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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

After a bruising fight fopr the presidency, George W. Bush is stocking his cabinet with figures from the far right, none more so than John Ashcroft.

A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.

On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.

My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.

In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.

I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.

Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.

The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.

I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.

"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."

Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.

Was it only a few short weeks ago that I turned on the TV in my hotel room to hear conservative commentator Tucker Carlson explain to Don Imus that Gore would win the Floridian chadfight because Republicans were too nice, polite, modest and fair to get down and dirty like the Democrats? That was before a small army of rowdy Republicans descended on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and successfully intimidated election officials while turning themselves into a media spectacle halfway between a fraternity brawl and an ancient Roman mob. Like the false announcement of a Bush victory on election night--courtesy, we now know, of a Fox TV reporter who is a cousin of George W. Bush--the demonstrators helped produce the mistaken but widespread impression that Bush had won an election that Gore was trying to undo, when in fact the election, as I write, is still undecided. According to the Wall Street Journal and other papers, the demonstrators, originally portrayed as John Q. Publics following their hearts to Florida, are GOP operatives and Congressional staffers financed by the Bush campaign, which is putting them up in Hilton hotels and entertained them on Thanksgiving with turkey and a performance by Wayne Newton.

Al Gore's position is that there should be an accurate count of the Florida vote--the fraudulent nature of which becomes daily more obvious. What's wrong with that? Outrageous, say the Republicans; boring, say the media, which from the start urged "closure," like a prosecutor urging a quick lethal injection so that grieving survivors can start "the healing process." Flip a coin, advised Ralph Nader, fliply.

And what of Nader? Campaigners have been quick to put a brave face on his unimpressive 2.7 percent--unmentioned now is the magic 5 percent that would bring the Greens federal funds and that they themselves had made a central rationale for a Nader vote. "We accomplished what we set out to do," Nader campaign manager Theresa Amato told me. "We helped the Greens, we raised issues, we got new people into the political process. The Greens are now the leading third party, the only viable third party. I'm positive, I'm upbeat, I'm not depressed in any way." Longtime Green activist and former member of the town council of Princeton, New Jersey, Carl Mayer was even cheerier, telling me that Nader had mobilized 150,000 volunteers and 50,000 donors and sparked the formation of some 500 local Green organizations and 900 campus groups, and crediting him with "changing the tenor of the whole race" by pushing Gore to take populist stands against the drug and oil industries. Mayer even argued that it was because of Nader that President Clinton declared wilderness areas national monuments in several Western states and that the FDA approved RU-486. Unlike virtually every other Nader supporter in America, Mayer not only accepted the mainstream analysis that Nader votes had cost Gore the election (assuming Bush wins), but said it didn't bother him a bit.

One hesitates to inject a discouraging word, but 2.7 percent of the vote is not a lot. It puts him in the company of conscience candidates like Barry Commoner, but behind most major third-party challengers in recent memory. Even John Anderson--who?--and his National Union Party--what?--eked out 6.6 percent in 1980. Sure, you can spin these gloomy stats--Nader got more votes than any progressive third-party candidate since 1948! Nader would have gotten lots more votes but for the closeness of the Bush-Gore contest, which kept Dems in the fold! Third-party runs aren't about votes, they're about changing the discourse! But when I think about how many furious letters and e-mails I got for writing skeptically in this space about the possibility of a meaningful third party, especially a progressive one, I have to say events have borne me out. I said that in the end most voters would stick with the two parties because the differences that seem small to Naderites are concrete and significant to them, because the two-party system is the way civic favors and services are distributed and because people understand that the winner-take-all system insures that a left-leaning third party throws elections to the Republicans--as the Republicans understood when they ran Nader's attacks on Gore as ads for Bush.

Commentators will be analyzing the Nader vote for months, and no doubt the campaign could have done some things better or not at all: the invisible and tokenistic vice presidential candidacy of Winona LaDuke, the waffling over whether to go for votes in toss-up states, the attacks on "frightened liberals." But even a perfect campaign would run up against the structural obstacles that have rendered marginal every modern attempt to build a strong and lasting third-party alternative to the two- party "duopoly."

Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts--the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats--any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote--only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush--means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs--feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds--Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts--his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc. In an interesting post-mortem on the Newsforchange website, Micah Sifry argues that the Greens may be too far left for the actually existing electorate and that the future lies in the "radical middle," from which sprang Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. In other words, for leftists to achieve even the momentary electoral prominence of the now-moribund Reform Party, they have to be more, well, conservative.

If Gore loses the White House--and some of you reading this will know whether or not he did--he'll have no one but himself to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Naderskeptic all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic and hope you would--or did--too). Still, it's not Nader's fault that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women. Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues? When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton--a genius campaigner with a 60 percent approval rating--that he couldn't plausibly claim the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties, privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious pieties about faith and family?

Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty. Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure, some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush--you can imagine the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure." But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman. By taking a political risk--in a righteous cause--Gore would have been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions, which voters tell pollsters they like.

The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions that drive Naderites wild--for NAFTA, for military interventions around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them, or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person to undo the damage Nader has identified.

Nader's not perfect, after all--Gore could ask why he doesn't belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the people--minorities, women, blue-collar workers--whose interests he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction, in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive rights--most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead. As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of speech Ralph Nader is going to have?

It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the "Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country--it would make more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters. It would even make more sense for them to address--since Gore isn't doing the job--the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition, one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing between their guns and their job protection.

According to a group of seven academic political forecasters, Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages, what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist. You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.

I keep reading that the election turns on women's votes. Yet apart from the issue of abortion, women seem curiously invisible this election season--except of course for the endlessly focus-grouped, interviewed and psychoanalyzed women of Ohio and other toss-up states, who can't decide whether to vote for Gore because he kissed his wife or for Bush because they like his mother. Are these ninnies really representative, or is their prominence more a symptom of the emptiness of political reporting, which has cast the race as a personality contest between a Fibber and a Dope? What, for example, do women tell pollsters is their most important issue? Hint: It's not whether Al Gore or George W. would be more fun on a date or make a better babysitter. It's pay equity.

Yes, women are apparently unpersuaded that they earn 71 cents on the male dollar because, as the Independent Women's Forum insists, they choose low-paid jobs in order to have lots of time and energy for childcare and housecleaning. Yet when Bernard Shaw asked Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman about pay equity in their Veep debate, the two men quickly turned to the marvels of their respective tax proposals. Shaw let them--what's pay equity to him? Even issues that are on the table are discussed as if they have no gendered aspects--affirmative action, for instance, or proposals to privatize all or part of Social Security, which will affect women much more than men: Not only do women on average live longer, they make up the large majority of retirees and dependents who survive on Social Security alone. Violence against women has gone unmentioned--as opposed to media violence and smut, a major theme and supposed woman-pleaser--ditto insurance coverage for contraception (Viagra's already covered, but you knew that), high-quality daycare, the near-impossibility of collecting court-ordered child support from an ex-husband who doesn't want to pay it (there's a middle-class issue for you) and dozens of other problems facing real-life women. There are a number of women running for national office, but you don't hear much about them. From the media point of view, the continuing scandal of women's underrepresentation in government is as musty as the ERA. Women had their year back in 1992.

There's only one woman on the political scene who seems to evoke any kind of passion--and that's Hillary Clinton, or "Hillary." But most of the passion is negative: She's like a Rorschach test of feminine evil. Through direct mail aimed at Hillary-haters across the land, the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee has raised almost $2 million for her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, a hyperaggressive nobody whose wife boasts that she cleans her own house--I suppose that's the contemporary equivalent of Pat Nixon's good Republican cloth coat. The First Lady, a supporter of the death penalty, welfare reform and interventionist foreign policy, is depicted as an "angry woman who is abusive to White House staff and obsessed with imposing her radical left vision on the rest of America." How hated is Hillary? Eighteen percent of Democratic primary voters pulled the lever for her totally obscure challenger, a doctor who subsequently revealed himself to be a Lazio supporter. Maureen Dowd has completely lost herself in an ecstasy of psychological projection--her Hillary is like Joan Crawford in an old weepie: While the Gores and Liebermans bill and coo, she rattles around in her empty new house, loveless and lonely, and excluded from society as "Manhattan's dread extra woman." On the Drudge Report, Juanita Broaddrick accused Hillary of threatening her at a political function two weeks after her alleged rape: The threat was conveyed by thanking Broaddrick effusively--too effusively--for her support.

Disapproval of Hillary for sticking with her marriage cuts across party lines--Jimmy Breslin and George Will together at last with all those suburban harpies happy to knife a woman who steps out of the box. But her devotion to Bill has brought her an odd defender, Linda Waite, author with right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher of a book-length soundbite called The Case for Marriage. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Waite castigates conservatives like Will for taking opportunistic potshots at Hillary's decision to stay married: After all, Hillary is honoring the institution of marriage and making the choice conservatives--although presumably not Will, who is divorced--think people should make when faced with marital trouble. "Staying in an imperfect marriage is a perfectly reasonable choice for many women," writes Waite, not to mention good for society. Interestingly, Waite seems to have forgotten her own potshot at Hillary: In their book, Waite and Gallagher torment a remark of Mrs. Clinton's that seems clearly aimed at gossips and Nosy Parkers ("I learned a long time ago that the only two people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it") to portray her as a standard-bearer for the idea that marriage is a private contract with no social significance. In fact, as they should know, Mrs. Clinton is quite a conservative on marital matters; she supported the Republican-authored Personal Responsibility Act, which begins by stating that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society"; in It Takes a Village, she wrote favorably of making divorce harder to get.

If you want to see a woman politician boldly standing up for the right to privacy--or anything else--you have to go to the movies. In The Contender, a swell political thriller, Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, a Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is nominated to fill out a dead Vice President's term and finds herself under withering attack for supposedly participating in a fraternity sexfest as a college freshman. The movie, which is dedicated to "our daughters," is one long prayer for the abolition of the double standard--which it then, in typical Hollywood fashion, endorses. Laine is so pure and idealistic that she survives only because Jeff Bridges, as the wily Clintonesque President, stoops to tactics that would never even occur to her. In other words, in order to be in politics, a woman has to be too good for politics.

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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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