Outspoken Paglia condemns traditional feminism

Noted social critic Camille Paglia GRD ’74 shared her particular brand of feminism with the Yale Political Union Tuesday evening.
Noted social critic Camille Paglia GRD ’74 shared her particular brand of feminism with the Yale Political Union Tuesday evening. Photo by Andrew Stein.

A self-professed “Amazonian feminist,” Camille Paglia GRD ’74 claims to have once initiated a fistfight with a dissenting colleague. Her discussion of gender roles during the Yale Political Union’s’s Tuesday night debate was no less spirited.

The feminist author and provocative cultural critic, who describes herself as an “old grizzled warhorse” of the 1950s, urged a crowd of about 100 undergraduates gathered in Linsley-Chittenden Hall to consider gender roles as intrinsic to human biology rather than imposed by society. Throughout her address, Paglia railed against traditional feminist theory and its dependence on social psychology rather than hard scientific evidence.

“Those who espouse the idea that the model for human life should be gender-neutral — that we have been born blank slates and society prescribes upon us gender roles — have never made the slightest inquiry into science, history or anthropology,” she said.

Paglia plunged into her critique of what she deemed traditional feminist theory by mocking the latest book from author Naomi Wolf ’84, with whom Paglia has an established rivalry. She condemned Wolf’s lack of “objective” evidence in her latest release, “Vagina,” and her goddess-like characterizations of women.

But then Paglia turned to her own scholarship of ancient mythology, heralding the concept of the femme fatale and asserting that women should not fear “overwhelming charismatic sexuality.” Her commentary echoed her past praises of female pop culture icons such as Madonna, whom Paglia hailed in a New York Times op-ed as the “savior” of an entire generation of women who struggled to come to terms with their femininity.

Paglia contrasted the ideals of the femme fatale and sexual liberation with the “neutered” American environment of the “white, upper-middle-class” workplace in which women are trained to quash their own “vitality and assertiveness.”

“Girls have been trained how to be nice,” Paglia said. “They have to learn how to say no.”

Drawing laughter from the audience, Paglia peppered her discussion with blunt descriptions of sexual encounters and her own nonconformity with regard to gender norms — as a child, she said she viewed dolls as peculiar “chunks of humanoid rubber” and consistently chose “transsexual Halloween costumes,” such as Hamlet.

Ella Wood ’15, vice chairman of the YPU’s Independent Party, spearheaded the opposition argument, asserting that gender roles are “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive” and provide additional “obstacles to self-expression.” She argued that certain prescriptive norms — such as citizenship — can be unifying, but that gender roles are “self-reinforcing” and “divisive.”

Mark DiPlacido ’15, secretary-treasurer of the Party of the Right, dismissed Wood’s notion that gender roles are prescriptive, citing “natural realities” like a woman’s ability to carry a child.

“Feminism tries to dictate that it is oppressive to have children,” DiPlacido said. “Is it something we should try to control and eliminate? Shouldn’t we celebrate it rather than view it as a burden?”

The biological basis of gender roles was a theme of the debate, which members of the audience said they found refreshing.

Jacob Stai ’16 said he thought Paglia was right to question the lack of scientific research generally cited in feminist theory.

But Ryan Pollock’13, a member of the Liberal Party and former YPU speaker, said he was disappointed by Paglia’s interpretation of gender roles. While he said her discussion focused too heavily on the physical biological factors, like sex, he also said it was likely that the mostly liberal audience identified with her argument.

“She definitely made a good point against pure androgyny, though some argue that it’s not necessarily incompatible with feminism,” Kelsey Larson ’16 said.

Tuesday marked Paglia’s second fete with the YPU ­— she supported the afYfirmative of the resolution “Are women are better than men?” at a 1995 debate.

Correction: Sept. 12, 2012

An earlier version of this article misidentified the debate as being held by the Independent Party and not the Yale Political Union. It also misidentified Ryan Pollock ’13 as Harry Graver ’14.


  • yellowasp

    Harry Graver is not a member of the liberal party, and not a former YPU speaker. Fact check fail.

  • grumpyalum

    The lede is terrible and the amount of factual errors (she was speaking to the YPU, not the IP, thank goodness!) is impressive.

  • River_Tam

    <3 Camille Paglia. Women should not be afraid to be women. Social equality for women through androgyny/masculinity is not equality at all.

    But seriously, who fact-checks this stuff?

    • penny_lane

      >But seriously, who fact-checks this stuff?

      Liane Membis?

  • tisquinn

    The debate was a debate of the Yale Political Union, not the Independent Party.
    Harry Graver is a member of the Conservative Party, is the Speaker of the Union, and did not speak at the debate.
    Some better fact checking would be appreciated.

  • jwr

    What an awful article!

  • Jess

    Finally, evidence to support my theory that the YDN is fact-checked by monkeys!

  • Brian1001

    For a Different take on some of the subjects in the Naomi Wolf book that was referenced above,
    you might want to watch [“It’s Not You…It’s Sex.”][1] on youtube.

    [1]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-64YvFTp8Q

  • ldffly

    Criticism of Naomi Wolf is always well deserved but why did Paglia limit her critique to Naomi Wolf? While she was at it, why didn’t she jump on Judy Butler? Figuratively of course.

    By the way, the critique of gender as a projection, or social construct, hardly needs to appeal to biology for refutation. It’s bad philosophy and needs philosophical refutation.

    • BenWilson

      She did also speak about Judy Butler in both a figurative and scholarly sense.

      • ldffly

        Thanks! You know, I shouldn’t have assumed that the article was complete. My mistake.

        Camille Paglia knows the secondary literature. Besides, if she took a swipe at the one prominent alumna, she was bound to take a swipe at the other.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” old grizzled warhorse of the 1950’s.” I’m in love. PK

  • penny_lane

    I wasn’t at the debate, so maybe this was discussed and this distinction is another victim of poor reporting, but…

    I really, really, really hate it when gender roles and gender identity are conflated. The David Reimer case alone should be proof enough that you can’t raise a boy as a girl without serious psychological trauma to the child. Gender identity is biological, period.

    However, the “roles” society prescribes to men and women have been rich and various throughout history, and numerous as there are human cultures. What does that mean about how we should live? I say out with the bad, in with the good. I agree with the idea of embracing female sexuality as inherent to femininity, but I do NOT agree that subservience is an innate female characteristic. To use a reference point familiar to Paglia, I give you Diana, the goddess of virginity: a rebellious woman who defies social expectations of marriage for the sake of hunting, though the hunter was traditionally a man’s social role.

    Anyway, Madonna is, yes, Madonna, but I still think the savior of femininity is Cyndi Lauper, who broke feminism down damn well for the post-second wave women coming into their own:

    >Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world/
    I wanna be the one to walk in the sun; oh girls, they wanna have fun

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Anyway, Madonna is, yes, Madonna, but I still think the savior of femininity is Cyndi Lauper, who broke feminism down damn well for the post-second wave women coming into their own:”

    **These people are trivialities of a cosmetic culture.
    Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.
    THERE is a significant woman.
    Joan d”Arc
    There is another significant woman.
    Placing them beside modern inconsequentialities like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper is
    beyond absurd.**

    • jamesdakrn

      Joan d’Arc was nothing but a mascot.

    • penny_lane

      No, I have to agree with Paglia on this one. The influence Madonna and Lauper had on a generation of women can’t be ignored. I’ve known about Joan of Arc (or Jeanne D’Arc if you prefer, but please don’t mix them up) and Elizabeth I all my life, and I was taught to admire prominent women (e.g. Madeline Albright) from a young age, but the influence Lady Gaga has had on me in terms of shaping my ideas about myself as a woman is far more important. It won’t always be that way, but as I’ve stopped being a girl and come into my own as a young woman, the way that she both owns her sexuality and is more than it has helped me more than just knowing, “Oh hey, women do cool things too.” I don’t have to “unsex” myself to be a strong woman or a good feminist. It’s a damned important thing for women to know.

    • penny_lane

      Also, she wasn’t a virgin, she just never married. That nickname is degrading.

      • River_Tam

        What? How so? Elizabeth herself touted her virginity throughout her life. It was a smart political ploy on her part too.

      • jamesdakrn

        We don’t know for sure.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” the influence Lady Gaga has had on me in terms of shaping my ideas about myself as a woman is far more important”

    Oh my.

    • onesillyfish