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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

One recent Tuesday, members of the literary old guard gathered at the Church of All Souls on Manhattan's Upper East Side to bid final farewell to one of their secret society and to be reminded that the literary agent Candida Donadio, who had died some weeks earlier, was always clear in her devotion to the

written word and the men and women who make it. So much so that she never allowed herself to be pulled off her course by issues of money or power, meanness or shortsightedness. She had represented, over the years, so many of our literature's mega-authors--Heller, Pynchon, Roth and so on. Everything was always personal with Candida. You sensed her Sicilian past the moment you met her, and with Candida business was always the handservant of literature, not the other way around.

I met Candida in 1984. At the time, all of Nelson Algren's novels were out of print, and Algren himself had died just three years earlier. A short story of his that I'd read in a battered anthology compiled by Robert Penn Warren, "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," had knocked me off my feet. A young editor at Norton then, I blazed through the Algren canon. Although the books were out of print, people everywhere seemed to love to say they had known Algren, and two separate short-fiction prizes had been named after him. He was being silenced and cited simultaneously, and to me that seemed like a kind of posthumous torture. So I called Candida, who had represented him, and said I would like to start reissuing his books, which I could arrange through a company called Writers and Readers, where I moonlighted. Candida dutifully called each of Algren's previous publishers--Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Doubleday, Putnam. None were interested in putting him back into print, so after about six months of demurring she told me yes, and from then on she never ever said no to me. Once she accepted me as a fellow keeper of the flame, I could have proposed running the texts backward and I think she would have given serious consideration to the proposal.

Candida's connection to her authors, and particularly Algren, was devotional both in the sense of requiring an absolute loyalty and in that there was an incense of faith and ritual that surrounded her--and you also, if you were fortunate enough to be on the inside with her. Her youthful partner Neil Olson said that Candida never thought of herself as a literary agent at all, but rather, she said, as a person polishing silver. You could picture her as a goddess disguised as a servant, in order to make sure that the silver--those words written by her clients--not be denied its brightness. For its sense of egolessness in the extreme, and its implied narrative of enhancing the beauty of what is precious, the image is brilliant and pure Candida.

The anecdotes at All Souls were revelatory of how her values increasingly stood out in a changing landscape. Knopf associate publisher Vicky Wilson recalled that Candida used to say sometimes that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun--not a big change, I can't help thinking--and how, at one of their regular lunches, Candida had fixed her large eyes on Wilson and said of a contract, "Can't you do better on the dough?" The interesting thing is that the anecdote suggests mostly they were talking about things other than money.

Robert Stone regaled the crowd with his favorite Candidaism: "She loved to say, 'Trust is good, not to trust is better.'" And then added, "Not that she believed that not to trust is better. Just that she loved to say it." Leaving us in the audience who knew her to be infused one last time with her complexity: Not that she didn't believe that not to trust wasn't better. She knew when to do both. And loved to say it.

Peter Matthiessen added some color along those lines: During a lunch at which Candida had been drinking heavily, she was sitting next to Matthiessen and hardly responded to an attorney's harsh demands during a negotiation over one of Matthiessen's books. At the very end she turned to the attorney and thanked him politely for the pleasure of lunching together, and then raised her voice to say: "We like you but we don't love you. You are not our brother!" And then she countered each of the attorney's points. "She hadn't missed a single thing," Matthiessen recalled, still marveling.

Frank Conroy recalled when Candida and he were both just starting out, he a pimply-faced, 24-year-old unknown, she the receptionist and assistant at a literary agency. At the end of their first meeting, he described how he called up his courage and reminded her that she was never going to make any money off him, then asked, "So why do you want to represent me?" And how she had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "The prestige!" The complete implausibility of her response had stayed with him all these years. And perhaps too that in the end she had been proved right.

Eden Collinsworth, a young, willowy Hearst executive who had grown close to Candida in the past decade, told a story that was not related to publishing and yet expressed her magic nonetheless. On the evening Collinsworth introduced her to her fiancé, Candida pulled her aside to say, "He has a very interesting mind, but have you looked at his shoes?" Collinsworth had to confess she had not. "Have you looked at his shoes," Candida repeated, "and considered their implication? They're handmade shoes; it's not going to be easy for you."

We miss her. We need more like her.

Studies on the effects of childcare on the young are colored by researchers' views about educated women who go to work.

This is not going to be a column blaming Ralph Nader and the Greens for the daily disasters of the Bush Administration, so don't stop reading--yet. That column has been written dozens of times, in every shade of emotion with which the words "I told you so" can be uttered, and I think it's been pretty well established that Tweedledum and Tweedledee are at best fraternal rather than identical twins. Or are there readers out there who think the Gore Administration would be proposing a budget that would end contraceptive coverage for federal employees while angling for a huge tax cut for the richest 1 percent? If so, you won't have any problem washing your delicious school-lunch salmonellaburger down with a big glass of arsenic-laced water from one of our fine mining and timber states.

Nader's assistant called me recently to say that he had been misquoted last summer in Outside, which had him hoping for a Bush win. But those who thought the Democrats deserved to die seem to have gotten their wish. I mean, where is Al Gore? I've been an adjunct professor myself, and the duties are not all that taxing. He could be going on the Sunday morning talk shows every week, rallying opposition to Bush's onslaught against the environment--the Kyoto treaty was supposedly his baby, after all. Maybe he read Alexander Cockburn's column in the testosterone-addled New York Press claiming global warming is bunk, and now thinks it's good that Bush slammed the door on the treaty and the Europeans are just crybabies. Clinton's off riding elephants in India, Hillary voted for the bankruptcy bill, nobody wants to pay to make sure votes get counted in poor neighborhoods (remember when voting booth upgrades were definitely on the agenda, whoever won Florida?), and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which was going to start the arduous process of getting big money out of electoral politics, has morphed into a measure that doubles the Republican hard-money advantage while abolishing soft money, where the Democrats had edged ahead. Thanks a lot, Senator Feingold! And you too, Senator Wellstone! Now advocacy organizations like the ACLU and NARAL will be barred from running issue ads for sixty days before the election. Forget the First Amendment: Let them buy their own radio and TV stations like the right-wingers do.

None of this cowardice, confusion and collapse is the fault of Ralph Nader or the Greens: Would the Republicans be quivering in fear if they were the ones out of power? Still, the political landscape we confront today does call into question some of the arguments that were made for the Nader candidacy. You will remember that I expressed a certain skepticism about these claims last spring and summer, for which I was belabored with e-mails from Nation readers for months. The Last Marxist often points out that progressives don't like to analyze their past enthusiasms in the light of history, preferring to move right along to the next glorious cause. So let's go to the videotape and see what happened:

§ I said the Greens would do poorly because that's the general fate of progressive third-party and symbolic presidential candidacies; for the decreasing number of Americans who actually vote, the two parties are not identical and each offers concrete rewards to its constituency. Perhaps nonvoters would bring a new set of concerns and demands to the electoral table--that was the thinking behind the motor voter bill--but to register nonvoters on a massive scale and get them to the polls was quite beyond the capacities (or radar screen) of the Greens. What happened: Nader polled 2.7 percent.

§ I said that history suggested presidential candidacies did not build movements, as many supporters claimed Nader's run would do. I noted the rapid descent into nutty irrelevance of the most successful third-party candidate in modern history, Ross Perot, and his Reform Party. A party that cannot attract large sums of money and cannot deliver favors to its supporters is just not in the game. What happened: The Greens tool along at the same modest level as before, with eighty-one mostly low-level elected municipal officials thinly scattered around the country. Nader claims he is shut out by the media--surprise--but media never built a movement. Can you imagine Eugene Debs or Bob La Follette, to whom Nader is often compared, letting Rupert Murdoch or the Washington Post decide whether his message gets out or not?

§ I pooh-poohed the Greens' somewhat contradictory prediction that Nader would attract new voters who would not have gone for Gore but would vote for "good Democrats" lower down on the ticket. Why would voters drawn to the polls by a candidate who spent months bashing the Democrats turn around and vote for them? What happened: Despite much spin on both sides, Nader votes were probably a wash for down-ticket Dems. There was no major influx of new voters lured by Nader. Youth voting went down.

§ I took issue with the argument that the Nader candidacy would push the Democratic Party left. As the Greens themselves have observed in disclaiming responsibility for Bush's win, thirteen times as many registered Democrats (13 percent) voted for Bush in Florida as for Nader (1 percent). Nationally too, many more Democrats voted Republican than voted Green. So if you were thinking of running for President as a Democrat, where would you look for votes? Left to the Naderites, or right to the Dems and moderate Republicans who voted for Bush? Answer: Joe Lieberman's already exploring his options for 2004.

* * *

Speaking of past enthusiasms, the Teamster-turtle alliance isn't looking too good: Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa Jr. supports Bush's proposal to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. According to the New York Times, Hoffa said drilling would help stabilize the economy and create employment, including 25,000 Teamsters jobs at a time when the nation appears near recession. Turtle soup, anyone?

A woman two months pregnant goes to see her Ob-Gyn for prenatal care. As required by law, her doctor informs her that her condition places her at greater risk for a wide range of medical problems: hypertension and diabetes if she is overweight; complications of surgery if, like one in four women, she has a Caesarean section; permanent weight gain with its attendant problems, including heart disease; urinary tract infections and prolapsed uterus if she has had multiple pregnancies; postpartum depression or psychosis, leading in rare cases to suicide or infanticide; not to mention excruciating childbirth pain, stretch marks and death. There are ominous social possibilities, too, the doctor continues, reading from his state-supplied script: increased vulnerability to domestic violence; being or becoming a single mother, with all the struggles and poverty that entails; job and housing discrimination; the curtailment of education and professional training; and lowered income for life.

No state legislature would compel doctors to confront patients with the statistical risks of childbearing, serious though they are; a doctor who did so on his own would strike many as intrusive, offensive and out of his mind. Should a woman seek abortion, however, anti-choicers are pushing state laws requiring that she be informed of a risk most experts do not believe exists: a link between abortion and breast cancer. Like the supposedly widespread psychological trauma of abortion, which even anti-choice Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop was unable to find evidence of, the abortion-breast cancer connection is being aggressively promoted by the anti-choice movement. (Even Mother Jones, always quick to take feminists down a peg, leapt on this bandwagon, with an April/May 1995 piece entitled "Abortion's Risk.")

"It's yet another example of efforts to encumber this legal choice and make it more difficult and painful for women," says Dr. Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. It's also an attempt by anti-choicers to reframe their opposition to abortion as concern for women's health, something not usually high on their list. These are, after all, the same people who fight health exceptions to "partial birth" abortion bans and who have successfully prevented poor women from receiving medically necessary abortions with Medicaid funds.

Nonetheless, such is the power of the anti-choice movement that laws have been passed in Montana and Mississippi, and bills are pending in fifteen other states, mandating a breast cancer warning (and in some cases, a waiting period for it to sink in). Along with laws come lawsuits: In Fargo, North Dakota, the Red River Women's Clinic is being sued for failing to give such a warning; a 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman is suing a New Jersey clinic for her abortion two years ago, which left her, she claims, with an overwhelming fear of contracting breast cancer. In ferociously anti-choice Louisiana, a new law permits women to sue for damages--including damages to the fetus!--up to ten years after their abortion. Given today's high rates of breast cancer, a deluge of litigation is in the making.

Does abortion cause breast cancer? Some studies have appeared to suggest a connection: Dr. Janet Daling, for example, an epidemiologist who says she is pro-choice, compared the abortion histories of 1,800 women with and without breast cancer and found that, among those who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of breast cancer was 50 percent higher for those who had abortions--but her cancer-free sample was obtained through telephone interviews with women chosen at random from the phone book. Not everyone has a phone, of course, which raises questions about the comparability of the samples, and besides, how many women would volunteer information about their abortion history to a voice on the phone? Like other studies showing a link, this one was marred by "recall bias": Cancer patients are more likely to volunteer negative information about themselves than healthy people. They are looking for an explanation for a disease--and one many feel must somehow be their fault. Demographic studies, which are free from recall bias, produce different results: Lindefors Harris, analyzing the national medical database of Swedish women in 1989, found that women did deny their abortions, that breast cancer patients were less likely to do so--and that women who had had abortions were less likely to get breast cancer. The largest study to date, of 1.5 million Danish women, found no correlation.

"The supposed link between breast cancer and abortion is motivated by politics, not medicine," says Dr. David Grimes, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina. "The weight of the evidence at this time indicates no association. To force this on women is just cruel." Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, none of which have an ax to grind, reject the notion. The standard medical textbook, Diseases of the Breast, concurs. The main figure advocating the link is Dr. Joel Brind, professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College, who has done no original research on this issue but is a tireless anti-choice propagandist--plug "abortion breast cancer" into a search engine and the top half dozen sites are his.

Abortion is just about the only medical procedure in which doctors and patients are hemmed about by lawmakers. No other operation has legally mandated waiting periods, although many are dangerous, life-altering and irreversible; with no other operation are doctors legally required to give specific information--certainly not information that the vast preponderance of medical opinion believes to be false or at best unproven. Good medical practice calls for discussion of the pros and cons of particular courses of treatment, not burdening the patient's choice with unsubstantiated fears. Will we ever see a law requiring doctors to tell pregnant patients that abortion is statistically safer than carrying to term--which it is? Sure, the day state lawmakers put a waiting period on Viagra prescriptions, to let male patients really consider whether an erection is worth a heart attack.

Honored Infidel,

      In the near future we plan to expand our faith-based initiative, Holy Terror Sandblasting and Demolition Corp. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani finds much merit in our proposal for a workfare program in which homeless people (men only, naturellement!) would be trained in medieval theology, art criticism and the use of explosives. Please send dollars and the floor plan of the Brooklyn Museum. Or else.

      Thanks,

      The Taliban

Dear Professor DiIulio,

      With medical costs going through the roof, you'd think there'd be a better way. And now, with the Lord's help, there is! Our idea is to buy up struggling inner-city hospitals and turn them into profit centers--no doctors, no nurses, no fancy-shmancy machines and best of all, no messy malpractice suits. Just the blessed healing power of prayer, provided 24 hours a day at bedside by recovering drug addicts as part of their therapy. It's total win-win--the government saves, the patient is saved--if not in this world, the next. And that's the world that counts, right?

      Rev. Tommy Johnson

      Pentecostal Holiness Church, Memphis, TN

Dear Director,

      People say communism is just another religion, and they're right! We have everything the other faiths have--an all-encompassing worldview, sacred texts, meetings (and how!), schisms, excommunications and declining numbers and influence. We'd like to reverse that last item with funding for our workfare proposal: First, we provide welfare mothers a crash course in job readiness, parenting skills and the works of Karl Marx. Then, we get them jobs in daycare centers, where they pass their new "faith" on to the next generation, hopefully in time for the stock market crash. Don't count us out--a god that failed is still a god.

      Call us,

      The Communist Party, USA

Dear Brother in Christ,

      Did you know the Chicago Archdiocese has an exorcist on staff? Our faith-based initiative, The Exercist™, would get this superbly trained but underutilized man out of the apse and into the community, where he'd help the so-called mentally ill get their sillies out with a carefully graduated low-impact aerobic workout that goes beyond head swiveling and projectile vomiting to get at the real nitty-gritty of diabolical possession! Then, everyone cools down with a sharing session, novena and group hug: because admitting you're possessed by the Devil is half the cure!

      Hope to hear from you soon,

      Msgr. George O'Reilly

      Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago

Dear Prof. DiIulio,

      For ten years we've been trying to get our own public school district so our kids wouldn't have to go to school with goyim. The courts keep turning us down. Then we wanted buses with only male drivers and sex-segregated seating, and the self-hating Jewish liberals said no to that too. So we would like to become a Faith-Based Initiative with ourselves as clients. Our project is, we stay in our own town and only talk to each other. Because that's what G-d wants. Eventually we hope to get NEA funding as a conceptual art project ("The Choice: Chosen People Choose Themselves"), but a starter grant from your office would really put us on track.

      Let us know,

      Rabbi Shlomo Greenblatt, Kiryas Joel, NY

Dear Mortal,

      Ever wonder what's really behind that weird weather of recent years ? Hint: It's a long time between burnt offerings. How about paying some deadbeat dads to slaughter a herd of oxen and throw those fabulous thighbones on the barbie? Everybody benefits: They learn the meat business, you get fruitful harvests, favorable winds and calm winedark seas, and we get a decent meal. Reply soonest--the wife is pushing me to zap you with a thunderbolt.

      Zeus

Jack,

      Death Row Dad is a moving story of one father's embrace of capital punishment--despite his own imminent execution! While his ACLU lawyer tries frantically to turn up new evidence even as his own marriage unravels, and beautiful crusading nun Helen Prejean pleads with the governor for a stay, Leroy, who is in fact innocent, wants only that his son renounce his homosexual lifestyle and accept Christ as his personal savior. Soon the whole prison--even the crusty warden and a pair of racist guards--is praying for Leroy to get his wish. Jack, I promise you, when Leroy looks up from the gurney just before the lethal injection, sees his son standing there with his new girlfriend, and rejects the last-minute stay of execution ("I reckon the Lord is waitin' for my sorry self"), the audience won't know whether to cheer or go down on its knees. Morgan's people think yes for the lead, Julia's very interested in doing the nun. A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your office comes through with co-financing.

      Talk to you after the prayer meeting,

      Howie

Hey,

      How about a grant where I become a lay minister and practice laying on of hands? There's a whole heck of a lot of lonely women out there with big spiritual needs. I mean, really big.

      Just kidding,

      Bill Clinton

If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.

You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?

If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.

Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.

But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.

If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!


* * *

Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.

Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.

And they keep saying feminism is dead.

The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.

At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?

The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.

How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."

I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.

Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?

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Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.

How many times did we hear during the endless campaign that Bush wouldn't go after abortion if elected? Republicans, Naderites and countless know-it-alls and pundits in between agreed: Pro-choice voters were too powerful, the country was too divided, the Republicans weren't that stupid and Bush didn't really care about abortion anyway. Plus whoever won would have to (all together now) "govern from the center." Where are all those smarties now, I wonder? Bush didn't even wait for his swearing-in ceremony to start repaying the immense debt he owes to the Christian right, which gave him one in four of his votes, with the nominations of anti-choice die-hards John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson to head Health and Human Services.

On his first full day in office, Bush reinstated the "gag rule" preventing international family-planning clinics and NGOs from receiving US funds if they so much as mention the word "abortion." (This action was widely misrepresented in the press as being a ban on funding for performing abortions; in fact, it bans clinics that get US aid from performing abortions with their own money and prohibits speech--whether lobbying for legal changes in countries where abortion is a crime or informing women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies about their legal options.) A few days later, Thompson announced he would look into the safety of RU-486, approved by the FDA this past fall--a drug that has been used by half a million European women over twelve years and has been more closely studied here than almost any drug on the market. In the wake of Laura Bush's remark to NBC News and the Today show that she favored retention of Roe v. Wade, both the President and the Vice President said the Administration has not ruled out a legal challenge to it, placing them to the right of Ashcroft himself, who told the Judiciary Committee he regarded Roe as settled law (at least until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, he did not add).

Don't count on the media to alert the public. The press is into champagne and confetti: Who would have thought "Dick" Cheney would be such an amiable talk show guest! Time to move on, compromise, get busy with that big tax cut. "Who in hell is this 'all' we keep hearing about?" a friend writes, "as in 'all agree' that the Bush transition has been a smashing success?" An acquaintance at the Washington Post, whose executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., claims to be so objective he doesn't even vote, says word has come down from "on high" that stories must bear "no trace of liberal bias"--interestingly, no comparable warnings were given against pro-Bush bias. So, on abortion, look for endless disquisitions on the grassiness of the anti-choice roots, the elitism of pro-choicers and the general tedium of the abortion issue. Robin Toner could barely stifle a yawn as she took both sides to task in the New York Times ("The Abortion Debate, Stuck in Time," January 21): Why couldn't more anti-choicers see the worth of stem cell research, like anti-choice Senator Gordon Smith, who has several relatives afflicted with Parkinson's (but presumably no relatives unwillingly pregnant); and why can't more pro-choicers acknowledge that sonograms "complicate" the status of the fetus? In an article that interviewed not a single woman, only the fetus matters: not sexuality, public health, women's bodies, needs or rights.

Now is the time to be passionate, clever, original and urgent. I hate to say it, but pro-choicers really could learn some things from the antis, and I don't mean the arts of arson, murder and lying to the Judiciary Committee. Lots of right-wing Christians tithe--how many pro-choicers write significant checks to pro-choice and feminist organizations? Why not sit down today and send President Bush a note saying that in honor of the women in his family you are making a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds to pay for a poor woman's abortion (NNAF: Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002-5001)? March 10 is the Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers--send your local clinic money for an abortion "scholarship," flowers, a thank-you note, a bottle of wine, a Nation subscription for the waiting room! (Refuse & Resist has lots of ideas and projects for that day--call them at 212-713-5657.)

The antis look big and powerful because they have a built-in base in the Catholic and fundamentalist churches. But (aha!) pro-choicers have a built-in constituency too: the millions and millions of women who have had abortions. For all sorts of reasons (privacy concerns, overwork, the ideology of medicine) few clinics ask their patients to give back to the cause. Now some providers and activists are talking about changing that. "My fantasy," Susan Yanow of the Abortion Access Project wrote me, "is that every woman in this country gets a piece of paper after her procedure that says something like, 'We need your help. You just had a safe, legal abortion, something that the current Administration is actively trying to outlaw. Think of your sisters/ mothers/daughters who might need this service one day. Please help yourself to postcards and tell your elected representatives you support legal abortion, join (local group name here), come back as a volunteer' and so on." If every woman who had an abortion sent her clinic even just a dollar a year, it would mean millions of dollars for staff, security, cut-rate or gratis procedures. Think how different the debate would be if all those women, and the partners, parents, relatives and friends who helped them, spoke up boldly--especially the ones whose husbands are so vocally and famously and self-righteously anti-choice. If women did that, we would be the grassroots.

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Correction: It was Joe Conason, not Chip Berlet, who reported that John Ashcroft had met with the St. Louis head of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. Berlet's equally fascinating story, cut for space reasons, was that Ashcroft made a cameo appearance in a 1997 Phyllis Schlafly video that claims that environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and even chemical weapons treaties are part of a conspiracy to bring about One World Government. See clips at www.publiceye.org.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...

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