Katha Pollitt, who has been contributing to The Nation since 1980, tackles politics, culture gender, and relentless anti-feminists every other week in her column, “Subject to Debate.” Pollitt has also been a high-profile advocate of reproductive rights throughout her career. Her 1993 Glamour essay "Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?" won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; more recently, Pollitt has spoken out in support of The National Network for Abortion Funds.
In a recent column titled “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?,” Pollitt frankly discussed the tensions between older and younger feminists, writing that while feminists of all ages often disagree about issues like sex work, the generational struggles among feminists is not in fact about ideas, but “about young women jockeying with the feminist establishment for power and visibility.”
Here, Pollitt talks with young feminist and former Nation intern Joanna Chiu about why younger and older feminists sometimes talk past each other, and suggests ways in which young feminists could bring their strengths to the fight for the rights of all women—including the right to safe and affordable abortion services.
Joanna Chiu: In light of the controversy in Congress over whether coverage for abortion services should be included in healthcare coverage, where do you see the abortion debate in America headed?
Katha Pollitt: The next Congress will be the most anti-choice congress in years and years. The Republican majority in the House includes lots of ardent foes of abortion rights, including incoming speaker Boehner, and, as the energetic Bart Stupak showed, not all Democrats are pro-choice. It’s going to be rough—expect to see fights over the most abstract funding and insurance-related issues. Believe it or not, there are Congresspeople who think the Stupak amendment was too lenient. There’s a move to defund Planned Parenthood, to bring back the gag rule banning foreign aid to groups abroad who advocate for abortion rights, to make the Hyde Amendment permanent and expand its reach. Republicans will control more governorships and state legislatures, too, so there will be a lot of anti-choice activity at the state level in the South, Midwest, and Western Mountain states. We may be moving toward a nation where abortion is completely unavailable in some states—in fact, right now, there is only one clinic in South Dakota, and one in Mississippi—while in other states, it is widely available and even subsidized for low-income women with state Medicaid funds.
JC: Why do you think it is still important for young people to be feminists and work for women’s equality in the US and around the world? How do you respond when people say that feminism has already accomplished its goals?
Pollitt: Feminism has accomplished a lot, but there’s a long way to go, in the US and around the world. Violence against women is a huge problem, we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and unwanted pregnancy in the industrialized west, pop culture is saturated with misogyny, eating disorders are rampant, single mothers have a very hard time, and Congress isn’t even 20% female. Women earn less than men for the same work, which is bad enough, but mostly women still work in female-stereotyped jobs where the whole pay scale is lower than in comparable male jobs. A daycare worker still makes less than a parking valet. Conservatives say that this sorting is voluntary—women don’t want to be carpenters and electricians, and prefer to cut back at work when they have children. But those choices are shaped by larger policy decisions. We don’t have paid parental leave or reliable affordable daycare; we have ridiculously high standards for motherhood and very relaxed ideas about what makes a good father. So women are really sandbagged when they have children—which most women do. That’s a huge feminist issue. There’s also still plain old discrimination, conscious and unconscious.
JC: Have you noted changes in the way young people views feminism and the ways in which they engage in feminist activism?
KP: The women who are now, say, 40-45 years old represent, in my opinion, the low point of feminist activism and commitment. That’s the generation that produced all those books and articles about feminism as "political correctness," "victimology" and sexual puritanism, and who spend a lot of time worrying that feminists want to take away their lipstick and who write those jokey-resigned columns about how their husbands are biologically programmed to strew their clothes on the bedroom floor. The new cohort of young women—those in their 20s and early thirties—is much feistier, I’m happy to say. The Internet has helped young feminists find each other, and has given them new ways to discuss, debate, and organize. The blogosphere has its limits, but it has allowed a lot of new voices to come to the fore without having to be approved by gatekeepers like the New York Times. Feminist media is so important! And for some reason, the right invests much more in media than the left.
JC: You discussed the antagonism between younger and older feminists in your column, “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?”. Do you think that younger and older feminists talk past each other sometimes, and if so, why?
KP: I think feminists of every age agree on the important things—economic and political equality, reproductive freedom, personal autonomy, fighting violence against women. There are differences of style—music, clothes, language and so on—and differences in political philosophy that come from the decline of the 1960s-70s left, which shaped the worldview of the so-called second wave (I have problems with the wave concept, but I’ll use it as shorthand here).
Feminists who came of age in the 60s and 70s take government solutions for granted. We need government-funded daycare, for example, like they have in France. Younger feminists, who never experienced a US where government was seen as a good thing and where public institutions like public schools and hospitals were reliably excellent, tend to seek individualist or personal solutions: they might ask for a tax deduction or credit so they could buy daycare privately. Then there are all those complicated arguments over sex and sex work. I don’t know any older feminists who think commercial sex work is just another job, much less an "empowering" one, or who think watching porn is just a pastime. Even I sometimes think younger feminists take libertarianism too far. There’s something contradictory about getting your knickers in a twist because of an Axe deodorant commercial while defending men’s right to buy women’s bodies for sex. Basically, though, I think the generational quarrels in feminism are about power and leadership and attention—not ideas. And eventually, younger feminists are going to win, obviously.
JC: Do you encourage young feminists to start their own organizations? Are there other ways for young feminist to contribute to the feminist movement without "rankling the old guard?"
KP: Young feminists should definitely start their own organizations, and if they rankle "the old guard," that might be quite useful! We could use some fresh groups with new blood and new ways of reaching out and organizing all those women (who are not just young ones) who say "I’m not a feminist, but…" Young feminists are already prominent at the grassroots level, for example Med Students for Choice, and local abortion funds.
JC: What is your dream for women?
KP: My dream is that every woman will get to express her own best self and help other women do the same.