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They call Katha Pollitt "too strident"
Giving no ground on women's rights

Review by Elizabeth Schulte | September 22, 2006 | Page 9

Katha Pollitt, Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. Random House, 2006, 264 pages, $13.95.

KATHA POLLITT'S new book Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time caught some heat in the New York Times when the Nation columnist's "strident feminism" was characterized as "out of place--even tacky."

In a world where women have come so far, argued reviewer Ana Marie Cox (formerly "Wonkette"), Pollitt's writing on the state of women, such as our dwindling access to abortion, amounts to "the skunk at this Desperate Housewives watching party."

"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," wrote Cox.

But it's her aforementioned "stridency"--around women's reproductive rights in particular--that makes Pollitt's weekly "Subject to Debate" column worth reading. The Times review of her new book--a selection of the last five years of her columns--only highlights the vast and pathetic wasteland of what's considered a discussion of the state of women in U.S. society.

If you were to believe the Times, it's whether a woman leaves her high-powered career to rear children full-time--not the average 73 cents she still makes to a man's dollar--that defines equality. It was the Times who ran the page-one article last year on women graduates of elite colleges who are choosing to be stay-at-home moms and wives, a repeat of its article in its Sunday magazine two years earlier about "the opt-out revolution" of women who "don't run the world" because "they don't want to."

One would think that the biggest problem women face is whether to run a corporation. As Pollitt points out, "What's painful about the way the Times frames work-family issues is partly its obsessive focus on the most privileged as bellwethers of American womanhood--you'd never know that most mothers who work need the money."

Dwelling on those few women who have succeeded in Corporate America and ignoring the rest, some commentators would rather shift the debate elsewhere--to fashion, dating and the definition of femininity. "It's annoying to read pronouncements about feminism based mostly on chats with her friends in the media about men, clothes, TV shows and Botox," comments Pollitt, writing about New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's book Are Men Necessary?

As Pollitt points out, "Dowd is such a credulous audience for backlash propaganda it doesn't occur to her that she is promoting, not reporting, the problem she describes. I'm amazed, actually, that feminism is still around, given the press it gets. Dowd, for example, thinks feminism may be a 'cruel hoax' because it keeps women single--men are scared of spunky, successful women."

As Pollitt writes in an earlier column, "These days, feminism is all sexy uplift, a cross between a workout and a makeover. Go for it, girls--breast implants, botox, face-lifts, corsets, knitting, boxing, prostitution...

"Meanwhile, the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion--when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?"

This book touches on the war on terror, the attack on civil liberties after September 11 and the war on Iraq. But what's most useful is its chronicling of the religious right's last five years of attacks on abortion and reproductive rights--from restrictions on late-term abortion procedures to the "right" of pharmacists and medical professional to refuse emergency contraception to abstinence-only education.

Her outspoken defense of women's right to choose is refreshing amid the onslaught of liberal politicians and pundits who would like to water down this message--or eliminate it completely.

"For years we've been hearing that the problem with the Democratic Party was that it was too liberal, too limp-wristed, insufficiently attentive to religious voters and--especially--too pro-choice," Pollitt wrote in April 2004. "Why is it that Republicans understand so clearly that they have to keep the base happy, while the Democrats seem to delight in insulting theirs in order to court some temperamental sliver of voters who don't like them very much?"

The Democrats don't court the pro-choice base because they don't have to--that group's already in their pocket. Why would they think otherwise?

A few months later, Pollitt wasn't blaming the wishy-washy-on-abortion-rights Democrats--or the national women's organizations that unquestioningly supported them--for John Kerry's loss to George. She blamed the voters (after she backhanded the left-wingers who didn't campaign for Kerry).

"Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, 'safety' through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway president." Or maybe they didn't see an alternative worth supporting.

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