Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Timeby Katha Pollitt
–Victor Navasky, author of A Matter of Opinion
Through presidential administrations Democratic and Republican, Katha Pollitt has/i>
“As this book, which is greater than the sum of its brilliant parts makes clear, Katha Pollitt, who is famously a feminist, is also a humorist, a moralist and a most hilarious, wise, and incisive observer.”
–Victor Navasky, author of A Matter of Opinion
Through presidential administrations Democratic and Republican, Katha Pollitt has observed and exposed the inconsistencies and illogic of those who stand in the way of progress solely to hold on to their power. In defense of human rights and equality, she assails the corrupt and educates the misguided with compassion, Swiftian wit, and complete literary authority.
In this compelling collection, Pollitt skewers one hypocrite after another. She suggests, for example, that creationists be permitted to oppose the teaching of evolution only so long as they agree to forgo the benefits of the theory–such as flu vaccines. She gently wonders if those who denounced the decision to allow Terri Schiavo to die in peace would themselves be satisfied to be video-diagnosed by Senator Bill Frist. And in the title essay about fundamentalists’ antagonism toward sex education and STD prevention, she asks, “What is it with these right-wing Christians? Faced with a choice between sex and death, they choose death every time.”
Pollitt is one of the most eloquent and persuasive voices in American political conversation of this or any other era, and Virginity or Death! Is a marvelous demonstration of her keen insight, mordant humor, and sense of justice.
“Katha Pollitt has long and rightly been hailed for her brilliance, wit, and great insight into politics, social issues, and women’s rights. As with all of her work, I am enormously grateful for Virginity or Death!, and also deeply jealous.”
–Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Dear Larry, Thanks! John
Only yesterday pundits assured us that George W. Bush, who lost the popular election by half a million votes, would tread softly and govern meekly. "He has no mandate to do anything except Be Nice," Molly Ivins wrote in the December Progressive. But who needs a mandate, with the mainstream media resolutely ignoring the still-unfolding scandal of the Florida election? Bush is making hay while the sun shines--paying off his debt to business with the nominations of Elaine Chao, late of the Heritage Foundation, for Labor; Gale Norton, lead-paint champion, for Interior; and Christie Whitman, governor of the state with the second-worst air pollution in the country (Texas is first), for EPA. Over at HHS, anti-choicers get Tommy Thompson--whose devotion to welfare reform provides a note of continuity with the worst aspects of the outgoing Clinton administration. Most ominous, the Christian and loony right gets its reward for keeping quiet during the campaign: the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General.
How far to the right is Ashcroft? As I write, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing their best to help him obscure his ghastly twenty-five-year record on abortion, guns, women's rights, gay rights, the separation of church and state. A rare exception was Ted Kennedy, who closely questioned the nominee on his crusade as Missouri's attorney general against voluntary school desegregation. But so far the only senator who has publicly said she will vote no is Barbara Boxer, never a Nation favorite, while "progressive" stalwarts like Paul Wellstone and Russell Feingold (who was particularly fawning and vacuous in his questioning), not to mention Tom Daschle and Joe Biden, have all said they were inclined to vote yes (Wellstone and Biden later backpedaled after an outcry). You'd think the Democrats had lost the popular election! Unless Ashcroft is discovered to be sleeping with Barney Frank, his confirmation looks assured. Who in the Senate can be expected to care that as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft twice vetoed bills that would have equalized voter-registration procedures in mostly black and mostly white counties, given that not one senator would sponsor the Congressional Black Caucus's January 6 protest of the Electoral College vote? The Republicans really are reactionaries, but the Democrats are only pretending to be liberals.
If Ashcroft is not too far out to be confirmed, who is? Accepting an honorary degree at Bob Jones University in 1999, Ashcroft proclaimed that in America "We have no king but Jesus." (Why aren't Jews up in arms about that?) This is a man who, on the eve of his swearing-in as a Missouri senator, anointed himself with Crisco, supposedly after the manner of the Hebrew kings. Can it be that Barbara Boxer is the only senator discomfited by the thought of an attorney general who thinks the Bible instructs him to put salad oil on his head?
John Ashcroft is not just a conservative: He stands at the place where Christian fanatics, anti-choicers, militiamen, gun nuts, and white supremacists come together. As Joe Conason reports, he has acknowledged meeting with the head of the St. Louis chapter of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss the case of a member jailed on federal charges of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. He defended the leaders of the Confederacy in Southern Partisan, the neo-Confederate magazine that has done a brisk business in T-shirts celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Timothy McVeigh was wearing one when arrested). If Southern Partisan rings a bell, by the way, it's because when editor Richard Quinn was discovered to be managing John McCain's South Carolina campaign, a Bush spokesperson criticized McCain for associating with him.
Among Ashcroft's many connections on the far side is Larry Pratt, who, as head of Gunowners of America, functions as a kind of liaison between the militia movement and Capitol Hill. A handwritten note from Ashcroft is posted on Pratt's website (www.gunowners.org). According to the Guardian, "the two men know each other from a secretive but highly influential right-wing religious group called the Council for National Policy, of which Mr Pratt is a member and whose meetings Mr. Ashcroft has attended." Tom DeLay and Trent Lott also belong.
In a glowing profile in CounterPunch (July 1-15, 1999), Alexander Cockburn uncritically paraphrases the position for which Pratt is best known--that the surest proof against Columbine-type school shootings is to arm teachers to shoot students "just like they do in South Africa, where one instructor recently gunned down a bellicose student." South Africa is one of the world's most violent countries, with a long history of serious corporal punishment--with whips--in its dismal black schools, so it's not immediately obvious why the United States should follow its lead even if Pratt's tale is true. But the South African consul says there is no such policy and knows of no such incident having occurred, nor did a media search turn one up. Need one point out as well that millions of pistol-packing teachers present something of a danger to defenseless schoolchildren? On the other hand, since Pratt also believes in guns for kids (Ashcroft's note was to thank Pratt for enlightening him about the anti-gun provisions in the juvenile justice bill), the students could just shoot back.
Pratt's website is a grab bag of nuttiness ("What the Bible Says About Gun Control"; "Guns Save Health Care Costs"). But it would be wrong to see him as a marginal, if colorful, figure. CounterPunch doesn't mention it, but Pratt has been a leader of the hard-core Christian right for many years. He led the walkout of religious conservatives at the White House Conference on Families in 1980; he has fundraised for Operation Rescue. In 1996, he was cochairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign until he was forced to resign when his links to Christian Identity and white-supremacist groups became public. Today Pratt pals around with Lott, DeLay, and Ashcroft--whom Bush Senior reportedly considered for the Attorney General post but rejected as too extreme to be confirmed.
That was then, this is now.
February 5, 2001
No Olive Branch
How many times did we hear during the endless campaign that Bush wouldn't go after abortion if elected? Republicans, Naderites, and countless know-it-alls and pundits in between agreed: Pro-choice voters were too powerful, the country was too divided, the Republicans weren't that stupid, and Bush didn't really care about abortion anyway. Plus, whoever won would have to (all together now) "govern from the center." Where are all those smarties now, I wonder? Bush didn't even wait for his swearing-in ceremony to start repaying the immense debt he owes to the Christian right, which gave him one in four of his votes, with the nominations of anti-choice diehards John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson to head Health and Human Services.
On his first full day in office, Bush reinstated the "gag rule" preventing international family-planning clinics and NGOs from receiving U.S. funds if they so much as mention the word "abortion." (This action was widely misrepresented in the press as being a ban on funding for performing abortions; in fact, it bans clinics that get U.S. aid from performing abortions with their own money and prohibits speech--whether lobbying for legal changes in countries where abortion is a crime or informing women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies about their legal options.) A few days later, Thompson announced he would look into the safety of RU-486, approved by the FDA this past fall--a drug that has been used by half a million European women over twelve years and has been more closely studied here than almost any drug on the market. In the wake of Laura Bush's remark to NBC News and the Today show that she favored retention of Roe v. Wade, both the President and the Vice President said the administration has not ruled out a legal challenge to it, placing them to the right of Ashcroft himself, who told the Judiciary Committee he regarded Roe as settled law (at least until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, he did not add).
Don't count on the media to alert the public. The press is into champagne and confetti: Who would have thought Dick Cheney would be such an amiable talk show guest! Time to move on, compromise, get busy with that big tax cut. "Who in hell is this 'all' we keep hearing about?" a friend writes, "as in 'all agree' that the Bush transition has been a smashing success?" An acquaintance at the Washington Post, whose executive editor, Leonard Downie, Jr., claims to be so objective he doesn't even vote, says word has come down from "on high" that stories must bear "no trace of liberal bias"--interestingly, no comparable warnings were given against pro-Bush bias. So, on abortion, look for endless disquisitions on the grassiness of the anti-choice roots, the elitism of pro-choicers, and the general tedium of the abortion issue. Robin Toner could barely stifle a yawn as she took both sides to task in the New York Times ("The Abortion Debate, Stuck in Time," January 21): Why couldn't more anti-choicers see the worth of stem-cell research, like anti-choice senator Gordon Smith, who has several relatives afflicted with Parkinson's (but presumably no relatives unwillingly pregnant); and why can't more pro-choicers acknowledge that sonograms "complicate" the status of the fetus? In an article that interviewed not a single woman, only the fetus matters: not sexuality, public health, women's bodies, needs, or rights.
Now is the time to be passionate, clever, original, and urgent. I hate to say it, but pro-choicers really could learn some things from the antis, and I don't mean the arts of arson, murder, and lying to the Judiciary Committee. Lots of right-wing Christians tithe--how many pro-choicers write significant checks to pro-choice and feminist organizations? Why not sit down today and send President Bush a note saying that in honor of the women in his family you are making a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds to pay for a poor woman's abortion (NNAF, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 01002-5001)?
The antis look big and powerful because they have a built-in base in the Catholic and fundamentalist churches. But (aha!) pro-choicers have a built-in constituency too: the millions and millions of women who have had abortions. For all sorts of reasons (privacy concerns, overwork, the ideology of medicine) few clinics ask their patients to give back to the cause. Now some providers and activists are talking about changing that. "My fantasy," Susan Yanow of the Abortion Access Project wrote me, "is that every woman in this country gets a piece of paper after her procedure that says something like, 'We need your help. You just had a safe, legal abortion, something that the current Administration is actively trying to outlaw. Think of your sisters/mothers/daughters who might need this service one day. Please help yourself to postcards and tell your elected representatives you support legal abortion, join (local group name here), come back as a volunteer,' and so on." If every woman who had an abortion sent her clinic even just a dollar a year, it would mean millions of dollars for staff, security, and cut-rate or gratis procedures. Think how different the debate would be if all those women, and the partners, parents, relatives, and friends who helped them, spoke up boldly--especially the ones whose husbands are so vocally and famously and self-righteously anti-choice. If women did that, we would be the grassroots.
February 19, 2001
Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age, and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's semi-bigamous mayor), and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis, and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out, and where, sources assure me, the V-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.
And they keep saying feminism is dead.
The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish, and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the V-word to the F-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.
At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?
The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy, and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Katha Pollitt is the author of the essay collections Learning to Drive, Virginity or Death!, Subject to Debate, and Reasonable Creatures and is a poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation. She has won many prizes and awards for her work, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for her first collection of poems, Antarctic Traveller, and two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism. She lives in New York City.
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No matter your political leanings, this book is a good starting point for discussions. It isn't one of those high-minded, large vocabulary using books that reference political theorist who were alive 200 years ago, it's common sense writing in regular language. Each essay is about 3 pages long, so the reads are quick and you'll be able to fly right through the book before you realize you're 200 pages in.