Katha Pollitt’s well-known wit and incisiveness run through all the pieces in “Virginity or Death!” — a new collection of more than five years’ worth of essays from her Subject to Debate column in the Nation. The essays cover a wide range of issues from the war in Iraq to healthcare, but unsurprisingly, the bulk covers feminist issues: abortion, child care and work, and the seemingly never-ending backlash against women’s progress. In these meditations, Pollitt defies the stereotype of the finger-wagging, Mommy-knows-best feminist. She credits younger women with being “so much more confident and multicompetent” than she was at her age and lauds their accomplishments.
However, Pollitt definitely has strong opinions about women framing every decision they make as “empowering.” She notes in “Sex and the Stepford Wife” that “women have become incredibly clever at explaining these [demeaning] choices in ways that barely mention social pressures or male desires.” But, as harsh as Pollitt can sometimes be, there’s always truth behind her observations.
When I spoke with Pollitt by phone, what struck me most was her optimism — something a lot of feminists are understandably lacking these days. We’re so busy lashing back against the backlash that forward-thinking feminism is hard to muster. Pollitt says that she wishes people would stop talking about feminism’s supposed demise and instead talk about its “life.” After reading the book, it occurred to me that maybe young women should do the same favor for their predecessors.
It’s a very interesting question — why do they keep doing this? It’s part of the half-fulfilled nature of feminist hopes. I think that there’s a fear out there that “Oh my God, if women aren’t holding to marriage and child raising and sacrificing themselves for the family, then nobody is going to do it.” People will just be living in their studio apartments for their whole lives. [Laughs.] For example, Sylvia Ann Hewlett had five children, and she produced some of them when she was over 50 years old! And she’s saying, even if you have one child you’re going to be crying in the gym because you don’t have two children. And you just want to say, “Look — you wanted to have five children.” But obviously this is a minority taste. I think there are probably more people in our society who have no children than have five children. She just seems unable to accept that people are doing more or less what they want to do, or some version of what they want to do.
I remember when I was younger and just getting into feminism, I read Susan Faludi’s “Backlash.” And now, it’s really the same exact thing all over again. It’s so odd to me that women are still letting bogus statistics — like if you’re over 35 you’re more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married — affect them.
Yes, it’s very odd. My mother used to subscribe to Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping and all those women’s magazines, even though she always worked. She would get these magazines and I would read them when I was little and there would be articles: “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and “How to Have a Better Marriage.” I was always thinking — what’s it to you? Why do the editors of this magazine care if somebody else is married or not?
You include essays in the book about the loss of Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin. In the Dworkin piece, you say that you “miss the movement that had room for her.” Can you just explain that a bit? Do you think feminism has become watered down?
I was thinking about how timid and deferential and also Beltway-oriented so much of organized feminism is now. It seems to revolve around electoral politics and abortion rights — those are the two big deals. Think about all the feminist bookstores that have closed and feminist magazines that have folded. I get much less sense of a vibrant culture of feminism with its own institutions and its own internal debates.
What does an effective feminism for the future look like to you?
I think that feminism needs to be more grass-roots, and this is true at the electoral level also — look at South Dakota. I think that there has been a real retreat from the day-to-day presentation of feminist issues. Think of all the women who won’t identify themselves as feminists. Why is that? One reason for that is the word “feminist,” but it’s also a lot of the concepts around feminism. The basic idea of women being self-directed creatures as opposed to being there to help some man through life and stay with the children and do the cooking — that idea has been delegitimized; you just don’t hear it that often if you live in much of the country.
You have to ask, Why do people make the choices they make? Let’s take women being more likely to take their husband’s name. Think to yourself, What are the costs of not taking your husband’s name? Look what happened to Hillary Clinton in Arkansas! And so I just think that women — feminists — need to have the conversation with people who don’t agree with us, people who live in places that aren’t so cosmopolitan. You need to make the connection between your own personal life and the larger story of what’s happening in the country and what we can do to help ourselves. I’m sure someone like Wonkette feels quite feminist and liberated in her own life — she just doesn’t see how what happens to abortion rights in South Dakota has anything to do with her.
Ana Marie Cox’s review of your new collection in the New York Times Book Review riled a lot of people by using the words “strident” and “tacky” to describe feminism. What was your reaction to the piece?
You know, to tell you the truth, I didn’t study the review closely — because I’d like to maintain my cheerful disposition! But I think a review that begins “strident feminism” is pretty much declaring that we are in the land of backlash cliché. If you read my book you’ll see that I support sexual freedom, I support freedom of speech, I’m not a family-values person at all, and I am not the sort of Dworkinite fuddy-duddy of Cox’s imagination. I think the resentment that some younger women feel — and I don’t know how old Wonkette is, or how old she presents herself — toward older feminists is very interesting. I don’t quite understand it except as kind of a kill-the-mother thing. What is this “girls just want to have fun” feminism? It’s a very shallow approach to life. And I can’t think of another social movement where “strident” is a bad word.
Exactly. Since when is feminism supposed to be all sweetness and light and politeness?
Well, do black people, do Latinos, do workers go around saying, “Oh no! Our leaders are so strident! Someone just wrote a strident book defending my rights!” Even if they themselves are more moderate, they’re happy! So I think it’s sort of an odd combination.
I was upset by the review because — as you know — I spend a lot of time talking about how people don’t give young women enough credit on feminism and women’s issues. And then some seemingly smart young woman runs out and calls feminism tacky. It makes us all look like idiots.
We discussed this on Feministing when I referred to “young featherheads” who think their abortion rights are secure and aren’t planning to vote. And [the thread] was all about how wrong I was to think that young women weren’t all that political — and I hope I was wrong! But then someone said, no that’s right — they are featherheads. And she talked about the women at her school. There are a lot of women who are feminist and who call themselves feminist, but then there are a lot who really don’t want that identity. My daughter just finished her freshman year at Wesleyan — quite a liberal school — and told me that in her sociology class, the professor said, “Raise your hand if you’re a feminist,” and my daughter was one of two kids that raised their hands!
When I was in college, a professor asked the same question and the reaction was the same. I remember being so depressed about it. Do you think that feminism has something to offer all young women?
I think that feminism is a social justice movement; that’s the way I see it. And potentially every woman and every man should be interested in women being able to take equal part in every aspect of our society. [Right now] there’s a funny combination of women advancing in certain areas and their progress being blocked in others. For example, women are advancing educationally; women are expecting to work. Marriage is happening later. So you have a longer time of living on your own and sexual experimentation. There’s this general sense of sexual freedom and sexual expressiveness that permeates so much of the media and the society, and yet you still find that women are quite stymied in other areas.
Most of the young women we’re talking about grew up under [Ronald] Reagan, in very conservative times. Whereas second-wave feminism really came out of the left. It came out of a moment in the ’60s when there were a lot of radical politics around. And that’s a very different social and political moment than now. There’s this huge backlash going on involving women’s bodies and appearance, and the immense pressure to be beautiful and thin and complaisant and alluring. That’s what Linda Hirshman and others call “choice feminism” comes out of. Which is just saying, “I’m a free agent. I’m making my own choices, so we don’t have to talk about them. In fact, it’s insulting if you want to talk about them. Don’t judge me.”
You say in one of your essays that “women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.” But in writing about abortion rights, you say that we need to acknowledge “women as moral agents” and trust them to decide what’s best for themselves. How do we negotiate those two things?
I think it’s like freedom of speech in that the government is not going to make decisions about what you can say publicly, but that doesn’t mean that everything that somebody says publicly is a hot idea. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to say something and be really sorry later. The idea I find so strange is that because a woman might have an abortion and come later to think, “I wish I hadn’t done that” — that that’s a reason to make abortion a crime. That makes no sense at all. What that really says is that women are incapable of making a good decision, so we have to make the decision for them! Because there’s only one good decision, and that’s to have the baby.
The interesting thing is that you’re never going to get women who choose to have a baby to say, “Well, looking back, that was a terrible idea — that’s when my life really went off the rails.” And yet I’m sure we can all think of people where having a child with the wrong person, at the wrong time, under very discouraging circumstances, really is a decision that maybe they might secretly wish they hadn’t made. So to me abortion rights is a very personal and intimate area of life that involves a lot of risk — having a baby involves a lot of risk: physical, emotional, social, psychological. And so each woman has to decide for herself because she’s responsible for herself.
Do you think it’s important that women call themselves a feminist or is it enough that women are doing feminist work — without necessarily labeling it as such?
I think that conservatives have really done an amazing job of taking away from us all the good words like “liberty” and “freedom” and demonizing the words that are left. Like “feminism” and “choice.” And “liberal.” I think we can’t let them do this forever. If you lose a way to describe yourself, you’ve lost a lot. If you lose the word “feminism,” you are losing the idea that there is anything particular to the way women’s situation is structured in this society. I would fight for that word. But it’s a losing game in the end. I think we’ve seen that with “liberal.” “Liberal” was a very good word! “Liberal” was a word that put together the idea of our constitutional liberties — like freedom of speech and the rights of the individual against the government — with the idea of fighting poverty. Fighting racial discrimination. Once you lose the word, you lose a very good way of keeping those concepts together. And I think the same is true about “feminism.” But if people want to start calling themselves women’s liberationists, that’s OK with me.
It does seem like we spend a lot of time — and I do this myself — debunking myths about the death of feminism. So how do we change the conversation so that we’re not just constantly defending ourselves?
Well I think that’s related to the way that feminist victories become incorporated into society — they lose the character of being considered feminist. For example, half of all medical students are women, but how many of those women in medical school think, “My presence in this seat is a victory for the women’s movement”? How often when people write about this fact do they see that in terms of a social victory for women? People will maintain that this was part of the natural evolution of society, you didn’t need a women’s movement, that it would have happened anyway. None of which is true.
I think we need to reclaim the conversation in a number of areas. For example, when we talk about abortion, how often do we talk about it in terms of women’s lives? As opposed to it being about a fetus being a person. The anti-choicers have so thoroughly switched the conversation over to the question of the personhood of the fertilized egg or fetus that now it’s even a person before it’s implanted in your uterus! So on the one hand you have that our victories aren’t being acknowledged as real victories and that the problem areas are areas of enormous retreat. So I just think we need to start talking more about our own lives as being important. I think that we need to be much bolder.
But all these things aside, you say that you’re still optimistic. Are you optimistic about feminism too?
I guess I feel that the rollback of our rights is only temporary — and I say that in my introduction. That a big modern industrial country like America is not going to become a right-wing Christian nation in which you have to show your marriage certificate to get birth control. If you can measure the strength of an impulse by the ferocity of the opposition to it, I would say that feminism is very much alive. People don’t spend a lot of time anymore bashing unions, for example. They don’t spend a lot of time bashing the black power movement, but feminism really gets to people. So I think the fact that it really gets to people shows both its relevance and its power.