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.”