Claimed by everyone from Paris Hilton to Marie Le Pen, the mantle is loaded with a glorious past and dubious claimants to the throne. Andrea Dworkin's pathological hatred of men drove her extraordinary polemic. Julie Bindel's political lesbianism is a veneer of contempt for straight women. And the less said about Gloria Steinman, the better.
It's not surprising that those named never liked Camille Paglia.
Unashamedly pro-sex, pro-arts, pro-male, pro-pop culture and pro-capitalist, Paglia has been antagonising the professional bourgeoisie since the early 90's, and has recently been branded transphobic (then again, who hasn't) because of her views on trans activists and the ideology they are pushing. It's all a bad parody of thirty years ago, where she wrote pieces describing date rape on college campuses as being akin to a moral panic.
Published in 2017, Free Women, Free Men is a collection of essays, interviews and articles spanning Paglia's career. From her infamous New York Times op-ed piece on Madonna's 'Justify My Love' video, through to her denouncement of Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, American universities and second wave feminism, all the way through to her lengthily essay on the relationship between nature and art.
As individual chapters, there's a lot to chew on in terms of ideas. Take, for example, her writing on Nefertiti (wife of Akhenaten and rumoured to have ruled Egypt before Tutankhamen) where Paglia writes that the "...proper response to the...bust is fear. The queen is an android, a manufactured being...half masculine, a vampire of political will...Western personality in its ritual bonds."
Quite a response to a bust with one eye chiselled out!
Another example is her belief that:
... U.S. politics have been entangled and strangled for far too long by the rote histrionics of the abortion wars... Liberals routinely delude themselves with shrill propaganda about the motivation of “anti-woman” pro-life supporters. Hillary deals in those smears as her stock in trade: for example, while campaigning last week, she said in the context of Trump’s comments on abortion, “Women’s health is under assault in America”—as if difficulty in obtaining an abortion is more of an assault than the grisly intervention required for surgical termination of a pregnancy. Who is the real victim here?
For someone who openly supports abortion on the basis on the individual's right to choose, that ability to treat opposing views on an equal basis is quite an impressive feat. Some will argue that it is merely straddling the fence, to which my response would be that issues are a lot more complex and intricate than climbing a fence.
My personal favourite is her lecture detailing how Southern American women tend to be more progressive in terms of equality and self-preservation than their Northern counterparts. A kind of self power that is often derided, but rarely understood. Discussing the standard tropes (Southern belle, antebellum mammy and Appalachian mountain woman) via Ava Gardner, Tallulah Bankhead and Hattie McDaniel, it is a fascinating, lively and engaging look at a widely misunderstood segment of the American population.
However, over a whole book, Paglia's self aggrandising grates. Especially in the last third, where she sits comfortably on a throne, bragging about how she outlasted everyone else and how her generation changed the world. Ok, boomer.
Nonetheless, as an introduction to a controversial figure who still causes trouble today, you can't go wrong here. There will be some idea or statement that will make you pause for thought. The message of equality for both sexes is something that has to be applauded in this day and age.
Camille Paglia, 2017, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. Pantheon Books. ISBN-13: 978-0375424779
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.