How to Be a Feminist Without Putting Everyone Else First

Katha Pollitt talks to Haaretz about whether Zionism can be part of the fight for women’s rights, the rigidness of some feminist views and the generation that feminism skipped

Women chant and carry signs during the International Women's Strike in Washington Square Park, New York, March 8, 2017.
Kathy Willens/AP

As a rule, Katha Pollitt tends to support feminist protests. The veteran writer and women’s rights activist, known for her fight for reproductive rights, has been energized by January’s Women’s March: “The women’s movement is back,” she declared on the pages of the New York Times, “and not a moment too soon.” But when she read the platform of the International Women’s Strike, which followed at the beginning of last month, something gave her pause: The organizers called for the “decolonization of Palestine” and wrote that anti-colonization efforts were “the beating heart of this new feminist movement.”

A debate ensued. Emily Shire, editor of the online magazine Bustle, wrote in the New York Times, “I see no reason I should have to sacrifice my Zionism for the sake of my feminism.” Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American women’s rights activist and one of the organizers of the Women’s March, said in response that “you either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.” Pollitt herself – who is Jewish, objects to the Israeli occupation but is ambivalent about issues such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – had another question: What exactly is “the decolonization of Palestine?”

Katha Pollitt
Courtesy

“Beyond withdrawing from the occupation, what does it mean? A two-state solution? A one-state solution?” she says in a phone interview from her house in New York. “I felt that it was a mistake to act as if everybody would have the same idea.”

She tried to get an answer from the event’s organizers, without success: “They were not very pleased” with her question, she says. But in the debate she saw a repetition of a familiar – and dangerous – dynamic: women prioritizing other struggles over their own. In a column in The Nation titled “Actually, Not Everything is a Feminist Issue,” she wrote that “feminism doesn’t have to be a magic key that opens every door; something can matter a lot without having to fit under its rubric.”

“Women are raised to put themselves last,” she added, “and they have worked hard on all sorts of causes in which their interests were submerged there are only so many hours in a day: We don’t ask other progressive movements to take on so many tasks.”

“I just felt that it was being very rigid, at a stage of a movement that’s still very young”, she says.

But you, when writing about intersectional feminism, wrote that “all oppressions are connected.”

“All oppressions are connected but if feminism is about everything, why call it feminism at all? Why not just call it humanism? If women are supposed to solve every situation that affects human beings, what are men supposed to do? This is taking the compassion women are raised to feel, and putting it somewhere else.”

Pollitt mentions a survey published this month by online service DailyAction.org, which allows users to call their legislators by swiping their phones. Out of 28,320 active users, 86% were women – and over 70% of the women were middle aged. They called legislators on issues ranging from education to immigration to climate change to U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax returns. “This is precisely the group that gets written off so much,” she says. “Feminism can’t be just about women’s right to vote or work, but at a certain point it gets so diffused that. Where is the line?”

Pollitt has been thinking and writing about feminist issues for decades. Her bimonthly column at The Nation, “Subject to Debate,” is dedicated to social and political issues – often from a feminist perspective. She has published three books, including a collection of personal essays called “Learning to Drive,” which in 2015 was made into a film starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, and a poetry book called “The Mind-Body Problem.” In 2014 she published “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion rights” about the dire state of reproductive rights in the U.S. And she is also known in the annals of culture for coining the term “The Smurfette Principle” – the fact that TV shows usually either feature an all-male cast, or “a group of male buddies... accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.”

She now finds herself seeing severe threats to women’s rights – from electing a president who openly boasted about sexual harassment to efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and roll back affordable health care and reproductive rights – and a simultaneous reawakening of feminist rage. In a recent Times op-ed titled “March, Huddle, Fight,” she recounted how a decade ago, her daughter was one of only two or three women who raised their hands in a college class when asked whether they were feminists; when Pollitt herself visited a sociology seminar at New York University recently and asked the same question, all students raised their hands - including two men. “Feminism is cool again,” explained a student.

Pollitt suggests that feminism may have skipped a generation. “When you go to meetings or big protests, you see a lot of women 55 years and older, and many 30 or younger. The middle bunch of years produced fewer active feminists. One reason of course is that in those ages people are very busy, raising kids and working incredibly hard. But also because those are the women who, after the second wave of feminism, said, ‘I’m equal and I want to just live my life.’” The election, she says, “has been a wake-up call for a lot of people – including me.”

Despite the great energy of post-march organizing, from protests to combustive town hall meetings, she says that “I do despair a little right now. I feel that the expansion of fundamentalist religion is an extreme danger to women, whether in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism. Show me a religion that doesn’t have this wing. It always comes with taking away women’s rights, driving them back to the home and depriving them of the right to a public life. It’s a powerful force, and we’re seeing it in the U.S. with pushback since the election.”

A similar thing has been happening in Israel – not with abortions, but with women’s singing being perceived as “immodest” and women’s voices and presence excluded from the public sphere. It always seems to come down to men trying to limit women’s physicality.

“Yes, it’s the way women are always construed as the ones with the dangerous bodies. Nobody is calling on men to cover up lest they incite lust in women, or for men’s voices to be silenced. It’s completely backwards. And in Israel, the politics of it seem to give these people disproportionate power.”

“I think these tendencies in the U.S. have been happening for a very long time,” she says. “It takes a long time to turn this country around. I think what is happening now is built on trends of the last 30 years, but now we’ve really reached a crisis point.”

Pollitt was born in 1949 in Brooklyn; her father was a lawyer and her mother, a real estate agent. Both had FBI files on them due to their communist leanings. Later on her father requested to see those files. That’s when Katha learned that in 1960 her mother had an abortion which, like almost all such procedures back then, was illegal. “I felt tremendous sorrow for my mother, having to go take the risk of an illegal abortion, be secret about it,” she says. “It was so terribly wrong.”

In her book “Pro”, she argues against the tragic narrative surrounding abortion and the discourse which posits it as “the most difficult decision in a woman’s life.” She writes that this helps mask the fact that abortion is actually very common: One of three American women has terminated a pregnancy at least one, and most of them were already mothers. Meanwhile, states continue to enact laws restricting abortion access in new and creative ways. According to Bloomberg Business, at least 162 abortion providers shut down between 2011 and 2016 – almost one every two weeks.

Did you think 20 years ago that you’d have to talk about abortion the same way in 2017?

“No, no at all – but then I live in New York. People in North Dakota or Missouri have seen clinics closing for a long time.”

Pollitt has volunteered for Haven Coalition, an organization that helps women who must travel to reach abortion clinics. She has on occasion opened her house to women coming to New York for the procedure and escorted women to clinics. But mostly she fundraises. “There’s a bottomless need, because in the majority of states abortion can’t be covered by Medicaid and the procedure gets more expensive the longer the pregnancy goes on,” she says. “One thing that always surprises me is that there aren’t more celebrities who want to associate themselves with this cause.”

Nevertheless, when comparing her own life with that of her 29-year-old daughter, Pollitt sees definite progress. “When I was a freshman at college, all the senior girls were getting married right out of the dorms. Not all marriages were terrible, but they missed this very important stage of independent life. My generation also had the first women who got accepted in large numbers to law school or medical school, but the way they were treated was so nasty – it was assumed that if a woman was accepted, she is taking the place of a man. Today there’s more of a sense that when there’s discrimination on the job you don’t have to put up with it. That sexual harassment is really wrong. Back then, there were far fewer laws to protect you.”

Do you think we’ll still have these conversations 30 years from now?

“I hope not. I think not. We have made gains and continue to make them. Feminism is a global movement – not just in the U.S. or Israel. Global feminism is really a very big thing.”