Today we’re talking to the award-winning author Katha Pollitt. Katha writes a bimonthly column for The Nation and is the author of six books, among them the essay collection “Learning to Drive” and two volumes of poetry, “The Mind-Body Problem” and “Antarctic Traveller: Poems.” Katha has received the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s “Maggie” award and the American Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honors.
When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what influenced that decision?
I think I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist, before I even knew the word. Even a six-year-old can see that men get a better deal, it’s just a question of whether you think that’s the way it has to be. I think in my case I sensed that my mother had been thwarted in her ambitions, as happened to so many women in the 1950s. She had wanted to be a journalist, and had a few early intern-like jobs. But marriage, baby, money problems – she always worked, but not at anything she loved. She poured her hope into me: she took my writing very seriously, and never told me the things supposedly typical of mothers at that time: play dumb to please boys, major in something easy, and never forget that marriage and babies are the point of female existence.
What does feminism mean to you?
I like the classic definition: Feminism is the struggle for the social, political, economic and cultural equality of women and men. I don’t think feminism by itself can solve every social problem, like war and the vast chasm between rich and poor nations. But gender inequality is part of so many other injustices and cruelties, which won’t be solved without looking at the gender piece. I do think feminism is incompatible with some other attachments, like patriarchal religion. I don’t see how a woman who believes women are men’s equal can belong to a faith that places them under men’s authority, which, when you really get down to it, all the major faiths and denominations do, although sometimes they try to dress it up as “equally valuable but different.” The best way for feminists to reform misogynist religions is to leave them. Don’t give them your time, your money, your labor, your brains.
In a 2006 interview with Salon, you said that “organized feminism” had become “timid and deferential and also Beltway-oriented.” Do you still feel this way?
Yes. Look how they were blindsided by Stupak in the debate over health-care reform. I just don’t think they saw that coming – and from a Democrat. Some of the big organizations have lost their edge – in New York State, NOW spent years trying to prevent no-fault divorce, something every other state in the union has, and that is, moreover, a good thing. That’s one reason I let my membership lapse. Young feminists accuse the older women at the top of refusing to pass the baton, and that may be part of the problem, but I think almost inevitably over a long period of time big groups end up spending a lot of energy perpetuating themselves and relying on alliances with the powerful. Lobbying is important, especially at the state level, and lawsuits are important too, but where is the grassroots activism? The other side has lots of that. I hear all the time from women who feel isolated and alone, as feminists, as liberals, as leftists. Where can they do their politics? A movement needs to give people things to do besides send money.
You concluded a column about Dominique Strauss-Kahn with the words: “Tell me again how feminism’s job is over.” I read this as referring to the DSK case and the attacks on his accuser’s credibility, but these words are also relevant in the larger context of our culture. What do these words mean to you?
We too easily assume that because a problem is named, it’s solved. We have much more enlightened rape laws than we had back in the l970s, when you had to actually have a witness, and prove you resisted, but that doesn’t mean a rapist doesn’t have a good shot at getting away with it and that a woman who says she was raped isn’t publicly humiliated. Women have flooded into the work force, and it would be hard to find someone now who would say they deserve to be paid less just because they are women – but they still only make 77 cents on the male dollar. Women are still doing the heavy lifting at home, and large swathes of popular culture are flagrantly misogynistic. Oh, and let’s not forget that men still control government, the courts, the churches, the media…! The structures of male dominance are very deep and very broad. I know Hanna Rosin thinks men are finished and women are about to run the world, but I just don’t see it.
Earlier this year, the singer Beyonce said that she wanted a new word for feminism, something that was in essence more fun. I was reminded of this when I read your column about SlutWalks, where you wrote that older feminists have been complaining for years that younger women aren’t politically active and take their rights for granted. Do you think that this is a valid complaint? And why do you think that the word “feminist” is still seen as unappealing and even polarizing?
Except for rare historical moments, most people aren’t politically active. It’s a fantasy that back in the 1970s “women” were feminists – lots were anti-feminists, and lots were uninvolved. But there was a women’s movement out there that people could see and connect to, and it won a lot of victories very quickly, and that is always a draw. Nothing succeeds like success! Today’s fights are harder, precisely because those early battles swept away the most unfair laws and customs and assumptions, leaving behind an amorphous miasma of sexism and practices that are sexist in effect, like the absence of government-funded quality childcare. That said, I know a lot of young feminists, and they are terrific – women involved with local abortion funds, clinic escorting, feminist websites and blogs. I think young women – and older women too! – are looking for fresh forms of activism, something more vibrant than getting e mails from NARAL. That’s what I like about Slutwalk – it’s bold, it’s complicated, it’s replicable and adaptable, it’s fun. And it’s something young women came up with themselves.
The word feminist is polarizing because feminism is polarizing. It’s a pretty deep critique of “normal” relations between the sexes. That’s bound to be unsettling. It’s not about the name – if they called it “bluebird happyfun” the same people who disdain feminism now would say, “Those bluebird happyfun women are just a bunch of man-haters.”
In addition to your essay collections, you’ve also published two books of poetry. These have traditionally seemed like fairly different forms of writing, both stylistically and thematically, and I’m curious how you move between the two styles.
Not very well! Writing the personal essays in Learning to Drive was not so far from writing poetry – I was going for some of the same language and tone, the mixture of humor and sadness, the bittersweetness, the inner life. But my columns are very topical – they’re about what’s happening right now. They’re partly informational and partly argumentative. They serve a whole different purpose, and appeal to different readers. I suspect most of the people who read my column don’t read poetry or know I write it – if they did, The Mind-Body Problem would have sold a lot more copies.
Are there any writers that have influenced your work, either poets or essayists?
Lots. Blake, Stevie Smith, Woolf, Brecht, Randall Jarrell, Orwell, Barbara Ehrenreich, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell. So many others I am forgetting! Right now, I’m loving Kay Ryan’s poetry – it’s so witty and condensed.
This year one of my resolutions was to read and reread classics – so far, I’ve gone through Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, and Persuasion. Believe me, they are different the second time around. Perhaps one has less patience? The first time I read Persuasion I identified so with poor Anne Elliot, who rejected the man she loved and may have missed her chance for happiness in an era in which women were so tightly circumscribed by family and class and rigid social codes they could hardly move. She can’t tell him she was wrong, she can hardly speak to him – he has to make all the moves, and it takes 300 pages. This time, I’m thinking, oh just get on with it.
I’m almost afraid to reread War and Peace, which I raced through when I was fifteen. What if I think, Natasha, Prince Andrei, Pierre, who obsessed my imagination for years – what silly people!
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.