Naomi R. Wolf (born November 12, 1962) is an American feminist author, journalist, former political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton and conspiracy theorist. Following her first book The Beauty Myth (1991), she became a leading spokeswoman of what has been described as the third wave of the feminist movement. Feminists including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan praised the work; others, including Camille Paglia, criticized it. Her later books include the bestseller The End of America in 2007 and Vagina: A New Biography. Critics have challenged the quality and accuracy of the scholarship in her books; her serious misreading of court records for Outrages (2019) led to the book's US publication being cancelled.
Wolf attended Yale University receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1984. From 1985 to 1987, she was a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford. Her initial period at Oxford University was difficult for Wolf as she experienced "raw sexism, overt snobbery and casual antisemitism". Her writing became so personal and subjective that her tutor advised against submitting her doctoral thesis. Wolf told interviewer Rachel Cooke, writing for The Observer, in 2019: "My subject didn’t exist. I wanted to write feminist theory, and I kept being told by the dons there was no such thing." Her feminist writing at this time formed the basis of her first book, The Beauty Myth.
Christina Hoff Sommers criticized Wolf for publishing the estimate that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia. Sommers said she traced the source to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, who stated that they were misquoted; the figure refers to sufferers, not fatalities. Wolf's citation came from a book by Brumberg, who referred to an American Anorexia and Bulimia Association newsletter and misquoted the newsletter. Wolf accepted the error and changed it in future editions. Sommers gave an estimate for the number of fatalities in 1990 as 100–400. The annual anorexia casualties in the US were estimated to be around 50 to 60 per year in the mid-1990s. In 1995, for an article in The Independent on Sunday, British journalist Joan Smith recalled asking Wolf to explain her unsourced assertion in The Beauty Myth that the UK "has 3.5 million anorexics or bulimics (95 per cent of them female), with 6,000 new cases yearly". Wolf replied, according to Smith, that she had calculated the statistics from patients with eating disorders at one clinic.
In 1991, Wolf gained international attention as a spokeswoman of third-wave feminism from the publication of her first book The Beauty Myth, an international bestseller. It was named "one of the seventy most influential books of the twentieth century" by The New York Times. She argues that "beauty" as a normative value is entirely socially constructed, and that the patriarchy determines the content of that construction with the objective of maintaining women's subjugation.
In an October 1995 article for The New Republic Wolf was critical of contemporary pro-choice positions, arguing that the movement had "developed a lexicon of dehumanization" and urged feminists to accept abortion as a form of homicide and defend the procedure within the ambiguity of this moral conundrum. She continued, "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die."
In an interview with Melinda Henneberger in The New York Times, Wolf said she had been appointed in January 1999 and denied having advised Gore on his wardrobe. Wolf said she had mentioned the term "alpha male" only once in passing and that "[it] was just a truism, something the pundits had been saying for months, that the vice president is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role ... I used those terms as shorthand in talking about the difference in their job descriptions".
Wolf was involved in Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election bid, brainstorming with the president's team about ways to reach female voters. During Al Gore's bid for the presidency in the 2000 election, Wolf was hired to work as a consultant. Wolf's ideas and participation in the Gore campaign generated considerable media coverage and criticism. According to a report by Michael Duffy in Time, Wolf was paid a salary of $15,000 (by November 1999, $5,000) per month "in exchange for advice on everything from how to win the women's vote to shirt-and-tie combinations." This article was the original source of the assertion that Wolf was responsible for Gore's "three-buttoned, earth-toned look." Wolf's direct involvement in the Time article was unclear; she declined to be interviewed "for the record".
I certainly sincerely apologize if one of my posts was insensitively worded. I have taken that one down. ... I am not saying the ISIS beheading videos are not authentic. I am not saying they are not records of terrible atrocities. I am saying that they are not yet independently confirmed by two sources as authentic, which any Journalism School teaches, and the single source for several of them, SITE, which received half a million dollars in government funding in 2004, and which is the only source cited for several, has conflicts of interest that should be disclosed to readers of news outlets.
In 2004, in an article for New York magazine, Wolf accused literary scholar Harold Bloom of a "sexual encroachment" in late Fall 1983 for touching her inner thigh. She said that what she alleged Bloom did was not harassment, either legally or emotionally, and she did not think herself a "victim", but that she had harbored this secret for 21 years. Explaining why she had finally gone public with the charges, Wolf wrote,
Wolf concluded by speculating that in a world of "real gender equality," passionate feminists "might well hold candlelight vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead." In an article for New York magazine on the subtle manipulation of George W. Bush's image among women, Wolf wrote in 2005: "Abortion is an issue not of Ms. Magazine-style fanaticism or suicidal Republican religious reaction, but a complex issue."
Wolf's first marriage was to journalist David Shipley, then an editor at The New York Times. The couple had two children, a son and daughter. Wolf and Shipley divorced in 2005.
Wolf has commented about the dress required of women living in Muslim countries. In The Sydney Morning Herald in August 2008, she wrote:
The End of America was adapted for the screen as a documentary by filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, best known for The Devil Came on Horseback and The Trials of Darryl Hunt. It premiered in October 2008, and was favorably reviewed in The New York Times by Stephen Holden by Variety magazine. Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times saw aspects of it positively, but "What isn’t plausible or reality-related is the conclusion itself. At the door of the Third Reich, Wolf’s credibility collapses." Moynihan described it as being "an even dumber documentary film" than the "dumb book".
Shortly after the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in 2010, she wrote in an article for The Huffington Post that the allegations made against him by his two reputed victims amounted to no more than bad manners from a boyfriend. His accusers, she later wrote in several contexts, were working for the CIA and Assange had been falsely incriminated.
On December 20, 2010, Democracy Now! featured a debate between Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman on the Assange case. According to Wolf, the alleged victims should have said no, asserted that they consented to having sex with him, and said the claims were politically motivated and demeaned the cause of legitimate rape victims. In a 2011 Guardian article she objected to Assange's two accusers having their anonymity preserved. In response, Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation that the "point is a little bizarre: doesn’t Wolf realize that anonymity applies only to the media? Everyone in the justice system knows who the complainants are." British feminist Laurie Penny wrote in the New Statesman in September 2012 that "Wolf has done great damage by using her platform as one of the world’s most famous feminists to dismiss these women’s allegations."
Separately, a formal complaint was filed with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on March 15, 2011, by 16 current and former Yale students—12 female and 4 male—describing a sexually hostile environment at Yale. A federal investigation of Yale University began in March 2011 in response to the complaints. Wolf stated on CBS's The Early Show in April: "Yale has been systematically covering up much more serious crimes than the ones that can be easily identified." More specifically, she alleged "they use the sexual harassment grievance procedure in a very cynical way, purporting to be supporting victims, but actually using a process to stonewall victims, to isolate them, and to protect the university." Yale settled the federal complaint in June 2012, acknowledging "inadequacies" but not facing "disciplinary action with the understanding that it keeps in place policy changes instituted after the complaint was filed. The school (was) required to report on its progress to the Office of Civil Rights until May, 2014."
In early 2012, WikiLeaks began publishing the Global Intelligence Files, a trove of e-mails obtained via a hack by Anonymous and Jeremy Hammond. Among them was an email with an official Department of Homeland Security document from October 2011 attached. It indicated that DHS was closely watching Occupy, and concluded, "While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure." In late December 2012, FBI documents released following an FOIA request from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund revealed that the FBI used counterterrorism agents and other resources to extensively monitor the national Occupy movement. The documents contained no references to agency personnel covertly infiltrating Occupy branches, but did indicate that the FBI gathered information from police departments and other law enforcement agencies relating to planned protests. Additionally, the blog Techdirt reported that the documents disclosed a plot by unnamed parties "to murder OWS leadership in Texas" but that "the FBI never bothered to inform the targets of the threats against their lives."
On October 18, 2011, Wolf was arrested and detained in New York during the Occupy Wall Street protests, having ignored a police warning not to remain on the street in front of a building. Wolf spent about 30 minutes in a cell. She disputed the NYPD's interpretation of applicable laws: "I was taken into custody for disobeying an unlawful order. The issue is that I actually know New York City permit law ... I didn't choose to get myself arrested. I chose to obey the law and that didn't protect me."
Published in 2012 on the topic of the vagina, Vagina: A New Biography was much criticized, especially by feminist authors. Katie Roiphe described it as "ludicrous" in Slate: "I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf's career than her latest book." In The Nation, Katha Pollitt considered it a "silly book" containing "much dubious neuroscience and much foolishness." It becomes "loopier as it goes on. We learn that women think and feel through their vagina, which can 'grieve' and feel insulted."
In a December 2012 Guardian article, Wolf wrote:
Several years later in 2013, Mark Nuckols, argued in The Atlantic that Wolf's supposed historical parallels between incidents from the era of the European dictators and modern America are based on a highly selective reading in which Wolf omits significant details and misuses her sources. Writing for The Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan, characterized the book as "an astoundingly lazy piece of writing."
In the January 2013 issue of The Atlantic, law and business professor Mark Nuckols wrote: "In her various books, articles, and public speeches, Wolf has demonstrated recurring disregard for the historical record and consistently mutilated the truth with selective and ultimately deceptive use of her sources." He further stated: "[W]hen she distorts facts to advance her political agenda, she dishonors the victims of history and poisons present-day public discourse about issues of vital importance to a free society." Nuckols argued that Wolf "has for many years now been claiming that a fascist coup in America is imminent. ... [I]n The Guardian she alleged, with no substantiation, that the U.S. government and big American banks are conspiring to impose a 'totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent'."
In June 2013, New York magazine reported Wolf, in a recent Facebook post, had expressed her "creeping concern" that NSA leaker Edward Snowden "is not who he purports to be, and that the motivations involved in the story may be more complex than they appear to be." Wolf was similarly skeptical of Snowden's "very pretty pole-dancing Facebooking girlfriend who appeared for, well, no reason in the media coverage ... and who keeps leaking commentary, so her picture can be recycled in the press." She pondered whether he was planted by "the Police State".
On November 23, 2018, Wolf married Brian William O'Shea, a disabled US Army veteran, private detective, and owner of Striker Pierce Investigations. According to a New York Times article published in November 2018, Wolf and O'Shea met in 2014 following threats on the internet made against Wolf after she reported on human rights violations in the Middle East and contacts recommended O'Shea.
Wolf returned to her The End of America theme in a Globe and Mail article in 2014 considering how modern Western women, born in inclusive, egalitarian liberal democracies, are assuming positions of leadership in neofascist political movements.
In a series of Facebook postings in October 2014, Wolf questioned the authenticity of videos purporting to show beheadings of two American journalists and two Britons by the Islamic State, implying that they had been staged by the US government and that the victims and their parents were actors. Wolf also charged that the US was dispatching military troops not to assist in treating the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, but to carry the disease back home to justify a military takeover of America. She further said that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in which Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, was faked. Speaking about this at a demonstration in Glasgow on October 12, Wolf said, "I truly believe it was rigged."
Under the headline "Naomi Wolf Went Off the Deep End Long Ago", Aaron Goldstein wrote in an October 2014 article in The American Spectator: "Her words must be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a full shaker's worth."
Vox journalist Max Fisher in October 2014 urged Wolf's readers "to understand the distinction between her earlier work, which rose on its merits, and her newer conspiracy theories, which are unhinged, damaging, and dangerous."
In January 2018, Wolf accused Yale officials of blocking her from filing a formal grievance against Bloom. She told The New York Times that she had attempted to file the complaint in 2015 with Yale's University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, but that the university had refused to accept it. On January 16, 2018, Wolf said, she determined to see Yale's provost, Ben Polak, in another attempt to present her case. "As she documented on Twitter," the newspaper reported, "she brought a suitcase and a sleeping bag, because she said she did not know how long she would have to stay. When she arrived at the provost's office, she said, security guards prevented her from entering any elevators. Eventually, she said, Aley Menon, the secretary of the sexual misconduct committee, appeared and they met in the committee's offices for an hour, during which she gave Ms. Menon a copy of her complaint." This was reported and confirmed by Norman Vanamee who apparently met Wolf at Yale on this morning. In Town & Country magazine in January 2018, Vanamee returned to the story and wrote, "Yale University has a 93-person police department, and, after the guard called for backup, three of its armed and uniformed officers appeared and stationed themselves between Wolf and the elevator bank."
Wolf ultimately returned to Oxford, completing her Doctor of Philosophy degree in English literature in 2015. Her thesis, supervised by Dr. Stefano Evangelista of Trinity College, formed the basis for her 2019 book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love.
Revisiting Beauty Myth in 2019 for The New Republic, literary critic Maris Kreizman recalls that reading it as an undergraduate made her "world burst open." It "remains one of the most formative books in (Kreizman's) life." However, as she matured, Kreizman saw Wolf's books as "poorly argued tracts" that made "wilder and wilder assertions." Kreizman "began to write (Wolf) off as a fringe character" despite the fact that she had "once informed my own feminism so deeply."
Wolf's book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love was published in 2019, based on the 2015 doctoral thesis she completed under the supervision of Trinity College, Oxford, literary scholar Stefano-Maria Evangelista. In the book, she studies the repression of homosexuality in relation to attitudes towards divorce and prostitution, and also in relation to the censorship of books.
Wolf was born in San Francisco, to a Jewish family. Her mother is Deborah Goleman Wolf, an anthropologist and the author of The Lesbian Community. Her father was Leonard Wolf, a Romanian-born gothic horror scholar at University of California, Berkeley and Yiddish translator. Leonard Wolf died from advanced Parkinson's Disease on March 20, 2019. Wolf has a brother, Aaron, and a half-brother, Julius, from her father's earlier relationship; it remained his secret until his daughter was in her 30s. She attended Lowell High School and debated in regional speech tournaments as a member of the Lowell Forensic Society.
The book was published in the UK in May 2019 by Virago Press. On June 12, 2019, Outrages was named on the O, The Oprah Magazine's "The 32 Best Books by Women of Summer 2019" list. The following day, the US publisher recalled all copies from US bookstores.
Wolf appeared at the Hay Festival, Wales in late May 2019, a few days after her exchange with Matthew Sweet, where she defended her book and said she had already corrected the error; however, as of October 2019, she had yet to do so. She stated at an event in Manhattan in June that she was not embarrassed and felt grateful towards Sweet for the correction. On October 18, 2019, it became known the release of the book by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States was being canceled. Wolf expressed the hope that the book would still be published in the US.
A UK paperback edition of the book was published by Virago in November 2020, with the incorrect references to the execution of men for sodomy that were included in the hardback edition removed. Interviewed about the new edition, Matthew Sweet said that the book continues to misread historical sources: "Dr Wolf has misrepresented the experiences of victims of child abuse and violent sexual assault. This is the most profound offence against her discipline, as well as the memories of real people on the historical record". Cultural historian Fern Riddell called the book a "calumny against gay people" in the nineteenth century and said that Wolf "presents child rapists and those taking part in acts of bestiality as being gay men in consensual relationships and that is completely wrong". The Daily Telegraph reported that there had been calls for Wolf's 2015 DPhil to be re-examined, and for Virago to withdraw the book. In a statement to The Guardian, Wolf said the book had been reviewed "by leading scholars in the field", and said "it is clear that I have accurately represented the position". The University of Oxford stated that a "statement of clarification" to Wolf's thesis had been received and approved, and would be "available for consultation in the Bodleian Library in due course".
Following the election of Joe Biden as US president, Wolf tweeted on 9 November 2020: "If I'd known Biden was open to 'lockdowns' as he now states, which is something historically unprecedented in any pandemic, and a terrifying practice, one that won’t ever end because elites love it, I would never have voted for him". In February 2021, Wolf appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News, where she said that government COVID restrictions were turning the U.S. "into a totalitarian state before everyone's eyes," and went on to say that "I really hope we wake up quickly, because history also shows that it’s a small window in which people can fight back before it is too dangerous to fight back."
In an interview for Sky News Australia in early March 2021, Wolf described lockdown policies as an "invention" of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. "Every human right in law is being violated", she said and claimed Australians are being psychologically tortured.
The book has been used as an example in university teaching about the danger of misreading historical sources. In March 2021, Times Higher Education reported that Wolf's original thesis remained unavailable six years after it was examined. Oxford doctoral graduates can request an embargo of up to three years, with the potential for renewal. A representative of Oxford University told a journalist from THE that a "statement of clarification has been submitted, reviewed and approved" which "will be available with the thesis for consultation in the Bodleian Library in due course".