Because Things Are Worse, People Are Paying Attention
Interview with Katha Pollitt, author of Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time
New York: Random House, 2006, 259 pp., $13.95, paperback
Interview by Jaclyn Friedman
With an intellect as sharp as her manner is forthright, Katha Pollitt is no stranger to controversy. So it came as little surprise when Virginity or Death!, her latest collection of over five years’ worth of columns from The Nation, came under fire as soon as it was published. Iin the New York Times, Ann Marie Cox (formerly known as the blogger Wonkette) wrote, “Strident feminism can seem out of place—even tacky—in a world where women have come so demonstrably far.” Cox then proceeded to cite Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and women’s God-given right to have their pinky toes removed to fit into a pair of stiletto heels as evidence of women’s progress.
Fortunately for us, Pollitt has more than shoes on her mind, and is proud to be tacky and strident if that’s what’s necessary as she applies her wry wit and unswerving eye to women’s situation nationally and around the world. In Virginity or Death!, she covers a wide range of territory, from the war in Iraq to gay marriage to health insurance, but focuses much of her attention on reproductive justice. Her assessments are sobering, but she always manages to find opportunities for hope and action.
Jaclyn Friedman: Is it possible to save Roe at this point? What do we need to do as individuals, as a movement, and as a country?
Katha Pollitt: Of course Roe can be saved! Most Americans support it, even if they disapprove of abortion itself. Unfortunately, the prochoice movement has allowed the antis to define the debate: the antis say, “Women who choose abortion are heedless and frivolous”; we say, “No, no, abortion is always tragic and difficult.” They say “Abortion is about convenience”; we talk about rape and incest and women with potentially fatal pregnancies. That leaves little room for the vast majority of women who choose abortion: women who get pregnant from voluntary sex and don't want to have a baby. The most important thing individuals can do is to get involved politically, at the grassroots level, as the antichoicers have so skillfully done. If prochoicers wrote as many letters to their local papers as the antis do, editors wouldn't be so afraid. Think of it this way: antis picket abortion clinics, but we don't picket "crisis pregnancy centers" that masquerade as abortion clinics and give out false information. Why not?
JF: The right works hard to restrict access to abortion and contraception, which disproportionately affects women of color, poor women, and immigrants. At the same time, the right’s actions often seem to be aimed at limiting the numbers of these same people in the country, or making them go away altogether. So what’s in it for the right to produce more poor children of color?
KP: You’re conflating different parts of the right. Corporations are not particularly upset with the idea of there being a lot of poor people, of whatever color. That would be good for them. Poor people need jobs and will work for low wages. Religious opponents of abortion don’t care how many people there are or what class or race they belong to—they just care about keeping sex and reproduction tightly connected. in fact, the antichoice movement has courted the black churches rather aggressively and likes to accuse prochoicers of being racist and wanting to abort black babies. The people who wish to control the numbers of the so-called “underclass” are yet another part of the right. They’re concerned with having an orderly, Anglo society. As with any political movement, a lot of people are in it for different motives. They come together in an ad hoc way for a while, and then it falls apart. You certainly see that in the Republican Party, which is an alliance of local elites, big corporations, religious conservatives, and neoconservative hawks. For much of its modern history, the Democratic Party was a coalition of southern racists, northern progressives, and working-class voters. That’s a much bigger disjunction of interests, and yet it held together for a long time because they were geographically distinct; each had something they wanted and that the Democratic party could give them; and racism was still so ingrained in American society that the party could get away with it. FDR was a hero to many blacks and progressives, but he refused to support a federal antilynching law.
JF: So what holds today’s Republicans together?
KP: It’s a party that to extreme religious conservatives says, “We’ll restrict abortion, ban gay marriage, and bring back the l950s.” To business, it says, “We’ll cut taxes ,end regulations, keep unions down, and put government at your service.”
JF: But the left doesn’t seem to do the same thing. As you said, the left is ceding ground on abortion linguistically all the time. Why doesn’t the left say, “We will give you, feminists, reproductive justice?”
KP: The Democratic Party believes feminists have nowhere to go. They will vote for the Democrats no matter what language the Democrats use about abortion. They have no other choice.
JF: So how do we produce better choices for ourselves?
KP: You can produce better choices by having more people actively working on your side. Unfortunately, the rhetoric the Democrats use about abortion—that it’s horrible, and there should be as little as possible—is acceptable to a large number of American people. The way I prefer to talk about abortion is to emphasize women’s right to determine what goes on in their own bodies, to decide what physical and emotional and social risks and burdens they are willing to take, and to generally determine the course of their own lives. I don’t think it’s “selfish” to take into account your readiness and willingness and ability to bear and mother a child, and to consider all the other aspects of your life—school, work, relationships, your dreams and ambitions, your needs, the needs of your children. Remember, sixty percent of the women who have abortions already have children. Talking about abortion in a way that puts women’s lives at the center makes a lot of people uncomfortable—although it might not make them feel uncomfortable if they heard it more often. Abortion is all tangled up with ideas about sexual morality, children, and women. It has a lot of class and racial assumptions in it, such as that women who have abortions are stupid and lazy, or that they’re careless about birth control. We have a lot of work to do in terms of presenting an accurate picture of what abortion is, who has abortions, and why.
JF: There are a lot of people right now trying to claim they know what the recent midterm elections "mean"—what do you make of the results?
KP: I think it was a referendum on the Bush administration. After six years in power, the Republicans finally couldn't blame Clinton any more. Voters are worried about the Iraq war, the economy, and the general direction of the country. Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley did their bit to damage the image of the Republicans as the more moral party. I think too that a lot of voters are turned off—finally!—by the power of the religious right. Even if you are socially conservative yourself, you might like to keep that wall between church and state in good repair.
JF: Have we as women and feminists actually created some better choices for ourselves, or is it too simple to say that?
KP: The new congress has more women Democrats, and more prochoicers of both sexes, and you're not alive if you don't feel a thrill to have a woman as Speaker of the House. We are in better shape now than before the election—but I wouldn't oversell it. The margins of victory were very small: in my district in Connecticut, supposedly a blue, blue state, the Democratic challenger beat the Republican incumbent congressman by 87 votes! Still, I always resist a bit the feminist temptation to talk about "women" and "women voters" as a unified bloc. The majority of white women—around 52 percent—still vote Republican. That's less than white men, but the reason "women" voters look as liberal as they do is because of women of color. Black women are the most reliable Democratic voters in the country.
JF: I recently had a conversation with a group of young feminists in which many of them said they were feminists, but they would never say that to certain friends or to their families. Do you think feminists need to “come out”?
KP: Coming out is a very good analogy. Far more than any rational argument, by simply revealing their existence to their friends and their families, gay men and women changed dramatically the way they were perceived in America, and lowered the level of homophobia. Simply living their lives as openly gay. Feminists need to do the same thing. If you’re a secret feminist, you’re missing a big opportunity to educate people—
JF: —because you could be saying, “I’m not the scary feminist in your imagination—”
KP: —right. For whatever reason, a lot of people have the idea that feminists hate children, hate men, are cold and materialistic and out for themselves. And also hairy-legged lesbians. And ugly! They’d be very surprised to find out how ordinary most feminists are.
JF: And then when people realize that, maybe the New York Times could run a review of a feminist book that discusses its intellectual and literary merits without deriding feminism itself and without devolving into a discussion about shoes!
KP: Well, that would be nice. My favorite moment in the review of my book by Ann Marie Cox was when she said I was "obsessed" with the rights of Middle Eastern women. About twenty pages in my 259-page book are devoted to the human and political rights of Afghan, Iraqi, and Muslim women. Even that modest amount of attention apparently struck her as way too much. Women who have abortions should come out, too. There are a lot of stereotypes about them, and one reason those stereotypes flourish is because women don’t talk openly about their abortions. It’s completely understandable, given the climate in much of the country and in many families, and besides, ideally abortion should be a totally private matter. But the effect of so many silences is to make abortion seem rare and bizarre and deviant. I’ll give you an example. The feminist activist Amy Richards wrote an article in the New York Times (“When One is Enough,” July 18, 2004) about having selective reduction surgery when she discovered she was pregnant with triplets. It was very frank, and it caused an enormous storm of outrage. You would never know that something like forty percent of women who are pregnant with triplets have this procedure. It’s not at all uncommon.
JF: If women were frank about the facts of their daily lives, the impression would be very different.
KP: Yes, I think it would. Every single person in this country knows at least one woman who has had an abortion. But they may not know that they know. That said, a lot of women live in situations where they would have no support if they came forward. A lot of people live in places where the “right to life” people are vocal and hostile.
JF: But that’s also true of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
KP: It’s true even if all you do is not believe in God, or if you don’t want to say a so-called voluntary prayer in school. Coming out is difficult—each person needs to consider her own situation. I’m just saying that if women speak up, it will change a lot of minds.
JF: What do you make of the two recent victories that made the Plan B morning-after pill available without prescription and mandated giving young women the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer? A good sign or just a blip?
KP: It's great that Plan B will no longer be a prescription drug for women eighteen and over. The change shows that there are limits to the antichoice movement's power, and that we can win when we make a persistent, concerted effort. Activists, politicians, journalists, doctors, experts, and the public all pushed this one. Whether drugstores will actually stock it is another question. One unintended consequence of Plan B going over the counter, though, is that the price will probably go up and insurance will no longer cover it. For many poor women, it will still be out of reach. The HPV vaccine will have tremendous benefits for women’s health. Again, this decision shows the limits of the antichoice and radical groups. Their first reaction to the vaccine was that it was terrible. I wrote about this in the column I called “Virginity or Death.” It’s insane to say that promiscuity is worse than cancer. They didn’t get away with it. Most people live much closer to reality than ideologues do. They’re capable of making complicated decisions about their own children. They can say, “No I don’t want my child to be running around sleeping with whoever, but I don’t want her to get cancer, either.” Of course, the idea that giving a sixth grader an anticancer vaccine will make her think, “Now I’m going to go have sex!” is sort of crazy too. The conservatives then moved to a new argument: “All right, this vaccine is very good, and parents should think carefully about it, but it shouldn’t be mandatory.” In their propaganda they made it seem as if big bad government would force you to vaccinate your child against your wishes. But all “mandatory” means is that the government will help you pay for it. It doesn’t mean you will be forced to have your child vaccinated. Every state allows parents to opt out of mandatory vaccinations. So the vaccine isn’t a threat to parental autonomy at all. Getting the vaccine is a complicated and expensive process. It takes three visits to the doctor, and it costs more than $300. Without government help, a lot of parents couldn’t do it. The right couldn’t get away with keeping Plan B out of pharmacies or the HPV vaccine from young women. But they don’t give up. They just regroup and try a new tactic.
WRB: You have an unusually clear ability to see and articulate the whole truth of what's going on in our country. Do you sometimes wish you could shut it off?
KP: Yes! I'm as mystified and disturbed as anyone else by the state of the world. For the first time in human history, the human race has the material means and the knowledge to keep the whole world fed, healthy, educated. Instead, we have war, AIDS, poverty, fantastic levels of ignorance and fanaticism, environmental degradation, and drastic inequalities between countries and within them. Some problems, such as global warming, require for their solution a level of cooperation and determination it is hard to imagine people mustering fast enough.
WRB: What’s the most encouraging sign you’ve seen for women recently?
KP: There is a greater wish to fight back, especially on the part of young women. Maybe we’ve gone so far in the wrong direction that people are beginning to wake up. But also, I think that the blogosphere has helped. Ten years ago there was nothing like Echidne of the Snakes (echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com) or Feministing (feministing.com). The blogosphere has connected people who didn’t know about each other, who used to think, “I’m the only one.” Now they know they’re not. I get more of a sense of networking, a sense that feminists are part of a large crowd of people who are watching what’s happening to our country with a sense of horror. In other words, because things are worse, people are paying attention.
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, performer, and activist living in the Boston area, where she is the cochair of the Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) conference.