Author Katha Pollitt, making the case that women matter A Feminist Voice

January 08, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

New York -- Katha Pollitt opens the door to her Upper West Side apartment and immediately the warmth of her personality spills out into the tiny hallway. She is barefoot, a short, solid figure wearing loose black pants and a white overblouse. Her pulled-back brown hair is escaping in narrow strands, falling over her wide, expressive eyes and scrubbed face.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asks, as she leads you into her cozy, cluttered apartment. It is an apartment that, like its owner, telegraphs a sense of a lived-in life.

Some might say a well-lived-in life.

There's a Christmas tree in the dining room, four cats engaged in various stages of sleeping or prowling, books everywhere, paintings on the wall, musical instruments coexisting side-by-side with a computer and fax machine and, hovering above all this, a pleasant sense of slight disarray. There's also a 7-year-old daughter on her way home from school, a soon-to-be ex-husband living around the corner and a male companion -- a philosophy teacher and art critic -- who's just left for work.

In other words, Katha Pollitt, a 45-year-old award-winning poet, writer and social critic, is a woman whose day-to-day life mirrors the lives of a lot of women. Which may be one of the reasons her columns and essays on women and feminism -- which appear in the Nation, the New Yorker and the New York Times -- have attracted a devoted, if limited, following over the last several years.

Now, however, with the recent publication of "Reasonable Creatures" -- a collection of her wry, original and down-to-earth meditations on the state of women in our society -- Katha Pollitt appears on the verge of emerging as one of feminism's clearest and most popular voices.

Of course, insiders in the publishing world and the feminist community have long recognized the value and originality of Katha Pollitt's voice. But the new book, which is being highly praised, promises to introduce that voice to the millions of women who don't know Camille Paglia from Pagliacci and admit to being confused about what feminism actually means.

For such women, Katha Pollitt's lucid definition of feminism will arrive like a cool breeze in the middle of a desert:

"For me, to be a feminist is to answer the question 'Are women human?' with a yes," she writes in the introduction to her book. "It is not about whether women are better than, worse than or identical with men. . . . It's about justice, fairness and access to the broad range of human experience."

Making connections

Deborah Garrison, a senior editor at the New Yorker, is an ardent admirer of Ms. Pollitt's ability to connect with women at every level.

"Regular women can relate to what she writes," says Ms. Garrison, who commissioned Ms. Pollitt to write a 1993 review (a highly critical review, as it turned out) of Katie Roiphe's book, "The Morning After," which examined sexual politics on college campuses. "But she's also a brilliantly clear writer of her opinions. And for readers who don't know what to believe it's wonderful for them to be able to read something so clear and see what they think about it."

"Katha Pollitt puts the lie to the portrait drawn of feminists by anti-feminists," says Susan Faludi, author of "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." "Anti-feminists say feminists are humorless. She's one of the funniest, wittiest writers around. Anti-feminists say feminists are all lock step and tout the same narrow line, whereas Katha Pollitt's work is always original and complex."

"She's wonderful," says Gloria Steinem of Ms. Pollitt. "And I think she has a special contribution to make. She is a voice that is respected within an influential part of the liberal community, one that just won't let them get away without looking at the world as if women mattered."

"She's somebody who really thinks things through," says novelist and Time magazine essayist Barbara Ehrenreich. "And she is one of the sharpest polemicists in the women's movement."

And what does the object of all this affection have to say? At the moment, she is sitting in her living room, feet tucked beneath her, sipping tea, pondering the answer to this question: Why do so many men -- and women, too -- attach a negative connotation to the word "feminism"?

"It's important to see how much of our ideas are constructed for us by the world around us, by the media," Ms. Pollitt says. And when it comes to feminism, she adds, the media has portrayed it inaccurately.

"Feminists are portrayed as man-hating -- in two contrary ways. One is the woman who is sexual the way a man is sexual -- too aggressive and demanding. And then there's the contrary stereotype which is feminism as man-hating lesbian. In the case of Hillary Clinton, for example, we find both of these stereotypes applied to her at the same time."

Katha Pollitt pauses before delivering the punch line between laughs: "I think that saying you are a feminist will not get you dates."

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