This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
In this e-mail discussion, which took place in January 2015, “Subject to Debate” columnist Katha Pollitt and former executive editor Betsy Reed, now editor in chief of the Intercept, reflect on the state of contemporary feminism, both in the nation and in The Nation.
Reed: In December 1992, sitting at my messy editorial assistant’s desk in the offices of the glossy magazine where I worked at the time, I read your Nation essay, “Are Women Morally Superior to Men?” I didn’t know you personally yet, but as a reader, I hung on your every word. And here were 6,000 of them, so bracing and brilliant that the moment of encountering that essay was seared into my memory with the sort of clarity that usually attends only the tragic or transformative occasions of life. Like a surgeon operating on soft tissue, you deftly dissected the arguments of so-called difference feminists until there wasn’t much left of them. And I thought: good riddance. The Carol Gilligans and Deborah Tannens of the world were threatening to set us back, reinforcing stereotypes of “relational” women and “autonomous” men that have always been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of power and authority, relegating us to a squishy and cuddly domestic sphere. At the time, I could think of no more dismal fate than that.
My thinking on these issues has changed a bit since then, and I wonder if yours has too. But leaving that aside for now, what made your essay so meaningful to me was that it was an unsparing critique of feminism that so clearly came from within feminism. To this day, the magazine walks a fine line between participating in movements and reporting on them—and I do believe there are good reasons to maintain some journalistic distance from movements with which we sympathize. Still, reading back into the magazine’s archives in the 1970s, it seems to me that The Nation was not a forum in which the feminist movement hashed out its most contentious debates, at least until you became a regular contributor. There would be a critique, or one view on an internal feminist controversy, but not multiple perspectives, as the magazine has had on other matters such as war or partisan politics. Would you agree with that characterization?
Pollitt: What you say about The Nation not having been a home for discussion among feminists is true, and it mirrors the situation of feminism within the liberal left. In both cases, there is a certain amount of attention given to “women’s issues”—reproductive rights, equal pay, childcare, rape and domestic violence, and so on—and a certain amount of chagrin when women are belatedly discovered to be missing from a panel, forum, special section, masthead or table of contents. But when the topic is more general, feminist analysis disappears, and so do feminists. How can one think seriously about the economy, for example, without considering the way it is structured by gender and race? By narrowly defining what counts as a feminist topic, the liberal left pushed women into a corner and helped produce the very thing it most deplores—“identity politics.”
Considering how monumental and far-reaching and destabilizing and interesting the women’s movement was in the late 1960s and ’70s, it’s surprising how little notice The Nation took of it during that period. As the movement progressed and the world changed, the coverage began to reflect those shifts, but it remained open for quite some time to woolly antifeminist critiques in the name of motherhood and “community.” The nadir was probably Christopher Hitchens’ slippery and arrogant 1989 column against abortion rights, after which he refused to engage with the response from women, including serious scholars of abortion rights like Linda Gordon. Much like the liberal left itself, The Nation tended to dismiss, rather than engage, feminist perspectives that challenged settled principles. Even before the Internet, it was probably not possible to ban pornography, and certainly not without wreaking havoc on freedom of speech, but did that have to mean that one had to ignore its misogyny? Against that, fortunately, one can set contributions from Ellen Willis, Vivian Gornick and many others. I’m proud to say that when I was the literary editor, back in the 1980s, I made it my mission to bring in women reviewers and cover books by women, especially on women’s history and feminist issues. (We even did a feminist-books issue.) It wasn’t even hard—there were fantastic (and famous!) women writers out there just longing to write for us.
The great thing about feminism is that the debate moves on. You asked if I still stood by my attack on difference feminism. For the most part, I do think gender is socially shaped, and yet the position I staked out in that essay feels a little brittle to me now. Why did I make fun of quilts as an art form? I love quilts! There’s a way in which denying essentialism can slip over into valuing women most when they are most “like men.” But don’t we deserve a little credit for the fact that in no society on earth do women commit more than a small fraction of murders?
Reed: I still think you were right to point out the problems with essentialism (whether gender differences are ascribed to biology or social conditioning). But it’s also true that, while there have been the Margaret Thatchers and Condoleezza Rices in recent history, women have, by and large, been more progressive than men as political and economic actors. Take the financial crisis of 2008: the villains were almost exclusively male, and the heroes (Sheila Bair, Elizabeth Warren, Meredith Whitney) disproportionately female. In politics, a gender gap persists that favors Democrats. Also, groups like Code Pink have shown how women can organize, as women, to protest war without reinforcing sexism. Why those gender differences exist (and whether they will last) is a complicated question, but given that they do, it’s clear that progressive movements and media outlets should take women seriously, and not place feminists in a narrow “women’s issues” box, and include a much larger number of female voices in discussions about economics, war and politics.
Let’s turn this question around for a minute, though. The left has gotten a lot of flak for not being inclusive enough, but has feminism erred in drifting away from a focus on structural transformation? In general, the economic conditions of women deserve more attention, in The Nation and the rest of the progressive and feminist media—including the way they relate to broader economic problems such as inequality, poverty, the collapse of unions, privatization and the gutting of the welfare state. Why do we earn only seventy-eight cents to the male dollar? This statistic is often repeated but not widely understood. It’s less about direct sex discrimination and more about the ways that women and mothers are tracked into poorly paid occupations, beset by disproportionate responsibilities at home, and denied the social supports they need in order to thrive in the workforce.
Pollitt: I love the revitalized feminism we’ve been seeing in the last five years or so, with its in-your-face energy and daring. But you’re right: its emphasis is on sexual violence, reproductive rights, intersectionality and pop culture, and not so much on the basic economic steps without which equality will never be achieved. Beyond equal pay, there’s quality, affordable childcare, universal preschool, paid parental leave, getting women into well-paid male-dominated fields, ending job discrimination against pregnant women and mothers, and adequate government assistance for poor and low-income families (dream on, I know). The Internet has spread feminism far and wide, especially among women in their 20s and even younger, but how many analyses of Kim Kardashian’s behind does the world need? You see the turn toward pop culture in women’s studies too, to the neglect of history, economics and the social sciences.
By the way, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss outright sex discrimination as one cause of that seventy-eight cents on the dollar. Even when women do the same work as men (as Lilly Ledbetter did), they are paid less: from professors, surgeons and Hollywood moguls on down to waitresses, who make less than waiters not because they have kids, but because fancy restaurants hire men. Also, it’s worth scrutinizing how women are nudged toward female-ghetto jobs virtually from birth—look at vocational tracks in high schools—and the ones who try to break into male-dominated fields, like construction or plumbing, are met with fierce resistance from both management and workers. There is actually a lower percentage of women in the blue-collar trades today than in the 1970s.
Fun fact: in some of those countries we’d love to resemble, with daycare and a big social-welfare state, the pay gap is still pretty big: around 15 percent in Sweden, Denmark and France.
Reed: I confess to being shocked when I learned that despite all that glorious state-subsidized daycare and lavish-sounding (to me) maternity leave, Scandinavian women don’t have it all—they don’t even rise to top positions as often as we do here in the United States, where, with less than 15 percent of executive positions held by women, we don’t set the bar particularly high. While universal childcare and better family policies in the United States would give women a huge boost, apparently they won’t solve everything. Sheryl Sandberg endured a fusillade of criticism for focusing too much on individual behavior and workplace attitudes and not enough on public policy in Lean In, but perhaps she had a point. There’s a lot of work for feminists to do, and some of it does involve asking for promotions and raises, speaking up more in meetings, mentoring female colleagues at work, and challenging men to do their share of the heavy lifting at home (when there is a man at home).
Pollitt: I hear you. There is something strange about a feminism that routinely attacks women who succeed in the business of America, which, as Calvin Coolidge did not quite say, is business. (It’s OK to make zillions in fashion or pop music, no matter how frivolous or negative the message.) It’s as if, for all its modernism and rebelliousness, feminism retains the idea that women belong in their traditional fields: the helping professions, entertainment, nonprofits, luxury goods. And even in those areas, if a woman gets too successful, there are plenty of others who will tear her down, as Lena Dunham discovered.
Just try suggesting, however, that highly educated women who give up interesting, well-paid work to stay home with their kids embody a dependence on men that feminism has critiqued since forever (and, not coincidentally, make it easier for their husbands to advance over working-mother colleagues, who rarely have househusbands to free them from domestic duties), and—well! Then it’s choice feminism to the rescue. If a heart surgeon wants to abandon the operating table to raise heirloom chickens in Brooklyn, that’s her right—and how dare you raise an eyebrow? You might as well say that Miley Cyrus isn’t just a free spirit who happens to enjoy fellating a giant inflatable penis.
Fortunately, there are more positive developments afoot. In many past struggles, from the labor movement to the civil-rights movement to the fight against colonialism, women were asked to put aside their rights and needs in pursuit of some supposedly more important goal. Today, thanks partly to feminists of color, there’s a more sophisticated understanding of how struggles are connected. In the abortion fight, the reproductive-justice framework—launched twenty years ago and pioneered by SisterSong, the feminist collective of women of color—is replacing the pro-choice framework: it’s not enough for women to be able to end a pregnancy; they also need to be able to choose to have kids, and to be able to raise them well. That means childcare, healthcare, good jobs, safe housing, racial equality and much more. It’s rather daring to use reproduction as the political lens with which to focus all these different forms of oppression, from abstinence-only sex-ed to air pollution in poor neighborhoods to the astronomical rates at which men of color (and, increasingly, women of color) are imprisoned. Historically, after all, reproductive issues were not central to the larger progressive cause: they were a “women’s issue” or a matter of “health.” Reproductive justice opens up a whole new way of conceptualizing progressive politics, in which women—especially women of color—are at the center.
And yet, even as our analysis becomes smarter and more inclusive, reality remains resistant. Even in our own world of words—books, magazines, media—men dominate the mastheads and bylines. The women’s literary organization VIDA has been keeping track for the last six years, with mostly dismal findings, including here at The Nation. As you look back at your sixteen fabulous years here, Betsy, what’s your sense of how the future is shaping up for women writers and editors?
Reed: I think The Nation has done a good job covering and reflecting these developments in feminism—looking at mass incarceration and the “war on drugs” through a feminist lens, for example, or examining the way the politics of austerity affects women. However, it’s true that The Nation’s bylines remain as male-dominated as those at other magazines, even those less explicitly committed to the ideals of feminism. As an editor and feminist, I take this problem very seriously, but I believe the reasons for it are complicated—certainly more complicated than sheer sexism in editorial decision-making. After all, The Nation has had a woman at the helm for twenty years, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is deeply committed to the cause of gender equality.
One issue is that male writers are often eager to present themselves as experts even when they’re not, while women writers often gravitate to coverage of women’s issues (narrowly defined) rather than, say, economics and foreign policy. Certainly there are glowing exceptions, such as our very own Naomi Klein. But still, I think it holds as a generalization, and when you’re editing a general-interest magazine, that creates a challenge, because you need to offer diversified coverage of a wide range of fields. So an important, though long-term, job for editors is to encourage young women writers to tackle subjects they might not initially think they’d be inclined toward. In other words, pigeonholing women writers as feminist writers is actually one of the worst things you could do.
The good news is that, as you suggest, there is a veritable explosion of groundbreaking journalism being done right now by women on a broad range of subjects. Sometimes that’s happening at outlets that might surprise Nation readers—at BuzzFeed, for example. The “old media” have some traditions very much worth preserving: that of intellectual exploration by writers who derive their authority from years of scholarship, and who render seemingly obscure topics interesting to a broad audience through their unusual depth of knowledge and clarity of insight. At their best, magazines like The Nation and, yes, the old New Republic would feature writers who do that. But at our worst, we exclude from “authority” those voices who are already marginalized in the world, thereby reinforcing their marginalization. What’s exciting is the opportunity that The Nation has to carry its best traditions into the digital age, while also embracing the most liberating possibilities of new media.
Pollitt: I too find the new-media landscape exciting. Plenty of blather and posturing, but also so much fresh and spirited writing by people who would never have had a career in the old days. Unfortunately, whatever space opens up for women writers in the world of journalism, the coming years are probably going to be quite difficult for women in the United States. Republicans are in charge of the House and Senate and have complete control of twenty-four state governments. It’s hard to see how women are going to make significant advances when the levers of government are so firmly in the hands of people eager to push them back in the name of the free market, or Jesus, or both.
Electoral politics isn’t everything, of course. Perhaps we will see a renewed, radical grassroots women’s movement jumping from the Internet to the real world, with mass demonstrations and protests, a vivid and attractive alternative culture, a burgeoning of community activism and so on. It’s interesting, though, that the most recent example of that kind of organizing—Occupy—had very little specifically feminist consciousness or content.
I try to take hope where I find it. Obamacare has provided healthcare, including birth control with no co-pay, to millions of women, and recent increases in the minimum wage will benefit millions of women too. That’s wonderful. (Although behind these victories lie years of strenuous organizing; I don’t mean to imply that they were gifts from benevolent politicians.) There’s always the inspiring example of the LGBT movement for equal marriage, equal rights and public respect. Some of the current attempts to destigmatize abortion—through personal storytelling, for example—are very much like the attempt to defuse homophobia by coming out.
Just having the difficult conversations is important, too: about how to live together and think together in a world in which white men are no longer the automatic arbiters of everything, even if some of them haven’t quite accepted that yet. The Nation is the perfect place to have these exchanges. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 150 years for our writers and readers to figure it all out! 150th