, from the clitoris up to and including the cervix) has become a fashionable—although, Wolf contends, still a “severely misunderstood”—portion of the female anatomy. Wolf, who is 49, was born in San Francisco and educated at Yale and Oxford. In the early 1990s she became a spokeswomen for what became known as “third-wave” feminism with the publication of The Beauty Myth, an account of the ways in which unattainable ideals of beauty are used to undermine women. It became an international bestseller and she has since published half a dozen books, although none has met with the same success. In the introduction to Vagina, Wolf explains that: “This book’s germ started as a historical and cultural journey, but it quickly grew into a very personal and necessary act of discovery… Due to a medical crisis, I had a thought-provoking, revelatory experience that suggested a possibly crucial relationship of the vagina to female consciousness itself. The more I learned, the more I understood the ways in which the vagina is part of the female brain, and thus part of female creativity, confidence, and even character.” Among men, the link between genitals and brain is regarded as commonplace— and often described (by both sexes) in unsympathetic, not to say pejorative, terms. But Wolf was sufficiently excited by her new awareness of an equivalent (though evidently much more complex) connection in women to make it the central thesis of her study. “Throughout this book,” she writes, “I will be referring to a… condition of female consciousness I will call… ‘the Goddess.’ I don’t mean to summon up in your mind crunchy-granola 1970s images of pagan Goddess worship on all-female retreats… Rather, I am carving out rhetorical space that does not yet exist when we talk about the vagina, but which refers to something very real.” The vagina, she concludes, “may be a ‘hole; but it is, properly understood, a Goddess-shaped one.” This is an ominous preamble, and the anxieties it raises about Wolf’s impressionistic approach are swiftly confirmed. She lards her text with personal anecdotes, such as the one about an insensitive male acquaintance who threw a party to celebrate her book deal, at which homemade pasta vaginas, or “cuntini,” were unappetisingly served with “enormous sausages” and “several immense salmon fillets.” Instead of buying the fellow a cookery book, Wolf was overcome by a devastating case of writer’s block and the feeling, “on both a creative and a physical level that I had been punished for ‘going somewhere’ that women are not supposed to go.” Her habit of arguing from assertion as though it were established fact is dispiriting. Listeners to the recent Radio 4 interview with a young, male, Syrian political activist who was raped by government security officials will be dismayed by Wolf’s conviction that rape as a form of torture has a uniquely damaging effect on the female spirit. As a reporter, she is frustratingly flaky. Her gushing accounts of an encounter with a Tantric therapist, Mike Lousada, and of attending a Tantric “sacred spot massage” workshop both end with her making her excuses and leaving, like an old-fashioned tabloid hack, before any intimate encounter can take place. Her sense of the absurd is fixed on a resolutely low setting. She reports “recent data about vaginal satisfaction” which confirms that “when researchers are trained, they can identify women who have vaginal orgasms from the way the women walk” (her italics). The bit about training is good to know. Yet lodged within this voluminous and sometimes silly book are ideas that deserve serious discussion. The former justice minister Kenneth Clark, who was forced publicly to recant his view that some kinds of rape are less serious than others, finds an unexpected ally in Wolf. She writes of feeling beleaguered by “feminist” attacks on her after she attempted to discuss the nuances of date rape in the context of the accusations of sexual assault made against Julian Assange. In one chapter, Wolf describes the influence of pornography on heterosexual relationships. Among the baleful effects of pornography, she writes, are an addictive desire for increasingly extreme images, and something she calls “vaginal illiteracy,” which leads to incompetent love-making. More troublingly, on visits to college campuses she discovered a startling rise in the incidence of anal fissures among young women—the consequence, she claims, of a “hook-up” culture among educated young Americans of casual, anonymous, sexual encounters, often involving porn-led anal penetration. In support of her argument that the psychological well-being of women is, as a result of the neural connections between brain and vagina, uniquely vulnerable to verbal abuse, Wolf cites a notorious occasion at Yale University in 2010. During a “Take back the night” rally against rape and sexual violence, male students barracked their female classmates with chants of “No means yes! And yes means anal!” In response, some of the women brought a lawsuit against the university, alleging a hostile educational environment. It is startling to compare Wolf’s perspective on this incident with that of the journalist Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. Addressing the hook-up culture in the first chapter of her book, Rosin describes attending an Ivy League business school party where the “Yes means anal!” incident was recalled, she reports, as “a fond memory”—even by the young women at the party who were, she remarks, “not Yale women’s studies types, for sure.” Where Wolf sees the hook-up culture as an emotional wasteland of soulless mechanical sex and anal fissures, Rosin perceives a very different terrain. Learning to survive (and thrive) in an atmosphere of crude sexual aggression is a way for intelligent young women to learn how to beat men at their own game, she says: “This was their way of psyching the men out, by refusing to back down in any game where, in another era, they would have been assumed to be the weaker opponent.” Rosin sees a world in which women’s ascendancy, in education, employment and the fraught realm of family life, has brought them to the very brink of the “maistrie” envisaged by the Wife of Bath as the key to female contentment. “From a feminist standpoint,” she writes, “the recent social, political and economic gains of women are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in the continuing struggle for gender equality. But a much more radical shift seems to have come about. Women are not just catching up anymore; they are becoming the standard by which success is measured.” Rosin’s view of the female condition is so utterly opposed to Wolf’s—even when observing the same phenomena and drawing on the same sources—that the pair could be describing two quite different species. The Wolfian Goddess is dreamy, creative, mystical, easily damaged and in need of sexual healing. Rosin’s archetype, the “plastic woman”—so-called because of her ability to adapt swiftly to changing social circumstances—is less likely to be casting about for a man to heal her wounds than to be dishing out the damage to her inflexible partner, “cardboard man.” This figure’s “old architecture of manliness” hasn’t experienced any renovation in the past century, leaving him uneasily fixed in a “cultural aspic” of old-style “ornamental masculinity.” “In the confines of intimate relationships, women’s growing economic power has done extraordinary things,” she writes. “For the 70 per cent of Americans without a college degree, the rise of the breadwinner wife is associated with the destruction of marriages. But for the elites, the result is exactly the opposite. Marriage has become yet another class privilege in America.” Not that the role of the wife in such “elite” marriages sounds especially privileged in Rosin’s description of the domestic set-up of Steven and Sarah, a young couple with a two-year-old son, Xavier, and another child on the way. Sarah, a successful lawyer, is the family breadwinner. Steven stays at home to look after Xavier while also studying, in desultory fashion, to be a lawyer. But throughout Rosin’s assiduously non-judgemental account of their family life, the reader senses a certain tightening of the lips. “Unlike most mums I know, Steven did not try to organize the time [with his son] into tidy quadrants,” she writes. Instead he sits about chatting and dumping Xavier’s dirty nappies in the sink. At 6pm, heavily pregnant Sarah comes home, covers Xavier’s sore bottom with cream, pops him in his high chair with a nutritious meal and sets about organising supper. Her husband sits on a stool with a beer in his hand, watching his breadwinner wife at work. “I realized,” comments Rosin, carefully, “that even our intimate relationships unfold in a cultural moment, and my moment was still not far enough removed from old feminist rage to divest these tiny domestic decisions of that kind of meaning.” That’s certainly one way of putting it, and it raises an interesting question about the role of feminism in the lives of 21st-century women. Both Wolf and Rosin make ambivalent references to feminism. Wolf is attacked by feminists for proposing that there might be nuances in rape; Rosin compares her “old feminist rage” with the calm competence of a younger woman who seems happy to regard herself as empowered by her mastery of both domestic and work environments. Although both women write from an American perspective, their arguments have a broadly universal resonance; Rosin argues that the same social shifts she observes in the United States are taking place in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and “probably, in a generation or so, Africa.” The differences in their views seem more temperamental than ideological. Wolf proposes a quasi-mystical version of female well-being and creativity, which flourishes best when supported by male sexual partners who have relinquished their masculine aggression in favour of gentler, more female traits. Rosin’s account sees women as agile predators, nimbly outmanoeuvring the more ferocious types of semi-extinct old male dinosaur, while keeping some of the cuter varieties as house pets. There is one striking similarity: both Wolf and Rosin write from a resolutely middle-class perspective. They see the world—both as it is, and as they feel it should be—from a pinnacle of educational and working success and financial security. When they venture into the realm of less fortunate—Wolf visits victims of conflict rape in Sierra Leone; Rosin interviews young offenders and women struggling to raise families in post-industrial towns where male unemployment is endemic—it is invariably in the detached roles of observers and reporters rather than in a more traditionally feminist spirit of sisterhood. Wolf quotes a fee of £100 an hour for the services of a Tantric sex guru with no intimation that this might be an outrageous sum. Rosin’s resolutely upbeat account of women’s ascendancy regards education as the magic ticket to success, and ignores the plight of those too fragile or chaotic to join the triumphalist stampede. Both women acknowledge the powerful influence of pornography on heterosexual relationships, but exclude from their accounts any discussion of the women who choose, or are obliged by circumstance, to work in the burgeoning sex industry. In their accounts, as in those of such swashbuckling commentators on the female condition as the sociologist Catherine Hakim, inventor of the concept of “erotic capital” and advocate of judicious adultery as a tonic for a secure marriage, 21st century feminism seems less a political movement and more a lifestyle choice. For a modern feminist it seems that the pursuit of happiness and fulfilment is a matter of individual negotiation rather than political activism, with as many different feminisms as there are women. Rosin would argue that it is exactly this newfound flexibility of outlook which has at last given women the means to achieving the maistrie that they have desired for centuries.