She Enjoys Being A Girl

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK. IT'S ALSO the kind that makes you groan aloud and wonder why none of the people Naomi Wolf thanks on her acknowledgment pages persuaded her to cut sentences like "Male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom. The male body is ground and shelter to me, my lifelong destination." Wolf wants very much to be respected as a feminist thinker, but she keeps shooting herself in the foot. (We'll get to her enthusiasm for handguns in a moment.)

"Fire with Fire" (373 pages. Random House. $21) is important primarily because Wolf wrote it. With the success of her first book, "The Beauty Myth" (1991), an analysis of the damage done to women by images of physical perfection, Wolf became one of the best-known feminists in the country and a frequent speaker, especially on college campuses. Clearly "Fire with Fire," a plea for what she calls "power feminism," was inspired in part by some of her more discouraging experiences on the road. Wolf met dreary, depressing feminists, in love with their victim status and obsessed with correctness. They criticized her for making money, publishing with a mainstream press, even for writing a book--an act, she was reminded by a Swarthmore women's studies major, that discriminates against women who can't read. You can't blame Wolf for going a little berserk.

Power feminism is the opposite of all that. Women, Wolf argues, are not underdogs anymore. Last year a critical mass of women dumped Bush and his phony version of family values, put Clinton into office and won family leave and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Wolf sees many more such victories around the corner, if women would only recognize their own power as a majority (51 percent of the population) and put it to work. But instead of building on their gains, changing the widespread perception that "feminist" means a hairy-legged man-hater and in general accentuating the positive, doctrinaire feminists insist on poverty and pass out coat hangers at pro-choice rallies. Downer city!

So far, not too bad. Wolf seriously underestimates the main-stream women's movement--which isn't made up of campus extremists but of such groups as Planned Parenthood and 9 to 5, the national association of working women--but she has identified some valid issues for discussion. Unfortunately, she goes on to discuss them.

Everywhere she looks, Wolf finds evidence that women are eager to adopt new, more positive symbols of feminism. Ivana Trump, for instance. Wolf says women love Ivana's strength and independence; after all, she showed the world that she could get along fine without a rich husband. (Yes, this is the same Ivana who has to pay someone to write her novels for her. Never mind.) Wolf is also heartened by the numbers of women in the 1980s who bought handguns. "As violence against women reached epidemic proportions, women were not just sitting around," she writes proudly. "One woman in nine was legally packing." No victim feminists here, by golly. (At least, not until they become victims. Studies show that having a gun at home is dangerous chiefly to the people who live there.)

Wolf proposes a new banner for feminism, a set of principles that will vigorously but nonideologically affirm women's right to power. These include such declarations as "Women matter as much as men do" and "Women's experiences matter," as well as one of Wolf's personal favorites, the maxim that power feminism "hates sexism without hating men." "I am sick of the opposition trying to make me choose between being sexual and serious," she writes. "I want to be a serious thinker and not have to hide the fact that I have breasts."

OK, but the latter is going to be a lot easier than the former. Wolf's guidelines are so inclusive it's hard to think of anyone who wouldn't subscribe to them, save the odd neo-Nazi. Moreover, she acknowledges that simply putting women in positions of power may not bring about a feminist paradise. Women don't deserve power because they're better than men, she insists; women deserve power because they don't yet have their rightful share. "Once they get it, let us pray...that they use it for justice and with compassion," she writes. Pray our way to justice? That's hardly power speaking. Let's find better women, instead. And better books.