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Camille Paglia on Jews and Feminism

A dialogue with Adam Kirsch, about her new collection ‘Free Women, Free Men’

Adam Kirsch
March 15, 2017
Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Camille Paglia in 1992. Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Camille Paglia in 1992. Photo: Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

“History moves in cycles,” Camille Paglia writes in the introduction to Free Women, Free Men, a new collection of her writing on sex and feminism. Reading her work of the last quarter-century, it is indeed remarkable how everything old has become new again. Rape on college campuses, sexual harassment, political correctness: These issues are headline news today, just as they were when Paglia emerged as a major public voice in the early 1990s. And Paglia’s views on these subjects remain as incendiary as ever. Take her lecture on “Crisis in the American Universities,” delivered at MIT in 1991. It is a carnivalesque attack, not just on “the ideology of date rape,” but on all the polite conventions of academic discourse. Today it would probably get her “no-platformed,” thus proving Paglia’s central case about the tension between political correctness and free speech. “What I represent is independent thought,” she declares in that lecture. “And a lot of people don’t like it.”

The victory of Donald Trump, an unrepentant sexist and harasser, over Hillary Clinton, the first female major-party nominee, provided undeniable proof that feminism has not yet completed its historic task. In Paglia’s view, elite academic feminism is doomed to failure because it has never truly come to grips with the biological imperatives of gender. “Feminism, focusing on sexual politics, cannot see that sex exists in and through the body,” Paglia wrote in a 1991 op-ed about campus rape.

The intellectual basis for Paglia’s dissent from feminism has to do with her understanding of the body. Paglia burst from academic obscurity to front-page intellectual celebrity in 1990, with the publication of her book Sexual Personae, a 700-page study of the history of sexuality in Western art. (In addition to two extracts from Sexual Personae, Free Women, Free Men includes several pages of pictures of Paglia herself from magazine profiles—posing with a sword for New York and a switchblade for People. You can imagine Paglia subjecting these images, with their playful yet serious poses of aggression, to the kind of critique she gives The Venus of Willendorf or the bust of Nefertiti.)

Paglia’s magnum opus posited an eternal conflict between the male, Apollonian principle and the female, Dionysian principle. Its view of human psychology was tragic, in the tradition of Nietzsche and Freud. By ignoring the productive tension at the heart of male-female relations, Paglia argues, feminism becomes shallow, censorious, and ineffectual. She was particularly incensed by the anti-pornography crusade of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. “Pornography,” she argued in a 1992 article in Playboy, “is a pagan arena of beauty, vitality, and brutality, of the archaic vigor of nature. It should break every rule, offend all morality.”

This could function as a good description of Paglia’s own approach to intellectual life, which is also rule-breaking, vital and brutal, and not infrequently designed to offend. In an interview conducted over email, I had the chance to ask her some questions about Free Women, Free Men, the state of feminism, and the reason so many of the leading 20th-century feminists were Jewish.

The book charts your engagement with feminism over a quarter-century, and one of your central themes has been the disengagement of academic and elite feminism from the concerns of average women. Last year, of course, a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump, the most overtly sexist candidate in modern times. Do you interpret Trump as in some way a reaction to feminism, its successes or its failures?

A primary criticism I have voiced of second-wave feminist ideology, in all its permutations, is its bitter, grudging attitude toward men, who are demonized as the source of all ills in the universe. In adolescence in the early 1960s, I discovered the great period of the 1920s and ’30s, just after American women had won the right to vote, when there was tremendous surge of ambitious, talented women like Amelia Earhart, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Thompson, and Katharine Hepburn, who simply wanted to prove that women could achieve at the same level as men. They did not vilify men. On the contrary, they openly admired what men had done and simply demanded equality of opportunity for women. That is my philosophy: I am an equity feminist. And on those same grounds, I oppose all special protections for women, which I view as counterproductive and infantilizing. Law and society must treat the sexes exactly the same, except in rare instances where biology imposes a handicap. (Hence a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy should not be compelled to perform dangerous workplace tasks.)

As for Trump and his oafishly loose words, liberal Democratic women have been in serious mauvaise foi in their ceaseless attacks on him, given the sycophantish pass they gave to the serial sexist behavior and concrete sexual exploitation and abuse of Bill Clinton (for whom I voted twice). The unwillingness of so many middle-class feminists to hold Hillary Clinton responsible for her cold and demeaning treatment of her husband’s working-class accusers seems inexplicable to me. Although I supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries and voted for Jill Stein in the general, I do not share the recent mass hysteria about Trump as the coming of the apocalypse. Trump was plainly elected to find practical solutions to problems that my party had long neglected. We will now see whether he succeeds or fails. Trump’s victory was fueled in general by an increasing national fatigue with sanctimonious identity politics of all kinds, which became an intrusive state religion under Democratic administrations.

Much feminist writing today is grounded in the personal or confessional mode—I think of a book like Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object. In Free Women, Free Men, you mostly avoid this kind of writing—when you discuss homosexuality, or fertility and menstruation, you write in a theoretical and scholarly mode, not a personal one. Do you mistrust the personalization of the political in feminist writing?

When I first burst on the scene in 1990 with the publication by Yale University Press of my first book, Sexual Personae (which had been rejected by seven publishers and five agents), it became necessary to write in an autobiographical manner for a while, because I was such an unknown. University presses in those days did not employ the publicity techniques of major trade houses; my photo wasn’t even on the book. (Indeed, the commercial success of Sexual Personae was instrumental in changing the marketing strategies of university presses in the 1990s.) My positions were so heterodox, for example, that I was absurdly attacked as a right-winger by The Village Voice (to which I had subscribed for nearly 20 years)—even though I had just voted for the African-American activist Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Democratic primary. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, I did use autobiography but only as a secondary supplement to the main themes of my work. I am primarily a scholar—old-fashioned as that concept is in this period of robotic poststructuralist “theory.” My main influences are British and German classical scholarship from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries.

The “personal or confessional mode” that you cite in so much recent feminist writing is a plague—a contemporary version of breathless teenage diaries in the old Seventeen magazine. These women are merely bloggers with book contracts. Their banal prose and tunnel-vision perspective expose their unwillingness or inability to study all the great subjects that one needs to analyze gender—history, anthropology, psychology, and. above all, biology.

The title of the book suggests that the liberation of women involves, or depends on, the liberation of men. But you have consistently expressed a tragic, Nietzschean and Freudian view of the destiny of the sexes and their relationship with one another. What would a sexual culture of free women and free men look like?

I trace the current unhappiness of so many professional women in the world (from my observations in North America, Brazil, England, and Italy) to huge systemic changes that no one in my view has adequately analyzed. What history shows is that there was, until very recently, the world of men and the world of women, and there was relatively little sustained interaction between those spheres. The Industrial Revolution, a capitalist phenomenon, created low-level jobs for women that allowed them for the first time to be truly self-supporting, freed from economic dependence upon father or husband. Over the past century, women have gained access to higher-status jobs, many with real power and authority over men. But the main issue is that men and women are working side by side in the workplace in a way they have never done before, except in outdoor field work during the agrarian era. This is something new in human experience, and I believe it is destabilizing sexual relations in ways that we have scarcely observed, much less analyzed.

First of all, too much familiarity may undercut sexual passion. When mystery goes, so does the sizzle. Second, despite a brief fad in the 1970s for the asexual uniform of John Molloy’s “dress for success” look, affluent women professionals today (with their svelte skirts and pricey Louboutin stilettos) are clearly still using their own sexual appeal to gain power in the workplace—while at the same time oddly forbidding male co-workers to notice or, Venus forbid, comment (which would spark an instant kangaroo court). What I have been saying throughout my work is that sexual tension and conflict may be built into human life (by virtue of women’s monopoly over procreation) and that women, in order to be truly free, must stop relying on the bureaucratic regulatory state to manage their relations with men. Men too have an inherent right to be free—to think and express their own views and desires without women’s hectoring oversight and censorship. However, the workplace must remain a neutral zone, where the professional (and not the personal) should rule.

You are always alert to the ethnic and class issues within white feminism; you credit your Italian background with giving you a different perspective on sex and gender from, say, Catharine MacKinnon. In this vein, why do you think so many of the prominent American feminists of the last 50 years have been Jewish women—including many of the people you argue with and about, from Betty Friedan to Gloria Steinem to Naomi Wolf? Is there something about Jewishness that is conducive to feminism?

Second-wave feminism, to which Betty Friedan gave birth with her co-founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was strongly powered by a fiery social activism whose roots can be traced to the unionizing movement of the early 20th century. One of the classic protest songs in my “Art of Song Lyrics” course is “The Death of Harry Simms,” about the 1932 shooting of 20-year-old Jewish labor leader Harry Simms Hersh in the battle for unionization of the Kentucky coal mines. I have described my principal mentors, poet Milton Kessler in college and critic Harold Bloom in graduate school, as more like visionary rabbis than professors. I have repeatedly acknowledged my debt to Jewish-American culture. For example, in my long 1991 attack on post-structuralism, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” I wrote: “It was from Jews (beginning at T. Aaron Levy Junior High School) that I learned how to analyze politics, law, business, and medicine, how to decipher the power dynamics of family relationships, and how to plan pragmatic strategies of social activism.”

In response to your question, I don’t think it’s so much the conduciveness of Jewishness to feminism as it is the readiness and ability of Jewish-American women to aggressively speak out and confront, without fear of loss of “respectability,” as it was defined and enforced by the WASP establishment code that once governed U.S. business, politics, and education. The Jewish marriage contract is unusual in guaranteeing women’s rights, suggesting the power that Jewish women have always wielded in the home and family. When I was growing up in Syracuse in the stiflingly conformist late 1950s and early 1960s, I was highly impressed by the bold and even abrasive vocal style (then called “the Jewish seagull”) that was often employed by Jewish women, and there can be no doubt that I imitated and absorbed it. By the early 1990s, I was being called “the academic Joan Rivers”—Rivers hugely influenced me, including my onstage style.

Beyond that, Jewish-Americans, with their Torah-inspired zeal for legal studies, regularly challenged the status quo in ways that Italian-Americans rarely did. For nearly two millennia, Italians had been scattered in tight-knit tribal villages; even after Italy became a state again in the late 19th century, Italians regarded it as a distant sham. None of my immigrant family would dream of challenging the dictatorial authority or mysterious operations of the state, which occupied a nebulous, external realm, unreal in comparison to the intricate unit of the extended family. (Even the dead had infinitely more reality to an Italian family! Recreational cemetery visits were routine.) Nor would Italian-Americans of that era question a doctor’s diagnosis or indeed ask any questions at all in a medical office or hospital. What I got from Jewish-American culture was a revolutionary fervor for political and institutional reform, totally outside the otherwise wonderfully rich legacy of rural Italian tradition. When I was at Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton) in the mid-1960s, all the outspoken student radical leaders were Jews from metropolitan New York. Indeed, one of the most iconic images from that period is the Life magazine photograph of Columbia student David Shapiro wearing hip dark glasses while insolently smoking a cigar at the president’s desk during the student uprising of 1968. Thus the prominent Jewish presence in second-wave feminism must simply be regarded as yet another form of modern Jewish progressivism.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.