Perhaps there’s a limit to female masochism after all. To the great astonishment of the New York Times, which put the story on page one, Creating a Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book deploring the failure of female professionals to have as many children as she thinks they need to be happy, is a big commercial flop (“The Talk of the Book World Still Can’t Sell,” May 20). Out of a 30,000-copy first printing, perhaps 8,000 have sold, despite a publicity campaign from heaven: Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, wall-to-wall radio. The UK edition, Baby Hunger (Hewlett’s original choice of title–gag me with a spoon!), is also piling up in warehouses.
The Times quotes numerous bewildered publishing people–could it be the cover? women’s “deep level of anxiety”?–but it’s no big mystery why the book isn’t selling. Except when right-wing foundations buy up truckloads of copies, antifeminist tracts usually do poorly despite heavy attention. The media love them–this week’s newsstand features New York with “Baby Panic” and Us with “Will They Ever Have Babies?” in which Jennifer Aniston and other nulliparous stars bemoan their lot–but book buyers don’t bite. Hewlett follows in the steps of Katie Roiphe, who got great press but few readers for The Morning After, which argued that date rape was just “bad sex.” Partly the reason is that these books tend to be so flimsy that the media campaign gives away their entire contents, but the main reason is that nobody but women buy books about women–and women who buy hardcover books are mostly feminists. They know date rape isn’t bad sex, and they don’t need Hewlett to tell them their biological clocks are ticking. (Apparently not as fast as Ms. Hewlett claims, though. Dr. Alan DeCherney told the Times a woman’s chances of getting pregnant at 40 are better than Hewlett makes out.) Why buy a book that tells you to smile, settle and rattle those pots and pans? That’s what your relatives are for.
By the way, my friend Judith Friedlander, coiner of the immortal phrase “a creeping nonchoice,” was surprised to find herself on Hewlett’s list of tearful women whose careers got in the way of childbearing. “I’ve had a great life,” she told me, “with no regrets, and I spent a long time telling Hewlett just that.”
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What if a woman ran for President who had great progressive politics except for one thing–she believed that any man accused of rape or sexual harassment should be castrated without a trial? How many progressive men would say to themselves, Oh well, she’s got great positions on unions, the environment, the death penalty, and all the rest, and besides, women really like her, so she gets my vote! Ten men? three? two?
Of course, no progressive woman would ever put this crazy notion forward. Our hypothetical candidate would understand all too well that she couldn’t propose to kick men in the collective teeth and expect them to vote for her. Back in the real world, however, this is precisely what some progressives apparently expect women to do for Dennis Kucinich, whose anti-choice voting record was the subject of my last column. Besides numerous e-mails thanking me for “outing” him and two or three upholding the “human rights” of the “itty bitty zygote,” I heard from a few readers like Michael Sherrard, who urged “liberals” to “get over their single-issue abortion orthodoxy.” Instead of asking women to give up their rights, why not pressure Kucinich to support them? To get that “broad based multi-issue progressive movement” Sherrard wants, Kucinich is the one who needs to get real, to face the demographic truth that without the votes, dollars and volunteer labor of pro-choice women and men, no Democrat can win the White House. His anti-choice votes may suit his socially conservative Cleveland constituents, as his supporters claim, but America isn’t the 10th Congressional District of Ohio writ large.
What Kucinich’s fans may not understand is that for pro-choice women, abortion is not just another item on the list. It goes straight to the soul. It is about whether society sees you as fully human or as a vessel for whom no plan or hope or possibility or circumstance, however desperate, matters more than being a nest for that “itty bitty zygote.” As I’ve written before, despite the claims of “pro-life feminists” and “seamless-garment” Catholics, progressive social policies and abortion rights tend to go together: Abortion bans flourish where there are backwardness, poverty, undemocratic government and politically powerful patriarchal religion, where levels of education, healthcare and social investment in children are low, and where women have little power. Instead of asking women to sign over their wombs for the cause, progressives should demand that “their” politicians add abortion rights to their agenda. No progressive would vote for someone who opposed unions or wanted to bring back Jim Crow. Why should women’s rights matter less? It’s disgusting that the AFL-CIO supports anti-choice politicians–as if their members aren’t getting (or causing) abortions in vast numbers–and it backfires, too. In Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, pro-choice centrist Democrat Ed Rendell trounced anti-choice labor-endorsed Bob Casey Jr., 56 to 44 percent.
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A French committee is promoting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated Northern Alliance commander, for the Nobel Peace Prize (among the signatories: actress Jane Birkin, Gen. Philippe Morillon and that inevitable trio of trendy philosophes, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Andr&eacute; Glucksmann). I know what you’re thinking: If Henry Kissinger could be awarded this honor, why not the CIA/Russia-backed Tajik warlord who helped set up a fundamentalist government in 1992, destroyed Kabul by fighting with his erstwhile ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and helped create so much havoc, including documented massacres of civilians, that Afghans welcomed the Taliban? Still, there’s something repellent about proposing to award Massoud, thanks in part to whom Afghanistan is riddled with landmines, the same prize won by anti-landmine activist Jodie Williams in 1997. Maybe they should call it the Nobel War Prize.