Magazine article The Spectator

Created, Not Begotten

Magazine article The Spectator

Created, Not Begotten

Article excerpt

Created, not begotten Mary Kenny PROMISCUITIES: A SECRET HISTORY OF FEMALE DESIRE by Naomi Wolf

Chatto, L12.99, pp. 272

The trouble really began when Simone de Beauvoir announced, `One is not born a woman, one becomes one.' From this single sentence comes most of the discourse, over the past 40 years, on the feminine condition. If one becomes a woman, how does that process occur?

In the 1960s, some very clever feminist writers dissected this process of becoming a woman: works like Eva Figes' Patriarchal Attitudes (a brilliant book), and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics profoundly influenced me at this time. I was also hugely impressed by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which was simply smart journalism, but none the worse for that. Mrs Friedan showed that many American women were basically bored by married life in the suburbs, and in that boredom were searching for something more 'meaningful' than the mystique of femininity which Madison Avenue preached at them incessantly.

Fair enough. But the common de Beauvoir assumption underlying virtually all feminist writing was that the feminine condition was merely a `social construct': that it was something thrust upon women by society and by social conditioning. Girls played with dolls because 'society' told them to do so. Boys played with guns because 'society' persuaded them to do so. The claim that it is merely 'society' which makes us what we are has remained a dogma of feminism, and a dogma which has turned into a cul-de-sac. Anyone, such as the mad but extraordinary Camille Paglia, who suggests that men and women may be born, not made, is dismissed as a `biological determinist', than which no insult could cut deeper.

This dogma of `social conditioning' underpinned Naomi Wolf's first, and highly successful work, The Beauty Myth, which was a world best-seller. It was an interesting tour d'horizon of the cost, the anxiety and the big bucks that go into the beauty business, but again it assumed that this pursuit of physical attraction was merely a `social construct'. No quarter was given to the notion that there might be something within us, even, whisper it, something biological which prompts our yearnings.

Promiscuities rests on the same old supposition: that some social agency 'creates' a woman. …

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