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.

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