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Katha Pollitt

Columnist

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.


  • February 24, 2008

    McCain May Be Old, but He’s Still a Threat

    Liberal smarties and sophisticates are having fun mocking John McCain , but assuming he gets the nomination, he will a formidable candidate. He may look like a grumpy old man -- specifically, as my friend Kathleen Geier joked, the grumpy old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn -- or the nutty old uncle who rags on everyone at Thanksgiving before passing out in front of the football game. But that's another way of saying McCain is a familiar, indeed family, character. It does not require an imaginative stretch to get John McCain. How many voters know someone like Barack Obama?

    McCain is white, male, patriarchal, a war hero with decades in the Senate. So what if he's old? In politics old can be good ( for men), especially to the older voters -- older white voters -- who dominate the polls. Besides, McCain's not so old that he couldn't get himself a much younger trophy wife, and even if Cindy McCain looks brittle and unhappy and like she hasn't eaten in a decade, she is always there by his side, a visual reminder of his manly prowess. McCain is brash and sly and seemingly unguarded, unlike the famously self-protective Hillary Clinton, and he loves to schmooze with reporters, who adore him and like most of the rest of America, refuse to see how conservative he is. It's like they're saying, Oh go on, Uncle John! you're just saying you love Sam Alito to get me riled up!

    Obama v. McCain could be change/youth/black/exciting/internationalist against experience/maturity/white/steady/superpatriot. Put that way, it could come down to how many white male Democrats, who might vote for Hillary, won't vote for a black man, let alone one whose middle name is Hussein. They won't care about McCain's favors for business --too complicated, and anyway everyone does it -- and they certainly won't care if he had an affair with lovely lobbyist Vicki Iseman, as the New York Times sorta-kinda suggested. They might like him even better for that.

    Katha Pollitt

  • February 11, 2008

    A Campaign to Stop Stoning

    Iranian judges apparently didn't get the memo about the moratorium onstoning issued in 2002 by Ayatollah Shahroudi, head of the judiciary.According to Amnesty International, nine women and two men arecurrently in prison awaiting this cruel and barbaric punishment, whichis usually meted out for sexual transgressions.

    In May of 2006 a man and a woman were reportedly stoned in Mashhad and the government hasofficially confirmed the stoning on July 5, 2007 in the village ofAghche-kand of Jafar Kiani, convicted of "adultery" along withMokarrameh Ebrahimi, with whom he had two children. She has beensentenced to stoning also and is currently in prison with one of herchildren.

    In the most recent case, two sisters, Zohreh and Azar Kabiri, havebeen sentenced to stoning for "adultery." (This sentence came afterthe ninety-nine lashes meted out for "inappropriate relations," which came aftera trial notable for its lack of due process.). Equality Now has the whole horrific story, with addresses of officials to address letterscalling for a ban on stoning and the decriminalization of "adultery."

    Katha Pollitt

  • February 4, 2008

    Why I’m Supporting Barack Obama

    Hillary Clinton is smart, energetic, immensely knowledgeable, and, as she likes to say, hard-working. I've been appalled by the misogynous vitriol (and mean-girl snark) aimed against her. If she is the nominee I will work my heart out for her.

    But right now, I'm supporting Barack Obama. On domestic politics, their differences are small-- I'm with her on health care mandates, and with him on driver's licences for undocumented immigrants; both would probably be equally good on women's rights, abortion rights and judicial appointments. But on foreign policy Obama seems more enlightened, as in less bellicose. Maybe Hillary Clinton's refusal to say her Iraq vote was wrong shows that she has neo-con sympathies; maybe she simply believes that any admission of error would tar her as weak. But we already have a warlike president who refuses to admit making mistakes, and look how that's turned out. The election of Barack Obama would send a signal to the world that the United States is taking a different tack.

    When Obama won Iowa, I was surprised that I was glad. Much as I would love to pull the lever for a woman president -- a pro-choice Democratic woman president, that is --I realized at that moment how deeply unthrilled I was by the prospect of a grim vote-by-vote fight for the 50 percent+1 majority in a campaign that would rehearse all the old, (yes, mostly bogus or exaggerated) scandals and maybe turn up some new ones too. I wasn't delighted to think success would mean four more years of Bill Clinton either, or might come at the price of downticket losses, as many red-state Democrats fear. Democrats have nominated plenty of dutiful public servants over the years -- Humphrey, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry . They have always lost (or in Gore's case, not won by enough to not lose). Obama may not be as progressive as we wish over here at The Nation-- and maybe someday we can have a serious conversation about why Edwards' economic populism, promoted for years by important voices at the magazine, was such a bust. But Obama is a candidate in a different mold. He's a natural politician who connects with people as Hillary Clinton, for whatever reason, just doesn't, and appeals to the better angels of their nature. He sparks an enthusiasm in people--independents, the young, the previously disengaged. An Obama victory could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Journalists and Journalism January 31, 2008

    Ms.understanding

    The magazine walks into a trap labeled "political correctness," "left-wing anti-Semitism" and "multiculturalist Islam love."

    Katha Pollitt

  • January 30, 2008

    Letters

    InsensiNativity

    Jersey City, N.J.

    Katha Pollitt and Our Readers

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  • January 20, 2008

    Sign the Open Letter From American Feminists

    With advice and counsel from the History in Action e-mail list, I wrote up the Open Letter below to protest the way the media slanders the women's movement as indifferent to the human rights of women in the developing and/or Muslim world. Fact: it's feminists who first identified atrocities against women around the world--female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child marriage, spousal violence, rape-- as violations of human rights, not family matters or customs of no state importance. It is feminists who have consistently pushed for women's rights to education, health care, and legal and social equality and who've pushed organizations from the UN to Amnesty International to broaden their perspective to include women's rights to be free from violence and coercion. "Women's rights are human rights" was not a slogan dreamed up by David Horowitz or Christina Hoff Sommers.

    In only four days, the Open Letter has gathered 700 signatures. it's been signed by people from all walks of life and every part of the country: writers, scholars, students, activists, leaders of feminist organizations and global health organizations, doctors, nurses, kindergarten teachers, clergypeople, stay-home mothers and so on and on--to say nothing of a whole bunch of people who simply describe themselves as "feminist."

    If you'd like to sign, send your name to me at kpollitt@thenation.com, and be sure include how you would like to be identified; for example, writer, professor (with department and university), activist, astronaut, parent, movie star. if you are active with a feminist/progressive or global organization or NGO, that would be a good thing to mention. I would like the list to show that all sorts of women, and men, are feminists and how many are actively working for women's human rights. And yes, men can sign!

    An Open Letter from American Feminists

    Columnists and opinion writers from The Weekly Standard to the Washington Post to Slate have recently accused American feminists of focusing obsessively on minor or even nonexistent injustices in the United States while ignoring atrocities against women in other countries, especially the Muslim world. A number of reasons are given for this supposed neglect: narcissism, ideological rigidity, reflexive anti-Americanism, fear of seeming insensitive or even racist. Yet what is the evidence for this apparently now broadly accepted claim that feminists don't support the struggles of women around the globe? It usually comes down to a quick scan of the home page of the National Organization for Women's website, observing that a particular writer hasn't covered a particular outrage, plus a handful of quotes wrenched out of context.

    In fact, as a bit of research would easily show, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of US feminist organizations involved in promoting women's rights and well-being around the globe--V-Day, Equality Now, MADRE, the Global Fund for Women, the International Women's Health Coalition and Feminist Majority, to name some of the most prominent. (The National Organization for Women itself has a section on its website devoted to global feminism, on which it denounces a wide array of practices including female genital mutilation (FGM), "honor" murder, trafficking, dowry deaths and domestic violence). Feminists at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have moved those organizations to add the rights of women and girls to their agenda. Feminist magazines and blogs--Ms. magazine, Feministing.com, Salon.com's Broadsheet column, womensenews.com (which has an edition in Arabic)--as well as feminist reporters and commentators in the mainstream media, regularly report on and condemn outrages against women wherever they occur, from rape, battery and murder in the US to the denial of women's human rights in the developing or Muslim world.

    As feminists, we call on journalists and opinion writers to report the true position of our movement. We believe that women's rights are human rights, and stand in solidarity with our sisters who are fighting for equal political, economic, social and reproductive rights around the globe. Specifically, contrary to the accusations of pundits, we support their struggle against female genital mutilation, "honor" murder, forced marriage, child marriage, compulsory Islamic dress codes, the criminalization of sex outside marriage, brutal punishments like lashing and stoning, family laws that favor men and that place adult women under the legal power of fathers, brothers, and husbands, and laws that discount legal testimony made by women. We strongly oppose the denial of education, health care and equal political and economic rights to women.

    We reject the use of women's rights language to justify invading foreign countries. Instead, we call on the United States government to live up to its expressed commitment to women's rights through peaceful means. Specifically, we call upon it to:

    --offer asylum to women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution, including female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and forced marriage;

    --promote women's rights and well-being in all their foreign policy and foreign aid decisions;

    --use its diplomatic powers to pressure its allies--especially Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive countries in the world for women--to embrace women's rights;

    --drop the Mexico City policy--aka the "gag rule"--which bars funds for AIDS- related and contraception-related health services abroad if they provide abortions, abortion information, or advocate for legalizing abortion;

    --generously support the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports women's reproductive health including safe maternity around the globe, and whose funding is vetoed every year by President Bush;

    --become a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the basic UN women's human rights document, now signed by 185 nations. The US is one of a handful of holdouts, along with Iran, Sudan, and Somalia.

    Finally, we call upon the United States, and all the industrialized nations of the West, to share their unprecedented wealth, often gained at the expense of the developing world, with those who need it in such a way that women benefit.

    Signed,

    Katha Pollitt, writer
    Marge Piercy, writer
    Susan Faludi, writer
    Alix Kates Shulman, writer
    Julianne Malveaux, president, Bennett College for Women
    Anne Lamott, writer
    Mary Gordon, writer
    Linda Gordon, historian, NYU
    Jennifer Baumgardner, writer
    Ruth Rosen, historian
    Jane Smiley, writer
    Anna Fels,MD, psychiatrist and writer
    Debra Dickerson, writer
    Margo Jefferson, writer
    Jessica Valenti, writer
    Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect
    Karen Houppert, writer
    Gloria Jacobs, The Feminist Press
    Carole Joffe, professor of sociology, UC Davis
    Janet Afary, Middle East historian, Purdue University

    And more than 700 more women and men.

    Please add your name to this powerful list, and thanks.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Election 2008 January 17, 2008

    The Weepy Witch & the Secret Muslim

    If the campaign becomes a competition between race and gender, the winner will be whichever white man the GOP nominates.

    Katha Pollitt

  • January 8, 2008

    Hillary Shows Feeling, is Slammed

    John Edwards just lost my vote. How dare he take cheap shots at Hillary Clinton for letting her eyes mist over (not "crying" as was widely reported) at a meeting with voters in Portsmouth NH earlier today? This is a man who has used his most private tragedies--his wife's cancer, his son's fatal accident -- in his campaign in a way that had a woman done the same she would surely be accused of "oprahfying' the lofty realm of politics. This is also the man who promoted himself early on as the real women's candidate, and who has repeatedly used his likeable wife to humanize his rather slick and one-dimensional persona. Today he deployed against Hillary the oldest, dumbest canard about women: they're too emotional to hold power. ABC's Political Radar blog reports:

    "Edwards, speaking at a press availability in Laconia, New Hampshire, offered little sympathy and pounced on the opportunity to bring into question Clinton's ability to endure the stresses of the presidency. Edwards responded, 'I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business.'"

    Ooh, right,we need a big strong manly finger on that nuclear button! Even if that finger has spent most it its life writing personal injury briefs in North Carolina, which, when you come to think of it, is not an obvious preparation for commander-in-chiefhood.

    Katha Pollitt

  • January 6, 2008

    Branding the Candidates

    The election is almost a year away, and already it's come down to branding. In Saturday night's Democratic debate the candidates discussed in considerable detail muclear terrorism, health care, carbon emissions and other substantive issues. But what really got them excited were the vague competing mantras of "change" and ‘experience." Obama says he stands for change. Edwards, siding with Obama against Clinton for some strategic reason too subtle for me to understand, says he stands for change too. Hillary Clinton, who casts herself as the candidate of experience but actually uttered the word "change" more often than the other candidates, dismissed her rivals as fancy talkers. She said she has 35 years of experience ( which means she's counting everything she's done since getting out of law school) and knows how to make change happen. She points out, quite correctly, that electing a woman president would be a very big change, but nobody seemed too interested in that. After all, electing a black president would be a big change too.

    Hillary Clinton was fiery and funny and bore no resemblance to the candidate relentless attacked in the media as rigid, incompetent, Machiavellian and screechy. You can understand her obvious frustration with the ongoing lovefest for Obama: At one point she even compared his "likeability' to that of George W. Bush. In real life, Obama has made the same sort of compromises she herself has made. As she pointed out, he said he'd vote against the Patriot Act, and then he voted for it. He casts himself as the candidate who'd repair our bellicose relations with the world, and then talks about bombing Pakistan. He talks about putting Republicans in his cabinet, as Bill Clinton did. His health-care plan, as Paul Krugman points out every day on the New York Times op-ed page, is weaker than Clinton's or Edwards'. I'm sure Hillary Clinton must be wondering what the difference is between "triangulation" and Obama's calls for unity.

    Somehow Hillary Clinton is stuck as the candidate who simultaneously represents excessive compromise and excessive partisanship. For various reasons, John Edwards, who actually represents the most substantive hope for change, seems in some ways a throwback to the old-fashioned class-based politics of the 1930s. Poor Richardson, who actually has the most experience of any candidate in either party, can't get any traction at all. Obama, the black candidate who never mentions his race, gets to smile his mile-wide smile and be a rock star. Somehow he has made himself a great big humongous hope object. People can project on him what they want him to be.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Media January 3, 2008

    Maternity Fashions, Junior Size

    Teens getting pregnant: bad. Teens having babies: good. If this makes no sense, wake up and smell the Enfamil: it's 2008!

    Katha Pollitt