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.
SPIEGEL: For the first time in American history, both parties have had viable female contenders in their Presidential campaigns -- Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Sarah Palin is now running for Vice President. Does that represent progress for women?
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.
'If Hitler Had Been a Woman...'
SPIEGEL: And what was the new normal?
Pollitt:Well, part of it was that women could be fully invested in their careers, and not just see them as marking time until marriage and kids. Another part was that premarital sex became socially acceptable, divorce lost its stigma, and it was no longer disastrous to have a child out of wedlock. Domestic violence and rape were taken seriously as crimes for the first time, whereas before they had been seen as a combination of trivial and the woman's fault.
SPIEGEL: In spite of all the achievements of the women's movement, many young women in Germany don't identify with traditional feminism, or at the least they want to redefine its goals. Is there a similar generational conflict in the United States?
Pollitt:To older feminists it can seem that the younger women do not understand the precariousness of what they have won -- the right to an abortion, for example, that could be revoked at any moment. But at the same time older feminists sometimes don't see that things have really changed. Some of those old battles have been won, and you aren't fighting them again. For example, abortion rights may be at risk, but the right to enter a profession is not at risk. Gays are not going back into the closet. Single motherhood -- including abortion -- is here to stay.
SPIEGEL: So is a women's movement necessary even today?
Pollitt:Definitely. Our generation won a lot of the very clear battles, the ones that had to do with with winning rights and liberties. The battles that young women face are much more ambiguous and they are harder struggles. What career opportunities does their employer grant them, what happens if they have kids, how do you achieve pay equity? I am the mother of a daughter who is about to turn 21, and I frequently notice how we are living in the same world and the same year, but depending on what age you are, you are in a different life stream. But a lot of the older feminists overlook that.
SPIEGEL: Is there a new crop of feminists at all?
Pollitt:Yes, and they are just as radical and militant as we were. What is different is they stay away from the aspect of "the personal is political" that means you can tell another person what shoes she can wear. For them feminism is women having the freedom to make choices. That is not an easy fit because someone like Sarah Palin will come along who is making a bunch of choices that to a feminist are really terrible. How do you deal with that?
SPIEGEL: How would you justify criticizing or even fighting another woman's choices?
Pollitt:You have to remember that choices may not be as free as people think they are. I oppose the kind of "You go, girl!" feminism that applauds every effort by a woman to gain self-confidence. If a woman says, I am getting these breast implants to gain self confidence, then I have to ask, What kind of a society do we live in where a woman's self-confidence depends on having a dangerous, expensive and painful operation on a perfectly healthy body?
SPIEGEL: And then you would tell her that she is suffering from false consciousness?
Pollitt:No, I would ask her questions: Why are you doing this? What is involved? What do you expect the outcome to be? Do you think this is really the best way to reach your goal? One of the very important ideas of feminism for me has always been women helping and supporting each other. Sarah Palin doesn't do that. With her anti-abortion stance, she would force all other women to do what she wants; she would rob them of choice and moral agency.
SPIEGEL: How likely do you think it is that Roe v. Wade will be overturned?
Pollitt:With a Republican administration it would happen, I am sure. And then the issue will go back to the states, so we would have a patchwork of states like California or New York, where abortion would still be legal, and states like South Dakota or Louisiana, where it would be prohibited. Since abortion rights are winning the day around the world, it would be anomalous and odd for America to go the other way. But America is nothing if not anomalous.
SPIEGEL: A few weeks before Palin's nomination you said that a woman president would be a great thing in and of itself. Do you still believe that?
Pollitt:No! Ah, you have caught me. I guess I have learned something. Look If Hitler had been a woman, would that have been good for women?
SPIEGEL: As an ardent feminist, you supported Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Doesn't that contradict your fundamental political beliefs?
Pollitt:I was on the fence for a long time. But when Bill Clinton started interfering in the race, it reminded me of how tired I was of the Clintons. And I felt, let's turn the page, let's have new people in government. With the Clintons it would have been the same old group of people in the White House, because in reality you never just vote for the guy -- or the woman -- at the top.
SPIEGEL: What about the symbolic value that a woman in the White House would have held for women in the US?
Pollitt:The funny thing is that I have spent my life saying, yes, I am for women in power, and then often when push comes to shove, when you actually look at the candidates, I will back the one who is more honest and more competent and has the better political program. And sometimes the man will be better, like Obama, and then I can't justify not voting for him. Sure, I would give two percent to gender in a political race ...
SPIEGEL: Only two percent?
Pollitt:Yes, I think that is a lot. Because the important thing is what are you going to do in office. Gender alone is not enough.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Pollitt, thank you very much for this interview.
Interview conducted by Susanne Weingarten.