On the day I met Camille Paglia for lunch, I arrived early at the Greek restaurant she had selected and let the hostess guide me to a table in the back. To me this seemed like a perfectly fine table. Paglia, who arrived a few minutes later, disagreed.
It was a booth. And there were people right beside us. There was a table near the front, Paglia said, where she had taken meetings before; perhaps we could sit there. Accompanied by the hostess, we walked to the new table and considered it. Paglia allowed that probably the hostess could not grant the two of us this six-top. We needed a smaller table — but one that was quiet, and private. A second restaurant employee had joined us. Another booth was proposed, another booth rejected. Paglia felt it imperative that we have real chairs. Sitting on a booth’s cushions might lull us into a state of haremlike drowsiness, she felt. We needed to be alert.
I found myself swept along by her willingness to be difficult, which did not manifest itself as rudeness or a sense of entitlement but as a perfect, inviolable comfort in pursuing exactly what she wanted. She was going to get the right table. And what was I going to do, apologize for Camille Paglia? If it is possible to possess immunity to the unspoken expectations of female behavior — to be impervious, on a cellular level, to the will of the patriarchy (to use one of her least favorite terms) — then Paglia possesses that immunity.
At last we were seated at a small table a few yards from the first. We would remain there for the next 4 hours and 45 minutes. In the grand scheme of Paglia interviews, mine was brief. When Francesca Stanfill profiled her for a New York cover story, in 1991, their conversation lasted ten hours, long enough for Paglia to consume two steaks: one for lunch and a second for dinner.
“Normally I would order meat, but I think it’s going to interfere,” Paglia explained, as we considered the menu. “Because I’ll be talking nonstop.” She selected moussaka and a Corona, and began.
Here are some things of which Camille Paglia — perhaps the most famous alleged anti-feminist feminist in American history — approves: football, Bernie Sanders, Katharine Hepburn, Rihanna, the Real Housewives franchise, taramasalata. (It tastes like lox, not like nova, which is good, because nova is too refined; it’s missing all the fish taste.) Here are some things Camille Paglia scorns, and should you have a problem with her scorn, know that she enjoys a fight: Michel Foucault, Doris Day, Lena Dunham, Elena Ferrante, college students who are always whining about date rape. Here are some things of which Camille Paglia used to approve, but has since exiled from her esteem: Bill Clinton, Madonna. She continues to believe in both the ’60s and rock and roll.
Paglia’s new book, out this month, is called Free Women, Free Men, and it compiles writings from throughout her career addressing sex, gender, and feminism — in other words, her most cherished and contentious themes. Paglia first came to prominence with the 1990 release of Sexual Personae. It was a 700-page book based on her Yale Ph.D. thesis, and the rare academic volume that might be described as swashbuckling. Sexual Personae cut an eccentric, interdisciplinary path across Western culture from antiquity onward, recounting what Paglia viewed as the ceaseless battle of nature (which is violent, irrational, untamable, and female) versus culture (aesthetic, logical, ever struggling and failing to tame nature, and, yes, male).
Amid the culture wars of the early ’90s, she presented a seductive alternative to liberal pieties, and to an academy in thrall to deconstructionism and multiculturalism. A self-described libertarian advocate of sexual freedom and free speech, she thought that second-wave feminism had become a homogenized, repressive force for ill (also, that it was intellectually bankrupt). What if, she demanded, Western civilization and the white men who built it deserved some credit? What if feminists were ignoring everything that was important not just about art but about sex? What if she, Camille Paglia, was the true feminist, because she believed women shouldn’t be asking some sexual-harassment grievance board to protect them from the world’s dangers? In her pop-culture-friendly tastes and in her noisy, splashy flair for performance, she offered herself as the populist foil to the liberal elite — she was, for a time, irresistible to the press, winning airtime and magazine covers, and claiming the throne of anti-PC provocateur par excellence. She made her name scorning all that the left held sacrosanct. “Her calling herself a feminist,” Gloria Steinem said back then, “is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.”
The past few years have felt like a return to the identity-politics wars of the 1990s, another period in which liberals (especially those inside the academy) began to draw bright lines dictating the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Paglia was always on the wrong side of those lines — and in some ways she seems never to have left those years, when her persona was forged in the crucible of contrarianism. Is it that she hasn’t learned any better, or that everyone else hasn’t?
Paglia may have set out to make feminism great again — to restore it to some imagined golden age of tough screwball heroines and Simone de Beauvoir — but she’s been taken up by the opposite force altogether. The men’s-rights activists of the “manosphere” and alt-right conservatives find fundamental truths in Paglia’s ancient understanding of sex roles: the notion that women bear terrifying, mysterious powers of seduction and reproduction, and therefore men need to prove themselves by conquering, competing, and creating. Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps today’s most high-profile hater of feminists, has called Paglia a chief influence; the alt-right news site Breitbart often cites her work approvingly.
She herself is wary of any alignment with the right wing. Back in the ’90s, she took umbrage when she was sometimes branded a conservative, and would respond by stressing her rebel credentials: She was out as a lesbian back in the late ’60s, she hated censorship, hated prudery, wanted to liberalize alcohol and drug laws — how could she possibly be a conservative? And yet, by the logic of shared mutual enemies, her attacks on liberalism make her work useful artillery (with the added credibility of coming from someone ostensibly in the enemy camp). She hasn’t paid much attention to the rise of the alt-right, but, she said, “elite discourse about gender has become so nonsensical and removed from reality that rowdy outbreaks of resistance and rebellion are unsurprising.”
Though Paglia writes, from time to time, about politics and culture, for the most part she has receded from the center of feminist debate. “It must be stressed that my flamboyant media presence lasted scarcely four years and was boosted by the official book tours for three bestsellers in a row (1991–94),” she writes in the new book. “After that, like the Roman general Cincinnatus returning to his plow, I simply resumed my cherished seclusion as a teacher and writer. As I often say, I’m just a schoolmarm!” She has been ensconced at the University of the Arts, a school of visual and performing arts, in Philadelphia, for 33 years. In the past decade, she’s undertaken solitary research into the Native American tribes of southeastern Pennsylvania, collecting artifacts and noting rock formations that she believes appear manmade. She hopes this research might develop into a book, but said that her agent foresaw little commercial appeal.
Paglia presents herself as a willing academic pariah. The University of the Arts provides her “a real job,” she says, one grounded in “everyday, mundane reality.” (“This is what Susan Sontag never did,” she told me. “Intellectuals have to do that.”) But a fascination with fame, her own and others’, tugs at her insistence that she loves anonymity. “I’m lucky,” she told me. “I have absolutely no importance of any kind. Now and then, someone will come up to me and say, after class, ‘You know, my father is a fan of yours, and he says that you’ve written some books.’ I say, ‘Well, thank you, send my best wishes to your father.’ So they have absolutely no sense whatever that I write books or anything else. Maybe now they’re starting to, because of the web — they’re starting to see me interviewed on YouTube or things like that.”
Paglia is small, and, at 69, a little stooped. The severe chic of her ’90s styling — dark eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, and a salt-and-pepper crest — has softened a bit with time. Lately, she wears her hair in a light-brown shag, which she got after bringing a photo of Jane Fonda’s Klute cut to her stylist. Her ex, Alison Maddex (a co-founder of New York’s Museum of Sex), lives nearby, and the two of them are parents to a 14-year-old son. (“I wouldn’t have known how to raise a girl,” Paglia said. “I mean, the idea that I would have to — pink nail polish, all that, oh my god. I don’t know what I would have done.”) The only TV she watches are Turner Classic Movies and the Real Housewives. She has no interest in Facebook, Twitter, or the Kardashians.
Certain biographical details, offered up regularly in Paglia’s writings and interviews, seem freighted with the mythic significance of a superhero origin story. She enjoys telling the story of the time she literally kicked the ass of a student when she was teaching at Bennington. (“I was wearing my big Frye boots,” she informed me.) Her family was Italian, hence her intense appreciation of beauty and other sensory pleasures, and Catholic, which attuned her to wild pagan elements of the Western tradition neglected among America’s bland mid-century WASP elite. (Her willingness to paint cultural traditions in broad strokes is in keeping with her disdain for PC delicacy; her willingness to attribute significance to family origins is appropriate for someone who thinks Freud gets shortchanged these days.) As a child, she dressed up in a succession of “transvestite” Halloween costumes — Robin Hood, Napoleon, Hamlet — because these were the characters with whom she identified. “But never in my passionate identification with heroic male figures was I encouraged by concerned but misguided adults to believe that I actually was a boy and that medical interventions could bring that hidden truth to life,” she writes, in the introduction to her new book. (And yet: She’s called herself a “non-gendered entity.”)
Paglia tends to describe the years between graduate school and the publication of Sexual Personae as a period of solitary toil in the academic hinterlands. But infamy quickly followed its release. In the space of a year or so after the book came out, Paglia wrote a handful of widely discussed and reprinted articles in the mainstream press — what might now be called hot takes: a Newsday op-ed on date rape in which she decried “dopey, immature, self-pitying women walking around like melting sticks of butter”; an op-ed for the Times (the piece that made her “instantly notorious,” she says) in which she called Madonna “the future of feminism.”
The new book provides a brief introduction to the Paglia who inhabited the ’90s-era popular press. There’s a selection of clippings that includes cartoons with Paglia punch lines; magazine covers and photo shoots; and an illustration of Paglia, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan that Vanity Fair ran with a 1998 story on “America’s Most Influential Women” — an illustration, rather than a photo, because Steinem allegedly refused to pose alongside her.
Despite her brawler affect (she liked showing up to photo shoots with swords and whips) and her confidence — the kind of confidence required to declare that the “Ur-model for Sexual Personae as magnum opus” was “undoubtedly the Metropolitan Museum of Art” — Paglia was stung to be rejected by the intellectual and feminist Establishment and others she saw as natural allies. Like the Village Voice — “I am a CHILD of The Village Voice!” she wrote me in an email — which portrayed her as a conservative and an “intellectual fraud” in a 1991 cover story, and which she eventually threatened with legal action for its “pattern of malicious conduct.” And like Madonna, whom she praised in 1990 for teaching “young women how to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their lives.” “For her to complain that she never had any female peers when I was right there and ready,” Paglia said, wistful. She still thinks she could have improved Madonna’s Sex book, if she’d been given the chance. “I’m just another Italian-American like her.”
“I’m 43 years old,” she said, remembering the response to Sexual Personae. “A middle-aged woman, you know, who has struggled for 20 years to write a 700-page book, and this is the way they treat her? Like she’s an enemy of the human race? And malign me? It’s unbelievable. So that’s why I became popular. I got a flood of mail from people who had been treated the same way by feminists.”
Today, Paglia is something of a cult taste. (Heterodox feminists will, occasionally, admit to a bygone Paglia phase, as a sort of indulgent guilty-pleasure confession.) Her style — confrontational, high-low omnivorous, with a retro-’90s veneer — feels weirdly on-trend. You could imagine seeing “Camille Paglia” alongside “Fran Drescher” on the pencils (celebrating women who “defy expectations”) sold at the Wing. But she feels as little kinship with feminists today as she felt with their ’90s forebears. “I was fearing talking to you, actually,” she told me, during our lunch, as we watched the waitstaff change over and the lights brighten, then dim again for dinner. “I had no idea if you’d be a political ideologue.” I had graduated not too long ago from a liberal East Coast college, I worked in the liberal New York media: To Paglia, all this was ominous.
Paglia was not surprised by the election results. “I felt the Trump victory coming for a long time,” she told me. Writing last spring, she’d called Trump “raw, crude and uninformed” but also “smart, intuitive and a quick study”; she praised his “bumptious exuberance and slashing humor” (and took some pleasure in watching him fluster the GOP). Speaking two weeks into his administration, she sounded altogether less troubled by the president than any other self-declared feminist I’d encountered since Inauguration Day: “He is supported by half the country, hello! And also, this ethically indefensible excuse that all Trump voters are racist, sexist, misogynistic, and all that — American democracy cannot proceed like this, with this reviling half the country.”
In fact, she has had to restrain herself from agreeing with the president, at least on certain matters. “I have been on an anti–Meryl Streep campaign for about 30 years,” she said. When Trump called the actress “overrated” in a January tweet, “I wanted to leap into print and take that line but I couldn’t, because Trump said it.”
It’s true that there is not infrequently something Trumpian in Paglia’s cadence (lots of ingenuous exclamation points — “This tyrannical infantilizing of young Americans must stop!”), as well as her irresistible compulsion to revisit enemies, slights, and idées fixes (substitute “Gloria Steinem” and “Lacan” for “the failing New York Times”). And then, perhaps most important: She, like Trump, gives her audience the vicarious thrill of watching someone who appears to be saying whatever the hell they want. Reading Paglia is a bit like how it must have felt to be an enthusiastic attendee at a Trump campaign rally: She can’t possibly REALLY mean that, you think, and laugh, bewildered — but can you imagine how annoyed it must make people?
She doesn’t seem especially troubled by the rise of a certain kind of outlandish vitriol on the right. When I asked her about Yiannopoulos, she wrote back: “Too many gay men have lost the scathingly cruel wit for which they were famous in the pre-Stonewall era. None of his satirical jibes seem any worse than the campy insults that the great female impersonator Charles Pierce had Bette Davis fling at Joan Crawford. However, true reformers need to build as well as attack. When I burst into notoriety, I had a 700-page book behind me and campaigned on a detailed agenda critiquing both the Left and the Right.”
Paglia’s displeasure over the election was largely reserved for the liberal Establishment, and for Hillary Clinton, whom she’s criticized lavishly for the last 20 years. “I like Hillary because she’s kind of a bitch,” Paglia said in a 1993 interview, but her assessment has since evolved. She now calls Clinton “a walking neurosis.” During the primaries, Paglia preferred Bernie Sanders — “an authentic leftist,” who brought her back to the 1960s. “That is what real leftists were like,” she told me. “They’re not post-structuralists with their snide, cool, elitist jargon.” In the general election, as a resident of Pennsylvania, she voted for Jill Stein.
She approved — of all things — of the Women’s March. “I think it’s important that women rediscover solidarity with themselves,” she said. “It really wasn’t about feminism. It’s really not about Trump. It’s not about any of that. It was all of a sudden, Oh, wow, to be with all the women.”
Still, the pussy hats: She buried her face in her hands as she discussed them. “I was horrified, horrified by the pink pussy hats,” she said; the pink pussy hats were “a major embarrassment to contemporary feminism.”
“I want dignity and authority for women,” she said. “My code is Amazonism. I want weapons.”
Mostly, though, she was exasperated with the general sense of upheaval that had dominated recent months. “This is all meaningless,” she said. “So sometimes it’s like, oh my God, the news, and then I pick up my book and suddenly I’m reading about ten thousand years ago again, and, wow, that gives you a perspective.” It is this that gives her Native American research its appeal.
Not long ago, Paglia joined the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. When she was a child, her first ambition was to be an archaeologist, and she finds returning to the pursuit as an adult deeply gratifying. It also offers new battles. During a talk given at a conference by a museum curator, Paglia raised her hand and brought up the stone tools she’s found, which she believes were used for scraping meat and fur off hides. She became accustomed to recognizing them by the way they fit her grip. “You keep turning it, and all of a sudden it falls into your hand in exactly the right way.” She mimed this: the satisfaction of holding something well made and potentially dangerous.
“So I raised my hand and I wanted to make a comment how incredible that is to have them fit, and the guy overruled me and said, ‘No, scrapers were used with wooden handles.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe some were used with wooden handles but a lot of them are for the fingers.’ He said, ‘No, they’re not.’ So I was really offended.”
It was only later that she realized why she saw what he didn’t. “Men have never found that, because when they pick up these things, their fingers don’t fit,” she explained. “My hands fit exactly. My hands are the size of the Native American women’s hands.” Paglia saw the promise of a new fight on the horizon.
*A version of this article appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.