She came to public attention shortly after the publication of her
first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to
Emily Dickinson, in 1990, when she began writing about popular culture
and feminism in mainstream newspapers and magazines. As a public
intellectual, Paglia challenged the positions of the so-called "liberal
establishment" at the time, which included figures in media,
academe, activism and politics such as Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin,
professors at many Ivy League universities, and organizations such
as National Organization for Women and ACT UP.
describes herself as a feminist, and as a Democrat who voted for
Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader, but her world view embraced risque
elements not typically associated with those groups, such as fetishism,
pornography, and prostitution. As a proponent for the legalization
of drugs and prostitution, and the lowering of sexual consent
laws, she identified herself with libertarian thought.
critical of the influence that French philosophers Jacques Lacan,
Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault had on the teaching of humanities
in American academe, she advocated that comparative religion,
art history and the close reading of canonical literature be brought
to the center of education, with greater attentiveness toward
chronology and facts in the student's approach to history.
most notable allies and supporters (though, of course, for different
reasons), were Andrew Sullivan, Christina Hoff Sommers, Virginia
Postrel, Harold Bloom, Bill Maher, and Matt Drudge. Elise Sutton,
a dominatrix who advocates female domination of males, describes
Paglia as a female supremacist and a friend.
addition to having written five books, she has been a columnist
for Salon.com since its inception, is currently a contributing
editor at Interview magazine, and is on the editorial board of
the classics and humanities journal Arion. She continues to write
articles and reviews for popular media and scholarly journals,
such as her long article, "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness:
Religious Vision in the American 1960s," published in Arion
in winter 2003.
September 2005, she was ranked #20 in a survey of the "Top
100 Public Intellectuals" in the world, in a list compiled
jointly by editors of the journals "Foreign Policy"
and "The Prospect" (UK). The list, which included only
10 women, also included feminist thinkers Germaine Greer, Martha
Nussbaum, and Julia Kristeva.
Camille Anna Paglia was born April 2, 1947, at 6:57 PM in Endicott,
New York. She was the first child of Pasquale and Lydia Anne (Colapietro)
Paglia, who was born in Italy, and was raised in an Italian immigrant
Paglia household had little money, but the parents exposed their
daughter to the best of Western art and culture. She said that
the first music to leave an impression on her was Bizet's Carmen,
an opera which, in her words, "struck me with electrifying
force." She was three when she heard it. That same year,
she also became enamored with the evil queen in Walt Disney's
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a character she later described
as elegant and imperious.
her childhood, she was drawn to several charismatic and powerful
figures in art, popular culture and history, setting a precedent
for her adult career as critic and scholar. Her writings often
draw on the entire history of her experience with these figures,
from the moment she first encountered them, through her enjoyment
of them as a fan, to her scholarly and critical assessment of
them. In this sense, she can be described as an experiential critic;
that is to say, her work is less theoretical than other writers
and more attentive to her direct experience with the topics about
which she writes.
an example, even her Halloween characters as a child became subjects
of her serious writings as an adult (she dressed as Alice from
Alice in Wonderland at the age of four; Robin Hood at five; the
toreador Escamillo at six; a Roman soldier at seven; Napoleon
at eight and Hamlet at nine; and she has been published on all
of these topics, with the exception, perhaps, of Robin Hood.)
primary school years were spent in Oxford, New York, a farming
community where, at the Oxford Academy, her father taught high
school students. Her family moved to Syracuse, New York, where
her father entered graduate school at Syracuse University and
then taught as a professor of romance languages at Le Moyne College.
Paglia attended the Edward Smith Elementary school, T. Aaron Levy
Junior High and William Nottingham High School.
the summers, she went to Spruce Ridge Camp, a Girl Scout facility
in the Adirondacks. Many years later she described it, in the
New York Observer, as a "prelesbian heaven. It was just so
romantic. I had mad crushes on all the counselors." She took
different names when she was there, including Anastasia, her confirmation
name, inspired by the Ingrid Bergman film, Stacy, and Stanley.
In one formative experience, she exploded the outhouse by pouring
in too much lime. She said, "It symbolized everything I would
do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness.
I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture..."
all accounts, she was an excellent student at Nottingham High,
devoted to her work. Carmelia Metosh was her Latin teacher for
three years, and in 1992 recalled: "She always has been controversial.
Whatever statements were being made (in class), she had to challenge
them. She made good points then, as she does now. She was very
alert, `with it' in every way." Paglia thanked Metosh in
the acknowledgements to Sexual Personae, and in January 2000,
described her as "the dragon lady of Latin studies, who breathed
fire at principals and school boards."
some ways it appears that 1963 was the beginning of her career
as a feminist scholar. For her birthday that year, she received
a copy of Simone de
Beauvoir's The Second Sex from a Belgian colleague
of her father's, Josphina van Hal McGinn. The book had a tremendous
influence on her and furthered her resolve to be an important
feminist writer. On July 8 of that year, Newsweek magazine published
her letter about equal opportunity for American women.
November 24, she appeared in Syracuse's Herald American in a short
profile about her outstanding achievements as a student, noting
her longtime study of feminist icon Amelia Earhart. Paglia had
been writing a book about Earhart, spending three years gathering
materials and writing nearly 300 letters of inquiry to do so;
but after reading The Second Sex she resolved to write a "mega-book
that will take everything in", and stopped writing about
Earhart. It was then that she began what would eventually become
She began attending SUNY Binghamton, Harpur College in 1964, graduating
as valedictorian of her class in 1968. The essays she wrote during
her college years on questions of "sexual ambiguity and aggression
in literature, art, and history" formed the first beginnings
of "Sexual Personae".
was at Harpur, she later wrote, that she received her real education
in poetry. There she took courses in Metaphysical poetry and John
Milton from Arthur L. Clements, an expert in 17th century literature.
But the biggest impact on her thinking occured in the classes
of poet Milton Kessler, who had studied under Theodore Roethke.
She wrote her senior thesis on Emily Dickinson.
at college she became friendly with Bruce Benderson (who had also
attended Nottingham High School), Stephen Jarratt and Stephen
Feld, three gay men who would have a big influence on her. During
a summer break, she worked the night shift at St. Joseph's Hospital
in Syracuse as a secretary in the emergency ward. One semester
at college she was put on probation for committing 39 pranks.
When she was 19, she hit a drunken young stranger in the teeth
with her right fist, protecting a small student whom he and a
friend were groping on the street.
next went on to Yale Graduate School, just as the women's movement
and gay liberation exploded into American consciousness, yet Paglia
found conflict at the university due to her sexual orientation
and sexually ambiguous persona. Just a few months after beginning
her studies she attended a party in the home of R. W. B. Lewis,
one of her teachers, and ended up being insulted by a prominent
Yale psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton and his wife for being
at that time, was the Foundations' Fund Research Professor in
Psychiatry at Yale, a position he held until 1984. His attack
seems to have emboldened her to not only be out as a lesbian,
but to be in everyone's face about it. She has repeatedly noted
she was publicly out as a lesbian at Yale Graduate School, and
was actually the only open lesbian there from 1968 to 1972, a
fact which harmed her career. As she told reporter Dan Savage
took the career price for that. I shoved my lesbianism down people’s
throats when I wasn’t getting any pleasure from it; I couldn’t
find anyone to be with! There is the irony, I took all the negatives
without any of the positives! I tried. I tried to pick up women,
I tried. In 1969 I traveled Europe with the handbook, The Gay
Guide to Europe. I went from place to place, every city, and I
thought, "What is the problem here?" All the gay men
are finding contacts everywhere! You can’t avoid it! Bus
terminals, toilets, diners, everywhere! Finally I had to conclude,
after so many decades of frustration, that lesbians are not looking
for sex. It’s not about sex. They think it’s about
sex. It’s about mommy! It’s about mommy is what it’s
studying at Yale, Paglia quarreled with Rita Mae Brown, whom she
later characterised as "then darkly nihilist", and fought
with the New Haven, Connecticut Women's Liberation Rock Band because
they dismissed the Rolling Stones as "sexist."
study of sexuality in Western literature continued to develop
with her reading of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love and Edmund
Spenser's Faerie Queene. Several of her closest friends, Benderson,
Jarratt and Feld all moved to San Francisco. Paglia recalled that
she "had two close encounters with Kate Millett (author of
Sexual Politics) just after she became famous, in New Haven, Connecticut,
and Provincetown, Massachusetts, but she was too morosely self-absorbed
to notice." Because of what she saw as Millett's "careless"
attitude toward scholarship, Millett became a person Paglia began
to define herself against.
1971 she discovered Kenneth Clark's The Nude while browsing the
shelves of Yale's library. "If ever I was in love with a
book, it was with this one," she wrote in Sex, Art &
American Culture; and in an article for Women's Quarterly in 2002,
she called it "the best introduction by far to representation
of the human figure in art." She wrote, "Students who
read Clark will be safely inoculated against the worst excesses
of feminist theory, with its prattle about objectification and
the male gaze—terms cooked up by ideologues with glaringly
little knowledge of or feeling for art." The book influenced
her writing in her Yale dissertation and subsequent works.
the dissertation, her mentor and adviser, Harold Bloom found one
fault in the draft he read in 1971. He cautioned in the margin
that one passage was "Mere Sontagisme!" Paglia later
wrote, "It saddened me, but I knew Bloom was right. Susan
Sontag, who could have been Jane Harrison's successor as a supreme
woman scholar, had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip
posturing." She received a Master's Degree in English from
Yale that year.
February of 1972 she wrote a letter to Carolyn Heilbrun, asking
for information about her forthcoming book on androgyny, and Heilbrun
responded with a letter saying that her book would not be able
to deal with all available material on that subject. When the
book came out, Paglia gave a thoroughly negative assessment of
it in a review for the Summer 1973 issue of the journal the Yale
Review. "Heilbrun's book is so poorly researched that it
may disgrace the subject in the eyes of serious scholars,"
she wrote. The article showed that the reviewer was an expert
on the history of sexual androgyne, but as it was the journal's
policy for reviews to be published without attribution, few people
knew that Paglia wrote it.
In the fall, she began her first semester teaching at Bennington
College. There she met James Fessenden, a philosophy instructor
from Columbia University, who started teaching at the same time
as Paglia. In January 1997, Mark W. Edmundson, now a professor
at the University of Virginia, recalled attending Bennington while
Paglia was there:
was appointed as my faculty advisor in her first term. I went
in for my advisorial visit and she was entirely herself, talking
very fast about many things I knew nothing about. I ran in fear.
Alas, I was too puzzled to take any of her classes, which seemed
to be full of very sophisticated people from LA and from New York."
1973, she achieved her first scholarly publication. Originally
a term paper for a class taught under Maynard Mack, who urged
her to seek its publication, "Lord Hervey and Pope,"
eventually appeared in the journal 18th Century Studies (a Times
Literary Supplement cover story on Lord Hervey, November 2nd,
praised the paper as "brilliant.") In April, she traveled
to see Susan Sontag at a lecture at Dartmouth College and later
invited her to Bennington.
spoke there on October 4th, an event that caused much controversy
at the college since she read a short story instead of giving
a cultural lecture, as she had agreed to. Paglia later commented,
"I was stunned because I thought she was going to be a major
intellectual," and then wrote about the meeting at length
in a catty essay entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," published
in "Vamps & Tramps".
intellectual disappointment for Paglia was Marija Gimbutas, who
published The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe in 1974. At the
same time, Paglia launched "a detailed attack on an exhibit
at Bennington's Crossett Library, 'Matriarchy: The Golden Age,'
which used appallingly shoddy feminist materials alleging the
existence of a peaceful, prehistoric matriarchy, later supposedly
overthrown by nasty males."
her study of the classics and her reading of the scholarship of
Jane Ellen Harrison, James George Frazer, Erich Neumann and others,
Paglia had developed a theory of sexual history that was in opposition
to the ideas in vogue at the time, which is why she was so critical
of Gimbutas, Heilbrun, Millet and others. She laid out her ideas
on matriarchy, androgyny, homosexuality, sadomasochism and many
other topics in her dissertation Sexual Personae: The Androgyne
in Literature and Art, which she completed in December 1974, at
the age of 27.
March of 1975, she drove from Vermont to Albany to see Germaine
Greer speak. She was disappointed, reporting later that "During
the question period, I nervously raised my hand from the crowd
and asked if Greer, a former English professor, would be writing
on literary subjects again soon.
reply was stern and swift: 'There are far more important things
in the world than literature!'" (But thirty years later,
in September of 2005, after publishing extensively on literature,
both Paglia and Greer would be named among the "Top 100 Public
Intellectuals" in the world by the editors of "Foreign
Policy" and "The Prospect". Only 10 women appeared
on the list.)
time at Albany, Paglia "nearly came to blows with the founding
members of the women's-studies program at the State University
of New York at Albany, when they categorically denied that hormones
influence human experience or behavior. These women (whose field
was literature) attributed my respect for science to 'brainwashing'
sorts of fights with feminists, lesbians, chauvinists, homophobes,
and academics would continue for years, reaching a high point
in 1978. While at Bennington, Paglia had two girlfriends. The
second one, a theatrical young woman named Patty, was a former
student. The couple went to a school dance one evening when a
rich student from Chicago came out of nowhere and physically attacked
spoke about this to Heather Findlay in a cover story for Girlfriends
magazine. She said, "I went to the police and filed a report.
Then her parents went ballistic. There was an enormous to-do from
her rich parents telling the administration, 'Open homosexuals
shouldn't be employed by a college. We're not sending our daughter
to a place where there are gays like this on the faculty.'"
After a lengthy standoff with the administration, Paglia accepted
a settlement from the college and resigned a year later.
the early 1980s, Paglia finished her book but couldn't get published
and was supporting herself with visiting and part-time teaching
jobs at Yale, Wesleyan, and other Connecticut colleges. She taught
night classes at the Sikorsky Helicopter plant. Her paper, "The
Apollonian Androgyne and the Faerie Queen," was published
in English Literary Renaissance, Winter 1979, and her dissertation
was cited by J. Hillis Miller in his April 1980 article "Wuthering
Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation," in Journal of
Religion in Literature, but aside from that, not much was happening
with her academic career at a time when her peers were moving
on to important positions at major universities.
a letter of March 1993 to Boyd Holmes, she recalled: "I earned
a little extra money by doing some local features reporting for
a New Haven alternative newspaper (The Advocate) in the early
1980s. There was an article on the historic pizzerias of the town
and also one on an old house that was a stop on the Underground
got a teaching job at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts
in 1984, which merged with its next-door neighbor, the Philadelphia
College of Art, to become the University of the Arts in 1987.
She took some time off to visit Europe, and while in Germany noted
that "The women, stern-faced, melt the submissive heart...All
look like Lotte Lenya!"
The two-volume manuscript of Sexual Personae was completed in
February 1981 and then rejected by seven publishers and five agents
throughout the 1980s before its final acceptance by Ellen Graham
for Yale University Press in 1985. For the next few years, she
continued to teach while perfecting volume one of the book for
its eventual publication in February 1990 and releasing a few
additional portions of it in other journals and books.
paper "Oscar Wilde and the English Epicene" was published
in 1988 in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, edited
by Bloom; '"Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art", was
published in 1988 in Western Humanities Review; and "Sex,"
was published in the Spenser Encyclopedia by A. C. Hamilton in
the release of Sexual Personae on February 15, 1990, the book
received little publicity from its publisher, as was typical of
university presses at the time, but it sold well for months, prompting
Yale University Press to send it into a second printing by November,
1990. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award
that year, and then reprinted in paperback by Vintage Press in
1991. It became a best-seller, as did her subsequent books Sex,
Art and American Culture: Essays (1992) and Vamps and Tramps (1994).
Sexual Personae, and in subsequent media statements and campus
appearances throughout the early 1990s, Paglia aroused controversy
by making statements against leaders of the American feminist
movement, claiming they were ignorant of art, science, and history,
that they were hostile to men, and doing harm to young women by
teaching them to see themselves as nothing but victims. Her views
on issues such as date rape, pornography, gay rights, and educational
reform mostly angered people on the political left, who accused
her of such things as misogyny, homophobia and neoconservatism.
A selection of her articles, lectures and other writings from
this period appeared in her next book, Sex, Art, and American
Art, and American Culture
Whereas the 24 chapters of Sexual Personae looked at the study
of decadence in art and culture from Egyptian history to the late
19th century, Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), exposed readers
to Paglia's views on contemporary figures such as Madonna ("the
future of feminism"), Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mapplethorpe,
and Anita Hill.
chapters of the book were devoted to date rape, which the author
said contemporary feminists had been incapable of preventing.
"Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized
society," she wrote, "Yet feminism, which has waged
a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women
in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them."
Her next book, also an essay collection, was titled Vamps and
Tramps. This book collected all of her writings since her previous
essay collection, and the critical response, which was mixed,
tended to be that she had written too much on too wide a variety
of topics. It included a theoretical manifesto about sex, "No
Law in the Arena".
also included transcripts of her TV and film appearances of the
previous years, including her 1993 collaboration with Glenn Belverio
in his short film "Glennda and Camille Do Downtown,"
which played at the Sundance Film Festival and won first prize
for best short documentary at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
book was a bestseller and exposed a wide readership to her views
on contemporary matters such as the Clinton presidency, the life
of Jacqueline Kennedy, and the career of Barbra Streisand.
In 1998 her fourth book was published, its subject a single film:
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. She wrote it for the British Film
Institute's "Film Classics Series".
Instinct commentary track
In 2001, Paglia recorded a commentary track for the DVD of one
of her favorite films, Basic Instinct. Showing her opinionated
side, Paglia speaks most notably about the idea that society has
destroyed the tension between the sexes, which Paglia says Basic
Instinct captures perfectly. "Today, the ideal male is the
gay man," she says, "and the ideal female is the worker
female, the woman who can work in a coal mine just like all the
In 2005 Pantheon Books published her study of poetry, entitled
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's
Best Poems. The book contains full texts of the 43 poems, each
followed by an essay. The title is from a line in "Holy Sonnet
XIV" by John Donne. It was named as one of the "New
York Times Notable Books of the Year" for 2005, and was on
the bestseller's list for Amazon.com, "Booksense", "New
York Times", "Northern California Independent Booksellers
Association", and "Toronto Globe & Mail".