Katha Pollitt, who has been contributing to The Nation since 1980, tackles politics, culture gender, and relentless anti-feminists every other week in her column, “Subject to Debate.” Pollitt has also been a high-profile advocate of reproductive rights throughout her career. Her 1993 Glamour essay "Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?" won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; more recently, Pollitt has spoken out in support of The National Network for Abortion Funds.
In a recent column titled “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?,” Pollitt frankly discussed the tensions between older and younger feminists, writing that while feminists of all ages often disagree about issues like sex work, the generational struggles among feminists is not in fact about ideas, but “about young women jockeying with the feminist establishment for power and visibility.”
Here, Pollitt talks with young feminist and former Nation intern Joanna Chiu about why younger and older feminists sometimes talk past each other, and suggests ways in which young feminists could bring their strengths to the fight for the rights of all women—including the right to safe and affordable abortion services.
Joanna Chiu: In light of the controversy in Congress over whether coverage for abortion services should be included in healthcare coverage, where do you see the abortion debate in America headed?
Katha Pollitt: The next Congress will be the most anti-choice congress in years and years. The Republican majority in the House includes lots of ardent foes of abortion rights, including incoming speaker Boehner, and, as the energetic Bart Stupak showed, not all Democrats are pro-choice. It’s going to be rough—expect to see fights over the most abstract funding and insurance-related issues. Believe it or not, there are Congresspeople who think the Stupak amendment was too lenient. There’s a move to defund Planned Parenthood, to bring back the gag rule banning foreign aid to groups abroad who advocate for abortion rights, to make the Hyde Amendment permanent and expand its reach. Republicans will control more governorships and state legislatures, too, so there will be a lot of anti-choice activity at the state level in the South, Midwest, and Western Mountain states. We may be moving toward a nation where abortion is completely unavailable in some states—in fact, right now, there is only one clinic in South Dakota, and one in Mississippi—while in other states, it is widely available and even subsidized for low-income women with state Medicaid funds.
JC: Why do you think it is still important for young people to be feminists and work for women’s equality in the US and around the world? How do you respond when people say that feminism has already accomplished its goals?
Pollitt: Feminism has accomplished a lot, but there’s a long way to go, in the US and around the world. Violence against women is a huge problem, we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and unwanted pregnancy in the industrialized west, pop culture is saturated with misogyny, eating disorders are rampant, single mothers have a very hard time, and Congress isn’t even 20% female. Women earn less than men for the same work, which is bad enough, but mostly women still work in female-stereotyped jobs where the whole pay scale is lower than in comparable male jobs. A daycare worker still makes less than a parking valet. Conservatives say that this sorting is voluntary—women don’t want to be carpenters and electricians, and prefer to cut back at work when they have children. But those choices are shaped by larger policy decisions. We don’t have paid parental leave or reliable affordable daycare; we have ridiculously high standards for motherhood and very relaxed ideas about what makes a good father. So women are really sandbagged when they have children—which most women do. That’s a huge feminist issue. There’s also still plain old discrimination, conscious and unconscious.