Fear & Loathing Deconstructed: An Essay on Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within

Fear & Loathing Deconstructed: An Essay on Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within

by Naomi Wolf

Revolution From Within,* Steinem’s first full-length work, analyzes how huge transformations – what Grace Paley calls “enormous changes at the last minute” – begin in that most still and lonely of cells, the intimate self. Self esteem – or, as she puts it elsewhere and better, “self-authority” – is the prerequisite for making any authentic change, whether the goal is a functioning society or a democratic family life, a nourishing erotic bond or a happy childhood (which, she believes, “it is never too late to have”).



The premise is abstract, and Steinem sensibly anchors it by drawing on illustrations from sources as diverse as a cabinet of explorer’s curios: Indian civil disobedience tactics and the adventures of the Hispanic children in an inner-city chess club who play a tournament in Moscow because their teacher believed it was possible; Goddess-worshippers in ancient Egypt and modern Chinese acupuncturists who refuse to treat patients in a room barren of plants. Steinem investigates the difference between cloying romance and genuine love, and arrives at last at exposing the inadequate basis of Western civilization itself, with its harmfully dualistic split between mind and body, male and female, follower and leader, human and animal. To make observations so wide ranging that they leap and tumble through the main currents of several millennia’s civilizations, is a terrible risk. Steinem must have known that when she set out to write this book. It took courage and skill.

This book has generated tremendous ridicule, tongues have been sharpened on two continents to satirize it, and its author. Making fun of the central argument is almost too easy: “The kingdom of God,” as the New Testament puts it, “is within you.” Steinem claims that self-authority, far from being the brainchild of middle-class New-Age tokers steeping themselves in hot tubs in Big Sur, is actually as old as the Upanishads (“the beginning and end of all …dwells in every human heart”) and Plato’s dialogues (“the Soul knows who we are from the beginning”). It is, she is convinced, the shining level to which all movements of enlightenment can be reduced. Milton understood self-authority when he created a Satan who carries his hell within; poor children understand it when they perform up – or down – to the level of their teachers’ expectations; and even the body understands it, as ever-more studies show that our immune systems fight disease according to how loved we think we are.

A gentle enough message, you’d think. But critics on both the left and the right have thrown hissy fits. Dierdre English, a well-known socialist feminist, accused Steinem – in the New York Times Book Review, no less! – of having gone “soft.” “Somehow, she forgot to get angry.” A Newsweek cover story treated her premise as if it had all the authority of an unmade waterbed. And Vanity Fair did a slash-and-burn interview that made paragraphs out of a stain on Steinem’s sweater, and a fetish out of a couple of pages in the book in which she writes of her self-deluding affair with a New York real-estate mogul.

And the rest of the press caught this salacious lowball and ran with it, slamming the book as a “celebrity kill-and tell.” That a serious analysis of power by a world-class leader of women can be willfully misread as the breathless memoir of an affair with a power-brokering man whom no one outside New York thinks about either way, is the best example of how authority is casually stripped from even the strongest of women and the strongest of women’s words.

While the critics have been stoking up their white-hot pincers, ordinary men and women are mobbing Steinem at book signings, flooding her with letters, and have kept Revolution From Within at the top of the bestseller list for months.

What on earth is going on here?

Simply put, Steinem is so right about the politics of self-esteem that the force of an idea whose time is just about to come is blowing establishment commentators, both on the right and on the left, out of their leather-clad swivel chairs.

The right is twitching because Steinem is onto the great secret about how populations are kept in line in first-world countries at the end of the 20th century. The powers that be no longer need, in most situations, militias or curfews or even restrictive laws. The best crowd control is achieved through manipulating the self-esteem of out-groups and lowering their sense of hopefulness and self-worth until – voila! – eventually the low-maintenance enemy presence has set up shop inside their own heads. Civil rights leader Carter G. Woodson said it so well about Blacks in the 1930s that his quote is still fresh for women today: “When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his activities. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and stay in it…If there is no back door, he will cut one.”

Steinem compares contemporary women to stunted plants that continue to grow in the shape of the barriers placed around them even when the barriers are gone. She is right. In our great grandmothers’ day, locks on universities kept women out, and regulations proclaimed they could not be doctors or lawyers. Some proud women managed to achieve the impossible anyway, knowing in their bones they were good enough to deserve the status officially denied them. Today, most of the locks are gone – but the hurdles, now psychological, remain.

My niece, a fair and generous girl, seduces one metal head lout after another because she is too short and ethnic looking to be the Breck Girl. A community leader, a big witty, raunchy woman with a lot to say, dares not go on the lecture circuit until she loses the 20 pounds that are a fundamental part of herself. Sexy, smart, capable women all over Australia don’t ask for raises, for help with the laundry, or for a decent orgasm because they don’t feel worthy of negotiating a contract from a position of strength. The conviction that they don’t deserve money, power, or a voice can keep women down more effectively than locks or laws did in the bad old days. Self-esteem must be understood today as a material source – like contraception or daycare or literacy or money – that is deliberately being kept in short supply to serve a political purpose.

Right-wingers don’t like such revolutionary ideas. And Republican male senators and generals certainly don’t cotton to being told they’re really wet, squalling babies. But why on earth is the left so upset with Steinem? One problem is the language: It’s too clear for the comfort of intellectuals, and too true-hearted for the well-being of professional cynics.

Leftist and feminist critics have heaped coals of fire on Steinem’s head for writing, they aver with shudders, “a self-help book.” If this is a “squishy self help” book, then so is Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait. Here is her thesis: “Returning to the concept of circularity and oneness that preceded patriarchy, racist class systems, and other hierarchies that ration self-esteem and create obedience to external authority by weakening belief in our natural internal wisdom is truly a revolution from within. When we realize the Universal Self within us,’ ask the Upanishads defiantly, ‘when and what may anybody fear or worship?'” This goes way past herbal teas and frisbees in the park with dogs wearing bandannas. Steinem’s conclusion? You must stalk injustice fearlessly, because it is your nature. These are fighting words, not aromatherapy, for the mind.

The book is dedicated to “anyone who respects the unique self inside a child.” While such innocence sets on edge the teeth of the chain-smoking black-sweatered Existentialists in all of us, doesn’t our carping prove her very point? Steinem’s belief is that all conflict and hierarchy stem from our alienation from our inner child. Being snide, bitter grown-ups is the best substitute identity, Steinem would argue, we can muster; we cling to jadedness in order to distance ourselves from the hopeful, vulnerable little beings we were and secretly still are. This is both laughable and deeply accurate. Steinem’s premise makes world-weary journalists froth with disdain, yet is vastly true in the way that all ideas five or seven years ahead of their time are true. To legislate with the child (rather than the dollar or the scud missile) as our basic unit of measurement would, indeed, solve a host of ills. It is good social policy.

Intellectuals have condescendingly assumed that if Steinem speaks simply about simple truths, she must be simpleminded. Steinem’s premise is that society is run best by using the child as the basic unit of measurement – your own “inner child,” if younger beings are not handy. This provokes a fascinating paradox: That something can be agonizingly, howlingly, pins-and-needles-up and-down-your-ribs easy to ridicule – can beg to be ridiculed – and still not be ridiculous. Despite this discomfort, Steinem’s “paradigm shift” must be understood as the only one that can save us if we are to survive this ecological crisis.

Her analysis of how education can do us harm, along with her introductory essay on the relationship between the moment of looking back into the eyes of soldiers and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, are two of the most useful political essays in contemporary mass culture. This comprehensive debunking of authority is written so accessibly that it is a model of the non-elitist teaching, and democratization of ideas, that she advocates. No wonder the pundits are nervous – this kind of writing can cost them their jobs.

Some feminists are angry at Steinem for not targeting “men,” and indeed she goes beyond simplistic patriarchy-bashing when she speaks compassionately of the brutal child rearing practices that helped create an Eichmann or a Saddam Hussein. But maybe we are ready. For two decades we have been attacking male domination and cataloguing the sins of the fathers, but we are short on solutions. Many men have heard us, and literally do not know how to begin to heal themselves. Both genders are polarized, resentful, and sick of the monologues and the bloody stalemate of the gender war. Steinem’s attention to what gets killed when boy-children are turned into domestic tyrants may well be the kindly wisdom we need. Not to abandon the gender war, but to negotiate a just and lasting peace.

Perhaps only a person who has had Steinem’s life experiences can assume a perspective so ahead of its time in its universality. She has served uniquely as an interlocutor to half the human race for a quarter century, and has heard a thousand, thousand life stories. When a thousand life stories are synthesized through an attentive listener, that is a true, new definition of authority – and we should listen. It is this, doubtless, that allows her to interweave race, sex, and class, unselfconsciously, and to envision a world beyond oppressor and oppressed.

And maybe in the process we will examine our own destructive relationships to our women leaders. Steinem’s long career has kept her at ground zero of women’s neurotic response to their own advocates: Castigated for being “the pretty one,” not even her own body’s privacy is granted to her by other women. Smith classmates condemned her as “an anachronism in size-6” while other women have demanded, “Why are you thin?” Even as we are relieved that we’ve had a spokeswoman who has been, for decades, calm and witty, chic and sexy, the backlash media has focused on the most superficial aspects of her glamour as a way to foster resentment or a sense of no common ground among women readers and viewers. Steinem’s treatment as the “pretty” feminist icon was instrumental in my own understanding of how the beauty myth works politically: I understood from reactions to her how attention is always directed at feminist leaders’ appearances as a way to keep other women from identifying with them. Any woman is either “too pretty” or “too ugly” to speak “appropriately” on behalf of other women. This is an old tactic: Divide and conquer.

And yet, since I was a little girl, that very icon was my role model: Righteous and funny about it, serious and sexual, legitimately angry yet absolutely loved. I can’t separate out my exposure as a nine year old to Steinem’s presence in the media, from my early recognition that I too was a feminist. Like a hologram that reproduces itself in every cell, Steinem’s presence is a part of every one of us who, since the 1960s, has tried to grow up female and free. She raised our self-esteem before she even touched her keyboard; and Revolution From Within is just the book we need in backlash times to remind us that “giving up freedom for safety is a child’s bargain.”

Naomi Wolf writes and lectures widely on third-wave feminism. Her book The Beauty Myth is now an Anchor paperback.