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Katha Pollitt


Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her “Subject to Debate” column, which debuted in 1995 and which the Washington Post called “the best place to go for original thinking on the left,” appears every other week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. In 2003, “Subject to Debate” won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She is also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Pollitt has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…” won the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism, and she won a Whiting Foundation Writing Award the same year. In 1993 her essay “Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?” won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Many of Pollitt’s contributions to The Nation are compiled in three books: Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Knopf); Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (Modern Library); and Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (Random House). In 2007 Random House published her collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. Two pieces from this book, “Learning to Drive” and its followup, “Webstalker,” originally appeared in The New Yorker. “Learning to Drive” is anthologized in Best American Essays 2003.

Pollitt has also written essays and book reviews for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper’s, Ms., Glamour, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She has appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC. Her work has been republished in many anthologies and is taught in many university classes.

For her poetry, Pollitt has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 1982 book Antarctic Traveller won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems have been published in many magazines and are reprinted in many anthologies, most recently The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006).  Her second collection, The Mind-Body Problem, came out from Random House in 2009.

Born in New York City, she was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts. She has lectured at dozens of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brooklyn College, UCLA, the University of Mississippi and Cornell. She has taught poetry at Princeton, Barnard and the 92nd Street Y, and women’s studies at the New School University.

  • April 20, 2009

    Obama’s 100-Day Hope Check

    Are Barack Obama's  supporters wondering where the hope went? Does the campaign now seem only a golden dream? After all, Obama's been in the White House for over three months, and people are still losing jobs and houses, US troops are still overseas, single-payer health care is still not on the agenda.  Surely the President should have fixed all that by now with the power of his mighty hope machine.

    In her current Nation column, Naomi Klein claims that disillusion is setting in. She has a  clever list of  words to describe the phenomenon: Hopefiends feel hopebreak which will (hopefully) lead to hopelash, "a 180-degree reversal of everything Obama-related." Enough of these cowardly compromises! Back to the streets! 

    I have a lot of respect for Naomi Klein, but I think her own hopes for  a mass radical movement are getting in the way here. According to polls, after all, Obama is wildly popular.  A Harris Interactive poll released on April 7 found that 68% of Americans  have a good opinion of him. That doesn't necessarily mean they approve of everything he's doing, but it means that a heck of a lot of people who didn't vote for him like him now.  Is there any evidence that "a growing number of Obama enthusiasts are starting to entertain the possibility that their man is not, in fact, going to save the world if we all just hope really hard"? And by the way, did anyone over the age of  21 ever really believe this? That hope, an emotion, was going to "save the world," the way  children clapping their hands saves Tinkerbell? Are Americans really such idiots? Hmmm, better not answer that. 

    Naomi and I must talk to different people. For example, I don't know anyone as stupid as the hopefiendish "Joe" who "actually believes Obama deliberately brought in Summers so that he would blow the bailout, and then Obama would have the excuse he needs to do what he really wants: nationalize the banks and turn them into credit unions." Think what you're saying, Joe! Had Obama intentionally put in someone he knew would fail, he would not only be a clairvoyant and a psychopath-- callously indifferent to the ruin of possibly millions of people--  he'd also be risking political suicide. Because had he first chosen a course he knew would fail he would not have the political capital to "what he really wants."  

    Katha Pollitt

  • Law April 15, 2009

    What Do (Battered) Women Want?

    We take it for granted that when men hit, it's up to women to run away. Except, some of them stay.

    Katha Pollitt

  • April 8, 2009

    Get Rid of Bush’s Last-Minute HHS Regulation

    Thursday, April 9th, is the deadline for comments on the proposed rescission of the Bush administration's last-minute HHS regulation expanding provider "conscience" clauses to allow just about any health worker to deny contraceptive services to women. Under this vague, confusing rule, a pharmacist could refuse to fill a birth-control prescription, and also refuse to get another pharmacist to do so. A nurse could refuse to give emergency contraception to a rape victim, and give her a lecture about "babykilling." Abortion clinics would be forced to hire, and retain, personnel who refused to carry out the very duties they were hired to perform. Nor does the regulation stop there. Conceivably, a health-care worker could refuse to care for a gay, lesbian or transsexual person, on the grounds that to do so would violate their religious beliefs.

    The law already provides "reasonable accomodation" for religious beliefs, by the way. This regulation is just President Bush's farewell gift to the religious right. It only takes a few minutes to encourage President Obama to return that gift to the store.

    (Thanks to intrepid reporter Cynthia Cooper for the heads up.)

    Katha Pollitt

  • Society April 2, 2009

    Mad About Michelle

    Yesterday's fist-bumping radical is today's mom in chief.

    Katha Pollitt

  • March 31, 2009

    From My Inbox: WRRAP Says Thanks; UPDATE

    Despite hard times which have made philanthropy hard for many, readers responded to the appeal in my last post for donations for the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, which helps low-income women from all over the country access abortion care. Here's an e mail I received from WRRAP yesterday, with some details about the situations of the women they've been able to help, thanks to you.

    Too often, the debates surrounding abortion obscure the women themselves. Right now, for example, we are hearing a lot from pundits like Will Saletan, who argues that women have unwanted pregnancies because they are careless about contraception, conjuring up a picture of lackadaisical sluts who just can't be bothered to take their pill. Real life is more complicated: chaotic lives, poverty, social isolation, lack of regular access to health care, ignorance, misinformation, drugs, alcohol, male violence and hopelessness all play a part, along with the simple facts that every method has a failure rate and nobody's perfect. Similarly, it is hard for some people to imagine women so poor that they cannot come up with, let's say, $500 for a first-trimester abortion -- don't they have friends? won't the man help? Can't they just put it on a credit card? Hello, this is a country where millions rely on food stamps and soup kitchens! Where people can't pay their utilities or their rent!

    The descriptions of WRRAP clients below are a tiny window into the struggles of low-income women. More information, and a donation button, can be found at

    Katha Pollitt

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  • Love Me, I’m a Conservative

    Atlantic blogger Ross Douthat joins the New York Times's op-ed lineup. Depressing.

    Katha Pollitt

  • March 9, 2009

    National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers

    March 10th is National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers, and man oh man could they use some love. Obama's victory may protect Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, but state legislatures are doing their best to pile on the obstacles and restrictions: mandatory ultrasounds are the latest fad, with bills being considered in eleven states ( because apparently women are so stupid they might not realize they're having an abortion because they're pregnant). And then, as Michael Winerip reported in an unusually thorough piece in Sunday's New York Times (in the Style section, sigh, along with the rest of the girlynews), the women's health activists who form the backbone of many clinic staffs are retiring and proving hard to replace in the more conservative and rural regions, like upstate New York, the South and Midwest. Doctors, nurses and technicians are reluctant to work in clinics in anti-choice places where they will be picketed, socially ostracized and forced to protect themselves daily against possible violence. Low pay is another factor: anti-choicers love to talk about abortion as a business, but adjusted for inflation, the price of a first trimester abortion is about what it was thirty years ago, although security-related costs have skyrocketed -- one reason why clinic staffers make about half what they would in another specialty.

    Will the next generation step up to the plate? Sally Burgess, head of the National Abortion Federation, thinks that growing up with legal abortion, too many lack "the fire in the belly." Then too, med school policies mean only a small proportion of medical students are even learning how to perform this relatively simple procedure.

    You can show your support for the selfless people who make more than words on a page by making a donation to the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) , an all-volunteer group which helps low-income girls and women around the country pay for their abortion care. As the economy sinks and unemployment rises, more and more women will find themselves both needing to terminate a pregnancy and unable to come up with the cost. Help WRAPP be there for clinics and for women.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Economy March 5, 2009

    Lifestyles of the Rich and Generous?

    Will the skewed values of the boom years give way to a spirit of generosity toward the poor?

    Katha Pollitt

  • February 26, 2009

    Open Letter to Defend Shirin Ebadi

    From the Campaign for Peace and Democracy comes this open letter in defense of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate and defender of women's rights and human rights.I think it does an excellent job of disentangling support for human rights in Iran from the bellicosity that sometimes accompanies it. In fact, as Shirin Ebadi herself told Amy goodman (Democracy Now, February 4, 2009)

    "A military attack on Iran or even a threat of a military attack on Iran will deteriorate the situation of human rights and women's rights, because it gives an excuse to the government to repress them more and more often."

    You can add your name or make a tax-deductible donation to publicize the statement atthe Campaign for peace and Democracy website. Problems? E mail the CPD at

    IRANIAN HUMAN RIGHTS LEADER SHIRIN EBADI IN DANGERPeace Activists Call on Teheran to Ensure Her Safety

    To:Supreme Leader Ali KhameneiPresident Mahmoud AhmadinejadAyatollah Shahrudi, Head of the JudiciaryMohammad Khazaee, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United NationsIslamic Republic of Iran

    We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the threats that have been mounted against Shirin Ebadi, co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center and the Organization for the Defense of Mine Victims. Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, has spoken out vigorously and repeatedly for women's rights and human rights for all in her own country. She has also been a vocal and effective advocate for peace and against military attacks on Iran in international forums.

    Ebadi today is in considerable danger. On December 21, 2008, officials prevented a planned celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and forced the closure of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), which Ebadi helped found. The Center provides legal defense for victims of human rights abuses in Iran. The group had invited nearly 300 human rights defenders and supporters to the private celebration. A few hours before the start of the program, members of state security forces, and plainclothes agents entered the DHRC building. They filmed the premises, made an inventory, and forced the center's members to leave before putting locks on all entrances.

    On December 29 officials identifying themselves as tax inspectors arrived at Ebadi's private law office in Tehran and removed documents and computers, despite her protests that the materials contained protected lawyer-client information.

    Ebadi's former secretary has been arrested, and on January 1, 2009 a mob of 150 people gathered outside her home, chanting slogans against her. They tore down the sign to her law office, which is in the same building, and marked the building with graffiti. The police, who have been quick to close down unauthorized peaceful demonstrations, did nothing to stop the vandalism.

    In similar cases, Iranian authorities frequently have followed office raids and other harassment with arbitrary arrests and detention, often leading to prosecutions on dubious charges

    As peace activists, we have a special concern for Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi has spoken out, as we have, against any U.S. military attack on Iran. In 2005, Ebadi wrote, "American policy toward the Middle East, and Iran in particular, is often couched in the language of promoting human rights. No one would deny the importance of that goal. But for human rights defenders in Iran, the possibility of a foreign military attack on their country represents an utter disaster for their cause." ("The Human Rights Case Against Attacking Iran" by Shirin Ebadi and Hadi Ghaemi, The New York Times, Feb 8, 2005).

    We oppose any military attack on Iran by the United States or any other nation. We reject too the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it protests repression in Iran while turning a blind eye to or actively abetting comparable or worse repression in countries with which it is allied like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Israel in the Occupied Territories. And we condemn as well Washington's double standard in criticizing Iranian repression while itself engaging in torture and undermining civil liberties at home. But that in no way deters us from protesting in the strongest terms the denial of basic democratic rights to the people of Iran. We protest because we believe in these rights, and also because we see social justice activists in Iran and all countries as our natural allies in building a peaceful, democratic world.

    We call on you to cease and desist from the threats to Shirin Ebadi, to move immediately to prevent any further harassment, and to ensure Shirin Ebadi's safety and security.

    INITIAL SIGNERSErvand Abrahamian, Janet Afary, Michael Albert, Kevin B. Anderson, Bettina Aptheker, David Barsamian, Rosalyn Baxandall, Medea Benjamin, Michael Bérubé, Norman Birnbaum, Eileen Boris, Roane Carey, Joshua Cohen, Noam Chomsky, Gail Daneker, Manuela Dobos, Ariel Dorfman, Martin Duberman, Carolyn Eisenberg, Jethro Eisenstein, Zillah Eisenstein, Daniel Ellsberg, Jodie Evans, Gertrude Ezorsky, Samuel Farber, John Feffer, Barry Finger, Joseph Gerson, Jill Godmilow, Arun Gupta, Thomas Harrison, Nader Hashemi, Adam Hochschild, Nancy Holmstrom, Doug Ireland, Melissa Jameson, Jan Kavan, Nikki Keddie, Leslie Kielson, Ian Keith, Kathy Kelly, Assaf Kfoury, Naomi Klein, Dan La Botz, Joanne Landy, Jesse Lemisch, Sue Leonard, Mohammed Mamdani, Betty Mandell, Marvin Mandell, Kevin Martin, Scott McLemee, David McReynolds, Ali Moazzami, Claire G. Moses, Molly Nolan, David Oakford, Bertell Ollman, Christopher Phelps, Charlotte Phillips MD, Katha Pollitt, Danny Postel, Dennis Redmond, Sonia Jaffe Robbins, Matthew Rothschild, Jason Schulman, Stephen Shalom, Adam Shatz, Alice Slater, Stephen Soldz, Stephen Steinberg, David Swanson, Chris Toensing, David Vine, Lois Weiner, Naomi Weisstein, Reginald Wilson, Kent Worcester, Stephen Zunes

    Katha Pollitt

  • Politics February 18, 2009

    Freedom of Speech, Round 5,425

    Two decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini called for a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, not much has changed on either side of the cultural divide.

    Katha Pollitt