[(review date fall 2000) In the following review, Gring-Pemble and Blair argue that writings by "popular press feminists" such as Sommers "derive their powerful appeal from assuming the form of archetypal romantic quest narratives," which ultimately "limit possibilities for critical assessments as well as honest debate and exchange."]
On the open highway, battling stormy nature and dodging mammoth eighteen-wheelers (today's piratical tramp freighters), woman has never been more mobile, more capable of the archetypal journey of the heroic quest, a traditionally masculine myth.(Paglia xi)
In Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia provocatively casts women as self-sufficient individuals on a quest to recover feminism's true nature from academic distortion. Paglia's book represents just one of several national, best-selling, "feminist" books published in the past decade, including Rene Denfield's The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, and Naomi Wolf's Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century. Together, these "popular press feminists"1 have levied a powerful critique of academic feminism and offered a new vision grounded in a "purer" feminism from the past. In so doing, since the mid-1990s, they have received significant media attention, gracing the front pages of popular media and igniting a flood of public commentary.2 Organizations such as the Women's Freedom Network, the Independent Women's Forum, and the Network for Empowering Women, testify to the widespread appeal of these articulations of a "new feminism."
Despite considerable media praise of these "popular feminisms," several scholars and theorists have sought to expose the flaws in their arguments and refute the limits of these popular press feminists' works.3 For example, feminist theorist Patricia McDermott argues that such books generally "promote a version of women's studies that trivializes feminist analyses of power, undermines attempts to effect social change, and casts feminism as a hegemonic bully on American campuses" (1995, 671). Nevertheless, Pulitzer Prize winning author Susan Faludi notes that, despite persistent challenges to their works, these authors have gained legitimacy in the popular press to the extent that they are often the first contacted by journalists looking for a feminist perspective on an issue (1995, 37).
In this essay, we argue that the power of these popular-press feminist texts does not reside in the form of traditional arguments; rather, the power of these texts comes from the story that the authors tell. In other words, although Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers engage in traditional argumentative strategies to create an understanding of the women's movement, they rely predominantly on story-telling as a persuasive vehicle. Beginning from the assumption that the narratives people tell profoundly shape the reality people come to know and share with others, we focus our analysis on the narratives in these books to understand the ways in which the discourses produce and revise the meaning of feminism. We treat the rhetorical strategies embedded in...