The Belly Politic

The Belly Politic

Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels review Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions.


No woman, in the annals of history, has ever really been pregnant. Until now. No gestation has been more fraught with meaning, so filled with unexpected and profound discoveries, so laden with policy implications, so deserving of a second-by-second account, as that of Naomi Wolf. And no woman, until now, has ever noted that the medical industry is a tad technocratic when dealing with pregnant women. Expanding the narcissistic trajectory that was implicit but subdued in her earlier work, Wolf has now produced a book so utterly solipsistic that it is hard to imagine what the point of entry would be for any reader, pregnant or not. Though she worries obsessively throughout the book about how her impending motherhood is causing her to "lose her self," only a few pages into it we wish she had. Seldom do accounts of pregnancy and childbirth in the American medical system actually make you feel sorry for the doctors and nurses who had to attend to the mother. Until now.

Wolf's previous books were afflicted with their own share of self-absorption and "eclectic" musings. The strong feminist critique of the beauty industry in The Beauty Myth (1990) has been devolving into an increasingly faux feminism of the "me too" variety, accompanied by fantasies of other times and cultures allegedly more woman/girl friendly than our own. Though Wolf continues to agree that patriarchal practices have played a role in maintaining women's inequality, she has become, over the past decade, less inclined to think that men themselves have anything to do with patriarchy. In Fire With Fire: The New Female Power (1993), Wolf effused about a "genderquake" that supposedly occurred after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and "led women into becoming the political ruling class." While a bit overoptimistic on this score, Wolf argued for "power feminism" and rightly criticized the media's neglect or distortion of feminist issues. (She also thought feminists should publicize widely that one woman in nine carries a gun.) But in her chapter "Plagues of a Movement" and indeed throughout the book, Wolf criticized second-wavers as ideologues who promote "victim feminism" and require "loyalty oaths," reinforcing, to her own lecture-circuit advantage, the very media stereotypes about feminists she claimed to debunk. In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (1997), Wolf explored the construction of female sexual desire by brewing a concoction whose ingredients included her own "coming of age" story, tales of Zunis, Mesopotamians and Taoists, and various "say what?" claims. To wit, Wolf asserted that Anne Frank's sexual awakening was less fraught than her own because Anne just had her fantasies in the attic whereas Naomi had to contend with a cultural barrage of conflicting messages. In Misconceptions, Wolf takes on another topic of particular concern to feminists and literally remakes it in her own image.

The book opens promisingly enough. Although this trail has been trod for at least thirty years by women as diverse as Ellen Peck, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Maushart and Barbara Katz Rothman, to name just a few, Wolf pledges to offer an updated exposé of the misinformation surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and a critique of the overromanticization of motherhood. And although Ann Crittenden, most recently in her powerful book The Price of Motherhood, has exposed our country's Neanderthal public policies surrounding mothers and children, we should always welcome another voice that condemns how undersupported mothers are, especially by their workplaces and the federal government.

But maybe not this voice. What is most pernicious about the book is the way Wolf gushingly contributes to the pervasive postfeminist narrative according to which women inevitably move away from feminism once motherhood approaches. After her relatively tough-talking introduction, we find ourselves in Italy with "ex-models" at a "wedding celebration" of a friend of Wolf's "whose fiancee was the doyenne of a certain group of hard-living glitterati." It is here, in the hills of Umbria, that Wolf learns she is with child. How did she become pregnant? Why, she willed it. She was using birth control, but because her "heart and body longed for a baby," her "will and longing…somehow altered chemistry"; her inherent, driving "mother love, the mother wish," overrode birth control. Later on in the book we hear more about the power of Baby Gap/Earth Mother thinking to conquer biology and technology. One woman Wolf interviewed, after suffering through the many disappointments and real indignities of fertility treatment, went to a therapist who told her to imagine that her ovaries were blooming. She did (she also thought about Jesus rising from the dead), and voilà: pregnant. Want to get pregnant? If you have a powerful New Age will and are truly a determined individualist, you can simply resolve your way to conception. This reporting technique, which Wolf resorts to with abandon, is a favorite of ideologues: Pay lip service to the canons of good research by collecting "data" from interviewees who are just as loopy as you are.

Next we find ourselves in Washington in a "highly respected" Ob-Gyn practice "full of gleaming French Provincial furniture." (Thanks, Naomi, for that InStyle touch.) Wolf is shocked, like really, really shocked, to discover that doctors, even swanky ones, can be perfunctory when treating pregnant women, that they recommend tests like amniocentesis to protect themselves from lawsuits, that the C-section rate is higher in this country than in others and that hospitals often manage labor and delivery for the convenience of the doctors, not the mothers. Jeez, Our Bodies, Ourselves never pointed this out.

Certainly the most offensive and dangerous part of the book is Wolf's decision to cave in completely on reproductive rights. Back in 1995, in an article for The New Republic called "Our Bodies, Our Souls," Wolf placed herself at the top of the slippery slope of antiabortion tale-spinning by introducing the helpful notion of the "chardonnay abortion," the kind that liberated women get because they are prone to high-end debauchery. Here, she's greased herself up for the ride to the bottom. Now that she's seen her fetus on the ultrasound screen, now that she's heard her fetus's heartbeat, the "voice of the species" speaks to her (we swear) and says, "You must protect that little hand at all costs…that little hand…is more important now than you are." "My politics were rebalancing around my belly," she tells us, promoting a bogus, hormonal, antifeminist determinism that comes down to "biology is politics." She is newly condemnatory of women who become pregnant out of "carelessness" because of "a condom left in a drawer." Wolf likens America to a hair salon, "in which something sort of alive, but not really, is either allowed luxuriantly to grow" (that would be her baby), or is "shorn away."

Now who needs Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura or Operation Rescue when you can have Naomi Wolf? She blames female irresponsibility for unwanted pregnancies and suggests that most abortions are as frivolous as a haircut. When you start suggesting that a three-month-old fetus speaks with some transhistorical, authoritative voice of the ages, you are squarely in right-to-life country, a land where fetal auditory hallucinations take precedence over the real cries of the millions of hungry children neglected by our nation's retrograde social policies. Wolf's highly privileged position and class biases–or maybe it's just hormones–prevent her from thinking about the pregnant 16-year-old who wants to finish high school, the mother stretched too thin by her existing children, the couple with the dismal amnio report, all of whom might find their bodies speaking in a different voice.

Wolf's indictment of how labor and birth are managed in hospitals, although hardly new, is mostly on target, as is her denunciation of how much medical information is still withheld from women. But lest you forget what the book is really about, we are soon back to the changes in Wolf's body (do you want to read about "the emerging linea nigra" on her belly?). The author of The Beauty Myth was not really pleased that she gained a lot of weight during her pregnancy. But matters were made worse at one of the parties she went to, when a "political activist," a "biographer" and a "literary critic" all suggested she was no longer "a mere slip of a thing."

Even worse are her personal epiphanies. For example, in an aqua-aerobics class at a resort, Wolf feels herself "drowning in the Lake of Fecundity" (is this a square on Candyland?) because she realizes she has entered the great circle of life and is going to age and then die, an epiphany that only comes in the fifth month of pregnancy. This leads her to conclude that "the fear of women is grounded in the fear of death." On another day of hormonal inspiration, after seeing some squirrels, she realizes that "we were all held, touched, interrelated, in an invisible net of incarnation…the motheredness of the world." One could dismiss these as merely embarrassing, self-indulgent banalities. But Wolf, the lapsed feminist, enlightened by estrogen, reaffirms a host of essentialist and reactionary assumptions about women's "true nature" as she questions her "entire belief system about 'the social construction of gender.'"

By her seventh month, Wolf, who told Diane Rehm on NPR that this was when she felt her "cuddling hormones" kick in, wanted "some acknowledgment" of "the sacredness of [her] state," a paean that was sadly not forthcoming. Claiming that many, many mostly unnamed non-Western cultures have "magic" celebrations honoring pregnancy, Wolf longs for a romanticized primitivism that is an insult to the daily struggles of mothers in developing countries. Inadvertently evoking images of My Favorite Martian, Wolf claims to have grown "celestial antennae" as "pregnancy put me into a state of heightened openness to altered insight." But she could still will her body to do what she wanted. Her baby was head up instead of head down, so she asked her in-laws to join her in sending the baby a powerful telepathic message to turn around. "Half a minute later," after some "buckling and shifting," the baby had indeed flipped over, precisely as instructed. (Women can also accomplish this by doing somersaults in a swimming pool, or writing letters to their fetuses, Wolf tells us with a straight face.)

Remember when feminists sought to debunk the notion that all women are wired with a "maternal instinct" and that we are ruled by our hormones? Forget about it. Babies are "leaky little understudies for God" and call on all women, "on a spiritual level, to sacrifice." In fact, your brain changes and you get the "pregnant mind," which is "superstitious and medieval." (Maybe this is when she gave Gore that alpha-male advice.) Pregnant women should not look at violent movies or accidents (if they do they should cover their stomachs so the baby can't see), and they should definitely, definitely not let any "white-haired, well-intentioned Women's March for Peace activist" touch their belly because she might really be "a conjurer" whose "evil" could go straight into the baby. (Go on, go to the bookstore and look on page 110 if you don't believe us.)

Of course women undergo a host of physical and emotional changes throughout pregnancy, and many of them take us by surprise. It's bad enough that Wolf repeatedly universalizes from her own white, heterosexual, privileged experience to that of all women; even worse, she jumps from her own psychic changes to alleged sweeping truths about gender roles that serve primarily to reaffirm her own position in the social hierarchy. Wolf and most of her friends "revert[ed] to some of the basic tenets of a patriarchy they had all their lives rebelled against–for love," an experience possibly not shared by at least some readers of this magazine. Those of us who looked like Moby Dick in our eighth month will be surprised that women become "girly" then. Those of us who worked until the day we went into the delivery room or have women for partners might not recognize the "dependency" on men that nature "mandates."

Finally, the baby comes, and Wolf is stunned, once again, that "nothing happened the way I had imagined." Her delivery was truly miserable because she had to have an emergency C-section. Therefore all deliveries are miserable. Nowhere do we meet women whose pregnancies were relatively uneventful and who had good care from their doctors or midwives.

Finally, in the eleventh chapter of the book, Wolf steps out of herself and takes on the truisms, many of them inimical to women's health, propounded by the medical establishment. She reviews the diametrically opposed approaches offered by many in the midwifery community and yearns for the utopian moment when the approaches might get together. Here, for a brief moment, despite the "pregnant mind," Wolf sounds almost like a feminist again.

But not for long. Whose fault is it that working mothers have to be superwomen? You guessed it, girls–it's feminism's fault. Because second-wave feminists resisted attempts to define pregnancy as a disability–on the grounds that such a definition was filled with sexist connotations and discriminatory consequences–they "coerced working women to delegate the details of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood to some offstage setting," likening it to "taxidermy or beekeeping." Here we have a glib eradication of how many feminists, among them the childless Gloria Steinem, argued passionately for adequate compensation of the work of housewives and mothers, and of how many second-wavers pushed for a national daycare system, maternity leave and flextime. Our country is indeed primitive when it comes to supporting mothers and children, but the fact that we have anything better than we had is due to the second wave. Once again, Wolf appropriates without acknowledgment the feminist critique of a culture dominated by patriarchal values, and on the other, she reproduces the lie that feminists are meanspirited megalomaniacs who care only about being allowed into the boys' locker room. "We need a feminism that says it's OK to take a break," says one of Wolf's friends. Feminism? How about a capitalist patriarchy that acts on this principle?

At the end of the book, Wolf issues a call to arms for a "Motherhood Feminism" that insists on a national daycare system, paid maternity leave, universal healthcare and other reforms, and here we couldn't agree with her more. The problem is that since, in her "journey to motherhood," Wolf has reinforced the notion that women are guided by their hormones, which make them addled, eager to cuddle and dependent on men, while she also challenges a woman's right to control her reproductive life, some of us might be reluctant to march with her. On the one hand, Wolf suggests that she was once a feminist but motherhood made her see the error of her ways. On the other, she insists that motherhood makes you more of a feminist than ever. Had she forgone the yuppie-centered, narcissistic musings about what happened to her in the "Lake of Fecundity," she might have built an important bridge between the fury shared by second- and third-wave feminists about our society's shameful failure to support mothers and children of all races and classes. But why bring others, especially those who have preceded you, up on the stage when what you really want is to have it all to yourself?

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