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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.


  • December 29, 2007

    Bill Kristol Gets New York Times Op-Ed Slot

    Just shoot me. First, it was Sam Tanenhaus, conservative editor of the New York Times Book Review being put in charge of the News of the Week in Review section. That means one conservative will determine how politics,culture and ideas are covered in TWO of the most important sections of the supposedly liberal newspaper of record. Now, says the Huffington Post, the Times is set to announce that Bill Kristol will be writing a weekly op-ed column. That's Bill Kristol ,Fox commentator , editor of the the Murdochian agitprop factory Weekly Standard, George W. Bush's propagandist in chief, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, relentless promoter of the war in Iraq , ideological bully and thug. This is the man who blamed american liberals for the Khmer Rouge and the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), who will say just about anything, however bizarre or illogical or wild or (I'm guessing) cynical, to push the only ideas in his head: everything bad is the fault of Democrats and never mind the question, war is the answer.

    On Iran:The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

    On morning-after contraception: "I don't know, I came into Fox this morning and one of our younger colleagues who works here, a guy just out of college a couple of years, said all his friends in who are still college are very happy about this -- all his guy friends, his male friends who are still in college are happy about this. They have a wild night. Precautions aren't taken. The burden is now totally off them. They tell their girlfriend to go out and get this drug and no problems at all. And I don't think that's a very good thing for the the country."

    Katha Pollitt

  • December 27, 2007

    Taking Care of Caretaking

    This morning, TakeCareNet released the results of its survey of presidential candidates' positions on 26 public policies related to work, family, and caregiving. Co-sponsored by eight other organizations, including the Labor Project for Working Families, Momsrising.org, and the National Council of Women's Organizations, the survey addresses the "silent crisis of care": the absence of social support for working families (I know, I know, I hate that moralistic multi-focus-grouped phrase) that has made us a nation of stressed-out parents, daycare workers on poverty wages, and children who aren't getting the high-quality attention and stimulation they need. Number of Democratic candidates who responded: five (Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Obama and Richardson). Number of Republican candidates who responded: zero. This is one area in which the parties definitely diverge.

    While some of the Dems preferred their own policy proposals to those on the survey, all five support increased funding for childcare, both for mothers on TANF and families in general; public funding for universal, voluntary pre-school programs; expanding the Family Medical and Leave Act to cover workplaces with as few as 25 employees; allowing leave for appointments related to domestic violence; a minimum number of paid days off to care for sick family members; indexing the minimum wage to productivity and inflation; and more. I was particularly glad to see on the menu a scholarships for education and training, as well as higher pay, for child care providers. The magic of the marketplace is never going to bring us quality childcare, because most parents cannot begin to afford what that would cost.

    Will the Dems actually campaign on care? Or will the policies laid out by the TakeCareNet survey join the long laundry list of wonkish positions you have to search their websites to find? Dems say they want the votes of women, and especially, as Katrina pointed out on her blog, want to mobilize single women, many of whom combine low-wage work with raising kids and/or caring for elderly parents. Yet, except on abortion rights, about which they speak as little as possible, Dems have not really made a pitch to women that goes beyond fluff and pr -- they're too afraid of scaring off the elusive white male voter: ew, the Mommy party! cooties! Yet care is an issue that affects men too. Even the Nascariest Nascar dad can see the advantage of nursery school.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Politics December 13, 2007

    Ho-Ho-Holiday Donations, 2007 Edition

    Multiply your good fortune by giving generously to these progressive organizations and charities.

    Katha Pollitt

  • December 7, 2007

    Help Keep Bookwoman Alive!

    Remember when feminist bookstores dotted the land? In l993 there were 124. A woman writer could give readings in women's bookstores from Los Angeles to Baltimore. But 1993 was the high point. Ever since, like other independent bookstores--I'm still mourning the death of Ivy's Books at 92nd Street and Broadway, which closed a year ago--ones catering to feminists have been closing, felled by economic forces with which we are all familiar: chain stores and online sellers who offer big discounts, skyrocketing rents, changing neighborhoods and, arguably, declining interest in reading. True, every Barnes & Noble now has a women's section, but feminist bookstores, even more than most independents, are not just places where books are sold They are places where small-press, new, local and midlist writers are cherished and hand-sold by staffers who actually care about books, where there's room to stock offbeat items, pamphlets and magazines, and where literary and political communities are shaped through events, readings, book groups, talks, and parties. It can't be good, for either books or feminism, that there are only around 15 women's bookstores left in the United States.

    That number will get even smaller if BookWoman, in Austin, Texas, goes under. For over thirty years, BookWoman has anchored the local feminist community: now it's been priced out of its home at 12th and Lamar, once a funky area of independent shops, now increasingly posh. Owner Susan Post is trying to raise $50,000 by mid-December. It's what she needs in order to keep the business open and negotiate a new lease at a new address. Kind donors have raised about half that amount. Can you help take it over the top? You can make a quick donation at www.savebookwoman.com.

    If you're within striking distance of Austin, drop by and browse. If you can't make it to the bricks and mortar, shop online at www.ebookwoman.com. Why not help the store and make life easy for yourself at the same time, by doing your holiday shopping there?

    Katha Pollitt

  • December 5, 2007

    Left-Leaning Male Pundits Heart Huckabee

    Have you noticed how liberal white male reporters get crushes on right-wing male candidates? For years John McCain had Democratic and even left men swooning at his feet--a straight talker! A war hero! He's cool and macho, and he'll invite you over for barbecue! Never mind that McCain was basically a militaristic reactionary with occasional twinges of sanity. Even at The Nation, McCain was a popular guy with the guys. in 2004, one of my Nation colleagues argued in an edit meeting that the magazine should endorse him.

    This time round, the so-called-liberal-media men's Republican sweetheart is Mike Huckabee. He plays the bass guitar! He cares! He's not a total maniac like the other evangelical Christians even though he doesn't believe in evolution and probably thinks you're going to Hell! Ari Berman declares him " humble, decent, and funny." In The New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg is surprised to find himself charmed: Huckabee is "funny," "reassuringly ordinary" in appearance and demeanor, "curiously unthreatening" in affect; he speaks "calmly" and declines to serve up "red meat" on abortion, immigration, the Clintons, and other issues dear to rightwingers' hearts.

    Marc Cooper, who can't throw enough rotten tomatoes at Democrats and "progressives," or as he likes to call them "pwogwessives," writes in his blog that Huckabee " radiates a core decency." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter: He "speaks American." (oh lord, where's Mencken when you need him?) "Even on faith and politics, Mike is easy to like." Really? It's easy to like a man who tells Bill Maher that "we really don't know" whether the earth is six thousand or six billion years old? Who doesn't think human beings are primates? Who wants to outlaw almost all abortion because "life begins at conception"? Gail Collins-- yes, yes, not all Huckabee fans are men -- thinks indeed, it is.

    Katha Pollitt

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  • November 21, 2007

    Norman Mailer R.I.P.

          Last month I was privileged to be part of Georgetown University's day-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, his autobiographical-historical-novelistic account of the l967 March on the Pentagon.  Mailer was in the hospital and unable to attend as he'd planned -- but it was still a fascinating day.   My favorite moment was  when  the delightful and erudite  Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who wrote his thesis on Mailer, explained that in the 1960s and 70s Mailer failed to grasp the reductive nature of television --  he would go on a talk show ,utter a complex thought, and then find that the only part that was quoted was an inflammatory soundbite, like "all women should be kept in cages." Ah, yes, context.  I'll bet it made all the difference! My second favorite moment  came after my bit on the literary panel,--in which yes, as the only woman I did feel compelled to mention Mailer's  rather staggering misogyny-- when various older gentlemen in the audience leapt to their feet to assure me that his violent hostility to women was just a phase . Their wives had met Mailer in the late  l970s and found him very nice.  My third favorite moment was when, after the showing of Richard Fountain's  l971 documentary about mailer --  the  product of the very film crew that Mailer reveals, halfway through the book, is following him about as he makes one weird speech after another, sometimes in strange voices-- a  Georgetown student told the panel on stage that she and her  activist friends always tried to present their political points  in a sober, respectful way, and she  found the 1960s, and Norman Mailer in particular, entirely bewildering: Was everybody just crazy back then?  

    It probably astonishes you to hear that I'm not a charter member of the Norman Mailer Society, but I  enjoyed Armies of The Night.  One of the great things about books, especially when they are of a previous generation, is that you don't have to swallow them whole -- you can  take what you want and leave the rest.  If you are a writer yourself, you might even see a signpost in what strikes you as mostly a swamp.  Take, for example Mailer's  third-person depiction of himself  as a major jerk ,obnox and social climber-- "the Novelist"  worries endlessly about what to wear to the big march ,  about his literary status  and whether Robert Lowell  respects him; he pisses on a restroom floor because he's too drunk to find the toilet in the dark, gives an incoherent ranting speech that it turns out nobody could hear, spends a lot of mental energy wondering how to schedule his arrest at the Pentagon so that he can be back in New York in time for a glamorous  party, and gets so tied up in egomaniacal knots that when he finally bunks down in jail for the night, in stead of having a historic prison-memoir moment he is unable to address a word to the reputed young genius in the next bed -- Noam Chomsky.  It's all pretty funny.  But who is telling you this story that reflects so poorly on "the Novelist's" claims to moral seriousness,  political commitment, and fitness for the leadership position he longs to hold? Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer the narrator knows perfectly well --at least in Armies of the Night he does -- what an anxious, obsessive, narcissistic, fantastical, insecure, over-the-top, ridiculous person " Norman Mailer" is.  The writer sees what the character doesn't see. The expression of that double consciousness is  a masterpiece of style.    Still, there is that little problem of misogyny. I wish  The Nation's considerable coverage of his life had given that more than a passing wave.  What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women's liberation, his cult of  hatred and  domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses,whores,  mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), ), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage .   I remember  him speaking at a PEN meeting in the l990s about  the damage women would do to the Democratic Party if they exercised power within it.  That made about as much sense as his famous essay in "Advertisements for Myself," (l959)  in which, having  insulted every famous male writer of his day from Bellow to Baldwin, he wrote . ''I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.''  

    The obits don't make much of this but it should be said straight out: Mailer did a lot of harm in his life.  He stabbed his  second wife, Adele Morales, and it wasn't some larger-than-life zany antic they both had a good laugh over later: he nearly killed her.  Psychologically, a recent New York times story suggested,  she never recovered. He helped  get the  writer and murderer Jack Abbott out of  prison ,  and immediately plunged this  unbalanced man who had spent over half his life behind bars   into the heady world of literary celebrity; within days Abbott had killed a waiter he imagined was dissing him.   Several obits have humorously recounted how Mailer assaulted on the street a sailor he thought called his dog gay, but the near murder of Morales, and the actual murder of Richie Adan by Mailer's protege, show that his infatuation with machismo was not just a literary joke, much less endearing protective covering for his inner nice-Brooklyn-boy-who-loved-his-mother.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Religion November 15, 2007

    The Atheist’s Dilemma

    Atheists versus imams? Can't we have more choices?

    Katha Pollitt

  • November 7, 2007

    Dowd v Clinton, Chapter 3465

    Is Maureen Dowd obsessed with Hillary Clinton or what? Last week, she complained that Hillary spoke "girlfriend to girlfriend" to women voters while refusing to share the pain of being married to a sexually exploitative monster who had made her violate all her beliefs and principles, as Caitlin Flanagan opined in the Atlantic. This week, Dowd accused Hillary of "playing the woman-as-victim card" because her campaign put out a humorous video portraying the last debate as a masculine pile-on (never mind that Hillary herself said she was the focus of tough questioning because she was the front-runner): "If the gender game worked when Rick Lazio muscled into her space, why shouldn't it work when Obama and Edwards muster some mettle? If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now."

    As far as I'm concerned, anyone who quotes Caitlin Flanagan approvingly has lost their bona fides on gender issues. Flanagan, after all, is the woman who calls herself a homemaker while acknowledging that she's never changed her own sheets, who insists that children don't love working mothers as much as they do stayhomes, and who says women have a duty to have sex with their husbands at least twice a week. As for playing the woman-as-victim card, can this be the same Maureen Dowd who wrote in her last book, Are Men Necessary?, that men don't ask her out because she's too smart and successful and will never see 35 again? How's that for painting yourself as a victim  of sexism--which, I hasten to add, Dowd probably is!

    You don't need to be Simone de Beauvoir to recognize that lots of middle-aged men would find Dowd too challenging and too old -- i.e., their own age. For applying this rather obvious sociological observation to herself--for permitting herself one unguarded moment and writing what women say to each other all the time--she was publicly taken to task all over the media. Unlike Hillary, Dowd backed down. I turned on the TV late one night and there was Dowd, all sultry red hair and fishnet stockings, gaily insisting to some male interviewer that her social life was terrific, no problems in that department at all.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Politics November 1, 2007

    David Horowitz, Feminist?

    The oppression of Muslim women is a major theme among the Islamofascistly aware. If only they felt the same about other women on earth.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Religion October 18, 2007

    With Facts on Our Side

    Faced with a choice between facts and theology, antichoicers choose the latter every time.

    Katha Pollitt