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Scurrying around Manhattan on a blustery morning a few weeks ago, I
happened to glance up while waiting for the light to change in front of the public library. Beneath the green and white sign reading Fifth Avenue was another, also green and white, and printed in exactly the same lettering:
Clara Zetkin Avenue. Gee, I thought for a split second, if Rudy Giuliani is naming a street for the grande dame of German socialism, he can't be as bad as I thought. But will New Yorkers really start telling taxi drivers to make a right on Zetkin? Then I saw the bent wires fastening the sign to the post, and realized what was going on: Some lefty prankster was reminding us that the next day, March 8, was International Women's Day.
Well, the great day came and went with barely a ripple of attention here in the United States?although I understand that, over at the United Nations,
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali gave a speech about the need to do more for women, which in the case of the United Nations shouldn't be too difficult. Maybe the local indifference is why I find myself filled with gloomy thoughts about the worldwide situation of women. Here we are, at the end of the twentieth century, and not only have hundreds of millions of women around the globe yet to obtain even the barest minimum of human rights, but the notion that they are even entitled to such rights is bitterly contested.
Consider, for example, the horrors documented in the State Department's annual human rights report, which focused on women this year for the first time: genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, bride burning in
India, sexual slavery in Thailand, forced abortion and sterilization in
China. Imagine the firestorm of international protest if any of these practices were imposed by men on men through racism or colonialism or
Communism! Well, you don't need to imagine: Just compare the decades of global outrage visited, justly, on South Africa's apartheid regime for denying political, civil and property rights to blacks, and the cultural-relativist defense advanced on behalf of Saudi Arabia and other ultra-Islamic regimes for their denial of same to women. Nobody's calling on American universities and city governments to disinvest in those economies. In Iraq and a number of other Middle Eastern countries that are not theocracies, a man can with impunity kill any female relative he feels is "dishonoring" him by unchaste behavior; in Pakistan, the jails are full of women and girls, some only nine years old, whose crime was to be the victims of rape. I suppose Benazir Bhutto will get around to them after she finishes persuading the world that her mother is trying to undermine her government because of a sexist wish to see a son, rather than a daughter,
Posted May 10, 2001
Having a collection of Katha Pollitt's essays from The Nation all in one portable edition would alone justify buying Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture. It sure beats dragging around six or seven years' worth of easily damaged magazines. And Pollitt is a good person to carry around, especially for those of us on the other side of some of today's debates. In a time when frustration, anger, and outrage seem too frequently to meet with a 'Get over it!' response, Pollitt provides welcome assurance that we are not alone. I can't count the number of essays in this collection -- every time I try, I get snagged by another favorite title and have to read it again -- but each is a jewel of wit, wisdom, and unflagging enthusiasm that justice is still something to be aspired to. Whether her topic is Richard Nixon, whom Pollitt scathingly immortalizes as 'The Last President'; same-sex marriage ('When gay friends argue in favor of same-sex marriage, I always agree and offer them the one my husband and I are leaving.'); or affirmative action ('If we can't have socialism, at least let's get rid of feudalism.'), Katha Pollitt gives the reader both information and hope, items occasionally in very short supply. But in addition to the short reprints from The Nation, Subject to Debate the book offers a new introductory essay, more in tone and length like the essays in her earlier book, Reasonable Creatures, that alone is worth the cover price. Employing her usual erudition and passion, Pollitt imbues 'Feminism at the Millennium' with the historical and contemporary context and the call to activism women of all ages -- and the men who care about them -- need as we all enter the twenty-first century. A must read, and a total pleasure, too!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.