Oxford faces questions as Naomi Wolf PhD stays under wraps

Controversy-hit author’s dissertation still not available six years after it was examined

March 4, 2021
American feminist Naomi Wolf based her 2019 book on studies at the University of Oxford
Source: Getty
Naomi Wolf came to prominence for her feminist best-seller ‘The Beauty Myth’

Naomi Wolf is facing new questions over her historical research after it emerged that her doctoral dissertation was still not available to view almost six years after it was examined.

The American feminist, who came to prominence in the 1990s for her influential best-seller The Beauty Myth, has faced harsh criticism in recent years after errors were detected in her 2019 book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, about the 19th-century poet John Addington Symonds.

Dr Wolf, who based the book on her doctoral studies at the University of Oxford, identified Symonds as one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement, examining his career against what she argued was a government crackdown on homosexual men – which, she said, included the threat of execution for sodomy.

In a memorable exchange on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme, however, its presenter Matthew Sweet pointed out that Dr Wolf’s claim that several gay men had been executed after 1857 – when Symonds was writing – was based on a misreading of criminal records.

Those errors were corrected in the paperback edition of Outrages published earlier this year, but other mistakes highlighted by Dr Sweet on the programme were not. Several of the men whom the former Rhodes scholar cited as examples of anti-gay injustice had, in fact, been convicted for sexual offences against children and animals, The Daily Telegraph reported.

The episode has become a major talking point in Victorian history studies, but it has also raised issues about doctoral supervision practices and the transparency of dissertations given that Dr Wolf’s thesis, examined in April 2015, remains unavailable for unspecified reasons.

Most UK universities require doctoral graduates to lodge their PhD theses in their libraries immediately following their viva voce, although candidates can request a time-limited embargo to allow for the publication of a book based on the studies or to protect sensitive data such as private information disclosed during their research.

At Oxford, doctoral graduates can request an embargo of up to three years, which can be renewed with the permission of the graduate studies department. Other universities take a tougher stance by stating that most embargoes should not extend beyond 12 months and should be limited to three years.

An Oxford spokesman told Times Higher Education that he was unable to provide information about any embargo on Dr Wolf’s dissertation because he “could not comment on an individual’s personal data”.

Dr Sweet told THE: “I think it will come as a surprise to many academics and students that it’s possible to be awarded a doctorate, and use the title of doctor, without publishing a doctoral thesis.” He said that “in many universities across the world, the book based on Dr Wolf’s work at Oxford has become a teaching example of how not to do historical research”.

“If the thesis is equally poor, then that suggests significant failures in the university’s process of supervision and examination,” said Dr Sweet, who questioned why the thesis “can be hidden from the eyes of scholars who wish to engage with it”.

Dr Wolf’s frequent references to her background as a historian to support her claims that the UK and the US have succumbed to Covid-induced “fascism” only made the matter more urgent, Dr Sweet added.

Dr Wolf did not respond to THE’s requests for comment or to see a copy of her thesis, but the Oxford spokesman confirmed that a “statement of clarification has been submitted, reviewed and approved…and will be available with the thesis for consultation in the Bodleian Library in due course”.



Print headline: Oxford faces questions as Naomi Wolf PhD still under wraps six years on

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

I have followed this story for a while, particularly in light of Ms Wolf's vociferous claims on social media regarding covid, vaccines, and associated politics. I have always held a suspicion that the University (College) don't want to release it because of the deep embarrassment that it would cause them for the reasons outlined in the article. Thanks for bringing it to wider prominence, and thank you yet again to Dr Sweet for his accurate, yet unfailing polite probing on BBC R3.