American Culture /

Camille Anna Paglia: The Anti-Feminist Feminist

The author and professor's views on women's liberation, date rape, and biology threaten the modern version of the feminist movement

In honor of Women’s History Month 2023, this is the second installment in a series of profiles of women whose work, lifestyle, and legacy have earned them the label anti-feminist. Read the first installment here

Camille Paglia is the feminist that feminists hate.

This social critic’s place in the landscape of feminist thought leaders serves as evidence of the clear division between the goals of women’s advocacy in the 1960s and the goals of the 21st century. 

As other feminists moved from championing liberation for women to embracing a fluid view of gender that dismisses biological differences between the sexes, Paglia fell behind. 

Her willingness to criticize other feminists as they abandoned the original tenants of the ideology made her an enemy to younger women who joined the cause in more recent decades. Paglia, however, did not abandon her beliefs. She rejected the socio-political movement’s growing insistence that differences between the sexes were a result of a patriarchal society, and instead demanded feminists considered the natural and observed contrasts between the sexes. 

In doing so, the Bernie Sanders- and Jill Stein-supporting tenure lesbian became known as America’s anti-feminist feminist. 

“For thousands of years, women had their own worlds. There was the world of women and there was the world of men. And the sexes did not have that much to do with each other,” Paglia said during one lecture.

Economic independence for women – removing them from dependency on their male relative or husband – was a never-before-attempted experiment. Paglia contends that tension between men and women created by this new social format led feminists to mistakenly conclude women would be happy if “we can just suppress men enough.”

“What women have lost is the old solidarity that they once had when they totally ruled the private sphere,” Paglia said. “A woman’s life all day long was with other women once – multigenerational, older women — as well as the children. It was a huge tribal experience.”

“And now, what women are experiencing is a sense of isolation and loneliness, disconnection from their old functions, “ Paglia said. “I’m not saying to go back… I’m just saying stop blaming men.”

Born the eldest child of Italian immigrants, Paglia was raised in upstate New York – an experience she credits with shaping her views on men and women. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York Binghamton as well as a Master’s and Ph.D. from Yale University. Paglia has been a humanities professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for since 1984. Her dissertation – which was ultimately published as Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson – argued that Western civilization centers entirely around sex. The book also launched her to the front of the nation’s feminist movement. 

She has been the eye of ideological storms since the 1990s, when New York Newsday published her essay on date rape. 

“The only solution to date rape is female self-awareness and self-control. A woman’s No. 1 line of defense against rape is herself,” Paglia argued. 

She stressed that feminists from her generation fought to be free from the bounds of male protection – to have college dorm curfews lifted in order to gain the right to risk being attacked while out at night. Achieving that right came with the responsibility of self-regulation. 

“There never was and never will be sexual harmony. Every woman must be prudent and cautious about where she goes and with whom,” she wrote. “When she makes a mistake, she must accept the consequences and, through self-criticism, resolve never to make that mistake again.”

Critics denounced her stance on date rape, accusing Paglia of victim-blaming and defending men. 

When she penned an essay for Time Magazine on the “wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses” in 2014, younger women dismissed her for expressing concerns about the potential violation of civil liberties and for not fighting “a culture that encourages the belief that women’s bodies are for the taking.”

“Put simply, this ‘dissident’ isn’t having any of feminists’ assertions that there is a pervasive and systemic rape culture that impacts women,” wrote Amy McCarthy for Bustle in response. “To suggest that crossed lines of consent can be reduced to the mistakes of fumbling teenage boys is to minimize the thousands of acquaintance rapes that happen on campuses every year.”

McCarthy argued:

Paglia then implies that women could somehow prevent being sexually assaulted by just not doing things that will purportedly get them raped, like looking at their iPods or cell phones instead of vigilantly policing the perimeter as they walk to biology. It isn’t “contrarian” or “edgy” for a “feminist” scholar to suggest that the onus is on rape victims to prevent rape, it’s just a really bad argument. Only rapists can prevent rape. You know, by not raping people.

…To characterize rape as anything other than prevalent in our culture is disingenuous… These types of claims have real world implications, especially in a culture that already refuses to address the fact that a third of women will experience sexual assault in their lives.

Paglia’s position on gender further severed her from American feminism as it evolved to adopt an increasingly genderless philosophy — an evolution seemingly predicted by Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s while campaigning against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.)

Despite the nation’s growing cultural acceptance of transgenderism, Paglia does not believe that an individual can change his or her gender. She has publicly questioned if every person who claims to be transgender is sincere. 

“The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible,” Paglia told The Weekley Standard in June of 2017. “Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.”

Paglia continued, “It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender.”

“Biology has been programmatically excluded from Women’s Studies and Gender Studies programs for almost 50 years now,” she added. “Thus very few current gender studies professors and theorists, here and abroad, are intellectually or scientifically prepared to teach their subjects.”

Paglia’s rejection of modern gender theory resembles sentiments expressed by alleged TERFs – Trans Radical Exclusionary Feminists – like Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling and the Women’s Liberation Front.

There have been multiple movements to have Paglia removed from UArts. In 2019, UArts students attempted to pressure the university into removing Paglia because of her view on gender and her alleged mockery of the #MeToo movement.

“Camille Paglia has been teaching at UArts for many years, and has only become more controversial over time,” a petition sent to UArts President David Yager stated. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the University must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault.”

Those involved in the movement specifically demanded the professor to be barred from public events and prevented from selling her books on campus. It was further requested that Paglia be replaced by a “queer person of color.”

Paglia said an “enormous surge of political correctness” prompted her to write her 2017 book Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender and Feminism.

“All of art and culture in the US is coming to a dead halt because of this hysteria,” she said at a Free Library event in March of 2017. “So I’m back.”

The book is a collection of Paglia’s writings from the 1990s that centers around the message to feminists that has made her persona non grata: “Stop blaming men.”

“Women will never know who they are until they let men be men,” she wrote. “An enlightened feminism, animated by a courageous code of personal responsibility, can only be built upon a wary alliance of strong women and strong men.”

The book, written over four decades after her first, makes it clear. Feminism in today’s world operates without the restrictions of logic and has suffered from a departure from the goals of its leaders in the mid-1900s. 

In an excerpt, Paglia wrote: 

Modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as tyrant father but demands it behave as nurturant mother. Feminism has inherited these contradictions. It sees every hierarchy as repressive, a social fiction; every negative about woman is a male lie designed to keep her in her place. Feminism has exceeded its proper mission of seeking political equality for women and has ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate.

Paglia is a feminist of days gone by. Her philosophies rely on nature and biology. Her goals oppose the victim mentality central to the worldview by individuals who now claim the moniker of feminist. Her steadfast dedication to facts that the modern world rejects is a threat. Despite her lifetime of work and dedication to the movement, Paglia is, by today’s standards, an anti-feminist. 

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