What Feminism Can Speak To: Katha Pollitt and Janell Hobson | Live Culture

What Feminism Can Speak To: Katha Pollitt and Janell Hobson

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Janell Hobson (left) and Katha Pollitt
  • Janell Hobson (left) and Katha Pollitt
On Wednesday, September 27, the Middlebury College Program in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies will host award-winning columnist, author and poet Katha Pollitt in conversation with author and professor Janell Hobson for the talk "What Can Feminism Speak To?"

Pollitt has written for the Nation since 1980, and many of her columns have been compiled into three volumes:
Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture  and Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. Her most recent book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, was published by Picador in 2015 and is a vehement argument for dispelling cultural stigma around abortion.

Hobson teaches in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department at the University of Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of
Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender, and a contributor to Ms. magazine.

Seven Days spoke with both Pollitt and Hobson by phone, asking some (big) questions prior to their Middlebury appearance.


SEVEN DAYS: Broadly, how do you think the election of Trump has shaped the current state of feminist politics in the U.S.?
KATHA POLLITT: There was a tremendous deluge of despair when Trump won, and I’ve written about that. Michelle Goldberg wrote a very good piece in Slate, as well. I really thought that the election of Hillary Clinton would be a boost for women, that it would  announce that the even highest job in the land, the Commander in Chief, was open to women. Beyond that, I thought Clinton would have good policies for women — on reproductive rights, workplace equality, childcare and so on — and would put a lot of good feminists, both women and men, in important positions, especially in the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. I thought there would be a lot more people of color throughout government.

Clinton was  immensely well qualified for the position, but she lost to an ignorant, misogynist racist and grifter who had never held office and knew nothing about government. What does that say for women who are going up for any non-female-stereotyped job? It says, "Ooh look, there’s a man, so sorry!"

The immediate organization of the Women’s March was inspiring to people because it made them realize that the world hasn’t ended yet, and we still can have something to say about what happens next.

SD: Do you think Trump’s flagrant sexism has helped to make certain groups of women more constructively radical?
KP: I think it surely did, though I have no concrete evidence. [Trump’s election] was such an insult!  But there are a lot of white women who supported Trump, and still do. Far fewer than men — but plenty of women oppose feminism. They don’t feel they need it, they’re anti-abortion, they’re right-wing Christians. Many are motivated by what they consider patriotism, and what I would consider racism. They have a tribal identity — white, conservative, outraged by cultural and demographic change — that is connected with Trump. I don’t think those women have changed.

SD: Your most recent book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, argues
that abortion should be reframed as a "positive social good." What
tactics do you feel are most useful in this effort?
KP: The most important thing is for women  to speak out, particularly about their own experiences with abortion. One reason that abortion has become so restricted is the stigma around it. People think women who end a pregnancy are sluts and child haters.  They don’t realize that every kind of woman has abortions, and that the same women who have abortions also have children. They don’t know that 61 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. They don’t know that almost one in three women have had at least one abortion, probably women in their family, at work, at the PTA, at church.

More doctors and health professionals need to talk about what it means for this very normal and sometimes medically essential procedure to be so restricted. I’ve  been disappointed that the medical profession is so quiet. You don’t see enough ordinary OB/GYNs picking up the slack to defend abortion rights — or performing abortions themselves. Abortion providers are under tremendous stress and they deserve far more support than they get from their medical colleagues.

SD: Many younger, upper- and middle-class American women can't imagine abortion being illegal. Ultimately, do you feel like this is an asset in the fight for reproductive rights, or a danger?
KP: To the extent that more privileged women, in blue states especially, feel like, Oh this doesn’t affect me, that’s very, very dangerous. In the first place, it does affect them — things are going in the wrong direction in a lot of places, though it’s certainly true that the most affected are low-income people.

It’s harder now to get insurance that has abortion coverage.  There are states where abortion is banned after 20 weeks. The number of clinics and providers is declining; Ohio, for example has lost half its clinics under Gov. John Kasich, whom everyone thinks is so kindly. There are more and more rigorous parental notification and consent laws — those affect every girl, whatever her  family’s income. 

Some states require doctors to read patients
inaccurate and intentionally scary scripts about all the terrible things an abortion can do to them. It’s an illusion that middle- and upper-class women will not be affected by these things. They may not have to sleep in their car to fulfill a waiting period at the only clinic in their state, they may not have to postpone paying the gas bill, but for these women, as for poorer ones, the experience will be expensive, stressful and intentionally humiliating. If they haven’t been woken up before, it’s good they’re waking up now.

Health and Human Services, the agency that has everything to do with access to reproductive rights, is now run by the anti-choice Tom Price, who says he’s never heard of a woman who can’t afford birth control. Every position having to do with reproductive health is now run by an anti-choice ideologue — people who believe that contraception makes you infertile and that having an abortion will give you cancer, all sorts of nutty things that are affecting policy. Policy that affects everyone.

SD: There were many criticisms of the Women's March on Washington as representative of/perpetuating forms of white feminism. Do you feel that feminism is making adequate strides towards intersectionality?
KP: By the time it actually happened, the Women’s March had made great efforts to be intersectional. Of the leaders, there was one white woman and the others were women of color — very dynamic, experienced organizers. Lots of women of color were speakers, and the platform was extremely intersectional. So I think that that criticism is a little unfair to the Women’s March as it actually took place.

The major feminist organizations seem to be making big efforts [to be intersectional]. The Trump victory was a wake-up call about both misogyny and racism (plus xenophobia and, of course, contempt for anyone who needs government help).  To fight that, we need a multiracial movement. As we saw in the election itself, women of color are the feminist bulwark.

SD: Speaking of pussy hats, are you concerned about the commodification of feminist politics?
KP: I don’t see what is gained by saying, Oh, feminism is too popular, but I know that that criticism is out there. When Beyoncé performed in front of the text “FEMINIST,” I thought, What’s not to like about that?

One of the problems that feminism has always had is that it’s seen as not cool. It’s seen as,  you’re the girls who couldn’t get dates, you’re  ugly, hairy-legged man haters. That stereotype is a big reason why women don’t want to call themselves feminists, even if they support women’s equality. So, if  superstars  like Beyoncé and Emma Watson want to identify with feminism,  that’s great.  So what if they didn’t major in women’s studies?  We should want these women to be feminists and to bring other people along.

SD
: At Middlebury, you’ll be in dialog with Janell Hobson about what feminism can, and cannot, speak to in the age of Trump. What do you think feminism might not be able to address at this historical moment?KP: I don’t have the answers to the questions that this talk will be dealing with. To me these are all open questions and, if they ever get resolved, it will be in real-life activist struggle. Women are half the people in the world. That means that almost everything is going to affect women in some way. Whether we’re talking about global warming or nuclear war, half the people that will be burnt to a crisp will be women. I do wonder, though, is there a point at which feminist energies become diluted?

When I was a child  there was  a group called Women’s Strike for Peace. It
was against nuclear weapons, against the arms race and the Cold War. A lot of
left-wing women were involved in WSP, including my mother. Of course,  fighting militarism  is a crucial cause, but why gender it?  

When I got a bit older,  I thought Oh, I get it — women are directed into peace work because it’s unthreatening. It  doesn’t  attack male supremacy. It’s about
mothers and children
. WSP didn’t involve any of the gender issues that
became so important in the women’s liberation movement. At that time, marital rape was legal and abortion was illegal, for example. All you women run along now and work for peace. But peace is an issue for everybody.

I worry about women’s politics being diverted in that way, but I don’t have an answer on how to decide what is or isn’t a “feminist issue.”

SD: In addition to being a prominent political writer, you're a poet and essayist. How do you see creativity and creative practice as fitting into feminist politics, either yours personally or more broadly?
KP: It’s funny because, when I used to get asked this question, I would say that my politics and my poetry were on completely separate tracks. But that’s not really true. I see that when I read my poems over [now]. Politics is obviously out front in my prose writing and it’s subtler in my poetry — but it’s there.


SEVEN DAYS: Your piece in Ms., “Top 10 Feminist Moments in Pop Culture From 2016,” seems pretty optimistic. How do you think the election of Trump has shaped the current state of feminist politics in the U.S.?
JANELL HOBSON: I remember when I wrote that, I was trying to be optimistic because there really was momentum back in 2016. There were so many moments I had signaled, including not wanting to overlook the fact that we did have a woman who became a presidential candidate for a major party for the first time ever. We can’t overlook that, even if people were disappointed that she didn’t make it all the way to the top.

I think it’s also important to recognize that that feminist momentum was felt all over the place. You had pop stars like Beyoncé doing very feminist work with her visual album, Lemonade. You have Katy Perry using the word “misogynoir,”
[originated from Moya Bailey on the blog] Crunk Feminist Collective.  There’s all of these interesting examples where we were feeding on a kind of feminist consciousness.

There’s always the question of whether it can be an effective tool to have feminism be popular in the media, because there always needs to be work done on the ground to affect change. But that’s something if the rhetoric is there, and people have that kind of consciousness.

SD: Do you think Trump’s flagrant sexism has helped to make certain groups of women more constructively radical?
JH: It’s very possible that it has. I know just among students that I teach that they have become much more conscious. There was a certain kind of complacency that we had it all, that we’d made it as women, and that there were no more glass ceilings to smash. I think the election was a rude awakening and a wake-up call.

The Women’ s March was real mobilization on the part of women. But there were enough women in this country — at least white women — who put Trump over the top. We can’t forget that. If 53 percent of white women actually joined
the rest of us, we would not be here.

SD: You wrote last November, just before the election, that the so-called “Beyoncé Wars” were over. Can you expand on this?
JH: There was an interesting moment back in 2013; I was approached by Ms. magazine to write about Beyoncé after her Super Bowl performance. I was very struck by the very feminine, empowered message that was woven throughout the half-time show. That was an important moment to reflect on what kind of feminism Beyoncé represents.

What’s interesting, though, I meant for that article to be a very objective take. But then, when the article came out, so many feminists absolutely lost their minds. They were really offended that Ms. would affirm someone like her.
Inevitably, as things happen, that particular disagreement over whether Beyoncé is a feminist or not took on a racial discourse: Are white women having a hard time seeing Beyoncé as a feminist? Are they more comfortable seeing less attractive black women identify as feminists?

When bell hooks basically called Beyoncé a “terrorist,” then it became a more internalized debate among black feminists. I get where bell hooks is coming from; I think she has a hard time embracing a black woman who has made herself over into a near-white woman, with the long blonde hair, lighter skin ... bell hooks sees a dangerous message in Beyoncé for young black girls.

At the same time, I want to give someone like Beyoncé some leeway, because being able to refashion your body is its own expression. One of the things that I find fascinating about Beyonce’s performance of blondness is how it has taken away some of [blondness’] power in white supremacy. To be blonde is no longer just the purview of whiteness and white womanhood. It’s a reminder that blondness has always been an artifice, from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna to Lady Gaga.

That look has given Beyoncé global visibility. It’s from that visibility that she’s been able to highlight and place at the center women of color, especially in Lemonade. It opened up space for other kinds of representations of black womanhood.

KP: In that same story, you wrote, “This year will be remembered for the political mobilization of Black womanhood.” This weekend, we witnessed an unprecedented, high-profile demonstration by NFL players that was initially sparked by Colin Kaepernick’s protest of
police brutality. Do you see this sort of public demonstration as inspired by black women’s resistance?
JH: The protest led by Colin Kaepernick over police brutality is an extension of Black Lives Matter, which of course we know was started by black women. There are a number of different issues coming out of this protest now, because of the way the president inserted himself into that political landscape.

There’s a gendered critique of, what does it mean for the president to call
black men, black athletes, sons of bitches? What does that mean about their
mothers — black women? Black mothers were very instrumental in bringing empathy and compassion to the BLM movement, which can be framed as being about black mothers’ rights to have their children be safe. All of those things kind of come together.

Personally, I try not to get bothered by a lot of Trump’s disturbing rhetoric. I think of myself as an interdisciplinary historian. That basically means that I think long term. Long term for me is like, well, 2020, are we going to mobilize and put a stop to an administration that we think is a problem? We need to keep our eyes on the prize.

SD: There were many criticisms of the Women's March on Washington as representative of/perpetuating forms of white feminism. Do you feel that feminism is making adequate strides towards intersectionality?
JH: I think we need to distinguish which women we’re talking about, because obviously the 53 percent of white women [who voted for Trump] weren’t part of that march. Among white women who are probably more progressive and liberal and may identify as feminist, there are still blind spots. For example, I remember there was some criticism that the pink hats were somehow exclusionary to women of color, because all of our lady parts don’t have the same color.

And there was criticism from transgender feminists who felt that it was biological essentialism to put that symbol forward. Generally, I think there is an attempt to be more intersectional. The organizers of the march were an inter-racial group of women, and a younger group of women, so there’s something to be said for that.

SD: Speaking of pussy hats, do you have concerns about the cultural commodification of feminist politics?
JH: I don’t have the same concerns of some feminists. Andi Zeisler, who wrote We Were Feminists Once, definitely raised concerns that corporate media and commercialism has co-opted feminism. I get the criticism: If you make feminism popular, the radical message gets watered down, that’s true. But those who are champions, whether we’re talking about pop stars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or actresses like Emma Watson, they definitely lend a pretty face to the message — which is good, because there is a stereotype about feminists not being able to be pretty and popular.

I want to also caution against the idea that popular and commercial feminism doesn’t have a space in the movement, because it is precisely because of the popularity of feminism that we had a backlash that gave us Trump. I think it’s important to recognize that popular and commercial feminism isn’t any safer than a more radical version, because any kind of message that is advancing women’s equality and women’s empowerment is going to be a threat to patriarchy, no matter what.

SD: At Middlebury, you’ll be in dialog with Katha Pollitt about what feminism can, and cannot, speak to in the age of Trump. What do you think feminism might not be able to address at this historical moment?
JH: I personally don’t think there is an issue that feminism can’t speak to. I’m not sure what Katha said — we might be able to open up a really good debate about that. As far as I’m concerned, every issue is a woman’s issue. Every issue has a gender component, so it requires seeing how gender fits into an issue, how women are affected by the issue. The idea that there are certain issues that are off the table, I don’t buy that.


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