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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.

  • 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

  • February 15, 2009

    This Week’s Woman We Love to Hate

    Just in time for the Big Recession comes Nadya Suleman, the unemployed single mom with six kids under the age of seven plus a complete set of octuplets and no more sense than a goldfish. Must there always be an woman whose out-of-control female body gives us something to gawk at? Step aside, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Palin (remember all that ridiculous conspiracy theorizing about her baby really being Bristol's?), Jessica Simpson's weight and the endless procession of celebrity baby bumps. Photos of Suleman's naked grotesquely distended pregnant belly rule the internet, along with much speculation about her resemblance to Angelina Jolie (plastic surgery?), her finances (unclear), the father (mysterious) and the fertility doctor who violated professional guidelines by implanting so many embryos in her (time to regulate!).

    Suleman, who says she's only trying to make up for her lonely childhood, seems completely insane to me. Indeed, she's been treated for a variety of psychiatric conditions. But she's obviously not too crazy to try to seize the day. She hired a pair of publicists who gave new meaning to the word "chutzpah." In response to a horrified editorial in USA Today,they wrote that she would raise her children in a "caring, Christian home" with the help of that child-raising village Hillary Clinton likes to talk about. They've even set up a website where said villagers can send good wishes, cash and presents. A caring, Christian home! Take that Phyllis Chesler, who, mistakenly identifying Suleman's father as Palestinian (he's Iraqi), wonders if she'll "become a poster child/mother baby formula and diapers? Or for Jihad?" Here in the US, it's Christian fundamentalists like those in the Quiverfull movement who think God put women on earth to breed armies of the faithful.

    I've received a number of e mails urging me to defend Suleman on feminist grounds. But really, there is nothing feminist about borrowing all this trouble. We're supposed to be reasonable creatures, remember? Talk about giving single mothers by choice a bad name! Suleman seems to have combined an extraordinary degree of planning for conception with no realistic planning for childraising. If the Suleman house was a daycare center it would be illegal. Even if all the octuplets are healthy, a big assumption, the fact that three of her six older kids are receiving disability payments from the state of California -- one is autistic, the others have undisclosed problems -- underscores how hard it will be to give all these kids the attention they need. Just helping an autistic child to thrive is a huge amount of work all by itself.

    Katha Pollitt

  • February 11, 2009

    Today’s the Day to Donate to Tom Geoghegan

    Have you been wondering about the best possible moment to donate to the campaign of progressive labor lawyer/ writer/ activist Tom Geoghegan? As you may know, he's running in the Democratic primary for Rahm Emanuel's seat in Congress. Well, it's today. Midnight tonight, February 11, is the FEC filing deadline for campaign contributions.

    Why does this deadline matter? A strong showing encourages donations from those who've been waiting to see if the campaign has legs. It also attracts press. So far, none of the candidates have gotten much attention in the local media -- you could help change that.

    Even a small donation, added to others, really helps. So don't be shy, visit

    Katha Pollitt

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  • February 8, 2009

    From My Inbox: UPDATE on Dr. Susan Wicklund’s Clinic

    The Mountain Country Women's Clinic in Livingston MT has been open for one week. There were 51 picketers, and patients from hundreds of miles away. That tells you that for all the talk about how there are "too many abortions," right now in much of the country clinics are too few and too far between.

    It's not too late to Pledge-a-Picketer, a peaceful, nonviolent, amusing way to show your support for Dr. Wicklund's commitment to help women regardless of their ability to pay. It's a scandal that she needs to spend precious funds on a security system, but that's the world we live in -- her previous clinic was targeted by an arsonist. Set your own rate -- a dollar? a quarter? Even a postcard of support would be nice.

    (Want to read the post of which this is an update? If Nation blogs were designed like 99 percent of the blogs in the world, you'd just scroll down. But for some reason ours are designed so that you have to click on the blog title, in this case And Another Thing, which will bring you to the intro paragraphs of earlier posts, which you can then click on to get the whole story. Exhausting,I know.)

    Katha Pollitt

  • Economy February 4, 2009

    The Kindness of Strangers

    The global economic crisis is showing how wishful was the notion that philanthropy could save the world.

    Katha Pollitt

  • February 4, 2009

    From My Inbox: Pledge-a-Picket for New Clinic in Montana

    Dr. Susan Wicklund, whose 2008 book This Common Secret, detailed her life as an abortion provider, has just opened a clinic in Livingston, Montana. Even before it opened on February 2nd, the clinic was being picketed by opponents of abortion rights. In the mail below, Wicklund's co-author, Montana writer Alan Kesselheim, explains how you can turn their protests peacefully against them. (I've pledged $1 per picketer. That puts me in a slightly weird position: Do I hope lots show up so the clinic gets plenty of cash, or few show up so that I can save mine?) If you want to pledge, e mail

    Dear Friends of Dr. Susan Wicklund:

    As most of you know, Susan Wicklund has been hard at work trying to open a women's reproductive health clinic in the Bozeman/Livingston area. It has not been easy. It has taken several years. Deals have fallen through because word leaked out and landowners were intimidated by violent threats. Other potential arrangements have collapsed due to financial difficulties, political controversy, or simple logistics.

    Katha Pollitt

  • January 29, 2009

    Birth Control Belongs in the Stimulus Bill

    To the outrage of many feminists and family planners, yesterday Democrats heeded President Obama and dropped from the stimulus bill aprovision that would have made it easier for states to offercontraception through Medicaid to low-income women not covered byMedicaid now. This followed several days in which Republicans mocked theitem as frivolous pork, like Las Vegas's proposed Mob Museum or thereseeding of the national mall. And how dare Nancy Pelosi suggest thatwomen should be helped to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the midst of aneconomic crisis! It's eugenics and China's one-child policy rolled intoone. You wonder how giving women more freedom to plan their kids equalsforcing them not to have any? Ask Chris Matthews, that noted expert onwomen, who on last night's Hardball seemed to think the US hadnarrowly escaped becoming a reproductive gulag:" It turns out the ideaof getting people to have fewer children didn't sell as national policy. Maybe people don't like Washington, which has done such a bang-up jobregulating the sharpies on Wall Street, to decide it's now time toregulate the number of kids people might be in the mood for."

    There are people who thought Obama practiced some clever politicaljiu-jitsu by bending over backwards to meet Republican objections. Supposedly, this bipartisan gesture would make it harder forRepublicans to reject the bill. Whoops, guess not: House Republicansjust voted against it unanimously. Backup theory: Well, now Obamalooks reasonable and statesmanlike, while Republicans look rigid andinsane. The stimulus will pass, and Republicans will get no credit.Low-income women get the shaft, but they should be used to it by now.

    But then there are those who think birth control really doesn't belongin the bill.Matt Yglesias writes, "Unlike some, I'm not per se outragedby the idea of dropping a family planning provision from the stimulusbill in response to conservative objections. I'm all for the provision,but it's genuinely tangential to the point of the bill, so if this isreally what's standing between us and a universe in which a substantialnumber of conservative get on the stimulus train so be it." Over atSlate's XX Factor, E.J. Graff, rather surprisingly, agrees.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Publishing Industry January 22, 2009

    Stimulating Reading

    The economy of reading is rapidly collapsing. If we can bail out banks, why not the book industry?

    Katha Pollitt