US Feminist Katha Pollitt on Sarah Palin: 'Gender Alone Is Not Enough'
Activist and poet Katha Pollitt talks to SPIEGEL about the American women's movement, her support for Barack Obama and the politics of the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Pollitt, there used to be a joke in the women's movement that equality would be achieved if a mediocre woman could have the same kind of career as a mediocre man. That's the case now with Sarah Palin. Are you satisfied?
Pollitt: No! Sarah Palin wasn't just picked because she is a woman, or because of her mediocrity. She is a fanatical opponent of abortion, and picking her is an attempt to get the evangelical Christian voters -- who they have been tepid about McCain -- into his camp. They might have voted for him anyway, but they might not have volunteered and donated and energized their friends and neighbors. That is different now because of Palin.
SPIEGEL: What excites people about Sarah Palin?
Pollitt:They feel that she is likeable. They can relate to her because she seems ordinary, warm, enthusiastic. If Sarah Palin was my neighbor, I might like her too -- but as a potential President? It's shocking to me that people would vote for someone because they think he or she is "like me." Oh, Sarah Palin is a mom, I am a mom, so I will vote for her. That is irresponsible.
SPIEGEL: But with George W. Bush, Americans also voted for the guy that a lot of people would like to have a beer with.
Pollitt:Yes, and one would think that the past eight years have taught people that maybe it's not a very good idea.
Pollitt:I can answer that in two very different ways. In some long-view world historical sense, I could say: We might look back in 500 years and realize that 2008 was the year that women began to come into their own in American politics. But right now I see it a little differently. Hillary Clinton was a candidate who represented a certain liberal feminism. If she had become president, our abortion rights would have been safe. Clinton would have made sure that the anti-discrimination laws were enforced, and she would have financed a lot of programs that are good for women.
SPIEGEL: What about Sarah Palin?
Pollitt:With her, we would get the opposite. Other than in terms of her "girls can do anything" image, I don't see that her political goals will do female voters any good.
SPIEGEL: Sometimes even female politicians who don't consider themselves feminists can provide a positive influence: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a role model for many younger women who showed that women can wield power successfully.
Pollitt:Margaret Thatcher never said, "Vote for me because I am a wife and mother." On the contrary, she didn't present herself as relatable at all: She was the iron lady. Thatcher never made anything of her looks, she made very few concessions to conventional notions of femininity. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is all about those notions. She represents a very old image for America, the tough but beautiful frontier woman with a gun in one and and a baby in the other.
SPIEGEL: Still, Republicans are hoping to use Sarah Palin to attract female voters who were carrying Hillary Clinton's torch
Pollitt:I don't think there are so many of these women, and I have looked pretty hard for them. You have a small group of Hillary fans who are extremely vocal. They really believe that Hillary Clinton was robbed of a nomination that was rightfully hers. These women have a whole narrative that puts the blame for Hillary's loss on some combination of party skullduggery and media sexism. But most female Palin voters will be conservative white women who haven't been paying a lot of attention to the race so far, and who identify with Palin. But they would have voted Republican anyway, if they had voted at all.
SPIEGEL: Well, did Hillary Clinton lose because of media sexism?
Pollitt: No, she made crucial mistakes in her campaign, and she bears responsibility for that. Still, one has to acknowledge that she had to face incredible sexism in public discourse. Jokes were made about her voice, and about her laugh, which was described as a "cackle." There was a nutcracker in the shape of Hillary that crushed walnuts between its steely thighs, which was good for many a laugh. And when her eyes misted up for a moment on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, there were comments about whether she was fit to be commander in chief. They would never ask that about a man! You have to say that male fear of female power was very much on view with Hillary.
SPIEGEL: What about Sarah Palin?
Pollitt:There is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the Republican party right now as far as their relationship to women is concerned. They complain constantly about the sexism that they had claimed didn't exist where Hillary was concerned. Before John McCain chose Sarah Palin, a journalist friend of mine said he would never choose a woman -- sexism is too deep in the Republican Party DNA. But he did pick her, so now we have seen that even the Republicans who are quite anti-feminist, can encompass having a woman in quite a powerful political position. But it was a strategic nomination which passed over many more qualified women, like the Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who happen to be pro-choice.
SPIEGEL: Hillary Clinton is two years your senior, and you both belong to the first generation of American women who were raised with feminist ideas. How has the women's movement shaped American society?
Pollitt:It has changed the country very profoundly. When I went to Harvard in 1967, there was a five-percent quota on women in medical and law schools, there were ads in the newspapers, "jobs for men" and "jobs for women," a married woman couldn't get a credit card in her own name, there were states where a woman had to take her husband's name, and for an unmarried woman it was very difficult to get birth control. Abortion was illegal -- hundreds of women were killed or injured every year in back-alley or self-induced procedures. In just a few years, the women's movement dismantled a whole legal structure of inequality, and, equally important, challenged the social practices and cultural assumptions behind those laws. It was an amazing historical moment.
SPIEGEL: How did you profit from it?
Pollitt:When I was a freshman, I saw the seniors get ready for their weddings. They would graduate, and then their weddings would be the next week. They had no moment to enjoy their freedom, to find out who they really were, to travel, and to learn to manage their own affairs. It was a lockstep life: college, marriage, kids ...
SPIEGEL: ... depression, divorce.
Pollitt:Exactly! All that had changed by the time I graduated four years later. Only a few of my classmates got married right away -- instead, they went to medical school or law school or graduate school, they became activists or writers, like me. The lesbians came out of the closet. The women's movement gave a lot of women -- and men, too -- the freedom to lead a different kind of life from their parents, to ask themselves, "What do I want to do with my life?" Feminism created a new normal.
- Part 1: 'Gender Alone Is Not Enough'
- Part 2: 'If Hitler Had Been a Woman...'
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH