7.25.2006

predictable

Katha Pollitt, one of my writing heroes - and a colleague through the Haven Coalition - has just published another collection of essays, called Virginity Or Death!.

In a predictably snark-filled review for the New York Times, Ana Marie Cox (The Wonkette), doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
Strident feminism can seem out of place — even tacky — in a world where women have come so demonstrably far. With Katie Couric at the anchor desk, Condoleezza Rice leading the State Department and Hillary Clinton aiming for the top of the ticket, many of the young, educated and otherwise liberal women who might, in another era, have found themselves burning bras and raising their consciousness would rather be fitted for the right bra (like on "Oprah") and raising their credit limit. Katha Pollitt is the skunk at this "Desperate Housewives" watching party. Her new collection of essays, "Virginity or Death!," culled from her columns for The Nation over the past five years, shows her to be stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women's rights in the Middle East. In the midst of our celebration of Katie's last day, Pollitt is the one who would drown out the clinking of cosmo glasses with a loud condemnation of the surgery available to those women who would sacrifice their little toes the better to fit their Jimmy Choos.
It would be mind-boggling if it weren't so predictable. Couric, Rice and Clinton, cosmos and Jimmy Choos - that just about negates the needs of ordinary American women to have access to birth control and abortion, don't you think?

I dashed off a letter to the Times, but two terrific writers beat me to it:
To the Editor:
Ana Marie Cox's review of Katha Pollitt's "Virginity or Death!" (July 2) manages to reduce feminism to a list of self-indulgences enjoyed by privileged women.

In fact, Pollitt argues from the capacious terrain of principle and history, where feminism is imbedded in, indeed inseparable from, a progressive legacy of social justice. Cox's assertion that feminism's task is to "navigate between stridency and submission" exposes the poverty of her social imagination and a meanness of spirit. Pollitt wants to amplify the conversation about the rights and wrongs of American society; Cox wants to reduce it to chitchat about shoes.
Victoria de Grazia
Martha Howell
New York
Both writers are professors of history at Columbia University.



To the Editor:
Ana Marie Cox makes it clear that she just can't figure out why feminists like Katha Pollitt are still kicking up such a fuss. After all, Cox points out, Katie has the nightly news, Condi has State and Cox herself has "elbowed my way into more boys' clubs than I care to remember." What else — and who else — could there possibly be? For Cox, the ability of women today to support abortion rights and at the same time wear Jimmy Choos constitutes a "complicated feminist mind-set" far beyond the grasp of Pollitt and her doddering sisters.

Dear Ms. Cox: If the boys will let you use the library, do a little research in the history of the women's movement. You'll find that complacency has a long tradition of its own, starting with those 19th-century homemakers who argued that women were perfectly well protected by their husbands and had no reason to want to vote. You'll also encounter the great tradition that brought us Katha Pollitt — generations of smart, witty, articulate rabble-rousers who were always out in front taking the hits.
Laura Shapiro
New York
The writer is the author, most recently, of "Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America."
In The Nation, where she writes her regular column, Pollitt responds directly:
Emily Amick: There's a discussion raging on the blogosphere right now about Wonkette's [a/k/a Ana Marie Cox] "post-feminist" review of your book in the New York Times. Is this the reaction you expected? Do you think Bush feels left out?

Katha Pollitt: You certainly wouldn't know from the review that the book is not, actually, one long grim fulmination against high-fashion shoes and the young women who wear them. It's fine that she hated the book (well, not really!), but I wish she had accurately conveyed its contents.

There are pieces about Republicans, Democrats, Greens, fundamentalists (of all stripes), creationism in Kansas, sexism in the media, the war in Iraq, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, Abu Ghraib, stem-cell research, cloning, healthcare, childcare, gay marriage, FBI spying, Maureen Dowd, Andrea Dworkin, Pierre Bourdieu (who?), "blasphemous art" at the Brooklyn Museum, Larry Summers, my old colleague Christopher Hitchens, Howard Dean, Dr. Judith Steinberg a/k/a Judy Dean and daycare workers sentenced to long prison terms for sex abuse that almost certainly did not occur. There are pieces about Muslim women's rights--a topic Wonkette says I'm "fixated" on, which is an odd choice of word, don't you think? Maybe she'll tell us someday exactly how much concern is the right amount to have. Oh and yes, George Bush. He's all over the book.

In "Vaginal Politics" you say that the contradiction between serious feminist issues and sexual self-expression is "way overdrawn." Yet many young women believe the feminist movement doesn't allow them to wear stilettos and lipstick. So where is the line between "stridency and submission?"

We're still on Wonkette, I see. Have you ever heard that word "strident" applied to a man? I can't believe the conversation is stuck on this idiotic plot point: Feminists with loud voices and hairy legs versus girls who just want to have fun. Actually, there are lots of young feminists. "Vaginal Politics" is actually an essay about V-day--the campus "Vagina Monologues" festival that raises tons of money to fight violence against women. It's hip, it's sexy, it's hugely popular and it's all the work of students. Young feminists!

The blogosphere is full of young feminists--thank God, because print media publishes very few. But sure, many young women reject the word. For their entire lives, they've been told that the women's movement is evil and weird--Hillary Clinton is a feminazi, working mothers hate their children, feminists hate men. Like the rest of the progressive movement, the women's movement has suffered from not having well-funded popular media of its own and from not paying enough attention to grassroots organizing. We've let our opponents define the discourse. [More here.]
One of the best things about my work with the Haven Coalition was the opportunity to work with feminists 15 and 20 years younger than me - to see all the brains, energy, and power pouring into the movement now. Feminist women in their 20s and early 30s easily reconcile some of the issues their forerunners found contradictory. Their attitudes towards sexuality, reproduction, relationships - and fashion - are simpler and, I think, more life-embracing, more joyful than their predecessors'.

And they're not afraid to call themselves feminists. They know full well what the word means.

18 comments:

redsock said...

A post from May 25, 2005:

The word feminism "had become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman. [The word suggested either] the old school of fighting feminists who wore flat heels and had very little feminine charm, or the current speciies who antagonize men with their constant clamor about maiden names, equal rights, woman's place in the world, and many another cause, ad infinitum. If a blundering male assumes that a young woman is a feminist simply because she happens to have a job or a profession of her own, she will be highly - and quite justifiably insulted: for the word evokes the antithesis of what she flatters herself to be."

Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, 1927.
[As quoted in Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism by Susan Ware.]

1927.

Dear Wonkette: You're just a little behind the times. Do try to advance your thinking to within 50 years of the present, please. Thank you.

James said...

With Katie Couric at the anchor desk, Condoleezza Rice leading the State Department and Hillary Clinton aiming for the top of the ticket

If feminism were actually no longer needed, there'd be a bigger pool of examples to draw from than Wonkette (and just about everyone else arguing her point) have drawn from.

Finiminsm is "done" not when you can find an example of a woman in any given position of power, but when you have any number of examples to draw on.

L-girl said...

I'd say feminism is done when there is complete equality between men and women everywhere - equal opportunity in education, earnings, access to health care, social support (for parenting, for example) - and in all areas - sports, the arts, sciences, trades, professions.

When a baby boy and a baby girl come into the world with completely equal opportunity, everywhere on earth, feminism will be done. In other words, never.

Wrye said...

I think we're seeing a class issue, too.

But apart from that, Wonkette has always been a fairly salacious, irreverent gossip-writer. Why would the Times choose such a writer except to harvest the snark? She's a step or two more respectable than Dan Savage, but only just.

Heatwave's breaking, finally. maybe some sleep will be coming my way at last.

Crabbi said...

I'd say feminism is done when there is complete equality between men and women everywhere - equal opportunity in education, earnings, access to health care, social support (for parenting, for example) - and in all areas - sports, the arts, sciences, trades, professions.

And, I'd add, when we no longer have to worry about being victins of gender-based crimes.

L-girl said...

I think we're seeing a class issue, too.

Yes. Wealthy women need feminism a lot less than working women.

But apart from that, Wonkette has always been a fairly salacious, irreverent gossip-writer. Why would the Times choose such a writer except to harvest the snark?

Oh yes, I agree, and I'm sure Katha does, too. The Times asked her to write the review for a reason. Bleh.

Heatwave's breaking, finally. maybe some sleep will be coming my way at last.

Good luck. No A/C out there, eh?

L-girl said...

And, I'd add, when we no longer have to worry about being victins of gender-based crimes.

Oh yes! Excellent, Crabbi. Again, never.

We should think on this more, think of ways to finish the sentence: "The world will be ready for post-feminism when..."

Crabbi said...

We should. There's so much, isn't there? Hmmm...

The world will be ready for post-feminism when...

...(U.S.) female presidential candidates are newsworthy for reasons other than gender.

...women's private lives are private and their bodies their own. Or, no more of that madonna/whore shit. In fact, whenever a womaan is demonized or deified for her sexuality, all of the really cool people will yawn and say, "Oh god, that madonna/whore shit is so 2006.

I bet we can think of lots more...

Lone Primate said...

Something that still puzzles me -- and I think I've said it here before -- is why, this late in history, women still do not constitute half the MPs in the House of Commons (here or in Britain), or in Congress, or anywhere, so far as I know, in the Western democracies (much less elsewhere). For the most part, we're closing in on a century of sufferage, and yet Britain's had only one female PM of note; Canada's had only one who served as a footnote in history, and there's been no woman president in the United States. What makes the hurdle so high? Are men still, when push comes to shove, unwilling to nominate or vote for women? Is there something in the nature of women that makes them reluctant or less likely to put themselves forward as candidates in the first place? Is there something invisible but palpable in the systemic of our society that impedes women in the quest for political office? I would venture to say, though I have no means to prove it, that women have progressed further in the world of business than in the halls of power -- which, given the conservative nature of capitalism, seems counter-intuitive. The impression I get is that society -- women included -- are more willing to trust women with money than power. It may be something deeply ingrained in our civilization, lurking unsuspected in even the mind of every little girl, as well as boy...

L-girl said...

women still do not constitute half the MPs in the House of Commons (here or in Britain), or in Congress, or anywhere, so far as I know, in the Western democracies (much less elsewhere).

I believe the highest percentages are the Scandanavian countries. This link shows the percentage of women in Parliaments around the world. Sweden has the highest.

I thought I remembered reading that Sweden had a mandate that Parliament must be equally balanced by gender, but now I don't find anything about it.

What makes the hurdle so high? Are men still, when push comes to shove, unwilling to nominate or vote for women? Is there something in the nature of women that makes them reluctant or less likely to put themselves forward as candidates in the first place? Is there something invisible but palpable in the systemic of our society that impedes women in the quest for political office?

The answers are complicated, of course, but I would reject any search that seeks the answer in "the nature of women", as opposed to societal causes.

There is sexism among voters, for sure - and not just male voters. Stereotypes are perpetuated in the media, reinforced all the time. One needs look no further than the coverage of Belinda Stronach or Hillary Clinton to find a zillion examples.

Another major factor is that, although it has changed slightly, women still bear the principal responsibility for child care, and that shapes (sidetracks, scuttles, complicates) their career choices in a way most men don't have to think about.

L-girl said...

...women's private lives are private and their bodies their own.

That bright and beautiful day.

"Oh god, that madonna/whore shit is so 2006.

Or so 1956, or 1856...

James said...

What makes the hurdle so high? Are men still, when push comes to shove, unwilling to nominate or vote for women?

At least in the US, there are large blocks of voting women who refuse to vote for women -- the "Concerned Women for America" sorts (often spoofed as "Ladies Against Women"). Just recently I read an interview with a US woman who was advocating a repeal of voting rights for women.

L-girl said...

At least in the US, there are large blocks of voting women who refuse to vote for women -- the "Concerned Women for America" sorts (often spoofed as "Ladies Against Women").

They are not really a large group. I think ordinary sexism - male and female voters trusting women less than men, feeling women are less competent than men - is much more prevalent. I wouldn't imagine Canada is any different in the US in that regard.

Lone Primate said...

Another major factor is that, although it has changed slightly, women still bear the principal responsibility for child care, and that shapes (sidetracks, scuttles, complicates) their career choices in a way most men don't have to think about.

That's really what I was getting at when I said "the nature of women". Those expectations are still put upon them, both by society and their own beliefs about who and what they ought to be within it (again, these are values largely instilled by society itself, so in a way it's a circular argument). I didn't mean to suggest a deficiency in the character of women, but that the roles they're more apt to adopt in being women may form part of the obstacles that make the difference. And, let's face it, it's a long haul and a long paring down going from being one of 32,000,000 to one of just 308. In a sample that small, any disadvantage is apt to be magnified.

L-girl said...

I didn't mean to suggest a deficiency in the character of women, but that the roles they're more apt to adopt in being women may form part of the obstacles that make the difference.

I see what you mean. Thanks for clarifying. :)

Usually, when people refer to the nature of men vs women, they are subscribing to the idea that our "true natures" are innate and gender-based. It drives me nuts that that way of thought is in high vogue now (Men Are From Mars, etc., gag, barf).

Among the many things wrong with it, it's so lazy and self-justifying. "I can't help it, I was born this way..."

James said...

They are not really a large group.

CWA is a small group, but "Southern Baptist women" is a pretty large one, and many of them are taught from a young age that women have no place in positions of power. Fortunately, more and more people are getting fed up with this, and it's changing, but I suspect that you'll find that most of Bush's base would not support any female candidates.

L-girl said...

I suspect that you'll find that most of Bush's base would not support any female candidates.

Yes, I'm sure that's true. Ironically, it was a female Supreme Court Justice who appointed Bush to the White House in the first place, herself appointed by Ronald Reagan...

M@ said...

Among the many things wrong with it, it's so lazy and self-justifying. "I can't help it, I was born this way..."

Same goes for the excuse "this is just the way society works". Same (lack of) thinking, same lack of change.