Virginity or Death!

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Okay, so Katha Pollitt has a new book out, Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. As mentioned at this blog previously, Echidne of the Snakes gave it a very good review here.

The blogger formerly known as Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox, however, was less enthusiatic. She wrote a review for the NYT which said in part:

…Progressives have certainly seen setbacks in recent years: from the creeping war on contraception to the perception that they lack the stomach for pragmatic policy calls. One could view these as losses in a continuing debate, but Pollitt’s columns evoke a siege. “The truth is, most of the good things about this country have been fought for by liberals,” she warns in a 2004 pre-election column. “If conservatives had carried the day, blacks would still be in the back of the bus, women would be barefoot and pregnant, medical care would be on a cash-only basis, there’d be mouse feet in your breakfast cereal and workers would still be sleeping next to their machines.”

Pollitt may be kidding about the mouse feet. But this kind of thunderous rhetoric mars some otherwise pithy writing, as when, in a column urging abortion-rights adovcates to be as “passionate, clever, original and urgent” as their adversaries, she endorses a ploy that would have a woman receive a piece of paper after “her procedure” that read: “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.” Call me overly sensitive, but somehow I doubt that any woman who “just” had an abortion is going to feel like lobbying anyone.

I’m sure Pollitt doesn’t care if she’s welcome at the next gathering of the Ladies Who Lunch but Still Protest Getting Paid Only 73 Cents on the Dollar. If self-described feminists choose to wear “excruciatingly high heels” and submit to Botox, Pollitt sees a charade: “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.”

This may be the book’s most cogent statement, though a headline in The Onion put it better: “Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does.” But there’s a world of difference between choosing to wear heels that require foot-soaking and choosing to cut your toe to fit your shoe. When women dress up damaging choices as empowerment, it weakens feminist argument. But when feminists start lecturing about wrong choices, it lessens their numbers. I wish I had an easy answer about how to navigate between stridency and submission. Then again, I wish Katha Pollitt did too.

Echidne responded here, writing:

…The big problem with Pollitt’s writing for Cox seems to be that Pollitt is b-o-o-o-ring. She’s all serious in her wittiness and righteously angry and not willing to entertain the great appeals of anal sex. She’s so 1970s, you know, and we don’t want to burn bras anymore. We prefer bras that make our breasts the vanguard of the new feminism. Which is whatever we decide it might be. Oops. I forgot in this revelry of nasty writing that nobody actually ever burned any bras in that distant and evil-smelling unfashionable era, and that someone writing about feminism really should be aware of that. …

…Are there any grains of wisdom to be had by a careful pecking of this review? Perhaps. We need to have an information campaign that teaches people what feminism actually entails. We need to encourage people to read some older books on feminism so that they can find out what those horrible hairy-armpits actually said. We need to stop thinking that anyone equipped with a vagina somehow automatically knows the history of feminism and all its possible definitions. We have already stopped thinking this about those equipped with penises, by the way.

A good start would be to point out that the idea of feminism as choice should be interpreted to mean that women ought to have the same range of societal choices available to them as men do. It does not mean that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist act. Just think if a woman chose to start wars against countries without any excuses. Now that wouldn’t be a feminist act at all.

Or take the example Cox discussed in some detail, the one about women who are willing to have toes cut out in order to fit into sexy shoes. My take on feminism is not to condemn the women who do this, but to ask why such an act would seem like a good idea in this society. What is it about the society that makes some women willing to have amputations for the sake of shoes? Is it something similar to what caused the footbinding in ancient China? And if it is, what can we learn about the way the societal norms work on women?

Which is a long way of saying that I heartily welcome my eight-toed feminist sisters. But I will still discuss the wider issues involved in how they turned out that way.

Yesterday, Barbara Ehrenreich deconstructed Cox’s NYT review as well. Here is an excerpt:

…All right, I have a personal stake in this: I wrote a blurb for the book, I’m a friend of Pollitt’s, and I’m a little on the strident side myself. In her review, Cox is irritated, among other things, by Pollitt’s criticism of women who have their little toes amputated so they can squeeze into stilettos. Cox confesses that her own first thought — “O.K., maybe not the first” — on reading about “pink-ectomy” surgery was, “Does it really work?”

Cox is not the first post-feminist to denounce paleo-feminists as sexless prudes. Ever since Andrea Dworkin — a truly puritanical feminist — waged war on pornography, there’ve been plenty of feisty women ready to defend Victoria’s Secret as a beachhead of liberation. Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts, and dance the Charleston all night.

Maybe there’s a cycle at work here: militant feminism followed by lipstick and cocktails, followed, in a generation or two, by another gust of militancy. But this time around the circumstances are vastly different. In the 1920s, women were seeing their collective fortunes advance. The Western nations were granting them suffrage; contraceptives were moving beyond the status of contraband. Contrast those happy developments to today’s steadily advancing war against women’s reproductive choice: the banning of abortion in South Dakota, fundamentalist pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. …

…Cox seems to have missed the irony of Pollitt’s title, Virginity or Death! This isn’t Pollitt’s choice, but the kind of choice being imposed on a growing number of women throughout the world. The deeper irony is that women’s right to wear lipstick, show skin, and consort with men in public go hand in hand with their rights to vote, own property, and purchase contraception. Outside of brothels, you don’t get the stilettos without suffrage. So, yes, maybe the paleo-feminists who chanted and marched for equal rights get a little tiresome at times. But you can thank them for your belly button jewelry and your right to display it in public.

Pollitt’s book is obviously an important work, and there is little I can usefully add to the trenchant observations of Echidne and Ehrenreich. I’m especially in agreement with Echidne’s view of eight-toed feminism. I couldn’t imagine trying to swim in either a knee length bathing suit or a thong, or trying to walk and work in either a corset or narrow-toed, high-heeled shoes, and for me, the freedom to wear comfortable, healthy garmentation is the ultimate in feminist empowerment.

–Ann Bartow

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