Victim feminism and power feminism

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Victim feminism and power feminism

By Michael Flood


 [Guest lecture to Course, "Introducing Women's Studies: The Public Life of Feminism" -- Women's Studies (WOMS 2025), Australian National University, 13 April 1999.]


Michael Flood is an Australian sociologist at the University of Wollongong. Flood gained his doctorate in gender and sexuality studies from the Australian National University. His areas of research are on violence against women, fathering, pro-feminism, domestic violence, the effects of pornography on young people, safe sex and heterosexual men, men's movements as a backlash to the feminist movement, men's relationships with each other and with women, homophobia, men's health and gender justice.

Flood is a co-editor of the International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, and the author of academic papers on men and gender, men’s sexualities, violence against women, homosociality, fathering, anti-violence mobilisations, and youth and pornography. Flood has also worked as a profeminist educator and activist on issues of men and gender; he is involved in community advocacy and education addressing men’s violence against women. He coordinates, edits and contributes to XYonline, a profeminist website providing a range of commentary and research on men and masculinities, male sexuality, feminism, the men's movement and male violence from a feminist perspective. He also coordinates The Men’s Bibliography, an online collection of over 22,000 works on men, masculinities, and gender. 



In the early to mid-1990s, several commentators on feminism and the women's movement made the argument that contemporary feminism was dominated by a focus on women as victims. This argument was made for example by Naomi Wolf in Fire with fire (1993), Katie Roiphe in The morning after (1993), and Rene Denfeld in The new Victorians (1995).

This criticism echoes earlier criticisms of feminism, and especially of those strands of feminism concerned with physical and sexual violence.

Wolf's most recent book, Fire with fire, is one of the most well-known such critiques. Wolf was already a media and feminist celebrity because of her best-selling work The beauty myth, published in 1990. I'll focus on Wolf's account. And I'll also refer back to readings and controversies earlier in the course, to try to tie together some of the areas we've covered.


In your readings you've got ch's 9 to 12 of Wolf's Fire with fire (4 of the 18 chapters in total), the ones giving her account of victim feminism and to a lesser extent power feminism.

I'm going to focus on Wolf's account of 'victim feminism', as this is the focus in the readings you've got from Fire with fire.

But to understand Wolf's account, we really have to situate her portrayal in the context of her broader argument about the state of contemporary gender relations.


Wolf begins Fire with fire by stating that the 1980s were the backlash years, but from 1991 on, we've had the era of the 'genderquake' [Wolf, 1993: xiv]. In Western countries such as the USA, Australia, Britain and Canada, there have been important feminist victories, women have gained increased political clout, women-friendly governments have been elected often through courting women's votes, cultural representations have shifted, and women's movements have been active in large numbers.

She concludes that "women have become the political ruling class." [Wolf, 1993: xiv] And she continues, "they have the historical distinction of being the only ruling class that is unaware of its status." [xiv] We are at a crucial moment: women will either seize the moment and realise gender equality, or will shrink away from this and cling to outdated images of themselves as powerless [xv-xvi].

Wolf says that we are at 'an open moment';

Twenty-five years of dedicated feminist activism have hauled the political infrastructure into place, enough women in the middle classes have enough money and clout, and most women now have desire and determination to begin to balance the imbalance of power between the sexes. [xvi]

But there are three obstacles

many women have become estranged from their own movement; one strand of feminism has developed maladaptive attitudes; and women lack a psychology of female power to match their new opportunities. [xvi]

Much of Fire with fire is an elucidation of these three obstacles, ofŠ The chapters in your readings on VF relate to the second of these obstacles, the problems with one strand of feminism.


Wolf claims that two traditions are evident in contemporary feminism: VF, and PF. These are not new aspects of feminism, and both have long histories going right back to the suffragettes and the push for women's suffrage or the vote.

Introducing the book, she writes,

There are and always have been two different approaches within feminism. One - what I define as 'victim feminism' - casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these 'good' women as a way to petition for their rights. The other, which I call 'power feminism', sees women as human beings - sexual, individual, no better or worse than their male counterparts - and lays claim to equality simply because women are entitled to it. [Wolf, 1993: xvii]

At one point Wolf states that she sees victim feminism only as characteristic of a small minority of feminists [Wolf, 1993: xvii]. This distinguishes her from other commentators such as Roiphe, Denfeld or Camille Paglia, who argue that victim feminism is the dominant or even the only strand of contemporary feminism. Wolf says that most women's organisations and groups have power feminism goals, but victim feminism dominates media representations of the women's movement [154]. And power feminism icons, with which women identify, are rarely claimed by organised feminism [155]. However, at other points in Fire with fire, especially where Wolf focuses on the excesses of feminism, victim feminism implicitly is represented as an important or even dominant form of feminism.

For Wolf, the assumptions of victim feminism are understandable, especially in response to the concerted backlash against women's gains. But these assumptions are unhelpful and they're outdated [Wolf, 1993: xvii].

Victim feminism and Power feminism

Wolf spells out the characteristics of VF and PF in the first chapter in your readings.

Victim feminism urges women to identify with powerlessness and to take on a victim identity. Victim feminism ignores the power women do possess. It idealises women as naturally cooperative, nurturant and peaceful, while projecting aggression, competitiveness and violence onto men or 'patriarchy'. It is sexually judgemental or 'prescriptive'. It turns suffering into a virtue. It values anonymity, community and group-think, and self-sacrifice, and is critical of leadership, public recognition, individual achievement and success. Victim feminism is self-righteous, evangelical, pessimistic and anti-fun [Wolf, 1993: xvii, 148-149]

Power feminism is the opposite of each of these. Power feminism emphasises the power which women can exert, while attentive to the forces which constrain this. Power feminism seeks power and uses it responsibly. Power feminism acknowledges that aggression, competition and violence are just as much a part of female identity as of male, and sees women, like men, as moral adults. It hates sexism without hating men. It is sexually pluralistic and unapologetically sexual. Power feminism values individual voice and identity, the acquisition of money and success, and public recognition. It is tolerant of difference, and is into having fun while making social change [Wolf, 1993: 149-150].

If we take this account for granted, then it's easy to see why some of power feminism is attractive. Wolf says that power feminism is fun, sexy, and empowering. And for women, their feminism is not compromised by having sex with men, having institutional political power, earning large amounts of money, or achieving public fame and status. And it's easy to see what's wrong with victim feminism: it's boring, prudish, and disempowering.

So, I agree that there are some qualities in Wolf's account of power feminism which are worth supporting and defending, and there are some qualities in her victim feminism which are worth avoiding or abandoning. But as I'll show later, her division of these qualities into the two forms of feminism is deeply problematic.

In general, we need to question these models of two traditions of feminism themselves. Are they coherent, accurate, reasonable and indeed useful accounts?


I am very aware that Wolf's model of VF and PF is a seductive one. And in fact I'm quite worried that you [the students] will take on this model, without thinking critically about its logic, accuracy or implications. But I am probably underestimating your critical abilities, your theoretical 'crap detectors'.

Wolf's model is seductive for a number of reasons.

-- First, it works by way of a simple binary, with the good feminism on one side and the bad feminism on the other side. Binaries have a certain conceptual 'grab' on our minds - they're everywhere in our culture, and present easy ways of understanding social issues.

One of the most powerful binaries, which much of feminism has critiqued, is the binary between male and female, masculine and feminine.

-- Also, it resonates with, taps into, an important theme in Western capitalist cultures, of individual empowerment and self-help. There are two sources for this: from consumer culture and capitalism, an individualistic small-l liberal ethic of 'Be what you want to be, do you want to do, baby.' And from discourses of pop psychology and therapy, which are increasingly widespread, an ethic that anyone can achieve personal happiness, wellbeing, and power through individual effort. If you watch late-night TV such as telemall shopping as I sometimes do, you'll hear the words of Anthony Robbins, a popular star of these telemall TV shows. He says that anyone can achieve "passion, profit, power" if they try hard enough and in the right ways, or in fact if they listen to his tapes.

Wolf's account is optimistic, upbeat, etc. And I like optimism, while I disagree with the specifics of Wolf's vision of how we'll achieve gender equality.

-- Because there are some grains of truth, some insights, in Wolf's account. While I'll explore later in the lecture.


It is important first of all to place Wolf's book in its cultural, political and academic context. Here I'm drawing on hooks' account in your readings.

As we have emphasised in earlier weeks in this course, early second wave feminist theory developed in an intimate relationship with the newly emergent women's movements. There was an intimate relationship between feminist politics and feminist theory, between efforts at personal and social change and the development of feminist understandings of society.

In the three decades of recent feminisms however, there has been a marked shift. Feminist thought is now institutionalised to some degree in the academy or university, and popular feminist books are very successful [hooks, 1996: 58]. As bell hooks writes, much of the recent popular work labelled feminist "does not emerge from active feminist struggle and engagement with feminist movement or even collaborative feminist thinking" [58]. hooks describes the atmosphere and processes of her and other feminist's development of feminist ideas and theory. This involved and involves vigorous discussion and debate, rigorous critique, a preoccupation with the issues rather than with one's status, and a shared passion for a feminist project [58].

In contrast, some young college-educated women coming to feminist thinking do so in very different circumstances, and as hooks writes, it is tempting for them to produce self-indulgent and opportunistic writing with little concern for advancing feminist movement. It is tempting also to deflect critique by claiming that one is under attack by older feminists, and to ignore issues of race and class. hooks gives Roiphe and Wolf as examples [59].

While Wolf says that she supports dissent, there is no sign that she has constructively engaged with ideas different from her own [hooks, 1996: 60]. Her false dichotomy of Victim Fem'm versus Power Fem'm is perhaps the best example of this.

In fact, hooks interprets Wolf's dismissal of other feminists as reflecting the internalisation of sexism and an ethic of competition between women in patriarchal society [hooks, 1996: 60]. Interestingly, Jenna Mead in her anthology Bodyjamming makes a similar criticism of Helen Garner's First stone. She says that Garner's account of two feminist conspiracies, one against the Master of Ormond College and one against Garner herself, as well as Garner's scorn for the two young women, reflects an ancient code in which women reinforce women's place in a patriarchal hierarchy [Mead, 1997: 13]. Fire with fire manipulates the meaning and message of much feminist thought according to hooks, such that Wolf can present herself as the lone hero "power feminist" [61].

Later I make a series of further criticisms of Wolf's account.


There are a number of criticisms made of feminism in relation to women as victims and the victimisation of women, and it's important to recognise that Wolf is only making some of them. This is complicated by the fact that Wolf seems to contradict herself in various places.

The general claim made in criticisms of 'victim feminism' is that feminism focuses too much on women as victims, e.g. of men's violence or male power or patriarchy. By focusing on women's vulnerability to rape and sexual harassment and domestic violence, feminism ironically makes women feel helpless and disempowers them [Brant & Too, 1994: 6]. Women are represented as passive, weak, and always and ever the victims. Victim feminism downplays and underestimates women's capacity to achieve positions of power and authority.

Wolf agrees with this general claim. For her, one of the most pressing problems symbolised by victim feminism is that it positions victim status itself as a source of strength and identity [Wolf, 1993: 154]. However, Wolf does not support other criticisms of victim feminism or of a focus in feminism on women's victimisation.

So I'll run through these criticisms, giving Wolf's position on each and offering some commentary of my own.

-- 'Turning women into victims' (a) by speaking of and analysing women's victimisation.

One criticism of contemporary feminism is the argument that by naming and analysing the harms done to women, feminist women turn women into victims. Another version of this argument goes that, by documenting the conflicts and inequalities between men and women, feminisms have started a gender war.

These arguments work through an inverted logic. So, by identifying the ways in which women are the victims for example of sexual harassment and rape, feminism somehow turns them into victims? But I would respond, well, they already are victims, although of course this is not all they are. Feminism simply describes this, and of course protests it.

The same response can be made to the related argument that feminists have started a sex war. Feminists haven't started a "war between the sexes", they've just named it. Feminists simply have named the inequalities, conflicts and injustices built into contemporary gender relations. Although I should point out that I think most feminists would be critical of terming this a "war between the sexes", despite the media's enthusiasm for such models. For example, a "war between the sexes" model represents both women and men as fixed members of unified and opposed categories. It ignores the multiple and cross-cutting interests possessed by individual women and men, as well as by groups and communities of both women and men.

The argument that we 'turn women into victims' by speaking about victimisation can only work if we deny the reality of that victimisation in the first place. For example, by denying the reality of the violences which many women experience. And doing this is very difficult indeed, given that this violence is now very well documented. Wolf seems to agree with this. She criticises the idea that analysing the real harms done to women turns women into 'victims'. The very point of such analysis is that women are not natural victims, that women have will and intelligence and will use this feminist analysis in active ways [Wolf, 1993: 153].

-- 'Turning women into victims' (b) By focusing too much on women's victimisation.

However, elsewhere in Fire with fire, Wolf does make a related argument, that one strand of feminism focuses too much on women's victimisation. This is not an original argument, in that this criticism frequently has been directed at sections of radical feminism and at American anti-pornography feminism in particular.

Sometimes this criticism is based on a mis-reading of feminist arguments about violence and sexual harassment. Critics have sometimes assumed that when feminists emphasise women's right to say 'no', they neglect women's right also to say 'yes' [Brant & Too, 1994: 6].

However, I do think that there is some merit in Wolf's claims here, and this is an argument that I've made myself, drawing on a variety of other feminist commentators.

One common criticism for example of radical feminist arguments is that they are 'essentialist' - that they involve arguments about men or women which assume that they have an essential nature, something in their biological or metaphysical makeup which makes them the way they are. Another term similar to essentialism is 'biological determinism'. The idea that radical feminism is essentialist has become a standard claim. However, this is more folklore than fact, and the actual writings of radical feminists show more hope for change and less biological determinism than such claims allow.1 Wolf claims that 'victim feminism' is essentialist, and later in the lecture I question her interpretation here as well.

However, some authors identified with radical feminism, and with Wolf's 'victim feminism', do give accounts which are socially determinist. They represent male power or patriarchy as everwhere and not easily changed [Heise, 1995: 124]. So this is a kind of socio-cultural determinism, which is fairly pessimistic about the possibilities for non-oppressive relations between men and women. And well before Wolf's Fire with fire came along, other feminist authors were disagreeing with such accounts. Other feminist authors emphasised that men's power is not total, that there is room for local resistance to and renegotiation of power relations. And they argued that we should continue to recognise women's agency, women's ability to act, in heterosexual sexual relations, and women's sexual pleasure as well.

Some of the early feminist literature on men's violence and on pornography also shows a monolithic and totalised model of men and masculinity as uniformly aggressive and predatory. As the popular slogan goes, "All men are potential rapists." This slogan was important in emphasising that the men who use violence against women are not deranged psychopaths but 'normal' and 'ordinary' men. But it runs the risk of representing men as all the same. Men are conceived of as having collective and uniform political interests as a "sex class".

This kind of account neglects the culture, history and diversity of forms of violence, different men and masculinities, and the diverse ways, times and places in which these are all expressed. Lynne Segal argues for example that race and class relations structure different forms of masculinity, and in turn produce differing likelihoods for violence. While she criticises some feminists' insistence that all men are alike in terms of the individual threat they pose to women, she agrees that the societal equation of masculinity with aggressiveness encourages and condones male violence against women [Segal, 1990: 254].

Men's own experience of sexual practices and relations demonstrates that there is more going on than just male dominance. Clearly there are ways in which the practices of masculine sexuality give men power and control over women. On the other hand, as Lynne Segal states, "for many men it is precisely through sex that they experience their greatest uncertainties, dependence and deference in relation to women - in stark contrast, quite often, with their experience of authority and independence in the public world." [212]

So, Wolf's criticisms of a strand of feminism do have substance. Similar criticisms have been made before by a stream of feminist commentators, and typically they've been made with more precision, rigour and sympathy than Wolf herself shows. It's also noticeable that Wolf ignores these debates and the substantial literature on the tensions between pleasure and danger in feminist accounts, and she writes as if she were the only one to have arrived at such insights.

-- That feminism exaggerates the extent of violence against women. And that the definitions of violence have expanded too far.

Another criticism of 'victim feminism' is that feminism over-estimates or exaggerates the extent of violence against women. Wolf responds that this claim denies the realities of the victimisation of women [Wolf, 1993: 152]. She says we need to recognise this violence, but also hang onto an emphasis on autonomy and sexual freedom [ibid: 152].

A related claim is that feminists have expanded the definitions of violence, rape or sexual harassment too far. The definitions now are so broad that they are meaningless, or they lump together behaviours which are really very different in terms of their impact or seriousnes, or they include behaviours and interactions which are 'normal' or 'trivial' and not really forms of rape or harassment.

So in The first stone for example, Garner writes of two young women's seeming over-reaction to what she calls "nerdish passes at a party" [38]. Of course, others have argued that this trivialises what occurred, and in particular, it neglects the power relations at stake between the male Master of a College and a young female student resident at that College.

Wolf is more ambivalent than Garner. She insists for example

that we talk about rape and sexual harassment with greater specificity so that crimes can be prosecuted with the utmost severity while we create more careful demarcations of harm that reflect the complexity of women's real experiences. [Wolf, 1993: 153]

On the one hand, Wolf defends and expresses her support for the movements against rape and sexual harassment, and she criticises the trivialisation of date rape and attacks on date rape statistics [205-6].

On the other hand, Wolf says that in "a few rare but definite moments", activists failed to acknowledge different levels of female victimisation [206]. She gives examples of these. For example, where what occurred was offensive, sexual and involved power imbalances, but was not 'rape' [208-9]. And the sexual harassment policies of some schools, in which sexual contact, joking and teasing are judged to be innately abusive [209]. Wolf agrees that it is important for men to learn to establish consent, and consent is sexy, but she adds that, "The other side of the feminist demand for men to learn to listen should be feminist responsibility for women to learn to speak." [207] Although I would respond here that feminists have been doing this, and in fact that there's been far more attention to empowering women than there has to teaching men how to negotiate consent and stop being coercive.

So here Wolf takes a 'middle-ground' position, criticising those who trivialise genuine crimes e.g. of date rape, and those who generalise all inappropriate behaviour as harassment [211]. She says that she's interested in women being able to "simultaneously embrace sex and fight rape" [206].

The issue of definitions of violence is another area where Wolf neglects existing feminist scholarship. She fails to draw for example on the key feminist idea of a continuum of sexual violence. You may remember from the tutes that we highlighted a range of insights that accompany this idea. The idea of a 'continuum of sexual violence' enables one to document and name the range of abusive and coercive experiences of women, that cannot readily be distinguished from each other and do not necessarily fit into a given category. It draws attention to the links between 'sledgehammer' behaviours, ones which are extreme and dramatic - rape, child abuse and sexual murder - and 'dripping tap' behaviours and incidents, which are mundane, everyday and ordinary [Stanley & Wise, 1987]. The idea of a continuum suggests that all the different forms of sexual violence are serious and have effects, while women's definitions of the events and their impacts vary at the time and over time.

-- That women seek legal redress too quickly, they're 'whining'

-- Critics of 'victim feminism' have also depicted feminists as 'crying wolf' over harms which are imagined or only slight, and their objections to injustice as 'whining' and as part of a 'culture of complaint' [Wolf, 1993: 153].

This argument is evident in the question which drives the narrative of Garner's The first stone: "Why did they go to the cops?". Garner understands this as a gross overreaction by the young women concerned, which she describes as "appallingly destructive, priggish and pitiless" [16]. And more broadly, she argues that many of today's young feminist women are "consumed by rage and fear" [47], and that there is a climate of feminist sexual prescriptivism. In essence, feminism has 'gone too far', as part of a general shift towards 'political correctness' [11].

Garner is very critical of the young women's use of legal redress. She ignores the fact of their efforts over at least six months to sort out the matter with the College Council, their attempts at negotiation and conciliation. She downplays the institutional inertia of the college [Trioli, citing Edgar, 1996: 34], and the fact that the women did try other avenues but these failed. But perhaps most importantly for this case, Garner neglects issues of institutional power in what occurred.

There are a number of problems with the argument that women or feminists are over-reacting, 'crying wolf', over behaviours which are only trivial or even fictional. [summary]

Such behaviours are not trivial, but have real effects. And certainly they not fictional.

Most women don't rush to the cops and the courts. There are important barriers to the use of legal remedies.

There are various reasons why women who are sexually harassed (and sexually assaulted) do not report this. E.g., to do with their definitions of the behaviour, and dominant definitions of violence.

When women protest harms, this does not 'turn them into victims', but does the opposite.

First, it is abundantly clear that young women today, and indeed women in general, are not rushing to report such behaviours as sexual harassment or seeking legal redress [Trioli, 1996: 38-39]. The vast majority of incidents of workplace sexual harassment never reach the stage of formal complaint [Morgan, 1997: 102]. As Trioli in your readings argues, legal remedies are not easily used in a casual or reckless way. And there are many barriers to a legal claim, including financial, procedural, legal, and strategic barriers [Trioli, 1996: 36-37].

In fact, when women are sexually harassed, their most common responses are 'internally focused', and include denial, endurance, psychological detachment from the situation, and blaming themselves [Thomas & Kitzinger, 1997: 10]. Among women's 'externally focused' responses, the most common one is avoidance, and also appeasement [ibid]. Many women respond to sexual harassment by resigning, changing jobs, changing accomodation, and so on. Also, large public organisations use internal procedures, and private sector organisations settle complaints with money, so again sexual harassment avoids the courts [Morgan, 1995: 103].

There are several other factors which inhibit the reporting of the kinds of behaviours about which Garner and others say women are running to the cops and the courts. Firstly, women's own definitions of the situation may not include naming behaviours as sexual harassment or sexual assault. In both large-scale surveys and qualitative studies, women will report behaviour which fits the definition of sexual harassment - unwanted sexual attention - but they don't necessarily name it as sexual harassment [Thomas & Kitzinger, 1997: 9]. And women will describe incidents where they were coerced or pressured into having sex, but which they did not define as rape or sexual assault at the time [Kelly, 1996: 200]. In Kelly's study in your readings for example, some women said it wasn't rape because they stopped resisting after a certain point or because the man was someone known to them [ibid: 200].

Also, it can be harder for women to name and object to unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace if they are in jobs which are highly sexualised or gendered, as Helen [Keane] pointed out in the lectures. Secretarial work for example is highly organised by gender and involves an intimate, gendered and heterosexualised relationship between female secretaries and male bosses [Thomas & Kitzinger, 1997: 11]. In such workplaces it is harder to object to these normative forms of sexualisation [ibid: 11]. Thomas and Kitzinger also mention another factor, the socialisation of women in the patriarchal values of particular institutions, for example of medical school, so that they ignore sexual harassment as part of learning an occupational identity [ibid: 11].

Wolf again rejects the argument that women and feminists are 'whining' over things which are only minor or trivial. She points out that white men's many complaints about various aspects of culture or politics are not treated this way, but given legitimacy and status. Perhaps she would agree with Virginia Trioli, that arguments such as those by Garner and her supporters represent a backlash to women's right to seek legal redress for behaviours such as sexual harassment [Trioli, 1996: 39]. They are an attempt to move these intrusive, unwanted and coercive behaviours back out of the realm of community standards and lawful behaviour, into the realm of the personal [ibid: 39].

-- 'Turning women into victims' (c) when women themselves complain or protest

Another version of the criticism of 'victim feminism' is that women who complain of sexual harassment, women who seek justice or compensation for or acknowledgement of the violence done to them, turn themselves into victims.

Wolf disagrees with this as well. She emphasises that it is not the act of protesting against harm that is the problem [Wolf, 1993: 153-54]. And others point out that such critics fail to recognise the support and celebration of strength among those campaigning against harassment and rape [Brant & Too, 1994: 6]. It takes courage to say that one has been raped or harassed. Especially when the women and men who do may be treated poorly by the law courts and disbelieved by those around them.

Speaking out, taking action, seeking legal redress - these are precisely about refusing to be a victim. So for example, one of the two complainants in the Ormond College case writes that the experience of the case for her was about "resistance - about refusing to be a victim, refusing to shut up, and refusing to be done over." [XX, 1997: 62]

There's a further point to be made here. The image of the powerless, weak and complaining woman presented to us by critics of 'victim feminism' is not the invention of feminism [Brant & Too, 1994: 6-7]. Instead, it's a misogynist or woman-hating invention, and feminism rejects this stereotype of women. This is despite the fact that women who have been subjected to violence and who are more assertive or powerful, i.e. women who don't fit the stereotype of the powerless victim, may be treated more harshly by the law [ibid: 7].2

-- A victim identity

However, Wolf does run a more subtle version of this argument, criticising some of contemporary feminism for focusing too heavily on women's victimisation, and for turning victim status into an identity. As I mentioned earlier, one of her main criticisms of 'victim feminism' is that supposedly it positions victim status itself as a source of strength and identity [Wolf, 1993: 154]. This isn't just bad for feminism, it's bad for individual women. Women's self-image and emotional health is harmed by defining or identifying themselves as victims, instead of as powerful and effective, and victim feminism entrenches women in apathy and despair [228].

Again I believe that Wolf grossly exaggerates this phenomenon. She seems entirely unaware of two shifts in women's services and feminist theory. One, there has been a shift towards speaking and writing of 'survivors' of violence. The word 'survivor' is used either instead or alongside the word victim. It is intended to emphasise that women are not simply the passive victims of men's or indeed women's violence, but that women also resist, fight back, escape and mobilise. The shift in portrayal of those subject to violence, from passive 'victims' to active 'survivors', has come in particular from women's refuges, anti-violence centres and groups [Maynard & Winn, 1997: 179]. Of course, those who use the word 'survivor' also acknowledge that sometimes women don't survive.

The second shift is that services to do with violence, such as the Domestic Violence Crisis Service here in Canberra, increasingly don't use the word 'victim' at all, or the word 'perpetrator'. Instead, they speak of women who are subjected to violence, and they speak of men who use violence. This is motivated by the desire to separate behaviour and identity.

I agree that there is a growing trend in modern Western societies to adopt a 'victim' identity, but Wolf is wrong to blame feminism for this. Instead, it's part of a general cultural shift, in which injustices and harms done to people increasingly are individualised and psychologised, especially through the language of therapy.


One of the strongest criticisms that can be made of Wolf's account concerns the categories of 'victim feminism' and 'power feminism' themselves. Her categories are inaccurate, incoherent, internally contradictory, and arbitrary.

Firstly, in Wolf's description of the key characteristics of victim feminism, there is a lumping together of a collection of stereotypes, understandings and misperceptions from a variety of strands of feminism. Wolf picks out the worst stereotypes of a variety of strands of feminism, including anti-pornography feminism, radical feminism, ecofeminism, and socialist and Marxist feminisms. These include the claims that such strands are sexually judgemental and anti-sex, they see violence and aggressiveness as essentially male, they see women as closer to nature, naturally cooperative and peace-loving, and they are anti-capitalist. Then Wolf lumps all these together and gives them a new label, "victim feminism". In fact she acknowledges this in a later chapter, saying that victim feminism is a composite, an intermingling of various feminist strands [156]. Wolf inverts these stereotypes to create her model of 'power feminism'.

But the problem is that actual feminists, and the theoretical frameworks with which they're associated, don't fit well into the categories which Wolf asserts. For example, one important area of feminist debate has been over sexuality, and these debates have been so passionate sometimes that people refer to these as the 'feminist sex wars'. 'Feminist sex radicals', who represent one 'side' of these debates, emphasise sexual freedom and the possibilities for sexual pleasure, arguing that sexuality is a site of both pleasure and danger. According to Wolf then, women such as Carole Vance and Gayle Rubin are 'power feminists'. But these same women are not pro-capitalist, and in fact they combine their pro-sex feminism with a strong left-wing politics. So this important strand of feminist theorising and activism simply doesn't fit into Wolf's two categories.

-- Inaccurate:

The criticism that victim feminism is essentialist

In Chapter Ten Wolf spends about eight pages outlining the "Core mythology of victim feminism". She is primarily concerned with two aspects here: the essentialist account of gender, and the reluctance to take up forms of power which are traditionally male.

Wolf argues that victim feminism involves the myth of a harmonious and peaceful past based on 'female values'. Evil is confined to men, and institutionalised in patriarchy [157]. Men are inclined towards hierarchy, domination and separation, while women are inclined towards egalitarianism, communication and connection [157]. Men to objectification, women to commitment, men to killing, women to giving life, and so on.

Wolf's problem is not with the values themselves which are seen as essentially female. Her problem is with the portrayal of particular values, forms of behaviour and ways of knowing as essentially male or female, as fundamentally gendered rather than simply human [157]. She supports the valuing and integration into public life of values and traits which have been seen as stereotypically feminine, but rejects essentialist claims about them.

I think that's a pretty good idea. But the problem is in the claim of essentialism, as I think that this is largely inaccurate.

Wolf implies that this essentialist thinking is common or typical in feminism (although earlier she had said that victim feminism is a minority position within feminism). However, if you look at the footnotes, you realise that the entire account in this chapter is based only on two books. Of the quotes that Wolf uses to substantiate her depiction, all come from the same two works. What's more, both books are on ecofeminism, and thus represent a literature only of one particular strand of feminism.

Ecofeminism is a strand of feminism which has been subject to feminist critique for its essentialism, with good reason. However, Wolf fails to acknowledge the substantial feminist debates about essentialism, and the substantial shifts for example in feminist understandings of war and militarism. And she neglects the widespread feminist effort to break down the very 'gender binaries' she criticises, the divisions of traits into masculine and feminine, male and female.

My second criticism of Wolf's category of 'victim feminism' is that it is arbitrary (and that she generalises inappropriately from personal experience).

In Chapter Eleven titled "Case studies", Wolf contrasts two tales, the victim feminism tale of the rape crisis centre, and the power feminism tale of the Clerical and Technical Workers' Local 34 strike.

Wolf puts the boot into the rape crisis centre. She argues that the decor, the atmosphere and the centre's decision-making process all showed an investment in misery and insufficiency and self-sacrifice [164-65]. There was a culture of hopelessness and weakness which wore down the workers, a "hierarchy of miserable saintliness". There was no celebration of triumphs, congratulation at survival, laughter or education work, and they "never let [themselves] enjoy feeling strong" [168]. Those women who worked at the centre chose to "make female victim status into our main source of identity, and even of prestige" [167].

If Wolf's depiction is accurate (and we don't know when she was there or which one it was), then it is a depiction of life as she saw it at one rape crisis centre. Wolf gives no references, and does not draw on accounts or experiences of workers or clients at any other rape crisis centres, although there are hundreds. So, this is a neat example of individual experience being generalised into a wider claim. For example, this is a depiction which is light years away from the character of the Rape Crisis Centre here in Canberra and of those elsewhere in Australia.

Wolf contrasts the Rape crisis centre with the story of a successful strike and industrial action by the Clerical and Technical Workers' Union, a largely female union at Yale University. Wolf tells the story of the development of union, the mobilisation of workers, and a series of industrial actions which culminated in positive changes at the university.

I think Wolf's account is arbitrary here. I think that you could actually reverse the two accounts, so that the story of the Rape crisis centre becomes one of power feminism and the story of the union becomes one of victim feminism.

Wolf could tell the story of the development of rape crisis centres and of the feminist anti-rape movement in a way which represents the qualities she associates with 'power feminism'. She could describe the spirit of personal empowerment and self-help which inspired this development, the initial mobilisations, the enormous hope and optimism and courage of the early pioneers of rape crisis centres and refuges and phonelines, and the fundamental belief that women deserve better which framed these efforts.

Wolf says that power feminists are those who assume that "women can marshall their power and win", and that "where the system works unfairly, women should use their resources to force it to change, rather than pleading for kinder treatment on the basis of victim status." [179] Again, this is exactly what has been done in the feminist anti-rape movement, with successful efforts to change rape laws, to increase judges' awareness, and to fund and produce community education campaigns.

Wolf represents the Clerical and Technical Workers' Union as succeeding in their campaign, while the Rape crisis centre eventually failed and closed. A further point regarding these two is that the success or failure of the two campaigns is not simply a function of their own style and content. It is also a function of the situation in which the action occurs, the presence of support from other sections of the community, the strength of the opposition, and the general cultural climate. The union was able to attract substantial support from students and staff at the university, and given its position it had the power to disrupt the powers that be (via strikes and pickets) and force change. Arguably the rape crisis centre is unlikely to attract the same level of support, for example because attitudes supportive of rape are still widespread in the community, and it did not have the same institutional power to force change.

It is almost as if Wolf's framework can only be applied after the fact, only in hindsight. Those feminist efforts which are less successful are victim feminism, while those feminist efforts which are more successful are power feminism. If this is true, then Wolf's framework is not very useful as a descriptive or explanatory framework.


Wolf's division between victim feminism and power feminism is arbitrary. It is incoherent. And some of the groups and individuals to whom she applies each term themselves object to her categories.

[Contradictory and incoherent] Listing actions which are representative of power feminism, Wolf concentrates on efforts to increase women's numbers in political decision-making [175-77]. But she includes feminist action on issues which elsewhere she has associated with 'victim feminism', such as rape in war, fashion, and domestic violence.

Wolf includes in power feminism the effort by feminist lawyers to define sex crimes against women as human rights abuses. This is power feminism because it's pro-active and reflects women's agency. But Wolf fails to note or realise that the feminist lawyers she praises include women such as Catherine MacKinnon, a woman who Wolf describes 22 pages earlier as 'focusing on female victimisation at the expense of female agency' [154]. So in Wolf's category of 'good' power feminism, there are feminists and issues who she has labelled or associated instead with victim feminism.

Wolf's categories are contradictory. On the one hand, she includes in victim feminism the exclusion of men from Take Back the Night rallies [173]. On the other, she counts as power feminism an eight-day broadcast by an all-woman radio station [175]. She emphasises that power feminism is into both fun and social change, quoting the slogan, 'If I can't dance, it's not my revolution' [150]. But this slogan was coined by Emma Goldman, a famous left-wing anarchist feminist, and one who would be very critical of Wolf's pro-capitalist power feminism.

Some of the groups and individuals to whom Wolf applies each term themselves object to her categories. She includes the famous African-American feminist bell hooks among power feminists, but as your readings show, hooks herself is deeply critical of Wolf's framework. And it is likely that other feminist groups she includes, such as the Women's Action Coalition and Guerilla Girls also would object to being included in Wolf's 'power feminism'.


Unlike other authors such as Roiphe or Denfeld, Wolf does suggest a constructive program for feminism, which of course she terms 'power feminism'. Part Five of Fire with fire, its final section, focuses on power feminism in action, and here Wolf outlines her program for change.

There are several significant problems also in Wolf's program for change. Her power feminism includes movements and practices which we may not wish to support. Like victim feminism, it is internally contradictory. And most importantly, it assumes a certain kind of privilege.

Wolf's 'power feminism' celebrates some movements and shifts which are deeply problematic for or even dangerous for women. The best example here is her support for the push to increase women's ownership of guns. Wolf describes the fact that 1 in 9 American women, or 12 million women, have legally acquired a handgun [230]. She represents women's gun ownership as a refusal of victim status and a rejection of victimisation [234].

Wolf uncritically accepts the argument of such bodies as the National Rifle Association and Women & Guns magazine that having a gun is an effective and successful means of self-defence for women. The fact is, having a gun in the home dramatically increases the likelihood that a woman or another family member will be shot. In the U.S., gun ownership is most strongly associated with a homicide at the hands of a family member or intimate acquaintance. In other words, gun ownership is more likely to lead to more women being shot.

Wolf's account of the magazine Women & Guns again demonstrates the incoherence of Wolf's classifications of victim feminism and power feminism. The women she quotes use a kind of feminist language to describe their gun ownership, but use phrases which came out of the anti-rape movement, for example of 'taking back the night'. [232]. But Wolf has located the anti-rape movement as part of 'victim feminism'. And on the other hand, she is praising women's involvement in self-defence as an example of power feminism, and yet women's self-defence is a strong emphasis in feminist anti-rape circles, which she associates with victim feminism.


But the biggest problem with Wolf's power feminism is its assumption of privilege.

One of the most serious problems with Fire with fire is Wolf's erasure of race and class. Wolf gives lip service to a politics of inclusion, and sometimes celebrates the achievements of particular black women. But her category "woman" in fact universalises the experiences of white privileged women [hooks, 1996: 62]. And she ignores feminist work by women of colour.

Wolf's assumptions of privilege are clearest in her account of 'power feminism'. The resources and strategies on which she says women can draw, in fact are only available to a privileged group, while they exclude many other women and men [hooks, 1996: 62-63].

Wolf claims that now in Western capitalist countries, enough women in the middle classes have the money and clout to change things, the political infrastructure is in place after twenty-five years of feminist activism, and even that women are the new political ruling class. Here Wolf reveals herself, like Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfeld, to be speaking from a deeply elitist and naive position [Siegel, 1997: 75-76].

In Australia for example, feminist activism did result in the establishment of a 'femocracy', a network of feminists and women-oriented bodies in policy-making and government. But we've also seen how tenuous and fragile this success can be, as the Howard Liberal government has slashed and burned these networks.

So Wolf has an overly rosy and optimistic account of the 'genderquake', i.e. of the extent of change in gender relations. 'Power feminism' glosses over the suffering and inequity that are still part of many women's lives. As Rapping in your readings argues, gender power imbalances are still vast and much institutional power is still in the hands of rich straight white men [Rapping, 1996: 273]. But we should not go to the other extreme to power feminism, to claim that nothing has changed [ibid: 267]. Rapping argues that we need to take stock of where male hegemony and power have been dented or undermined [273].

Power feminism, whether one hundred years ago or in the last decade, sees money as crucial to independence and emphasises women's self-reliance (as well as seeing men as partners in the struggle) [Wolf, 1993: 187]. Wolf does briefly acknowledge the danger in this view, in writing that this model's "stress on rights and female individualism may lead the luckier or more successful to overlook those who are less so." But this acknowledgement does not shift the general orientation towards privilege which power feminism represents.


Fire with fire is essentially a liberal feminist text, and much of her book is a re-working of reformist liberal feminist notions [hooks, 1996: 64]. The book's title comes from the proverb, "Fight fire with fire", and this is a key message of the book: That women should use the tools of government, democracy and capitalism - tools which have traditionally been in male hands - to achieve equality for women. This is the defining feature of power feminism.

Wolf refers to Audre Lorde's famous phrase, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," and reverses it to argue that women can use the master's tools to 'open up', as she puts it, the master's house [Wolf, 1993: 186]. This is a classic liberal feminist argument: that feminism should push democracy to live up to its own self-definition, such that all citizens, women included, have equal opportunity. As a liberal feminist framework, Wolf's account is vulnerable to the established critiques of liberal feminism. One criticism is that Wolf does not challenge dominant notions of power or political power, but simply takes them as given. Her argument is not strongly oriented towards destabilising or confronting traditional power, but towards women occupying and claiming these forms of power.

However, Wolf's arguments slide into some of the more obvious dangers of liberal feminism. For example, despite Wolf's claim that left-wing feminism is her "own personal brand" of feminism, she is strongly pro-capitalist. She assumes that capitalist power is synonymous with liberation and self-determination, as hooks criticises [hooks, 1996: 62]. Her identification with left politics is hollow, and contradicted by her depiction of left-wing feminism as dogmatic and lacking visionary thinking [hooks, 1996: 64].


Wolf's 'power feminism' is individualistic, small-l liberal and pro-capitalist, and this is reflected in her definitions of feminism itself.

Firstly, Wolf says that 'feminism' describes "a theory of self-worth", equivalent to saying, "I am a human being." [Wolf, 1993: 151] hooks argues that this depoliticises feminism: feminism here is no longer a political movement, but a form of self-help [hooks, 1996: 63]. Feminism thus comes to mean, 'do what you want to do, be what you want to be'. And as I said before, this is a familiar message, as it is repeated also by consumer culture and capitalism and in the discourses of pop psychology and therapy.

You may remember that in Week 2 of the course, we looked at bell hook's 1984 article on feminism. In this she criticises 'anything goes' definitions of feminism which make it meaningless, and she criticises liberal definitions which focus on individual woman's right to freedom and self-determination [hooks, 1997: 24]. She argues instead that, "Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression." [ibid: 25].

Wolf does write that on another level feminism is also "a humanistic movement for social justice" [152]. This is an improvement on the first definition, in bringing in questions of questions of justice and injustice, inequality and oppression. But Wolf's overall account is conservative enough that hooks calls it an "aggressive assault on radical and revolutionary feminist thinking" [hooks, 1996: 62].


In the supplementary reading for the course, you've got Deborah Siegel's paper. Siegel says that Naomi Wolf's, Katie Roiphe's and Rene Denfeld's books are similar in a number of important ways. While all three writers seek to "reclaim feminism" for today's women, their writing does not contribute to dialogue or keep feminism in process. And all three substitute a part of second wave feminism for the whole (metonymy) [Siegel, 1997: 59]. Siegel is especially disturbed that these zealous accounts "are marketed and received as representative of an entire generation" [65].

Siegel writes that,

Wolf, Roiphe, and Denfeld create sensational, fictional accounts of a demonized feminism to satisfy a "progressive" narrative structure that might be summarized [Š] as, "Down with the 'bad' feminism and up with the 'good'!" [67]

They use "cartoonish caricatures of contemporary feminists", reduce contemporary fem't debates to an old rhetoric of equality versus difference. The books criticise a straw woman of difference-feminism, and in its place, they suggest another straw woman called "Agency! Power! Equality!" [68].

But there are also differences between the three. Roiphe and Denfeld see 'victim feminism' as the dominant form of feminism today, while Wolf sees it only as characteristic of a small minority of feminists [Wolf, 1993: xvii]. While Wolf does have constructive recommendations for action, in the form of 'power feminism', Denfeld and Roiphe spend most of their respective books attacking feminism [Siegel, 71]. Siegel argues that Roiphe's and Denfeld's arguments simply reproduce a stock antifeminist plot, with the same arguments as in other forms of anti-feminist backlash [66]. But what is distinctive about this backlash is that it is carried out not against feminism but in its very name [81, citing Modleski].

In particular, Siegel criticises Wolf's, Roiphe's and Denfeld's historiography - their writing of history. She says that all three demonstrate highly limited historiographic readings of feminist movement [59]. Siegel problematises historical narratives of feminism which generalise about 'this period', 'this wave' or 'this movement'. I understand her to be warning against the dangers in such historical accounts: they can be reductive and they can erase heterogeneity or internal difference [61]. And in the case of the three authors I've been discussing, their writings of feminist theory are deeply reductionist, inaccurate and often destructive.


In this critical analysis of Wolf's account of victim feminism and power feminism, implicitly I have been been addressing several questions. And these questions are the kinds of questions that are often asked in feminist theory and Women's Studies. They're questions that you may want to practise asking and answering, as part of learning the discipline. So I thought I would end by mentioning some of these questions.

When you hear or read the words 'woman' or 'women', ask, Which women? Which women, and men, are being talked about, how are they being talked about, and how is gender understood? How are other axes of difference - of race, class, sexuality, and age for example - present or not present in these accounts?

When you hear or read the word feminism, ask, Which feminism? Which feminism is the object of attention, and what kind of feminist or other position does the writer write from?

And generally, when you read categories, whether of victim and power feminisms or something else, ask, How are these categories constructed, and what do they work to include and exclude?



Brant, Clare and Too, Yun Lee (eds) 1994 Rethinking sexual harassment, London: Pluto Press

hooks, bell 1996 "Dissident heat: Fire with fire", in Maglin, Nan Bauer and Perry, Donna (eds) "Bad girls"/"good girls": Women, sex, and power in the nineties, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

hooks, bell 1997 "Feminism: A movement to end sexist oppression" (extract from the original 1984 text), in Kemp, Sandra and Squires, Judith (eds) Feminisms, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press

Maynard, Mary and Winn, Jan 1997 "Women, violence and male power", in Richardson, Diane and Victoria Robinson (eds) Introducing women's studies: Feminist theory and practice, (2nd edition) Macmillan

Morgan, Jenny 1997 "Sexual harassment: Where did it go in 1995?", in Mead, Jenna (ed.) Bodyjamming, Milsons Point, NSW: Random House

Rapping, Elayne 1996 "None of my best friends: The media's unfortunate "victim/power" debate", in Maglin, Nan Bauer and Perry, Donna (eds) "Bad girls"/"good girls": Women, sex, and power in the nineties, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

Siegel, Deborah L. 1997 "Reading between the waves: Feminist historiography in a "postfeminist" moment", in Heywood, L. and Drake, J. (eds) Third wave agenda: Being feminist, doing feminism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Thomas, Alison M. and Kitzinger, Celia 1997 "Sexual harassment: Reviewing the field", in Thomas, Alison M. and Kitzinger, Celia (eds) Sexual harassment: Contemporary feminist perspectives, Open University Press

Trioli, Virginia 1996 Generation f: Sex, power & the young feminist, Port Melbourne: Minerva

XX 1997 "Sticks and stones", in Mead, Jenna (ed.) Bodyjamming , Milsons Point, NSW: Random House


Faludi, Susan 1995 "'I'm not a feminist, but I play one on TV'", Ms magazine, March/April

Fredericks, Karen "Dousing the fire", Refractory Girl, Issue 47-48

Heywood, L. and Drake, J. (eds) 1997 Third wave agenda: Being feminist, doing feminism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press Especially: Introduction Sorisio, Carolyn "A tale of two feminisms: Power and victimization in contemporary feminist debate"

Maglin, Nan Bauer and Perry, Donna (eds) 1996 "Bad girls"/"good girls": Women, sex, and power in the nineties, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (Especially chapters by McCaskill and Phillips, Gerhard, Pollitt, Dean)

Meagher, Gabrielle 1995 "Wolf in wolf's clothing", Arena magazine, June-July


1 Jeffreys for example writes, "The feminist fight against male violence requires the reconstruction of male sexuality [Š] to sever the link between power and aggression and sexual pleasure." [1990, 312-13]

2 Wolf does acknowledge this at one point, saying that one source of some women's impulse to claim that they are innocent victims is bias in the courts in relation to different types of female victims [Wolf, 1993: 192].




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Victim feminism and power feminism

EuoPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 



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