Columnist Katha Pollitt on how far women have come (quite far, but not far enough)
Are we there yet? Katha Pollitt sees a ‘real revolution’ in women’s consciousness, but says much work remains
By Lucinda Marshall/Leo Weekly
Katha Pollitt, a well-known feminist writer, has written the “Subject to Debate” column for The Nation magazine since 1994. She has authored several books of essays, the latest of which is “Virginity or Death!” She is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship for her poetry. I asked to share her insights about women’s lives today and how the media influences our perceptions of women.
LEO: The title of your lecture is “Are We There Yet? Why Women Aren’t Equal Even If We Think We Are.” No argument from me, but ouch — three waves of feminism later and we still haven’t arrived; that is pretty discouraging! In what ways do you think the media, where the majority of bylines go to men and where substantive coverage of news about women and women’s issues is woefully lacking, impacts women’s equality and how it is perceived?
KATHA POLLITT: The media sends several different messages — sometimes simultaneously. For example, women are already equal — look at Condoleeza Rice! — so if you’re not the office superstar there must be something wrong with you. Or, women aren’t equal because they don’t want to be — they want to rely on their sex appeal, have fun, stay home with kids and be supported by a man. Or, women can’t be equal because it’s against nature, and when women take on men’s roles there’s hell to pay. Just look at Lynndie England.
There isn’t much discussion of how, with all this supposed equality, men still end up with a vastly disproportionate share of the good jobs, including in journalism. It’s obviously not because women can’t write or report, don’t want the job, aren’t up to it.
LEO: Another thing that is so frustrating to me is that while the media knocks itself silly making sure we all know the names of all the potential fathers to Anna Nicole’s baby and why Britney shaved her head, when it comes to stories like cutting funding for the Violence Against Women Act or the new Madre report about violence against women in Iraq, or the recent session of the Commission on the Status of Women, there is almost no coverage of those stories on CNN or in your local daily paper, even though they impact the lives of thousands of women. Doesn’t that seem to you like a self-fulfilling trivialization of women’s lives?
KP: Yes. Most people have no idea what’s going on — and not just about women. There’s tons of information — on PBS and National Public Radio, on the Internet — but what’s right in people’s faces is celebrity gossip and political soap opera. And that stuff is fun, it’s digestible, it’s like a TV serial, and it’s pitched to women. The big first-name-only celebrities are women, who present over-the-top, distorted versions of ordinary women’s lives — pregnancy, adoption, love, divorce, family feuds, bad boyfriends, illness, weight loss battles. Real news takes more effort, and feels more distant. People know so much about Paris Hilton they almost think they know her. But Iraqi women? That’s another planet.
LEO: A lot of people think feminism is so ’70s, that we’re past all of that. How would you respond to that?
KP: People who read my column would never think feminism is over! We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s still a man’s world in many ways. That is reflected in women’s unequal pay, domestic and sexual violence, the crass sexism of much pop culture, in ongoing attempts to curtail women’s right to birth control and abortion, the failure of the workplace to accommodate mothers — and fathers — who want to be involved in their children’s lives, the high poverty rates of single mothers and elderly women.
There is only one woman on the Supreme Court, only 16 percent of Congress is female, and half the believers in the country belong to religions which bar women from the priesthood or the ministry. To many, many people of both sexes it still feels natural and right and proper for men to have authority over women, inside the home and outside it. That’s not equality!
LEO: What would you say are the most important issues facing women today?
KP: The threat to reproductive rights is crucial. That’s a fight we can’t afford to lose. Economic equality — it’s obscene that women make only 77 cents on the male dollar. Mothers need a new deal — the workplace is still organized as if we were living in the 1950s, with male breadwinners backed up by economically dependent stay-home wives. Today, both mothers and fathers work, but where is the childcare, the flexible hours, the paid parental leave? Mothers — and sometimes fathers as well — can lose their job if they stay home with a sick child.
Beyond such concrete issues — did I mention healthcare? Housing? There’s still the fundamental issue of social respect and self-respect. Women are still too often judged — and judge themselves — on how they look. Are they pretty, sexy, and above all, thin? That’s one aspect in which I think the culture has gone backwards.
LEO: That is a pretty depressing picture, but we’ve also seen some very positive changes for women during our lifetime. In your mind, what is the most significant accomplishment that has come about because of the feminist movement?
KP: There’s been a real revolution in consciousness. Many more women see themselves as capable, independent, smart, able to take care of themselves, and having dreams of their own. Women used to be seen as the more conservative, staid sex, the sex that just wanted a quiet life. Today they’re the big adventurers and paradigm shifters.
We’ve junked the old idea of womanhood, which held that your happiness lies in embracing your fundamental inferiority to men, your comparative limitations. Once you get rid of the idea that you can’t, or shouldn’t, do this or that because you’re a woman — whether it’s learning calculus or having an orgasm — the world gets a lot bigger, and a lot more interesting.