When American author Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth in 1991, she set off a national debate about unrealistic beauty standards and their harmful effects on women. The backlash was sharp and immediate. Though the book was generally well-received, Wolf was criticized by news anchors, cosmetic surgeons and right-wing radio hosts who suggested there must be something wrong with her. Each time she was questioned, she recalled in a 1992 commencement speech at Scripps College, she would worry about offending her critics – about breaching unwritten rules of ‘niceness’ for women. ‘Oh no! I’d quail. People are mad at me!’ she said. Around that time, she read an essay by the poet and activist Audre Lorde, which argued that silence is not a form of protection, and Wolf began to change her approach. ‘Today I want to give you a backlash survival kit,’ she told the graduates, ‘a four-step manual to keep the dragons from taking up residence inside your own heads.’
In her speech, Wolf presents four ‘messages’ (message no. 1: ‘redefine “becoming a woman”’). She points out that women are told they have ‘become a woman’ after biological events such as childbirth, while men are taught they mature after completing a quest. She encourages the graduates to think instead of becoming a woman ‘through the chrysalis of education, the difficult passage from one book, one idea to the next’. In message no. 2, she tells women to ‘ask for money in your lives’, explaining that ‘the only language the status quo understands is money, votes and public embarrassment’. In message no. 3, Wolf states, ‘Never cook for or sleep with anyone who routinely puts you down’. Her last message, however, speaks most clearly to her own struggle to find and defend her voice.
A Woman’s Place 1992
Message No. 4: Become goddesses of disobedience. Virginia Woolf once wrote that we must slay the Angel in the House, the censor within. Young women tell me of injustices, from campus rape coverups to classroom sexism. But at the thought of confrontation, they freeze into niceness. We are told that the worst thing we can do is cause conflict, even in the service of doing right. Antigone is imprisoned. Joan of Arc burns at the stake. And someone might call us unfeminine!
… I began to ask each time: ‘What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?’ Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, ‘disappeared’ or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
… Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.