Sometimes in the course of a great American debate there comes a moment when the big battle guns fall silent, the pundits run out of breath, and — unexpectedly — the long, bitter argument suddenly turns into farce. In the past two decades, this nation has lived through the spectacle of Anita Hill accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; the destruction of the career of Sen. Bob Packwood; the ugly drama of Paula Jones, her lawyers and the president; and, as a result, the creation of multiple university and workplace “codes of sexual conduct,” which no one dares defy. But now it’s as if none of that ever happened: In an extraordinary, several-thousand-word article in New York magazine, Naomi Wolf, the celebrated feminist writer, has just accused Harold Bloom, the celebrated literary scholar, of having put his hand on her thigh at Yale University 20 years ago.
But Wolf’s article is not merely about that event (a secret that she “can’t bear to carry around anymore”). The article is also about the lasting damage that this single experience has wrought on a woman who has since written a number of bestsellers, given hundreds of lectures, been featured on dozens of talk shows and photographed in various glamorous poses, including a smiling, self-confident head shot on New York magazine’s Web site this week. Not that she mentions her achievements. On the contrary, she implies that this terrible experience left a lasting mark on her academic and professional career: “I was spiraling downward; I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F. . . . My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship.”
She also implies that she never recovered academically, which isn’t quite the case. I was her contemporary, and happen to remember some of her achievements. But although I scoured the article, I could find no reference to the fact that Wolf did eventually win a Rhodes Scholarship, thanks, in part, to a recommendation letter written by Bloom. Or that, while in England, she began writing “The Beauty Myth,” the first of those bestsellers.
Indeed, Wolf not only never mentions any of this, she seems to want us to believe that none of it matters — and that deep down inside she is still a quivering 19-year-old whose single experience with a man she describes as a “vortex of power and intellectual charisma,” had “devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men.” She was not exactly emotionally traumatized, she writes (and seems sorry that this avenue of legal argument isn’t open to her) but her “educational experience was corrupted.” And, somehow, that allows her to equate her experience with that of children harassed by Catholic priests or female cadets raped by fellow soldiers. She, and they, are all victims of “systemic corruption.”
Now, there are a number of surprising elements to Wolf’s article, all of which deserve more intense scrutiny. One is her bizarre description of her attempts to get bewildered university bureaucrats to do something — she doesn’t know what — long after the statute of limitations has run out. Another is her account of the hand-on-thigh event itself, which seems to have taken place late at night in her apartment, where Bloom had come at her invitation. A third is her apparent lack of awareness of the long debate about sexual harassment itself, and of the way it has radically changed the atmosphere on campuses and in offices, in both positive and negative ways.
But in the end, what is most extraordinary about Wolf is the way in which she has voluntarily stripped herself of her achievements and her status, and reduced herself to a victim, nothing more. The implication here is that women are psychologically weak: One hand on the thigh, and they never get over it. The implication is also that women are naive, and powerless as well: Even Yale undergraduates are not savvy enough to avoid late-night encounters with male professors whose romantic intentions don’t interest them.
The larger implications are for the movement that used to be called “feminism.” Twenty years of fame, money, success, happy marriage and the children she has described in her books — and Naomi Wolf, one of my generation’s leading feminists, is still obsessed with her own exaggerated victimhood? It’s not an ideology I’d want younger women to follow.