Strident and Proud

Feministing‘s Jessica Valenti has an article up at Salon today about Katha Pollitt, one of my favorite feminists. And she makes some interesting points about feminist politics:

I was thinking about how timid and deferential and also Beltway-oriented so much of organized feminism is now. It seems to revolve around electoral politics and abortion rights — those are the two big deals. Think about all the feminist bookstores that have closed and feminist magazines that have folded. I get much less sense of a vibrant culture of feminism with its own institutions and its own internal debates.


She’s right. Many of the mainstream feminist organizations are more interested in electoral politics than in the day to day isues of women’s lives. But I think perhaps she overlooks the kind of grassroots projects that are happening now, on college campuses and online. For a lot of women, blogs, message boards and listserves create online feminist communities, and make feminism more accessible. Is it the same as feminist bookstores and feminist magazines? No, but it’s still organizing in its own right.

She also goes after the people who would brand her as “strident,” and asks why this is such a bad thing:

I can’t think of another social movement where “strident” is a bad word.

Well, do black people, do Latinos, do workers go around saying, “Oh no! Our leaders are so strident! Someone just wrote a strident book defending my rights!” Even if they themselves are more moderate, they’re happy! So I think it’s sort of an odd combination.

And she has some great thoughts on choice feminism (bold is Jessica’s question):

You say in one of your essays that “women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.” But in writing about abortion rights, you say that we need to acknowledge “women as moral agents” and trust them to decide what’s best for themselves. How do we negotiate those two things?

I think it’s like freedom of speech in that the government is not going to make decisions about what you can say publicly, but that doesn’t mean that everything that somebody says publicly is a hot idea. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to say something and be really sorry later. The idea I find so strange is that because a woman might have an abortion and come later to think, “I wish I hadn’t done that” — that that’s a reason to make abortion a crime. That makes no sense at all. What that really says is that women are incapable of making a good decision, so we have to make the decision for them! Because there’s only one good decision, and that’s to have the baby.

The interesting thing is that you’re never going to get women who choose to have a baby to say, “Well, looking back, that was a terrible idea — that’s when my life really went off the rails.” And yet I’m sure we can all think of people where having a child with the wrong person, at the wrong time, under very discouraging circumstances really is a decision that maybe they might secretly wish they hadn’t made. So to me abortion rights is a very personal and intimate area of life that involves a lot of risk — having a baby involves a lot of risk: physical, emotional, social, psychological. And so each woman has to decide for herself because she’s responsible for herself.

Read the whole interview.


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14 comments for “Strident and Proud

  1. July 12, 2006 at 8:24 am

    Pollitt also has a pretty funny op-ed in the New York Times today. Just a warning, though, the piece is about selling books and pumping Amazon ratings.

  2. July 12, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Excellent point about “stridency”. It is also important to give the lie to the idea that no woman regrets giving birth and keeping the child. In my years and years in drug and alcohol rehab, I spent a lot of time with folks whose mothers had, in one way or another, made it clear to them that they were not wanted and that she had regretted having them. The devastation was immense.

  3. bmc90
    July 12, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    When women say, “I don’t consider myself a feminist,” I ask what part they don’t like: picking your own husband instead of having your parents do it, or having your own bank account? Having protetive orders enforced or being “allowed” to go to college. Because feminism is about those rights — securing them and defending them. If you enjoy those rights, then feminsim is important to you, but you may be refusing to admit it to gain favor with the patriarchy.

  4. Kat
    July 12, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    If you enjoy those rights, then feminsim is important to you, but you may be refusing to admit it to gain favor with the patriarchy.

    I’m not sure that declining the title “feminist” despite benefitting from the movement is about gaining favor with the patriarchy (although I’m sure there is some of that with any group or movement). I know for me I have come late to embracing the term “feminist” for myself although I absolutely want my own bank account and admission to college and choosing my own husband (or choosing not having one at all!). I had to live life a little and come head-to-head with some issues (working mother, daycare availability, spousal abuse, division of marital property, child support, contraception/abortion, WIC, health care, etc.), before I realized how much of a feminist I really was and probably had been all along. I suspect a lot of women are feminists in practice if not in name.

    Feminism isn’t an “if you aren’t with us you’re against us” kind of movement. I think rather its a “you just don’t realize you are already with us but you will” kind of movement.

  5. bmc90
    July 12, 2006 at 1:58 pm

    Kat, what was it that made you eschew the label before? How was it that you thought you would be percieved by calling yourself a feminist, and who did you think would disapprove?

  6. Betsy
    July 12, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    I think it’s interesting that Pollitt is using the lack of feminist bookstores, etc., to talk about the weakness of feminism. As a historian, I know that institutions like feminist bookstores, music festivals, etc., have been very important to people as a way of creating/finding a community of like-minded women. However, they have NOT tended to be very helpful in spreading the word to the wider world and actually effecting real change that would help the majority of women. I certainly don’t think that electoral politics and small institutions are mutually exclusive realms of feminism, and I hope that both could support and reinforce each other. But it seems to me that an active feminist politics is far more important, and indicative of feminism’s vibrancy, than a scattering of feminist bookstores.

    I also agree with Jill’s point about online community. In fact, it’s possible that the online community of feminists might do what the feminist cultural institutions never managed: to combine both a culture of feminism with political activism and engagement, and to share feminism in its myriad manifestations with people who otherwise might not have known much about it.

  7. Kat
    July 12, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    It was about thinking the feminists themselves would disapprove of me. I think a lot of women have a misconception of what it means to be a feminist and therefore can’t figure out how to identify with it even though they probably share many of the same beliefs/causes. Once you realize that feminists come in all shapes and sizes–activists, career women, moms, rich, poor, eldery, young, whatever–then you can begin to identify with being a “feminist”.

  8. July 12, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    Well, on the one hand the closing of feminist bookstores sucks, but on the other hand, you can get books written by feminists at the major bookstores these days. Feminist bookstores, gay bookstores, etc. often started because the products they were selling weren’t available in the mainstream retail market.

  9. July 12, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    When women say, “I don’t consider myself a feminist,” I ask what part they don’t like: picking your own husband instead of having your parents do it, or having your own bank account? Having protetive orders enforced or being “allowed” to go to college. Because feminism is about those rights — securing them and defending them. If you enjoy those rights, then feminsim is important to you, but you may be refusing to admit it to gain favor with the patriarchy.

    Would you consider a women who believes in those things but who believes that abortion should not be legal except in the case of life of the mother to be a feminist? If not, then why would you object to her not wanting the feminist label because it is associated with a position she disagrees with?

    When a woman says she doesn’t consider herself a feminisy, she is usually saying that she thinks that woman have more or less achieved equality now, and they do not believe that systematic discrimination still exists. One can believe those things (which I think most of you would say makes one a non-feminist) and still enjoy things such as picking their own husband and going to college.

  10. kate
    July 13, 2006 at 1:22 am

    I never saw a feminist bookstore. And I agree with others here that the online community has in many ways replaced the ‘community’ of the ole’ bookstore or gathering place if you will.

    And I also agree and celebrate because it is so important, the democratic nature of the internet and how such blogs as this are easy to find, open all the time and welcome to everyone.

    That I think is where many organizations that formed on the left in the sixties and seventies, lost their steam. They tended toward a xenophobic and insular worldview (us against them) and this restricted their growth. It also lent power to myth brokers who then used the seperation to discredit them.

  11. July 13, 2006 at 2:07 am

    Would you consider a women who believes in those things but who believes that abortion should not be legal except in the case of life of the mother to be a feminist? If not, then why would you object to her not wanting the feminist label because it is associated with a position she disagrees with?

    It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing on a political issue; it’s a matter of subscribing to one of the key tenets of feminism, which is the belief that women are independent moral actors deserving of full human rights, including bodily autonomy. If you think abortion should be illegal, you don’t believe that women deserve full bodily autonomy and full human rights, and in my book you aren’t a feminist.

    That said, one can be uncomfortable with abortion and still be a feminist. But you cross the line when you try and make it illegal. So I, for one, would not object to such a woman eschewing the feminist label, but I would nonetheless hope that she would give credit to feminism where credit is due for securing her all those other rights.

    When a woman says she doesn’t consider herself a feminisy, she is usually saying that she thinks that woman have more or less achieved equality now, and they do not believe that systematic discrimination still exists. One can believe those things (which I think most of you would say makes one a non-feminist) and still enjoy things such as picking their own husband and going to college.

    I’m not sure it makes her a non-feminist, it just makes her ignorant.

  12. mer
    July 13, 2006 at 10:42 am

    When I read the article I thought, What did I want to see femisim fight for today?

    You automatically think healthcare, equal-pay, legal-position, child-access and protection from sexual crimes.

    Then my thought was, how many of those do we have (properly have, no major problems) in Ireland?

    Not so many.

    We are failing in protection from sexual crimes, health-care and some legal position here. Badly failinf. We are still not equally represented. Our issues are ignored along with family issues and other health care issues and the poor.

    Hmm. Maybe we are just expecting to have won some by now.

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