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Katha Pollitt 1949–
American poet and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Pollitt's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 28.
Pollitt is considered a foremost feminist poet and essayist. She has earned praise for her collection of essays, Reasonable Creatures (1994), in which she advocates revisionist thinking about modern gender ideology. In addition, Pollitt is a well-respected poet whose first collection, Antarctic Traveller (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983.
Pollitt was born in New York City on October 14, 1949. Her father, a lawyer who championed liberal causes, and her mother, a real estate agent, were prolific readers. When their daughter became interested in poetry writing during her middle years, they encouraged her. Pollitt attended Radcliffe College, earning a BA in 1972 before completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University in 1975. She began publishing her poetry in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly in the mid-1970s and earned critical attention. In 1982, she published a collection of poetry, Antarctic Traveller, which solidified her reputation as a noted poet. She served as Poet-in-Residence and taught creative writing at Barnard College. After working as a copy editor and proofreader at Esquire and The New Yorker and publishing numerous book reviews, Pollitt began her career with The Nation in 1982. In 1986, she became a contributing editor and was promoted to associate editor in 1992. She writes a biweekly column on feminist topics entitled "Subject to Debate" for The Nation magazine. In 1994 Pollitt published a collection of these essays entitled Reasonable Creatures. She has earned grants from the New York Foundation of the Arts in 1987, the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, a Fulbright in 1985, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1987. She is divorced with one daughter and continues to live and work in New York City.
Known equally for her poetry and her feminist essays, Pollitt stated in an interview with Ruth Conniff that her career has followed two exclusive and separate paths. Her 1982 poetry collection Antarctic Traveller garnered wide acclaim; and her essyas in Reasonable Creatures earned Pollitt a reputation as a provocatice feminist writer. In these poems she skillfully employs visual imagery as a means of exploring human thought and emotion. Likened to Wallace Stevens, she contrasts art and life, maintaining a distance between the subject of her poem and the observer. In works such as "Five Poems on Japanese Paintings", which serves as the lynchpin of the collection, she contrasts romance and disillusionment. In the segment entitled "Moon and Flowering Plum," for example, Pollitt employs a brief description of nature as a means for subtly addressing the implications of indecisiveness and commitment. In addition to her visual works, Pollitt also writes pastoral pieces, with a strong Japanese influence, and applies her imagination to reinterpret familiar domestic scenes. For instance, in "Vegetable Poems," she captures the personality of the eggplant, onion and tomato. She is noted for her use of the "blurred you" in which the pronoun "you" may refer to either the audience or the author, thus establishing a relationship of shared experience between writer and reader. In her collection of essays Reasonable Creatures, Pollitt advocates that society should view women as no different from men. She rejects the idea that women are more nurturing than men, and are thus more suited for care giving roles, arguing that by defining themselves as different, women will limit their choices as well as alienate themselves from power and each other. In her book, she addresses controversial political and social events such as the "Baby M" surrogate mother case, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and former Vice-President Dan Quayle's reaction to the television program Murphy Brown. Weaving events from her own life into analysis of current gender ideology, Pollitt promotes clear and rigorous thinking about current events and the issues behind them. She attacks both political conservatives and liberals in her essays, and debates the viewpoints of other feminist writers such as Germaine Greer, Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen.
Critics acclaim Pollitt's first collection of poetry, praising her poise, skillful use of language, mature ear for rhythm, and her intellectual and cerebral interpretations. Roberta Berke writes: "Pollitt combines awareness of contraries and her intelligence with a vivid imagination…." Reviewers credit her with unusual maturity as a poet, praising her ability to contrast romance with disillusionment and her skill at maintaining an objective distance from her subjects. Some readers have noted excesses in her poetry: an overreliance on the "blurred you" device, too tightly controlled emotions, and an overindulgence in rich vocabulary and imagery which threatens to swamp her poems. However, reviewers agree that in her best works such as "Blue Window" and "Moon and Flowering Plum" she is impressive. While Pollitt's essays have earned more controversy than her poetry, she is considered one of the most thought-provoking and insightful feminist writers. Critics praise her writing style, which they characterize as witty and engaging, as well as her practical and well reasoned interpretations of modern events. Reviewers such as Rickie Solinger argue that Pollitt is successful because she demands that her readers grapple with new and complex ideas, which she presents in understandable and accessible ways. Scholars note that she has redefined feminist thinking, pushing society to reconsider the tenets of feminist ideology, and she is unafraid of both liberal and conservative opponents. Reviewers note that she advocates clear-thinking and solid scholarship, and laud her for attacking the unsophisticated arguments of other political commentators. However, Kirsty Milne faults Pollitt for failing to provide positive male role models in her essays. Other readers claim that Pollitt promotes a personal agenda and often favors the interests of women over children. Suzanne Rhodenbaugh and Christine Stansell argue that the essays in Reasonable Creatures are built so heavily upon specific events of the 1980s and 1990s that the commentary is inaccessible to younger readers. Despite the criticisms, most scholars agree that Pollitt has played a significant and important role in defining gender ideology. Boyd Zenner remarks that Pollitt is "… one of the most incisive, principled, and articulate cultural critics writing today."
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Antarctic Traveller (poetry) 1982
Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (essays) 1994
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SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XII, No. 8, February 21, 1982, pp. 5, 13.
[In the excerpt below, Conarroe, editor of PMLA and executive director of the Modern Language Association, praises Pollitt's use of sound and rhythm in her poetry.]
It is notoriously difficult for a poet to get a first manuscript accepted (more Americans write verse than read it) and virtually impossible unless he or she has already been published in the better periodicals. Katha Pollitt, not quite 10 years out of Radcliffe, has been appearing regularly in such visible places as Poetry and The New Yorker, but until the arrival of her first book I had only a scattered sense of how consistently striking and accomplished she is, Antarctic Traveller is a stunning collection. One that I recommend to anyone who is discouraged about the state of American letters.
Pollitt herself is not an Antarctic traveler; she is an armchair explorer, an interior voyager. The actual traveler of the title poem returns "full of adventures, anecdotes of penguins," but will never again quite fit in, will "never be wholly ours." The poet, by contrast, is wholly at home in her urban world of taxis, night-mirrored windows, feverish writing in five notebooks at once, and evenings at the ballet.
"Our real poems are already in us and all we can do is dig." Jonathan Galassi's words serve as an epigraph to her poem "Archaeology," and even though Pollitt does not really believe them (or so she said at a recent reading in New York), she clearly does not have to search very far for her own material. At the end of this poem, in fact, we find an image that puts her sources in perspective.
Now come the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you'll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.
From the random rubble of her experience, whether it be watching Baryshnikov, enduring a 30th birthday, responding to Eliot's snobbery, reading Wittgenstein, or "dreaming in the dusk in an ecstasy of longing," she invents her carefully formed, passionate poems.
Pollitt speaks to all our senses, but she manipulates sound, fuses manner and matter, in particularly remarkable ways. Since art is long, reviews short, I choose just two examples. From a memorable series of "Vegetable Poems," a resonant aria to an eggplant—yes, an eggplant:
Like a dark foghorn in the yellow kitchen
we imagine the eggplant's
booming its pompous operatic sorrows
a prince down on his luck….
"Booming its pompous operatic sorrows"—what a wonderful line. And equally appealing, in its ponderous gracefulness, is the description of seals that dive and surface, "then lumber with heavy grace back up to their mates."
Like many young writers Pollitt does not do justice, in her public readings, to the subtle rhythms and sound patterns of her lines but rushes through the poems as if they were prose. Had we met I would have told her at the reading I attended that if "Seal Rock" or "Chinese Finches" were my poems I would say them slowly, lovingly. Then I would have greeted her at the beginning of a brilliant career.
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SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer, 1982, p. 92.
[In the review below, the critic describes Antarctic Traveller as a well crafted debut.]
These poems convey the quotidian and the unfamiliar equally well with dazzling imagery and careful craftsmanship. For instance, in a series of "Vegetable Poems" the everyday potato is seen with "softened, mealy flesh / rotting into the earth … but still flinging up roots and occasional leaves / white as fish in caves," and the unfamiliar "A Turkish Story" tells of a rug weaver who kept his daughters at home, unmarried, while he worked on a rug that would have no errors. When he died, his daughters married husbands "strong as the sea. / They danced on the rug and its errors blazed like stars." Antarctic Traveller is a young poet's first book, and it's a good one.
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SOURCE: A review of Antarctic Traveller in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 3, December, 1982, pp. 178-79.
[In the following excerpt, Shaw argues that Pollitt is most insightful when she remains detached from her subjects.]
At the center of Katha Pollitt's Antarctic Traveller, her first book, are "Five Poems from Japanese Paintings." Even without these one would have noted in her writing those qualities which for the Japanese, as she says, encompass "the virtues of the noble man: / reticence, calm, clarity of mind." Whether inspired by paintings or daily surroundings, Pollitt's poems are marked by a beautiful economy of line, a selective cherishing of detail. The Orient's respect for nuance underlies her similes: on the Hudson "a sailboat quivers like a white leaf in the wind:; on a Japanese screen "Prince Genji, the great lover, / sails in triumph from bedroom to bedroom: in each / a woman flutters like a tiny jeweled fan." If the style of these poems recalls ancient Japanese masters, the mood they evoke is more that of a modern Western painter such as Edward Hopper, in whose stark interiors light is the most eloquent inhabitant. We see rooms or landscapes in which anticipation or regret linger as distilled presences, the human actors having left a moment ago or having not yet arrived. The poet draws intensity from life's interstices. When she is most introspective she maintains an austere, appraising distance, deliberately estranged from the self so as to be capable of judgement. In "Blue Window" she explores "that longing you have to be invisible, / transparent as glass, thin air," and concludes:
It is your other, solitary self
that calls you to the window where you stand
dreaming in the dusk in an ecstasy of longing
while your white apartment full of plants and pictures
grows strange with shadows, as though under water
And in another moment
you would stream out the window and into the sky like a breath—
but it is almost too dark to see. In the next apartment
a door is flung open. Someone speaks someone's name.
Such detachment takes on an ironic trenchancy at the end of "Turning Thirty":
Oh, what were you doing, why weren't you paying attention
that piercingly blue day, not a cloud in the sky,
when suddenly "choices"
ceased to mean "infinite possibilities"
and became instead "deciding what to do without"?
No wonder you're happiest now
riding on trains from one lover to the next.
In those black, night-mirrored windows
a wild white face, operatic, still enthralls you:
a romantic heroine,
suspended between lives, suspended between destinations.
The pun suggested by the last image is irresistible: this poet has a gift for reflection. What is uncommon is for this capacity to be joined with a delicately acute vision of the world outside the self, a world where "at three o'clock in the morning / the Staten Island ferry sails for pure joy," and where, in a January thaw, "on the pond the round ice floats free; / a moon / gone black in black water." This book has many triumphs and no blunders. It makes one impatient for more.
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SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1994, pp. 828-29.
[In the following review, the critic praises Pollitt for asking new questions from a feminist perspective.]
Most of the essays collected here (and previously published in The Nation, The New Yorker, and elsewhere) bring an important critical, often feminist, perspective to controversial issues: sex and sexuality, children and families, abortion and motherhood.
Debates about the literary canon, according to poet Pollitt (Antarctic Traveller, not reviewed), rest on the assumption that the only books that students will read are those lucky enough to make "the list." Maybe, she suggests, since there's so little reading going on at all, the list is really not so important. She imagines a country of "real readers" who read voluntarily, actively, and self-determinedly, exploring all kinds of literature in all kinds of settings; but she doesn't see this happening as long as the debate is about which books to force down readers' throats, in which case one book is as bad as another. In an examination of politics and family-values rhetoric, Pollitt analytically separates "the family" and "family values," claiming that the conflation of these two terms obscures "two distinct social phenomena that in reality have not very much to do with one another." This distinction allows Pollitt to question the ways in which these terms are used by pundits and others, on both the left and the right, to evade more pertinent issues, such as economic inequality. In a cutting indictment of Katie Roiphe, Pollitt challenges the notion that current rape statistics are based on feminist manipulation of definitions and a reinterpretation of "bad sex" the morning after. Although others have critiqued Roiphe on the same points, Pollitt asks new questions about sexuality and sexual responsibility.
This could be a good resource for women's studies and young feminists, though despite its acuity, it won't provide much new information to those readers already up-to-date on feminist politics.
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SOURCE: "Defining the New Woman," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXIV, No. 39, September 25, 1994, p. 10.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Corrigan, a literature instructor at Georgetown University, praises Pollitt's skillful definition of feminist issues and her sharp logic.]
It seems an odd thing to say about a social critic so engaged with her historical moment, but Katha Pollitt is a woman seriously out of joint with her time. Pollitt is really a daughter of the Enlightenment, a fan of that 18th-century cant-buster, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Against our culture's predilection for feelgood thinking and lazy sentimentality masquerading as morality, Pollitt pits the neoclassical virtues of reason and wit. To read the 19 essays and reviews dating from 1985 to the present collected in Reasonable Creatures is to be bombarded, gloriously, by the force of Pollitt's contempt for intellectual sloppiness. For instance, in an essay entitled "Naming and Blaming: The Media Goes Wilding in Palm Beach," Pollitt dissects the specious reasoning by which the media, in the William Kennedy Smith case, decided that naming rape victims was an issue up for grabs:
"And so," she sighs, "we are having one of those endless, muddled, two-sides-to-every-question debates that, by ignoring as many facts as possible and by weighing all arguments equally, gives us that warm American feeling that truth must lie somewhere in the middle."
Or, as another great American writer once tersely said, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Hemingway and Pollitt, of course, part company once the conversation turns from cerebral performance to sexual politics. The title of Pollitt's book comes from another of her 18th-century idols, Mary Wollstonecraft, who authored the ground-breaking feminist polemic A Vindication of the Rights of Women ("I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes," Wollstonecraft wrote, "but reasonable creatures."). The essays here address what our culture usually mislabels as "women's issues": the battle over abortion, domestic violence, surrogate motherhood, the erratic quality of reproductive and gynecological health care, and the appalling state of children's entertainment. It's a natural question to ask if any of these topical essays, culled from periodicals like the Nation and the New Yorker, are dated. The good news—and the bad news—is no.
I'm not clear on how Pollitt justified wedging "Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me …" into this thematic collection, but I'm glad she did. This 1991 essay stands as the single smartest commentary I've read on the still-sputtering debate over the literary canon. It opens in quintessential Pollitt fashion, not with a thesis but with a dilemma: Pollitt finds she agrees with all sides in the controversy. She then ushers us into the process of energetically thinking through the issue, appraising the pros and cons of both the liberal and the conservative sides. (The only group she witheringly dismisses is the alleged radicals, people who really give that honorable word a bad name: "How foolish to argue that Chekhov has nothing to say to a black woman—or, for that matter, to me … The notion that one reads to increase one's self-esteem sounds to me like more snake oil. Literature is not an aerobics class or a session at the therapist's.")
Finally, Pollitt spots a more serious issue that's being ignored: the dismal state of reading in our country. The canon debate is so crucial, Pollitt realizes, because so many Americans read so few books of any kind. She says: "While we have been arguing so fiercely about which books make the best medicine, the patient has been slipping deeper and deeper into a coma." This and so many other of Pollitt's essays seem to be structured along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe's great detective story "The Purloined Letter" (starring another champion of "ratiocinative methods," C. Auguste Dupin). Pollitt prowls around familiar ideological precincts and then, at last, pounces on the "purloined letter"—the obvious but disruptive idea—that everyone else overlooks.
Another masterpiece of argumentation is "Marooned on Gilligan's Island: Are Women Morally Superior to Men?", in which Pollitt criticizes the "intellectual-flabbiness" of "difference feminists" like Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow, who universalize features of male and female development rather than credit them to the different economic and social positions men and women hold. In a brilliant aphoristic flourish, Pollitt contends that "difference feminism" is: "a rationale for the status quo, which is why men like it, and a burst of grateful applause, which is why women like it. Men keep the power, but since power is so bad, so much the worse for them."
Pollitt is one of those all-too-rare symbol analysts who always take economics, class, and the legacy of the past into account in their criticism of ideas and social trends. Thus, in an essay entitled "Hot Flash," she wonders whether the current media fascination with menopause isn't a backlash against middle-class women who, buoyed up by feminism, thought they could compete with men and stay desirable. ("No one," Pollitt observes, "is interested in the hot flashes of cleaning ladies….") And, in this collection's guiltiest pleasure, Pollitt eviscerates The Morning After, Katie Roiphe's first-hand look at sexual politics on campus. Pollitt faults Roiphe for, among other things, her distorted characterization of the history of the Women's Movement. Poor-Roiphe. Watching Pollitt train all the force of her intellect on her is like watching a brilliant Professor dissect the posturings of, well, a graduate student.
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SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, October 9, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Shapiro questions Pollitt's use of statistics, but praises the collection.]
Whether the subject is breast implants, Lorena Bobbitt or bad sex, Katha Pollitt has a strong opinion about it. Reasonable Creatures collects 19 funny and furious essays, previously published in The New York Times, The Nation and The New Yorker. In which Ms. Pollitt takes on the most compelling issues of our day concerning the sexes and turns them upside down. Along with her razor-sharp wit and her impatience with sound-bite solutions, what sets Ms Pollitt apart from other feminist writers is her concern for social justice. For example, she takes the psychologist Carol Gilligan to task for basing a theory of gendered ethics on "interviews with a handful of Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduates." Although she criticizes others for shoddy data, Ms Pollitt's own statistics are not carefully annotated and at times seem questionable. Still, this is a small oversight in an otherwise cunning and complex collection.
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SOURCE: "Essays for Collecting and Dissecting," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, No. 232, October 25, 1994, p. 13.
[In the following excerpt, Rubin praises Pollitt's ability to cut to the heart of issues in her collection of essays Reasonable Creatures.]
…. Of a more consistent quality are the 19 timely pieces by poet and journalist Katha Pollitt in Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism.
They are, indeed, about women's issues, but Pollitt, a true descendent of large-visioned, feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, effectively demonstrates why these issues are relevant to everyone.
These essays from The Nation, The New Yorker, and the New York Times were written in response to a variety of current events and news stories, from the "Baby M" surrogacy case to the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. They share a recurrent theme: Pollitt's belief that women should be treated like "reasonable creatures" (Wollstonecraft's phrase) with the freedom and responsibility to make choices for themselves; rather than being viewed as mere "instruments" put on this planet first and foremost for the convenience of others.
A pungent stylist with a powerful ability to cut through cant, Pollitt is also a sharp-eyed media critic, not only of conscious or unconscious gender bias (as one might expect), but also of self-serving behavior among her fellow journalists.
Claiming that the public, under the First Amendment, has a "right to know," whether it's the names of rape victims or secrets withheld for reasons of national security, members of this same profession have willingly gone to jail rather than reveal the names of their sources. The public's right to know, in this instance, took a back seat to professional self-protection….
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SOURCE: An interview, in The Progressive, Vol. 58, No. 12, December, 1994, pp. 34-40.
[In the following interview, Pollitt discusses her political views and the differences between her poetry and prose.]
"Although feminism came out of the Left and naturally belongs on the Left, sometimes you wouldn't know it.'
Like Broadway, the novel, and God, feminism has been declared dead many times," Katha Pollitt writes in the introduction to her new book, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, published in September by Knopf. Pollitt herself is one of feminism's liveliest writers, tackling, in her delightfully witty prose, such diverse issues as family values, breast implants, male Muppets, and the notion that women are somehow more special than men. Her book is comprised of the essays and regular columns she writes for The Nation, as well as pieces that first appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Besides being one of America's best political essayists, Pollitt is an accomplished poet. She has won numerous awards for her poetry, including a National Book Critics Circle Award for Antarctic Traveler, published in 1983.
Katha Pollitt grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Radcliffe, and earned an M.F.A. in poetry at Columbia University. For several years she was poet-in-residence at Barnard College, where she has also taught writing. She worked as a copy editor and proofreader at Esquire and The New Yorker, and wrote free-lance book reviews, before becoming first Literary Editor and then an associate editor of The Nation.
I visited her in the cheerful, cluttered apartment she shares with her seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, and her partner, Paul Mattick, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When I arrived, she was attempting to make coffee. Mattick intervened, averting a near disaster with the grounds and boiling water. "Women don't belong in the kitchen," they said simultaneously, laughing.
In person, Pollitt comes across the same way she does in her writing—funny and personable, extremely sharp—taking aim at stereotypes and fuzzy thinking.
As we talked, her four cats wandered in and out of her study, walking all over her desk and sitting on her lap. We were interrupted several times by phone calls and faxes from people who wanted to tell her about the rave reviews for her book.
[Conniff]: Why did you pick the title Reasonable Creatures?
[Pollitt]: It's part of a quotation from Mary Wollstonecraft, the founding mother of modern feminism. She was the first woman to write a full-dress argument for the emancipation of women, and I'm a big fan of hers.
The quotation was, "I wish for women to be neither angels nor brutes but reasonable creatures." And what she meant was that women should be neither placed on a pedestal nor considered to be of a lower nature than men, but treated as human beings. I think it's truly amazing that 200 years later this is still a controversial statement. You still have to make an argument that women should have the same rights and responsibilities as men, beginning with the right to control your own body and what goes on inside it. So I think it's pretty timely.
I also chose the title because I think it points up my difference with what I call "difference feminists"—like Carol Gilligan, for example—who see women as being so differently formed from men that they make decisions according to a whole other set of criteria. Miraculously, it turns out that what this difference is is exactly the sexist stereotype, with a positive spin put on it: Women are more loving, more sharing, more caring, more intuitive, less hierarchical, "lateral thinkers," and all this. I wanted to set myself squarely against that style of feminism.
Do you think that you are one of a few people who believes women and men are the same kind of creature?
No. Lots of people think it. But the other strand of feminism is also quite strong. And it's much more fashionable. And the reason is that it explains the world we see without resorting to the concept of sexism. What it says is that women don't have power because they don't want power. For example, Suzanne Gordon, in her book, Prisoners of Men's Dreams, thinks women go into low-paid jobs in the helping professions because they are more helpful people. This is a very silly idea. I'm saying that it doesn't have to do with the personal gender-characteristics of the people involved. It has to do with the economy, which is organized along gender lines, and with the way you're socialized.
What do you think about Emily's List—an organization that gives money specifically to women candidates?
Well, I'm glad you're asking me this question. I have a very complicated relationship to Emily's List, which is this: I belong to Emily's List. I send money to people on their list. But at the same time that I am writing out my little checks, I am wondering, why am I doing this? These politicians quite often are not particularly enlightened or feminist or liberal.
I think that people in American politics are always looking for short-cuts. For example, if we elect women, will they automatically on the whole, on average, defend the interests of women, and be less warlike, and be more honest and altruistic and all this kind of thing? I think that, yeah, if you elect a feminist she's going to do that. But just being a Democratic woman is not going to do that. How many of these women are going to stand up and say that the Clinton welfare-reform program is going to devastate the poor and that it's sexist. And that in fact all women with small children ought to receive more benefits than they do? There are a few. Lynn Woolsey, for example, was on welfare, so she's a wonderful person to have in Congress. But some of the others, they're just as big on trimming the budget and "we all have to carry our weight" as the guys are. There's an illusion that women have only women's interests at heart. Women have all the interests of their class, just like men do.
Nonetheless, given identical politics, I'd rather have a woman than a man in office, because I think there's a value in gender-equity for its own sake. There are all kinds of issues where men and women do see things differently, not because women are lateral thinkers and men are hierarchical, but because women have a different life experience, and so they have different fears and different hopes as well.
But these kinds of small and marginal and subtle differences—you can't make a political movement out of them. You have to make a political movement out of politics. It can't be made out of voting for a this-colored person or a this-gendered person as if they'd almost unconsciously carry out your goals.
What do you think about the prospects for organized left-wing politics in this country?
I guess I would have to say at the risk of startling or bothering some of your readers, I don't think there is a Left in this country. There are liberals in this country. But I don't know of any movement, really, that mounts any kind of fundamental challenge to capitalism, and to the basic way this country is organized. The way things are set up I think there is very little space to enact even liberal politics. You see this every time Clinton has some kind of vague, liberal notion that flits through his mind, like, "Let's vaccinate all the children." It immediately becomes immensely complicated and difficult and he's attacked on every front and then he drops it. Now, maybe some of that is a facet of his personality and some of it is a facet of Congress. But if there was a great, big organized movement saying, "Vaccinate the children! Vaccinate the children!" they'd figure out a way to do it. What I think is amazing is the way the left-er end of the spectrum has collapsed into Clintonism. You saw this with health care. And you see it with the crime bill. This is going to be the major achievement of the Clinton Administration—this insane punitive mess. You didn't see "the Left" out there on this issue. And I think the reason for that is the same reason you don't see Marian Wright Edelman out there on the hustings saying Clinton's welfare ideas will hurt children and poor people. It's the whole lesser-of-two-evils, this-is-our-last-best-hope, we-have-to-go-along-to-get-along mentality. Instead of trying to create some sort of independent basis for social change you piggy-back on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.
And so I feel that when we speak about the Left we're speaking about three people.
Surely more than three. I think of you as part of the Left, and The Nation as well as The Progressive.
Well, sure. You're one person, I'm another. I'm not saying there's nobody. What I'm saying is there isn't a social basis for this politics. There isn't an organization. What is the left-wing organization? The Nation Associates?
There are little things, there's this brush fire over here and these workers over there. But there isn't anything like an organized political movement. And the minute one develops, it collapses back into the Democratic Party again.
In your book, you take a couple of shots at the American point of view that the truth lies in the middle, and you seem to take a shot at Anna Quindlen for this attitude. Is that true?
Well, it's funny. Anna Quindlen is always the first person I read on the op-ed page of The New York Times, and often the only person I read on the op-ed page. And since I myself have started writing a column, I have an enormous amount of respect for her. Twice a week, for eight years or so, she has managed to turn out a piece of writing that is pretty lively and energetic and that has something to say, and that I almost always agree with. And I think there are issues on which she is very, very good. She is really good about abortion. And she's a good reporter and writer. I'm really sorry that she's leaving.
She wrote a piece about a basic civil-liberties question, which was whether or not to identify child-molesters to their neighbors after they've been released from prison. She talked about how she had two points of view; as a columnist, she could make a case against the law, but as a mother she would want to know. It seemed like one of those truth-lies-in-the-middle treatments. What did you think about that?
About the issue or the column?
I would share her perplexity. It's not an issue that I've thought through very deeply, and I would certainly want to ask: If sex offenders are tagged through life with their crime, what about other people? Should they be tagged through life, too? You can make a case that there are lots of areas where there is recidivism, not just this. But certainly, as a parent, I am more bothered by the idea that unbeknownst to me, a neighbor of mine might be preparing to kidnap and murder my daughter.
Ultimately, we need to think in a larger sense about crime, including sex crimes. The discussion is one about how long do you put them away and what do you do when they get out. It's much less about what happens while they're in there, and what I would like to see happening is that we would all ask ourselves, "How come our society produces so much violent crime and so much sexual crime?" That's a hard conversation to have. I'm not sure myself what the answers would be, although I'm sure football is in there somewhere.
Do you find yourself a feminist among civil libertarians and a civil libertarian among feminists?
Although there are certainly particular issues where you might find your wish to see women safe and cheerful conflict with your civil-libertarian outlook, basically I see these as having much more in common than opposed. The media have played a destructive role here in that when these two movements are discussed together, they are always discussed in opposition. So, for example, the major role played by the civil libertarians in reproductive-freedom issues is mentioned much less than the fact that some feminists would like to use the law to attack pornography, and all civil libertarians think that's an infringement on the First Amendment. But mostly, I see these two movements as friends.
You wrote a letter to the editor of The Nation right before you started your column—what was that all about?
Well, Carlin Romano wrote a review of Catharine MacKinnon's book Only Words which was published in our magazine, in which Carlin pretends to fantasize about raping Catharine MacKinnon and someone else does rape Catharine MacKinnon. It was to say to Catharine MacKinnon, you think there's no difference between words and deeds? I'll show you the difference. And we got a tremendous amount of flak for this. It was one of a number of pieces that we published that, although you could defend each of them in some abstract and complicated way, the bottom line was that the magazine was not attuned to the frivolousness of making this sort of joke. So I wrote a letter saying, "What's going on? I take a leave of absence and look what you do." You know, The Nation is often criticized for having male-oriented politics and publishing mostly men, and I think the criticisms have some validity.
So did that have anything to do with you starting your column?
No, no. Victor Navasky and I had discussed my doing the column for a long time. I will say, though, that there is always a space on the "Left" to be against feminism—in a way that there's not a space to be a racist. And although feminism came out of the Left and naturally belongs on the Left, sometimes you wouldn't know it. You wouldn't know it if you looked at what Andrea Dworkin likes to call the male Left. I think she draws much too harsh a portrait, but I don't think you could find a person publishing in a progressive magazine who would, say, support capital punishment. But you can certainly find pro-lifers. You can certainly find people who think that mothers should be home with their children. You can certainly find people who have bought the media caricature, which is that a feminist is a banker in a power suit.
What do you think of declarations of post-feminism, that many women say they are not feminists?
The idea that you need other people to make common cause with in order to achieve a goal feels to many people like failure. That's why you have a lot of working-class people who anathematize unions. I get letters from women like this who say, "I'm a Republican, I have an MBA, and everyone tells me I can't make it but I know I will. Because I'm determined and I'm the best, you see."
The American ideology is, "If you're the best you don't need anybody." So that makes it very hard for joining a political movement based on solidarity not to seem like weakness and a confession of your own inability to succeed by your own efforts. Now what people in America have a hard time getting through their heads is that, first of all, nobody succeeds entirely by their own efforts, but also, not that many people succeed. Capitalism is like a card game: Every time somebody wins, somebody else has to lose. We think that if everybody were equally hard-working and well prepared and determined, we would all make money. But no.
Now we have the anti-feminist feminists, as I call them—Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, who says women don't need feminism anymore. What that movement is about is saying to professional women, "You don't have to concern yourself with these problems of women who are poorer than yourself, and you don't have to concern yourself with some battered wife, or some bedraggled rape victim. You know, you're doing fine. So let those women go. Because you can compete successfully in the world of men."
I was talking the other day with a high-school coach who said he won't pat girls on the back, or be in a room alone with them, because he's afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. It's the same thing Nat Hentoff writes about at universities, that sexual-harassment suits have had a chilling effect, and male teachers are now going to treat female students like they have the plague. What do you think about all that?
Well, I don't think the price that women should pay for access to their teachers should be that every now and then one of them is going to be assaulted. I think that's a very short-sighted response to this problem—keep them at arm's length.
I think Nat Hentoff likes to portray these issues as, "Here are these wacko Women out there with their absurd sensitivities and as a result of that, a relationship that was very good and valuable is being destroyed." But I don't think that's the picture. I think you could say as a result of there being a couple of truly vile men out there who have been protected by administrations for a long time, and about whom no action has been taken, we end up with this situation. Why frame it as these women are spoiling it for everybody? Why not say these men are spoiling it for everybody? The anger is always directed at the women.
What do you think about that part of Catharine MacKinnon's work—the idea of the hostile work environment?
I agree with Nadine Strossen of the ACLU, that you don't want it to be that someone puts up a Playboy pin-up, or somebody reads Playboy in their own lunchtime, and because there is a woman in the office all of a sudden that is illegal. But there is a lot of hostility to women in the workplace. That's definitely true. And I don't think it should have to be true that in order to go to work and earn a salary women should have to put up with being constantly insulted and demeaned. And I think that there's some middle ground here that, if we were all people of good will, would not be all that hard to arrive at.
How does one go about trying to achieve that?
Men and women need to talk to each other. One thing about speech codes is the way that, because lawyers are so important in these discussions, it immediately turns to damages, to throwing people out of school and firing people. What I would rather see is a free and open discussion about sexism, about racism, about prejudice, about class privilege. That's the discussion you don't get to have once you start with all this speech-code stuff. And that's the discussion I think people don't want to have. If one student calls another a nigger or some other horrible epithet, what if you said, "Why do you say that?" What if you had a discussion about racism?
Take Charles Murray, for example. Now this is very interesting, because Charles Murray [in his book The Bell Curve] is saying something that large numbers of white people believe. They don't say it, but many, many white people at some level of their being think that the seemingly intractable situation of the black underclass indicates that black people are genetically inferior. It's very hard to get people to admit that they have this idea. But how do you get them not to have this idea if they always say, "I don't think that. No, look, black, white, purple, polkadot, it's all fine with me." Then you don't get to have a discussion where you examine what it means to think these things. Maybe there are other reasons that explain what seems to you to be evidence of this biological inferiority theory. You can have a discussion about this idea even though it's reprehensible. But that's a discussion that you don't get to have if you just call someone a racist and kick the person out of school.
So do you think Charles Murray is doing a service?
No, absolutely not. Because that discussion is not going to happen because of this book. What he's doing is he's making it acceptable to say this, but not as part of a discussion with black people. His main interest is to de-fund the welfare state. He just wants to say "Oh, don't spend all this money on remedial education, they're too stupid."
So you don't think it's good that someone is saying it out loud, because that's what it sounded like you were saying.
No. I don't think it's good. I mean I guess you could say yes, and it was good that Hitler voiced all that anti-Semitism, too, because now we can have a conversation about it. But no, Charles Murray is not like a student. Charles Murray is not some eighteen-year-old who was brought up to be a racist, and now he's in college and thinks maybe he shouldn't say it, you know, because it's rude. Charles Murray is a major political actor with certain policy goals that he wants very much to achieve. That's a very different sort of thing. I'm not saying that he doesn't have a right to say what he wants, but I think it's very important to combat his ideas most vigorously.
What do you think of the debate about pornography?
I have a lot of sympathy for a very deep critique of heterosexuality. But what I don't have a lot of sympathy for is spending enormous amounts of political energy on the futile attempt to get rid of certain kinds of images.
People like to argue about pornography because it's about sex. And it relates to certain academic feminist interests having to do with representation. But as politics, it is a true waste of time.
And it's worse than a waste of time, because not only does it use up energy that could be better devoted to something else, it places feminism in the camp of those who think that women are less sexual than men, that women's sexuality is less diverse and perverse than men's.
I think that it's very interesting that the women's movement in thirty years has not been able to get paid parental leave, something that many other countries have, something that's very modest, but actually would help people a lot. It has not been able to get a national system of day care—something else that exists in many countries. But it has been able to inject into the public discourse the views of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon on pornography.
I think it's been able to do this because it's hitching a ride on a feeling that is already very deep, which is Puritanism: Sex is bad, looking at it is bad, thinking about it is bad, and masturbation isn't very good either, and it's just all bad. So people are ready for this argument.
You don't find anybody defending pornography as pornography, except for Alan Dershowitz and women—Sallie Tisdale wrote an article, and now a whole book about it. She's really interested in pornography. Pornography is a multi-multi-million-dollar industry. But when is the last time someone made a case for pornography and said, you know, I like it? It's a pleasure. It's harmless. I don't beat and rape women. But I enjoy watching dirty movies. This is a case that is very, very rarely made, because people are ashamed of it. At the same time, they want to do it. And I think the shame and the wanting to do it are related.
That's how Puritanism works. It's a two-part system.
What do you think of Camille Paglia, who also sees violence and sex as inseparable?
I think she is very much like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. The media have constructed feminism as a cat fight between Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia on the one hand and Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin on the other. But you'll notice that all these people agree that sex is a kind of violence, that it's exploitative. Except Paglia thinks that's good, or that's nature. Whereas, I think at some point Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon would want to say it's culture, but it just happens to be that way as far back as you can go.
Paglia is sort of the Charles Murray of sex. You know, "There's nothing you can do about it."
But take your garden-variety act of sex; they all agree that what is going on here is essentially sadomasochism, really. And that's its central feature. None of them have much use for the idea that sex is amusing, that it can be light, that it can involve affection or friendship, that people can laugh while they have sex, that it can really be rather sweet. This is the point of view that Katie Roiphe—all of twenty-six years old—would dismiss from her vast experience as utopian.
Well, I don't think it is. I think the kind of sex I have described is the kind of sex that lots and lots of people have. And it is one of the things that people like about having sex.
I come away from reading about this debate thinking, it's all so grim. Is sex really all that grim? You know, especially when you consider, if you believe these sexual surveys, women are having more pleasure in bed than they've had since they started trying to figure out women's sexual experience in some kind of a pseudoscientific way. And yet when you read all this you just think, it's all so grim and hateful, why would anybody bother?
They just have no sense of the subtlety of it all—that sex can be used to express a lot of different feelings. So you see, I'm still a romantic. I still believe in love.
Do you think that having a lighter or friendlier view of sex is part of having a left-wing political perspective?
No. I guess I think it's more individual than that. I've been very struck, as I go through life, to see how people's personal lives, while not immune to change for political reasons, come from a deeper place. If you look at the fathers that are involved with their children, I don't think you can say it's the Democrats, and not the Republicans. It's much more complicated. I think people's behavior has much less to do with their professed beliefs than is usually acknowledged.
But there's a great desire to preserve what we call traditional gender relations. And in their different ways, both the Camille Paglia-ites and the anti-pornography feminists do that. In each of these scenarios, men and women act in stereotypical fashion, don't they?
In the media, you see the women fighting about whether, as Mim Udovich quips, all sex is rape or all rape is sex, and then the man, the moderator, gets to come in and say, "But I love my wife." He gets to be the reasonable creature. It's a way of portraying feminism as a battle between competing mad notions.
Speaking of media portrayals of women, I especially liked your piece about the all-male Muppets.
Yes, it's amazing to think that it took twenty-five years for Sesame Street to have the idea that they should develop a female Muppet.
Who was the little girl who was in such despair when she found out Big Bird was a boy?
That was the daughter of a dear friend of mine—the same one who thought that her mother, who is a doctor, had to be a nurse.
One thing that is underarticulated about women in this country is that women are sexist, too. So you look at the credits on Sesame Street—there are women writers, the psychologist who advises them is a woman, the producer is a woman, too. A lot of sexism is unconscious; one thing that men and women have in common is that they hate women.
Do you think that aside from problems like the male Muppets, your daughter has escaped seeing herself as a lesser person because she's a girl?
Girls at her age are quite female-chauvinist, actually, I don't know how new that is. Just the way boys are—boys are very into being boys, and girls are very into being girls. But I have found that the kids in Sophie's class have an expectation of fairness between the genders that wasn't there before. So she'll say, "Do you love me?" And I'll say, "Of course I love you, all mothers love their daughters." And she'll say "and their sons." I didn't mean all mothers love their female children. But she will immediately pick that up and want it to be universal. And she's not the only kid like that. These kids also—they'll say that something's sexist. I've heard Sophie say, "Men, they all have to think they're so important." And it may surprise your readers, but I don't talk like that!
Where does she get it?
I have no idea. This is one of the things you discover when you have a child. They will come out with things and you have no idea where they came from. Often they have quite specific sources—something a friend said, something they heard on television, a story they read. But you don't know what that origin is. And suddenly it's like this little person is a radio station through which the culture is beaming itself.
What were your influences when you were growing up? Do you come from a family of writers?
No. My father was a lawyer, my mother sold real estate. My mother had wanted to be a writer, and I think because of that she was particularly encouraging. She was always finding poems and sending me poems when I was in summer camp, encouraging me to read, and sharing books with me and reading what I wrote with great interest. Both my parents were very encouraging. I was very lucky that way.
Did you start writing when you were very young?
Well, I started being interested in poetry when I was in about sixth grade. I always loved to write. And I used to come home from school and go up to my room and sit on my bed and write my poems. And I was writing angry letters to the newspaper.
Even when you were a kid?
Well, I recently came across a letter I had written when I was twelve years old to The New York Times. It was about some complicated legal case involving someone who was accused of being a spy, but I have absolutely no memory of writing this letter or what this case was. It was actually like something I would write today. I thought, oh my God, have I been doing this for that long?
So if it was someone accused of being a communist spy—was that partly your parents' concern with that case?
Oh, I'm sure it was. I was a child of the McCarthy era. These issues were very much in the air at our house.
What did your parents do during that time?
Well, I don't think they did anything very interesting, but I still feel uncomfortable talking about their politics. I will say that my father worked for the electrical workers' union—the more militant of the two electrical workers' unions—for a while. He had a number of dissident union cases, and cases related to the Smith Act, which in effect made it illegal to be a member of the Communist Party. And it was a very different world then. Victor Navasky's book Naming Names is a very good account of that era from the side of people who did give testimony and turn their friends in and all that. You come to understand how in a way that is not the case today, people felt that their lives, their identities, and their ability to exist depended on filling very narrow social roles.
Did you look at The Nation when you were a kid?
Yeah. My entire life has had The Nation in it. I can see those old issues with a few headlines in fat black type, sitting on my parents' dining-room table.
Do you feel like you are part of the same world that your parents were part of then?
No. I have a very different life from them. They had, for example, a very jolly group of friends, and politics were part of their social life in a way that is not true for me. And their politics brought them much more in contact with people from different social classes, whereas I tend to stay in my study. You know, it's funny because everyone has nothing but bad to say about the 1950s. But I think actually people had a lot more fun then. There were more parties. My friends and I are always wondering, why are there so few parties? I think people work harder now. And I think people lead more isolated lives than they did then.
Is your life the way you imagined it would be when you were a little girl?
That's an interesting question. In some ways, yes. I thought my life would be more exotic and exciting. I thought that more would be required. I imagined a life full of starker choices.
What do you mean by stark choices?
Well, if you grew up in the McCarthy era, one of the things that you would be constantly thinking about is, what would I do? Would I turn my friends in? Would I give in? You grow up and you learn no one is interested. Nobody's asking. And that's where the true irrelevance of politics becomes clear. I guess I shouldn't say that, because there are certainly a lot of people who have got in a lot of trouble with the Government for their politics. But I think that the one good idea that Herbert Marcuse had was the idea of repressive tolerance. American society has a very great capacity for absorbing protest and dissent. The Clinton Administration is a good example of that. The academy is another.
Your poetry is not political. I'm interested in those two parts of your life. Did you start out as a poet, and then how did you get sucked into the political writing?
Well, I always was a two-track writer. I always wrote poetry and prose. And the prose I started out writing was book reviews. I wrote many, many, many book reviews, storing up an enormous amount of bad karma for myself when I came out with a book. I did think, oh God, the knives will be sharpening all over America. So I reviewed books and I made a good portion of my living by doing this for all different kinds of magazines at all different levels of seriousness. But at a certain point I became tired of reviewing books. George Orwell said the really hard part of being a book reviewer is thinking of something to say about this very ordinary, not-that-interesting, run-of-the-mill book. At a certain point I was more interested in what I had to say than in the book I was reviewing. I started more and more using book reviews—as a kind of jumping-off place for my own reflections. And then at a certain point the book dropped out. And I started writing on my own.
How are your poetry and your politics related?
I have to say that I see poetry and political writing as rather different endeavors. What I want in a poem—one that I read or one that I write—is not an argument, it's not a statement, it has to do with language. I'm looking for a kind of energized, fresh, alive perception. The politics of the writer seem to me—well, we can talk about it, but it's not what I care about most. I would say my favorite modern poet is Philip Larkin. You can't get much more conservative than that. But if you look beyond, okay, he loves Margaret Thatcher, what you get from him—besides amazing, memorable, alive language and the revitalization of traditional forms—is a picture of what it is like to live in England now that is quite moving and true. He puts a different political slant on it than I would. But to me it's much more interesting to read that than to read a poem with whose politics I would agree, but that doesn't have a lot of depth of language and imagination to it. There isn't that much political poetry that I find I even want to read once, and almost none that I would want to read again. A lot of it is aural poetry, too. I like the written form. I like the several layers of meaning on each other. I think that's much harder to do with aural poetry.
So the poetry you read and write is not best read aloud?
Oh, well, best for what? I love to hear poetry read out loud. And I always write with the ear in mind. But not just the ear. I don't write a poem in order to speak it out loud. I think poetry-readings have had the effect of encouraging poets to make their poems simpler—more like a little anecdote, more like a story that you would tell around the dinner table. Well, that's okay. I don't want to be too judgmental about this. But I think it has its limits. And I have the experience constantly of going to poetry readings, and I'll have the impression that this is really interesting. I like it. It's funny, it's good. Then when I find the book, the poem is just dead on the page. It's just not an interesting piece of writing. There is nothing going on. It is all put there by the performance, by the voice, by the story that the poem is telling. But nothing would have been lost had that poem been told as a little 300-word op-ed piece, or a paragraph in a letter. And for me, what I like about poetry is the verbal concentration and levels of meaning. A poem with only one level of meaning is not a very interesting poem.
Did your parents read a lot?
Oh, yes. They did. There were a lot of books at our house. But here's the thing, you know, my parents read poetry. They didn't read poetry like scholars. But they read Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare's sonnets and Keats and e. e. cummings. It was just there. They enjoyed it. Poetry has never been really popular, compared to, say, the novel. But I think the idea that you would just never approach it, that you would write it off completely because it was too difficult or refined, I think that is a new thing among the class of people who would read other serious books.
You wrote a column about being interviewed about Richard Nixon, in which you noted that you're almost always asked to comment on women's issues. Do you plan to continue to write about women or not?
Yes, I kind of left that open. These issues are very much on my mind. I believe that if I keep writing my column, eventually I will have written about every single facet of feminism since time began. No—I did enjoy writing about Nixon, the last real President. But, you know, at The Nation I have the only regular potential space for a feminist column. I am the only columnist who is at all interested in these subjects or even favors them strongly—well, that's a little too strong, but let's not forget Christopher Hitchens's pro-life column, which must always be mentioned. So I feel, well, this is my brief in life. If I don't do this, then that's that much less representation of feminism.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
SOURCE: "Logical Liberator," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 342, March 3, 1995, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Milne argues that Pollitt's essays about American political events have resonance for a British audience.]
Call me insular or even truculent. But I've had enough of photogenic young US feminists disinventing date rape and rediscovering the tyranny of body image. So it's a comfort to meet Katha Pollitt, who wasn't born yesterday, who's read her Mary Wollstonecraft and her Germaine Greer, who knows that class exists as well as gender.
These essays, written for the Nation, the New Yorker and the New York Times, are cheeringly argumentative and heart-eningly accessible. No jargon, no ghastly Germanic abstractions: just funny, questioning comment on topics that even a benighted British audience can recognise. Lorena Bobbitt makes an appearance, and there's a stout defence of Hillary Clinton. Pollitt takes a cause célèbre—like the William Kennedy Smith rape trial or the Baby M surrogate mother case—and unpacks the trunk of assumptions that comes with it. She is living proof that journalism needn't be glib and feminism needn't be dull.
Of course there are cultural chasms. America's obsession with abortion means that Pollitt expends a lot of energy fending off the pro-life movement: one of her least successful pieces records attempts to converse with a man picketing a clinic near her office. But other topics that might seem alien to us have the chill of imminence about them.
"Foetal rights, Women's Wrongs" tracks the growing tendency to hold a pregnant woman responsible for damaging her baby with drugs or drink. In New York, signs warn expectant mothers off alcohol, and strangers tell pregnant women: "Don't you know you're poisoning your baby?" Pollitt cites the case of Jennifer Johnson, a Florida woman arrested after her baby tested positive for cocaine, and then charged with delivering drugs to a minor.
To Pollitt, this "focus on maternal behaviour" is just another way of blaming women. "How," she asks, "have we come to see women as the major threat to their newborns, and the womb as the most dangerous place a child will ever inhabit?" Blaming mothers, she argues, lets society off the hook (Jennifer Johnson sought help at a drug treatment programme, but was turned away). And fetishising foetuses conceals a lack of concern for real live children. Not to mention—she's brave enough to say it—real live women.
Pollitt is equally suspicious of paid "surrogate" motherhood, which she regards as "reproductive Reaganomics", degrading to the woman whose body is rented and to the child whose life is sold. "Contract maternity is not a way for infertile women to get children," she argues. "It is a way for men to get children." Surely this is confusing the power of men with the power of money. The danger is not so much that men will exploit women, but rather, as Pollitt suggests in a later essay, that the rich childless couple will exploit the single mother on welfare?
In general, Pollitt resists the temptation to paint women as victims—or as angels. She attacks what she terms "difference feminism" (the idea that women are inherently nicer, more peaceful and cooperative than men) and traces it back to Victorian notions of "separate spheres", and the comfort of moral superiority as a substitute for practical power.
And where are the men in this collection? They're here all right, in the guise of murdering husbands, absent fathers, sexist columnists, and patriarchal judges. Not as good guys, not as sons or brothers, not as the father and grandfather to whom Pollitt dedicates her book. It's a bit worrying when such a commonsense, articulate feminist has nothing to say about improving diplomatic relations with the other half of the human race.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2203
SOURCE: "First-Class Citizen," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 7, April, 1995, pp. 1, 3.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Solinger argues that Pollitt's strengths are her wide ranging knowledge and practical arguments.]
In recent days I've had occasion to talk on the phone to a couple of women whom I've never met, an English professor in Pittsburgh and a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis. Even though the professor's work focuses on women and she's a regular reader of this review, and the journalist writes about women's issues, neither of them had heard of Katha Pollitt. I tried to take the news quietly in both cases, but I was shocked. And depressed.
It's no fun collecting proof of how difficult it is for the most brilliantly accessible and keenly perceptive feminist writer around to break into mass culture—of even feminist culture—in this country. Maybe it's that the essays of Katha Pollitt (who is also a distinguished poet) appear in venues that are too progressive (The Nation, where she writes a biweekly column, "Subject to Debate"), or too elitist (The New Yorker), or too provincial (The New York Times!), for most folks to come across them. If that's the case, then the publication of a collection of these essays is an event the old New York theatre critics would have called an occasion for shouting from the rooftops.
Katha Pollitt is simply a treasure and a beacon in beleaguered times, in part because her style draws so richly from camps that usually turn their backs on each other. She is, for example, a literary intellectual who is also a journalist—a "two-track" writer, she calls herself. Her lawyer-like method of argumentation sits harmoniously on the page with the poet's sharp sense of detail and language and wit. This arsenal is brought into the service of a feminist politics that is more optimistic and practical than visionary and revolutionary. In the essays collected in Reasonable Creatures, Pollitt argues that women in the United States are still not accorded full citizenship rights—economically, sexually, parentally, for example. Still, despite pervasive and entrenched misogyny, she makes the case that we shouldn't give up. The cause of gender equality can be furthered by honest, clear-sighted discussion and alliance-building, if these efforts are grounded in civil rights and civil libertarian values.
Pollitt begins with a severely stripped-down version of a feminist as "a person who answers 'yes' to the question, 'Are women human?'" Feminism, she goes on,
is not about whether women are better than, worse than or identical with men. And it's certainly not about trading personal liberty—abortion, divorce, sexual self-expression—for social protection as wives and mothers, as pro-life feminists propose. It's about justice, fairness and access to the broad range of human experience. It's about women consulting their own well-being and being judged as individuals rather than as members of a class with one personality, one social function, one road to happiness. It's about women having intrinsic value as persons rather than contingent value as a means to an end for others: fetuses, children, the "family," men.
Clearly, Pollitt is the kind of feminist who thinks essentialism has nothing to offer women and plenty to offer those who prefer their females nurturing, if second-class, citizens.
Most of the nineteen essays in Reasonable Creatures first appeared in The Nation, where Pollitt's charge is to write about what she terms "so-called women's issues." Coursing across such timely topics as menopause, male violence against women, affirmative action, the right-to-life movement—as well as explaining why Germaine Greer is not now and never was the feminist she's cracked up to be—Pollitt tests public policies and public discussion about these issues against her humane notions of feminism. And in the process she appears to imagine that her reader is both an ordinary person and a thinking person. Whether she's plumbing the misogyny of "family values" talk, or considering what's wrong with excusing some men for slapping their wives around occasionally while branding the more sensational perpetrators monsters, Pollitt counts on readers to be able to hold a couple of ideas in their minds at one time, stand up to a paradox, look a vulgar contradiction straight in the eye but refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth, and follow a sound analogy wherever it may lead.
One particularly rich and shapely essay in the collection, "Why I Hate Family Values," was written in 1992, not long after Murphy Brown gave birth and Dan Quayle had a fit about it. Pollitt uses the surreal outburst of our most sit-com-like Veep to plumb the agenda of "family values" proponents in order to show how those folks cloak their reactionary fears and frustrations in pious moralisms, then set out to condemn and punish the ones they've labelled immoral and dangerous transgressors—chiefly poor women.
Pollitt often places herself at her young daughter's birthday party, or at the day-care center, or in the basement laundry room of her Upper West Side New York apartment building as she begins to dig into the weighty cultural and political issues of our times. We can identify, right off the bat: you don't have to be a policy wonk to see what's happening out there. This time, Katha is driven to the TV and parturient Murphy Brown out of sheer exhaustion from having read her little daughter umpteen volumes of the Berenstain Bears (the most moralistic series of contemporary books for tots, as it happens).
It doesn't take Pollitt long to move from TV-land to the heart of the matter—that in the days after the infamous episode, Quayle wasn't really expressing concern about women like Murphy Brown (or Brown "herself," alas!). He was, as Pollitt puts it, railing about "inner-city women who will be encouraged to produce out-of-wedlock babies by Murph's example—the trickle-down theory of values." But even this expression, Pollitt shows, is a cover for a deeper anxiety and preoccupation: that is, the enormous hostility festering in the culture toward changing social relations in the late twentieth century, in the US and elsewhere. "Family values" flag-wavers express their unhappiness about high rates of teen sexuality, single motherhood, open homosexuality, non-marital cohabitation, divorce and abortion (and the ungodly individuals creating these trends) as a simple, all-American matter of morality, immorality and righteous punishment, but that, too, is a cover. What they really can't stand is the assault on patriarchal traditions these trends represent.
Pollitt offers a number of alternative explanations for the behaviors "family values" proponents love to hate, explanations that have nothing to do with immorality and a lot to do with rationality, demographics and feminism—including one for a "behavior" that she is personally familiar with, divorce. Despite some shoddy but high-profile studies of the effects of divorce on children, Pollitt argues that divorce is a good idea when marriage turns bad, especially for children, who, common-sense tells us, do not flourish in loveless, joyless, sometimes violent family settings. The "family values" folks don't want to hear any of this. Instead they persist in "trying to put the new wine of modern personal relations in the old bottles of the sexual double standard and lifelong miserable marriage."
Along the way, Pollitt does what she does best. She makes her argument without reluctance to criticize moralizers of all political stripes, Right, Left and center. Nor is she reluctant to get personal with the material on hand. As a conscientious and principled and divorced mother of a young child, she personally does not appreciate the moralistic preachments of politicians, psychiatrists, or liberal columnists, targeting and besmirching her and her kind.
And speaking of her kind, Pollitt is clear about that, too. She regularly makes appropriate distinctions that few other media commentators bother with—like class distinctions. In this same essay, she draws attention to the perniciousness and stupidity of using Murphy Brown to stand for unwed mothers:
The handful of forty something professionals like Murphy Brown who elect to have a child without a male partner have little in common with the millions of middle-and working-class divorced mothers who find themselves in desperate financial straits because their husbands fail to pay court-awarded child support. And neither category has much in common with inner-city girls like those a teacher friend of mine told me about the other day … impregnated by boyfriends twice their age and determined to keep their babies … to have someone to love who loves them in return.
Here as elsewhere, Pollitt uses her resources to great effect, quoting Samuel Johnson as easily and aptly as she refers to Christopher Lasch, a whole raft of social scientists, or the Berenstain Bears.
In the end, Pollitt is perfectly clear about what she calls this "confusion of moral preachments with practical solutions to social problems." Getting as practical as one can, she points out that what ails the family in contemporary America has very little to do with values at all, and a lot to do with money—too little of it to sustain stable households in too many cases. In her most characteristic no-nonsense fashion, she concludes with a prescription: "Instead of moaning about 'family values' we should be thinking about how to provide the poor with decent jobs and social services, and about how to insure economic justice for working women. And let marriage take care of itself."
I particularly like the piece called "Lorena's Army," which begins, "I didn't watch much of Lorena Bobbitt's trial. I was too busy trying to locate the hordes of feminists who, according to the media, were calling her a heroine and touting penis removal as a revolutionary act. Where were these people?" I am also very fond of the way Pollitt, a mom who has vowed never to lift a hand to her own daughter, delivers a much-deserved spanking to little Miss Katie Roiphe for "careless and irresponsible" behavior, due to the fact that "she has not done her homework" on the subject of sexual violence. These two essays and others are sharply critical of the insidious absurdities involved in the quite common impulse in our culture to pity, for example, small-breasted, or unmarried, women, as losers and victims, out to decry the use of the victim label when it's applied to women who have been grossly underpaid or denied job promotions, or raped or beaten or murdered by their male mates.
Only one pair of essays left me wondering what Katha Pollitt really thinks: "Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me …" and "The Smurfette Principle." In the first, Pollitt reviews the opposing briefs of the Great Books mavens and the multiculturalists, and concludes:
Something is being overlooked: the state of reading, and books, and literature in our country at this time. Why, ask yourself, is everyone so hot under the collar about what to put on the required-reading shelf? It is because while we have been arguing so fiercely about which books make the best medicine, the patient has been slipping deeper and deeper into a coma.
The trajectory and the effect of literature is not, she argues, essentially political. So college reading lists should be made up without undue reference to the gender or race of authors, but with primary reference to "the subtle, delicate, wayward and individual, not to say private" way that books affect us. And college students will be better off.
My relation to literature may be less protoplasmic than Pollitt's. Still, I can grant her its subtle and delicate effects. But why, I must ask, does she see "the text" as so much more authoritative and so much more potentially destructive for the preschool set she writes about in "The Smurfette Principle" than for their post-secondary sisters and brothers clawing their way, in the wilderness, toward personhood? I agree that parents of young children need reminding that "sexism in preschool culture deforms both boys and girls." But I'm pretty sure that it functions that way for big boys and girls, too.
In the churlish tradition of saving the best for last and then withholding its full pleasures, I will tease readers who haven't feasted on Pollitt's work in The Nation by hinting that the juiciest piece in this collection is the Virginia Woolf-inspired essay, "Marooned on Gilligan's Island: Are Women Morally Superior to Men?" As I recall, this essay sparked quite a lot of barbed debate in the letters column of The Nation, and I imagine it would do the same among readers of these pages. Read it and exult—or gnash your teeth!
I love Katha Pollitt's essays partly because I just about always agree with her. Even more important, I can depend on her to sharpen my thinking and beef up my own arguments. But even if I don't have a functional use for a given essay, each one of them, and the collection altogether, are like gold, because Pollitt consistently pulls off this amazing feat—making essay after essay out of arguments as pointed as they are smart, elegantly shaped, good-humored and zestful. Here's hoping that all the feminists in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Atlanta and Topeka, from California to the New York island, buy this book, read it, and pass it on.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
SOURCE: "A Female Opinionmeister," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 19, 26.
[In the following review, Zenner, an editor at the University Press of Virginia, provides an overview of the topics addressed in Reasonable Creatures.]
Not too long ago, Katha Pollitt devoted one of her semimonthly Nation columns to a somewhat rueful consideration of why women commentators are so seldom asked to provide analysis on nongender-specific topics. "Am I being too cynical in arguing that female opinionmeisters specialize in women's issues partly as cultural adaptation?" she wondered. I can only say, hooray for cultural adaptation if that is what it took to steer Pollitt into the roiling waters of feminist social criticism. We certainly need her.
Both for those already familiar with Pollitt's work and for those coming to it for the first time, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism will confirm her standing as one of the most incisive, principled, and articulate cultural critics writing today. The 19 essays collected here—all written over the course of the last decade, in response to a variety of contemporary provocations—investigate not only sexism, but also racism and class bias, slipshod research techniques, and the media complicity, all of which lie at the root of many of the skewed images of female "reality" that confront us every day.
The book gets off to a running start with "That Survey: Being Wedded is Not Always Bliss." Surely you remember "that survey": the one purporting to show, as Pollitt tells us, "that as single women grow older their 'chances' of marrying descend as precipitously as the tracks of the Man Who Skied Down Mount Everest." Dispensing with the survey itself as an exercise in outmoded demographics (recognizing, for example, only the categories of "married" and "single," and based solely on census findings), Pollitt focuses her attention on the haste with which the media snapped up the study, decided to interpret its findings as a sinister new trend (when, in fact, as Pollitt convincingly shows, they indicate nothing of the sort), and crafted from them a full-scale condemnation of the "failure" of feminism.
The critique of journalistic ethics continues in a strong piece on "media wilding" over the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. "I drink, I swear, I flirt, I tell dirty jokes," Pollitt announces in the opening paragraph. She continues:
I have also, at various times, watched pornographic videos, had premarital sex, and sunbathed topless in violation of local ordinances…. There are other things, too, and if I should ever bring rape charges against a rich, famous, powerful politician's relative, The New York Times will probably tell you all about them—along with, perhaps, my name. Suitably adorned with anonymous quotes, these revelations will enable you, the public, to form your own opinion: Was I asking for trouble, or did I just make the whole thing up?
Pollitt rejects the specious rationale put forward for revealing the Palm Beach woman's name: anonymous charges are "un-American," everyone already knew who the woman was anyway, naming the victim will eliminate the "stigma" of rape. Apparently, she points out, these compelling arguments are nullified when the victim is an upper-middle-class white woman and the attackers a band of lower-income black youths, as in the Central Park jogger case:
That anonymity is held to be essential to the public good in a wide variety of cases but is damned in the Palm Beach case shows that what the media is concerned with is not the free flow of information or the public good…. What is at stake is the media's status, power, and ability to define and control information in accordance with the views of those who run the media…. The jogger could have been the daughter of the men who kept her name out of the news. But William Kennedy Smith could have been their son.
Disgust over race- and class-based inequities also suffuses Pollitt's discussion of procreation-for-hire arrangements, such as those revealed in the Baby M and Baby Boy Johnson cases, which are examined in separate chapters here. For low-income women, Pollitt contends, surrogacy fees can offer an incentive so powerful that it supersedes good judgment, leaving them open to exploitation as geese capable of laying golden eggs.
The same economic disparity that makes such arrangements possible works against the surrogate in custody cases—particularly those involving principals of different races. Why do childless couples elect surrogacy when adoption is infinitely less problematic? Pollitt speculates that it may be because
… genetic determinism is having one of its periods of scientific fashion [no kidding!], fueling the fear that an adopted baby will never 'really' be yours. At the same time, hardening class distinctions make the poor, who provide most adoptive babies, seem scary and doomed: What if junior took after his birth parents?
It is clear that for Pollitt being a feminist critic means criticizing feminists along with everyone else.
She rebukes middle-class professional women who, identifying themselves as feminists, rush to disavow images of passivity, helplessness, and irrationality, forgetting that many working-class and poor women are trapped in economic circumstances that rob them of agency. The insistence upon seeing themselves as possessors of complete free will and self-determination, Pollitt believes, may also invite women to embrace the "intellectually flabby" arguments of difference feminism. In "Marooned on Gilligan's Island," she chides difference feminism proponents Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen for faulty research methodology, and scoffs at the notion of women as the only true repositories of nurturing and nonviolence. While representing itself as something new, she argues, difference feminism is nothing more than a return to the hoary Victorian separate-spheres concept, and in the end pits women against women: "nurturers" versus "traitors."
The volume's concluding chapter, "Fetal Rights, Women's Wrongs," is a passionate condemnation of women-as-walking-wombs concept upon which both public policy and private belief are too often founded. Touching on issues ranging from legally enforced (and sometimes fatal) pregnancy to the Johnson Controls fetal-protection policy case, Pollitt issues a stern reprimand to those who would infantilize or objectify women, or place their concerns in artificial opposition to their children's—even, in the case of Johnson Controls, to their theoretical children's. The argument interweaves several of Pollitt's recurrent themes: the public repercussions of racism and class antagonism, the pathologizing of women's biological functions, and the media sexism that helps to disseminate negative stereotypes. It is one of the best essays in the book.
There is neither time nor space enough here to enumerate all the many merits of Reasonable Creatures. Pollitt's graceful style and frequent flashes of real wit are reason enough for rejoicing, but even more impressive is the fact that they never obscure the power and urgency of what she has to say. But do not take my word for it: Get hold of this book and see for yourself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826
SOURCE: "An Opinionated Woman," in Dissent, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 280-83.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Stansell discusses Pollitt's unique contributions to feminist writing.]
Holding opinions is a treacherous business for a woman. Shrill! Silly! Imprecations and accusations lurk at the edges of life and female psychology, fueling prejudices and women's own self-censorship. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf recently called attention to how little women's opinions figure in our op-ed pages, journals, public affairs shows, and columns, all "strikingly immune to the general agitation for female access." Gender socialization, suggests Wolf—both what men expect of women and what women expect of themselves—undermines the boldness and self-assertion necessary to a strong public voice.
Opinionated women, it is true, too often still register as in over their heads, presumptuous in proportion to how far they venture outside their proven expertise in matters of personal life. Reading any of the tiny number of female opinion journalists who have succeeded, you sense their difficulties in claiming full authority, the temptation to take refuge in a more palatable domestic identity. In Anna Quindlen, the most successful of the circle, the tendency to evoke the accouterments of conventional femininity is chronic: the kids, the husband, the concern for the needy, the note of girlish pleading. But even in a tough, funny writer like Barbara Ehrenreich, the domestic voice has intruded over the years, the evocation of children's foibles and a comic domestic chaos, as if Jean Kerr were a ghost that couldn't be quite banished.
Katha Pollitt's gift has been an ability to move beyond these limitations and, in doing so, to create a newly imagined space for opinionated women. Both the charming girl and the wacky mom are absent from Pollitt's self-presentation. What emerges rhetorically is rather a fierce female intellectual, unapologetically feminist and utterly intrepid. Pollitt never pulls her punches: as you may note after a moment's reflection, that is rare among women in life as well as in print. As she notes in an aside in an essay reprinted in the collection Reasonable Creatures, "[w]e are in a transition period, in which many women were raised with modest expectations and much emphasis on the need to please others." In her columns in the Nation, she reminds readers how much more women might reasonably expect for themselves. She also shows how much fun a woman can have when she jettisons, at least literarily, the need to please.
A book composed of columns constitutes something of a contradiction. These pieces derive their energy from their immediacy; they are not expository or reflective but rather served as fuel for fires burning at the time. Fresh from your argument, you read a Pollitt column and, still sizzling with what you might have said, appropriate her thoughts as ammunition for your next encounter. Ferocious, canny, Pollitt is both inspiration and reinforcement for the mundane, bumbling argumentative self. It is this imaginative relationship between writer and reader that led Wolf, after Pollitt's devastating attack on some current piece of antifeminist palaver, to call her a national treasure.
But by the same token, the essays do not always fare well over time. Passions of the moment fade and the specifics of the controversies become blurry. What was the Baby M case all about? What, exactly, was all the fuss about middle-aged single women not finding husbands? Who was Hedda Nussbaum? In preparing the columns for publication. Pollitt took care to choose those involving issues that resonate beyond the moment—antifeminism, reproductive ethics, sexual abuse. But inevitably her treatment of these deeper concerns is limited by tying them to events that, given the dizzying pace of the news, can seem passé and even, to younger readers, incomprehensible. Reasonable Creatures does develop certain lines of argument—Pollitt's concern with an emergent rhetoric of fetal rights, her ongoing broadside against media scandalizing about women, a militant assertion of the value of women's sexual and economic independence. Readers who know little about feminism, however, will not necessarily find an entree here, since there is no systematic exposition of feminist politics.
What does unify the essays is a luminous voice inflected with a distinct generational sensibility. Politically, Pollitt carries on a line of feminist thinking intermeshed with the democratic left, a long tradition revivified by that wing of the women's liberation movement that came out of the 1960s with its ties to the New Left frayed but unbroken. A hallmark of this democratic feminism has been, since the nineteenth century, its resistance to moralistic notions about the supposedly distinct, higher nature of women and their essential differences from men. Pollitt gives a sound drubbing to updated versions of the nobility of Woman rendered by thinkers like Carol Gilligan as a universal ethic of female care giving and pacific inclinations. Always Pollitt insists on the sexes' shared nature as "reasonable creatures"—the phrase of Mary Wollstonecraft that gives the collection its title. What Wollstonecraft described as a determination "to see women neither heroines nor brutes" sets Pollitt's brand of militance aside from other strains of feminism. It inoculates her both to the special pleading for women which can mark a liberal like Anna Quindlen and to the melodramatizing of female innocence perpetrated by radicals like Catherine Mackinnon.
But neither does Pollitt give any quarter to the wishful thinking, now fashionable among neoliberals, that confuses sexual egalitarianism as a political goal with a description of life as we know it, if only feminist demagogues would cease to brainwash women. Reasonable Creatures is imbued with an awareness of all the structural constraints that militate against women's claiming a full humanity, an understanding of how sexual inequality gets tangled up with economics and class. Traces of a dialogue with Marxism are apparent, not in any ideological language but in an edginess to Pollitt's interest in how the class system breeds a misogyny that eventually bears down on all women. The pieces on surrogate motherhood are a fine instance of how Pollitt can fuse an argument about the exploitation of working-class women with one about the travails of their more privileged sisters. Surrogacy—"checkbook motherhood" is Pollitt's term, rendered with characteristic tartness—is one outcome of an economic system that makes many women so financially hard-pressed that the pittance they are paid for bearing a child seems attractive. "Like all domestic labor performed for pay," Pollitt concludes bitingly, "house-cleaning, baby-sitting, prostitution—childbearing in the marketplace becomes disreputable work performed by suspect marginal people. The priceless task [of pregnancy] turns out to have a price after all: about $1.50 an hour." But what about the infertile women whom these gestational mothers help? Pollitt follows out this objection to the end and reminds us, damningly, that the contracting parties in surrogacy arrangements are not a pregnant woman and an adoptive mother but a pregnant woman and a monied man, the sperm donor, who uses her to preserve his genetic inheritance. "Contract maternity is not a way for infertile women to get children … it is a way for men to get children."
At the heart of Pollitt's thought is a critique of the family, developed by the old politics of women's liberation and elaborated by twenty-five years of subsequent left-wing feminism. This view, bolstered and expanded by the very best of feminist history and social science, has been under attack for the duration, subjected to calumnies so intense that even the most militant are prone, at times, to advertise our own domestic successes as protection against the assumption that anyone who adheres to "that" kind of feminism must despise children and detest men. One of the thrills of reading Pollitt is her refusal to trim her sails with these winds. "Why I Hate Family Values" is a memorable contribution on this score. Here she makes the au courant gesture toward her own cozy nest—the essay begins with her reading her daughter a bedtime story—but charmingly subverts it by informing readers that she has recently separated from her husband. No angst for the newly single mother. "The family-value advocates would doubtless say that my husband and I made a selfish choice…. But I am still waiting for someone to explain why it would be better for my daughter to grow up in a joyless household." She goes on to connect the wave of middle-class breast-beating over divorce and single-parent families with a politics that, on the bottom line, is about the perfidies of vulnerable women. "Family values and the cult of the nuclear family is, at bottom, just another way to bash women, especially poor women. If only they would get married and stay married, society's ills would vanish."
Pollitt's forte is to use this understanding of sexual politics to slash through some controversy shrouded in liberal piety and obfuscation. It is perhaps her proximity to literary and publishing circles in New York City, where she lives, that makes her so shrewd about the eagerness of an enlightened media to sponsor old misogynist myths repackaged as modern sexual realpolitik. She has almost a second sense about the wiles of a culture that dishes out equality with a vengeance, formally acknowledging feminist goals yet reproducing social inequalities of gender in ever more duplicitous ways. A delightful piece on the New York Times's decision to publish the name of the victim in the Palm Beach rape trial of William Kennedy Smith is a good example. Why not name the woman? she inquires rhetorically and proceeds to lay out the arguments for "fair play" and dismantle them piece by piece. Would not naming rape victims remove the stigma from rape? She crowns her investigation of this particular instance of equality-with-a-vengeance with a dead-on, baleful gaze at the male narcissism and cant that inform it. "One also has to wonder," she muses, "about the urgency with which … male proponents of the antistigma theory, with no history of public concern for women, declare themselves the best judge of women's interests and advocate a policy of which they themselves will never have to bear the consequences."
For all that Pollitt is very much a woman of her generation, it is one of her virtues never to look back. Years of conservative reaction have made her feisty and smart rather than morose and maundering. She has created a persona of a middle-aged feminist as beguiling, dashing and cheerful—quite a feat amid a climate so hostile to such personages. The writer drops enough hints about herself to allow readers to sketch in more: an adoring mother of a treasured daughter, unembarrassed user of Clairol to wash out the gray hairs, passionate feminist who counts both men and women as friends.
Pollitt is also a fine poet, too little heard from lately. Years ago she asked in a poem, "What if a woman / is not the moon or the sea?" Reasonable Creatures is an exploration of the territory outside metaphor and myth where the value of a woman's life is its own measure.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2968
SOURCE: "Opinion Pieces, The Third Sex, and Feminism's Tent," in Salmagundi, Nos. 106-7, Spring-Summer, 1995, pp. 288-96.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Rhodenbaugh considers Pollitt's feminist rhetoric, claiming that Pollitt favors the rights of women over the needs of children.]
Katha Pollitt's Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism is not a book of essays, but a collection of opinion pieces. Its nineteen inclusions, thirteen of which first appeared in The Nation, with the balance in The New York Times or The New Yorker, read like op-ed takes on issues such as abortion, surrogate motherhood, rape and menopause, particularly as those issues have come to the forefront in recent news stories, court cases, books and articles.
Pollitt is not the first commentator and will not be the last to collect editorials and call them essays: that's neither here nor there. Nor is topicality necessarily a limitation. A current topic may be the provocation for an essay, but not constitute the bounds of what is explored or discovered. Temporality is at issue, though, for these commentaries mean to win arguments on specific contemporary questions. Had I read them in daily newspapers or weekly magazines—the contexts in which they were first published—they would have served for interrupting the flux of information and helping me make meaning of news. That's the nature of opinion pieces: they contribute to the stream of ideas and perspectives out of which we come to at least qualified or provisional understandings. I enjoy and value them, but almost never save them to re-read, just as I relish Mark Shields' weekly political commentary on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on public television, but have never heard anything so memorable as to cause me to order a videotape of the program.
From essays, I want more. I want language I can savor, insights which leap the bounds of their purported topics, all in all a reading experience to which I'd want to return. I want, in short, some measure of timelessness.
The only one of these commentaries to which I'd return is "Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me …," where Pollitt eschews all extremes in the debate over literary canon, and points out the irony of the debate itself, given that we are less and less a nation of readers, and that the canon war treats literature as a medicinal, good primarily for forming whatever character any given advocate prefers. It's a commonsensical piece of writing, and an interesting one, and it seems no accident that it also happens to be the only one in this book where she's not writing from any ism. I hear in "Why We Read" the poet who wrote Antarctic Traveller, I wish I'd heard her more often.
For the reader for whom the distinction between essay and opinion piece is less important, a second broad reaction to Reasonable Creatures may be to ask, what is it to be a feminist? As I understand the term, it is to be not only committed to equity for women, but also to analyze events, situations, trends, issues, ideas and artistic expressions in terms of their effects on, and assumptions about, the one-half of the human race which is female. Feminism came out of the consciousness that half the human race was missing or greatly diminished in the world's reckonings.
Feminism can thus be both a corrective and an enlarger of vision. It brings to visibility, and therefore puts within the bounds of caring, those aspects of life significantly affected by gender as it is played out in the economic-social-political matrix. Like the civil rights movement, which brought to consciousness the racial concomitants of experience, feminism changed our calculations: it required consideration of how women affect and are affected.
Like any perspective identifiably delimited by a condition or class less inclusive than human, it keeps its focus on its affected class of persons, its constituency. This is its strength as a basis for organizing and legal gains, and to the extent feminism is a social and political movement, it cannot do otherwise. As a stance or mode of analysis, however, feminism's focus is also its limitation. Because it makes primary effect on women, it necessarily makes secondary other classes and conditions of humanness.
This makes particularly problematic what appears to be Pollitt's project in Reasonable Creatures. She says she wants women to be seen as "human beings … no more, no less," wants them to be seen, in the language of Mary Wollstonecraft from which she draws her title, as "neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures"; but she wants to do this via commentary on matters often painted as "women's issues," and from a vantage point where effect on women is the primary concern. The project seems internally contradictory or oxymoronic, for the book doesn't instance or ask for a gender-neutral or supra-gender—a merely human—response to events and issues. Rather, it insistently asks that we make effect on women the overwhelmingly important consideration across a range of human dilemmas.
Here, those dilemmas arise most painfully with respect to what we might call the third sex: children. They cannot be posed as foil for women, as men sometimes are; they cannot be posed as negator or oppressor, because they are the least culpable of the three sexes; yet because their potential being or actual being can negate or oppress women, they intersect with, even constitute, the crucible or crux of the hardest dilemmas.
That men are equal partners in conceiving children, and should be equal partners in raising them, and that societal conditions bear disproportionately on women, does not change the facts that only women bear children; that the "disposition" of a born child is also disproportionately in a woman's province, because the male partner may or may not be present; and that therefore a sexually active heterosexual female is faced, a large part of her lifespan, with decisions and conditions which greatly affect her own freedom, and affect fetuses, babies, and children. This is not fair, but it's the biological ground it seems must be acknowledged, if feminism's tent is to be raised on it. This acknowledgment, in turn, would seem to require granting the acuteness of the moral and psychic pain in the choices women must make, their heavier responsibility for those choices, and the inevitable effects on the third sex.
Pollitt seems to downplay the pain, the responsibility, and the effects on the third sex. I feel this to be so even though I agree in large part with her on the implications for the legal status of women and public policy. Her emphases, and the routes she takes to her conclusions, are what I find off-putting, and to the extent they represent a feminist analysis, I think they may help explain why many women are outside feminism's tent.
In "Children of Choice," for example, Pollitt asks, "If the fetus is a person, how can its life be less important than a woman's liberty and pursuit of happiness?" and answers, "The fact is, when your back is against the wall of unwanted pregnancy, it doesn't matter whether or not you think the fetus is a person." Her answer rings true to me experientially, and yet it closes the book on the moral question without ever having engaged it. Abortion may be the toughest, least answerable human dilemma, and I can't fault anyone for wanting to avoid it and/or give the pragmatist's or relativist's answer, but I would point out that abortion is not about either "women's bodies, family planning and sexual freedom," in Pollitt's formulation, or "babies' lives": it's about both. That's the very reason it's such a wrenching issue. And when the moral dilemma it presents is ignored or downplayed as inconsequential, those who feel the dilemma acutely may be shut out of the field of respect and concern. What's more, the commentator is left preaching to the converted.
In fact Pollitt goes beyond not granting the fullness of the dilemma: she also uses reductionist language and ad hominem argument, most notably in the throw-away journalism of "Our Right-to-Lifer: The Mind of an Antiabortionist," where she makes a "not very intelligent" "religious fanatic," a picket outside a New York abortion clinic, the stand-in cipher for marginalizing those opposed to abortion.
The overriding importance to Pollitt of the effect on women is not at all limited to the abortion debate, however. It holds true as well in circumstances where fetuses are now admittedly "babies," as in "Fetal Rights, Women's Wrongs," where she argues against legal and economic penalties against women who endanger their babies during gestation, as by alcohol and drug abuse. Here again I find myself agreeing with the legal implications of her argument, yet put off, even appalled, at the route and thrust of that argument.
She ably points out the impossibility of determining the exact antecedents to a baby's health, noting that the father's behavior during and after conception, and environmental impacts, affect the baby as well as the mother's behavior. Yet it seems a mistake to call maternal behavior during pregnancy "a relatively small piece of the total picture," going so far as to say prenatal care is "much more important."
In the face of horrific effects on children born addicted to crack or heroin or damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome, and the consequent destruction of whole communities, Pollitt's focus on women is too narrow:
… what fetal rights is really about—controlling women. It's a reaction to legalized abortion and contraception, which has given women, for the first time in history, real reproductive power.
She also poses a false choice here: concern for women and other members of a community, such as those on Indian reservations devastated not only by alcoholism, but also by violence, poverty and other social ills, versus the "fetal rights" of those who will be born into such communities. In taking to task Michael Dorris, who wrote in The Broken Cord of the damage done his adopted son Adam by fetal alcohol syndrome, she asks:
Why is it so hard for us to see that the tragedy of Adam Dorris is inextricable from the tragedy of his mother? Why is her loss—to society, to herself—so easy to dismiss?
I don't believe the people most closely involved in addressing poverty and related social ills do dismiss an Adam Dorris' birthmother, or fail to see that the tragedies are inextricable. Black community leaders and Indian tribal leaders are fully aware of the depth and complexity of those tragedies, and their interrelatedness; their frustration is in trying to devise interventions that could lead to change.
But possible solutions are not in Pollitt's bailiwick. She operates more like a lawyer, carving out areas of legal protection and entitlement for women, and deflecting responsibility for solutions to a distant "society" or "the government." In "Fetal Rights, Women's Wrongs" she's so compelling on the logical and practical impossibilities of codifying sanctions against women for behaviors during pregnancy, that we almost lose sight of the problems which engendered the discussion in the first place. We almost forget to ask, i.e., what about those addicted babies, those alcohol-damaged babies, some of whom are also HIV positive?
Pollitt doesn't address them, having "won," through persuasion, what seems a logical if pyrrhic victory for their mothers: the right not to be punished for, or constricted from, the heavy drinking and drug use which damage their babies—and themselves.
In commentaries on two surrogate motherhood cases, the primacy Pollitt puts on effect on women, as opposed to children, is most strikingly developed. In "Contracts and Apple Pie: the Strange Case of Baby M," she argues against surrogate motherhood (which she rightly points out should be called "contract motherhood" in this case, since Mary Beth Whitehead was indisputably the biological mother of Baby M). Her rhetorical strategy is to answer ten "blatantly foolish things being said in support" of contract motherhood. Under the ninth of these answers, on parts of the sixteenth and seventeenth pages of this eighteen page commentary, she finally gets around to effects on children—the contract mother's other children, and the message they get when their mother bears a child for pay, and, at last, the child born of such an arrangement:
And, of course, there is the contract baby. To be sure, there are worse ways of coming into the world, but not many, and none that are elaborately prearranged by sane people. Much is made of the so-called trauma of adoption, but adoption is a piece of cake compared with contracting.
I happen to agree with Pollitt in her opposition to contract motherhood, and I also think there was a case to be made for both sides of this custody dispute: for Mary Beth Whitehead, and for the biological father and his wife, William and Elizabeth Stern. But it also seems to me the welfare of the living child should have been the preeminent concern. Yet by Pollitt's strategy of argument, the child is treated as the offproduct of a dispute significant foremost for its effect on women. It apparently seemed reasonable to her to discuss effect on women first, and the baby more as afterthought. What's more, she never addresses the welfare of Baby M, never tackles whether Mary Beth Whitehead should have gotten full custody.
In "Checkbook Maternity: When is a Mother Not a Mother?" Pollitt comments on a case wherein a child was conceived in vitro by his biological parents, and transplanted into a "gestational surrogate" for gestation and birth. The judge denied Anna Johnson, the gestational surrogate, visitation rights. While opposing the legality of surrogacy, Pollitt nevertheless favors Johnson's visitation rights:
Recent court decisions (not to mention social customs like open adoption, blended families and gay and lesbian parenting) have tended to respect a widening circle of adult relationships with children…. Given the increasing number of children living outside the classic nuclear-family arrangement, and the equanimity with which courts divide them up among competing adults, it seems rather late in the day to get all stuffy about Anna Johnson.
But Pollitt by her argument seems to share in that equanimity. Never mind that the young child might be confused or hurt, to understate the matter, by a court-ordered relationship with a woman who rented herself for his gestation and birth, but whom he otherwise did not know. Pollitt not only ignores the psychological import for this child, she even manages to twist Johnson's wish for visitation rights into an imperative for the child: "The children of surrogates—even nongenetic surrogates like Anna Johnson—have the right to know the women through whose body and through whose efforts they came into the world."
In the next-to-last paragraph of this commentary Pollitt does get around, if not to this particular child, then to effect on children-in-the-abstract: surrogacy "degrades children by commercializing their creation." She also notes that harm may be done the surrogate's other children. But her primary concern remains, as elsewhere, effect on women:
The most important and distressing aspect of Judge Parslow's decision … is that it defines, or redefines, maternity in a way that is thoroughly degrading to women.
It does so, she argues, by treating the gestational surrogate as a mere womb, a mere environment, and ignoring the mother-child ties she simply asserts are inevitably created when a woman carries a child to term. The very thing Johnson decided to do: rent her womb, Pollitt objects to being characterized as renting her womb. She also makes much of Johnson's status as a low-income black woman, and the potential for victimization of the already-victimized by surrogacy arrangements.
Yet her focus on how maternity is "defined" seems to spin off very far from the reaches of the real, and finally to have little to do with either Anna Johnson's life or this child's life. It's a very abstract, perhaps identifiably "feminist" kind of concern, this "how maternity is defined." A reasonable person might contend that the judge in this case did not invent or promote gestational surrogacy, or wish to define or redefine maternity, but was faced with a decision about a particular real child's best interests, and made his ruling based on that concern. For reasons I cannot fathom, that is apparently anathema to Pollitt.
Her real claim to "reasonableness" in Reasonable Creatures may reside, all said and done, not in her views on human dilemmas, but in her willingness to take on others in the feminist loop: she's game for critiquing other feminists, and some of the strains or trends she identifies in feminist thinking. In "The Romantic Climacteric," for example, she strongly criticizes Germaine Greer's The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause, and in "Not Just Bad Sex" she takes aim at Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism. In "Marooned on Gilligan's Island: Are Women Morally Superior to Men?" she takes on "difference feminism," pointing to fallacies in proclaiming women inherently more peaceful, more empathic, etc., and warning of unintended negative consequences for women by such arguments.
In the arguments she has within feminism's tent, she demonstrates she's no knee-jerk apotheosizer of women, no polemicist in a hazy swoon of a sisterhood which might try to accommodate or validate any analysis written or spoken by a woman, at least a woman who's liberal or radical.
That this may make her more "reasonable" than some feminists, and some anti-feminist female commentators, the reader will probably grant. Faced with a Suzanne Fields to the right, a Catharine MacKinnon to the left, and a Camille Paglia (below, above and beyond?), the reader might indeed feel blessed for the offerings of someone so reasonable as Katha Pollitt. But it's something else again to feel that Pollitt has done all she can to respond to the dilemmas she addresses.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 158
SOURCE: A review of Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review of Reasonable Creatures, Solomon argues that Pollitt's essays will interest readers even if they disagree with her views.]
In well-crafted essays, Pollitt, an editor at The Nation, discusses such topics as rape, abortion, domestic violence, sexism and surrogate motherhood. She argues that as our complex social and economic system "comes under stress-from the transition to a global economy, the back-to-the-home agenda of the Christian right, the dismantling of the safety net by the Gingrich conservatives and the exhaustion of liberalism—the issues that feminism raises will become not less important, but more so." Pollitt's incisive prose remains interesting, even when the reader disagrees with her position.
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