Finishing School For Feminists

“We are losing generations of young women,” states the press release for Naomi Wolf’s new project. Wolf doesn’t say where these females are vanishing, but she does know how to save them. She and five co-founders have created the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, devoted to transforming twentysomething women into “powerful agents of ethical change and enlightened leadership.”

Wolf will gather her charges for short retreats at the institute’s 350-acre farm in upstate New York. Some participants will visit for weekend confabs; others will attend a more intensive two-week summer program. By the time they are through, participants will have been schooled “to assume positions of power and influence.” They “will know the basics of the following: how to be financially literate; how to speak and present; how to write a business plan; fundraise; and run for elective office; how to write a book or magazine article proposal; how to mentor and be mentored; how to start a community organization; and how to be a philanthropist; as well as having pursued a more in-depth exploration of various ethical issues in leadership.”

It’s easy to question the self-help-ish tone of the literature, which offers a quick and easy route to astonishing personal gains, or its promise to endow participants with skills usually won through years of trial and error in the real world. But what, exactly, is ethical about this program? Consider its emphasis on activism for activism’s sake, its omission of any goals other than “empowerment.” The programs advertise themselves as “non-partisan.” In fact, they seem positively unpartisan, with self-satisfaction and self-promotion as their only ends.

Consider, too, the institute’s namesake. Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman to run for president, was a compelling figure, a suffragist who told Congress that the right to vote was guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments. But she was far from a paragon of ethical leadership. In one of the more outrageous incidents of her political career, she humiliated a prominent reformer, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, by publishing an account of his affair with one of his congregants, simply because she deemed him a hypocrite. Her biographer Barbara Goldsmith concludes that Woodhull was more committed to publicitythan to principle.

The organization’s literature is only, of course, its literature, and Woodhull is just a name on letterhead. Wherever it is that the next generation of feminist leaders gather, surely they will be moved to discuss something they actually believe in, besides their own professional development.