Naomi Wolf's slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the 'conspiracist whirlpool'

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Naomi Wolf's slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the 'conspiracist whirlpool'
Naomi Wolf, photographed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019.Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images
  • The best-selling author and one-time Democratic Party insider has aligned herself with figures from the political far right.
  • At rallies for her 'Five Freedoms' campaign, Wolf has railed against vaccine passports, mandatory masks, and emergency laws.
  • The academic scandal over her latest book Outrages: Sex, Censorship & The Criminalization of Love undermined her literary reputation, while raising serious questions about publishing ethics.

Many old friends and admirers of Naomi Wolf are horrified. The great figurehead of 1990s "third wave" feminism, who bestrode the highest pinnacles of literature and politics to become an inspiration to a generation of young women, has morphed into something other than the Naomi they thought they knew.

Wolf was the author of The Beauty Myth, a classic text that seemed to define the dichotomies of late 20th Century womanhood, and which became the first of her eight New York Times best-sellers. The book's global popularity was enhanced by the dazzle of the author's own persona as a product of Yale and Oxford who seemed to feel the pain of other women, in spite of her own obvious privileges.

With her apparently impeccable Democratic credentials she stood at the shoulders of Bill Clinton and Al Gore during their respective presidential campaigns, imparting her counsel as a trusted adviser. It was a time when great significance was discerned by many in every word that Wolf wrote or uttered. "The Beauty Myth was a really big deal and it was really smart, it did land her a lot of fame and a lot of plaudits" says Rosie Boycott, feminist pioneer, member of Britain's House of Lords and co-founder of Virago, Wolf's publisher. "She was clever and a good speaker and very competent and she rode a big wave."

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As a public intellectual, Wolf was never far from the drama or the headlines, whether writing in 2004 that Harold Bloom, the famous literary critic and her college professor at Yale, had made unwanted sexual advances on her 21 years earlier, or getting arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011 while dressed in an evening gown. (She happened upon the protesters while exiting a red-carpet event, she later wrote, and was advising them about their First Amendment right to use a megaphone.)

But lately a very different Naomi Wolf has emerged in the wake of an embarrassing academic scandal that has undermined her literary reputation, while raising serious questions about publishing ethics and doctoral examinations. A few weeks ago, she posted video of herself in the firing position, pumping out bullets from a powerful weapon as she underwent firearms training deep in the woods. "Naomi you need help. This is too weird, " responded Katha Pollitt, the New York columnist and author.

Naomi Wolf's slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the 'conspiracist whirlpool'
Naomi Wolf was arrested during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011.James Keivom/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Pollitt is not alone in her concern. During recent weeks, as Wolf has aligned herself with figures from the political far right and turned on Joe Biden for taking America on a path to totalitarianism with his strategy for fighting Covid-19, her liberal allies have been aghast. "I daily get texts from friends and former friends telling me to 'stop'. One just messaged 'you're doing incalculable harm.'" she complained on Twitter, where she bombards her 142k followers with messages about vaccine side-effects, the profits of big pharma and the negative impact of masks on children. Benjamin Ramm, a liberal thinker and documentary maker, was an admirer of Wolf and thrilled when she endorsed as "timely and valuable" his 2011 paper Citizens: A Manifesto. He laments her current outlook as "very sad", saying "I've seen her wade deeper into a conspiracist whirlpool." (Wolf did not respond to Insider's interview request or a list of questions. As of Saturday, her Twitter account had been suspended.)

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When Wolf was invited onto Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News in February, he could barely conceal his delight at the unexpected guest before him. Noting that she was a "faithful lifelong Democrat", he said she was "undoubtedly losing friends by being on this show tonight."

Her political transformation reached a new apogee in May when she enjoyed a love-in with former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon on his WarRoom podcast. "I appreciate your help," she told the field marshal of the American right, as she thanked his followers for the "support and help and resources" they are giving to her 'Five Freedoms' campaign against vaccine passports, mandatory masks and emergency laws. Bannon, in turn, lauded her efforts and promised "we are going to have you back on."

Wolf has taken her protests across America, from Maine to Oregon, where she identified "a fascistic atmosphere" and compared Covid rules to Jim Crow laws.

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"I find her transition horrifying," says Boycott, a founding editor of ground-breaking feminist magazine Spare Rib and former editor of British Esquire and several national newspapers. "The moment she lost her grip on the intelligentsia because of a lazy error she had to find a new world to fit into where facts don't matter and that's the world she has gone to. Of course, she would become a superstar within it."

That "lazy error" stems from Wolf's University of Oxford thesis, which in 2015 fulfilled her dreams of holding a doctorate. The 495-page document was finally made public last month. It came with an embarrassing attachment: over nine pages and arranged in 63 bullet points, it set out 93 corrections and clarifications, from simple typos to serious howlers. This extended erratum slip was all the more remarkable for having been submitted by the internationally-famous author in 2020, five years after examiners had passed her work, granting her the right to use the prefix 'Dr.'

Furthermore, the DPhil, an exploration of the laws on homosexuality in 19th Century Britain and the life of Victorian poet John Addington Symonds, was the basis for Outrages: Sex, Censorship & The Criminalization of Love, Wolf's latest book. (The release of the thesis was held up until the book's publication, a common practice in academic publishing.)

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So flawed was some of the scholarship behind Outrages, that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book's original American publisher, pulped it.

At some universities, the book has become a case study in how not to do historical research. Dr Robin Mitchell, associate professor of history at California State University Channel Islands and an author on 19th century history, said her students were transfixed by Wolf's mistakes. "They were terrified of making an error that consequential. I felt like they got the responsibility to getting it right more than she did."

Dr Matt Lodder, senior lecturer in art history, uses Wolf's book in his "Introduction to Academic Writing and Research" course at the University of Essex. "She didn't read her sources properly, she failed to properly interrogate the existing literature, and she only sought evidence for a predetermined conclusion, rather than trying hard to disprove her hypothesis," he says. "The very idea that a published book can be 'wrong' is really quite a novel idea to young undergraduates, and Wolf's book provides such a perfect, distilled encapsulation of that."

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Things began to unravel for Wolf in 2019 when she was interviewed about Outrages by Dr Matthew Sweet, a presenter on the BBC radio show Free Thinking. The exchange, in Studio 8A at the top of the BBC's Broadcasting House in London, is excruciating. Wolf said she "found several dozen executions" of gay men extending into the late 19th century, claiming "this corrects a misapprehension…that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835." Sweet, who also holds a doctorate from Oxford, told her: "I don't think you are right about this."

He pointed out that "death recorded," which Wolf had interpreted as an execution, was a term reflecting a crime punishable by death that was commuted to a custodial sentence. He referred Wolf to digitally-archived contemporary newspaper accounts of cases mentioned in her book.

Sweet says his discovery of the errors "took an hour on the Internet" scrolling on his laptop from his sofa. He thinks they should have been spotted not just by the author but by those who read her book manuscript and examined her DPhil.

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On the radio Wolf came off as contrite and embarrassed. But afterwards she quickly shifted to accusing Sweet and her critics of trying "to whitewash LGBTQ+ history".

Baroness Helena Kennedy, a human rights lawyer who fact-checked Outrages, admitted that she too had misunderstood "death recorded,' but that the sentence still amounted to a "sword of Damocles" over the head of those convicted. The controversy was "a rather nasty British display of tall poppy syndrome," she suspected. "I am sure there is a high level of sexism in the mix, with a dismissal of female scholarship, and a territorial claim to certain kinds of subject matter." It was all just an "academic brouhaha," Kennedy said.

But the whole thing erupted again early this year after Virago, Dr Wolf's British publisher, released the paperback edition with only minimal correction.

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"I've never been so angry about a book," said Dr Fern Riddell, a specialist on the Victorian era and its attitudes to sex, in a 31-tweet thread on the book's errors and troubling omissions. "I know from experience the paperback is when you put your errors right. She hasn't," Riddell says. "Her indifference to these stories, the misleading of her readers, and her decision to commit historical fraud are some of the most disgusting and egregious actions I have ever witnessed another author willfully commit."

Virago says that it is "satisfied that Naomi Wolf had her book checked by scholars of the period."

The Outrages case raises questions over publishing ethics and whether Britain's doctoral examination system should be reappraised. "Given that the claims she was making in the doctorate were radically at odds with a well-known and established literature on 19th Century homosexuality, then it should have been absolutely interrogated very closely," says Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, whose Old Bailey Online archive was misunderstood by Dr Wolf.

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In a statement, Oxford said: "A thesis is a product of its time, and factual matters arising after its publication can be addressed separately by its author attaching clarifications or in further works."

"SMOKING GUNS EVERYWHERE"

That Wolf completed the thesis at all was a surprise, even to her. A Yale graduate, she arrived at Oxford in 1985 as a Rhodes scholar and describes it as "the place that radicalised me". Her experiences of "an encrusted, smug, disdainful, contemptuous, and inward-looking institution" helped to inspire The Beauty Myth. Raised in San Francisco in a liberal and scholarly family, she wanted to emulate her grandmother, a professor of sociology, and gain a doctorate. But her adviser told her it would be "difficult to defend" her angry and polemical writing before Oxford's examiners, and so she "left in a rage" and turned the thesis into an international bestseller.

Then, in middle age and as a celebrity writer, she found herself back in the City of Dreaming Spires and riding her bicycle through its hallowed streets, having been invited to complete the DPhil that she failed to complete a quarter of a century earlier. Her thesis, "Ecstasy or Justice? The Sexual Author and The Law, 1855-1885," was examined, passed and placed for posterity in Oxford's historic Bodleian libraries.

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Naomi Wolf's slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the 'conspiracist whirlpool'
Naomi Wolf and Alec Baldwin attend the premiere of "The End of America," a documentary adapted from Wolf's book of the same name, at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2008.Shane Gritzinger/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Some feminist writers who have followed Dr Wolf's career say her misuse of data is nothing new. "Belatedly people are asking questions that should have been asked a very long time ago," says Joan Smith, whose book Misogynies came out around the same time as The Beauty Myth. She remembers confronting Wolf at a TV studio over The Beauty Myth's use of statistics on deaths from anorexia. "She said she spoke to a doctor…who ran a clinic which was largely for patients with eating disorders and he told her what percentage of his patients had eating disorders and she applied that to the entire population of the UK. I thought it was complete nonsense." Wolf's misuse of statistics became the subject of a paper in Eating Disorders, an academic journal.

Wolf's next book, she says, will be called Step Ten, based on her contention that America is on the brink of fascism, as a result of responses to Covid. "A much-hyped medical crisis," she claims, "has taken on the role of being used as a pretext to strip us all of core freedoms." It is a sequel to a dystopian book Wolf wrote in 2008, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, in which she examined 20th Century dictatorships and what brought them about.

But back then, her focus was on the hidden intent behind post-Sept. 11 anti-terror laws and it was Republicans who worried her. In a piece promoting the book, headlined "Fascist America in 10 Easy Steps", she wrote: "It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George [W.] Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society."

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Wolf's taste for conspiracy theories is longstanding. She has suggested that Edward Snowden was a government plant, questioned the veracity of ISIS videos showing the beheadings of kidnapped Westerners, and posited that the Scottish independence referendum was rigged. She detected a secret agenda in the decision to send American troops to Liberia to coordinate the international response to the Ebola epidemic. It gave the disease a "direct vector into the U.S.", she claimed online.

More recently she has subscribed to conspiracy theories on the dangers of 5G. "Since November I've been noticing weird things happening in the clouds and also been noticing some strange group consciousness in Manhattan," she observed in a YouTube video on the supposed "huge health hazard" resulting from 5G rollout. She compared Covid adviser Anthony Fauci to "Satan," described vaccine champion Bill Gates as "a monster capable of mass experiments on humans" and claimed that children wearing face masks are losing the ability to smile. "I'm seeing kids with their lower faces hanging inertly, absolutely unmoving facial muscles, when they take their masks off," she tweeted.

When she recently complained that "progressive" friends were trying to "shame/bully me for talking to conservatives about liberty," Wolf argued: "How can I stop doing what I've always done?"

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