Pride and Prejudice

CoverZoë Heller reviews Naomi Wolf's Vagina: A New Biography, in the NYRB:

For those familiar with Wolf’s career as a polemicist and memoirist, it will not come as a complete surprise to find her attributing occult properties to the female anatomy. Wolf, who has always understood feminism to be a spiritual cause as much as a civil rights movement, has made several moony allusions over the years to the numinous character of female sexuality. In Promiscuities, her memoir of growing up in 1970s San Francisco, she proposed that “female sexuality participates in the divine image.” More recently, in 2006, she told a startled reporter from the GlasgowSunday Herald that she had experienced a vision of Jesus during a therapy session and was now more certain than ever that her purpose on earth was to remind women of “what’s sacred about femininity.” Vagina, however, represents her frankest exposition of these themes to date and as such, it offers an unusually clear insight into the workings of her mystic feminist philosophy.

As Wolf explains in her introduction, her original plan was to write a book surveying cultural representations of the vagina through the ages. In the course of her research, however, she decided that “the truth about the vagina” lay not in history or culture, but in the latest findings of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. So the survey was sidelined and her book became instead a sort of character study of the vagina. What now remains of the original, “biographical” project—a fifty-seven page overview of some of the “dramatic shifts” in historical attitudes toward the vagina—is a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think: the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshiped the vagina, the post-Pauline Christians were really horrid about it, male modernists objectified it, and so on.

One particular source of irritation is Wolf’s conviction that “the way in which any given culture treats the vagina…is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.” If it is rash to dip into The Perfumed Garden, an erotic manual from fifteenth-century Arabia, and conclude that Islamic culture five hundred years ago had “a very non-Western awareness that vaginas are pluralistic, individualistic, and have wills and intentions of their own,” it is rasher still to assume that this text tells us anything useful about how women were treated “in general in that place and time.” The veneration of vaginas does not equal the veneration of women. (The Perfumed Garden contains, as it happens, an entire chapter dedicated to “The Deceits and Treacheries of Women.”) And unpleasant ideas about female sexuality are not the same as principled objections to women’s civil rights. This is why America is able to produce both Hustler magazine and a female secretary of state.