Virginity or Death!: A Conversation With Katha Pollitt

Jessica Clark

In September, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt stopped by the offices of In These Times for a public discussion of her latest book, Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time.

While it’s become commonplace to describe journalism as a rough draft of history,” this collection of Pollitt’s columns rises to the level of history itself. From the start of Bush’s first term through September 11 and the waxing and waning of the Iraq invasion in early 06, Pollitt offers a running chronicle of the issues of the day. She tackles each topic with humor and passion, always returning to the central role that women play in U.S. and international politics.

The solution is obvious,” she writes in the book’s introduction. Women must live modern lives organized around principles of self-reliance and self-development, while at the same time they must feel endlessly guilty and uneasy about the ways in which doing so inconveniences those around them. They have to be independent, and they have to blame themselves if they enjoy it.”

We discussed these and other conundrums during her visit.

So tell us about the title essay, Virginity or Death.” Which is worse?

The title essay is about the wonderful discovery of the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine. If given to preteen girls, it will prevent most cases of HPV, which leads to about 70 percent of cervical cancer. 

Cervical cancer is a very serious cancer and this is the first vaccine against any cancer; it’s really historic. So you would think everyone would say, Oh this is just so wonderful.” But no. The Family Research Council was very upset, saying This is gonna make young girls promiscuous.” 

Just think about that for a minute: There is some young girl, and what’s keeping her from having sex now is thinking, I could get cancer in thirty years if I have sex with my boyfriend now.” 

I was so disturbed by this. It’s this whole values thing: Whenever they have a choice between mitigating or preventing some major damage that comes to people through sex, like using condoms for safe sex, or giving them actual sexual information in their classrooms, or now the HPV vaccine, they say, No, no – ignorance and non-condoms, and you have to be a virgin.”

The good news is that in the case of the HPV vaccine, parents are really for this. Even very religious, conservative parents understand the medical issues that are involved. And so the Christian Right had to back off a little bit. And so now they say, The vaccine’s OK, but parents should decide. It shouldn’t be mandatory.” 

But this is a matter of public health. Mandatory” actually means that is required for school, which means that the government will pay for it. This is an expensive vaccine that requires three visits. It’s just not the sort of thing that parents are going to be able to organize on their own. Also, you can already opt out of any vaccine legally, in every state. So this is a fig leaf; this is basically a re-statement of: We don’t like this. We can’t quite say that you shouldn’t have it, but we’re not gonna help you get it.” 

You spend a lot of time in your column tracking the different incursions on reproductive rights and choice. What do you think the biggest danger is right now to Roe v. Wade?

Well, that’s a very interesting question. A lot of people think that they’re never going to overturn Roe v. Wade. Well, if you were a shrewd Republican, you probably wouldn’t want to do that. But of course, sometimes they’re not shrewd, because they’ve got all of these religious nuts that they have to placate, so things can go a little too far. 

But let’s say they don’t. They can still do so much by whittling away; hundreds of anti-choice bills come up in state legislatures and at the federal level. A lot of them don’t pass, and some of them do. But every year there’s less access to abortion than the year before. Already, there are two states with only one abortion clinic each. 

So there’s that legislative aspect, but there’s also the issue of just how much trouble people who are involved with providing abortions have to be prepared to put up with. They live in communities in many parts of this country that are not friendly to what they do. 

So, you could end up with a situation where if you live in New York, Chicago, California, or a few other big places, you can get an abortion. And in the abortion unfriendly places, which include some states you might not think of – like Michigan, one of the states with the most restrictions on abortion – you might find facing a lot of difficulty in getting an abortion. In fact, you already are.

Some feminists have said, Fine, let them outlaw Roe v. Wade, then we’ll have a feminist movement again and then these young whippersnappers will see what people have fought for.” 

This is a very common argument that you find on both sides of the political spectrum – losing is winning. Losing is losing. Losing is not winning; it’s almost never winning. 

I remember when the 2000 election was in doubt, some dear friends, really smart people, saying, Well, it might be better for Gore to lose, because then he can come back…” No, winning is better. 

Now, the Republicans are saying this about the 06 elections. But, you know, would they be saying that if they thought they were going to win? Nooo…they’d be saying, Oh its really great, we’re going to win again because everybody loves us.”

So I think it would be a terrible, terrible thing if Roe v. Wade was overturned because of the way it would go back to every state legislature. We’re never going to get to vote as a country; if we did, of course, pro-choice would win. But it goes state by state, and there are some very anti-choice places in this country. Young women don’t have a lot of political power – they’re not in the state legislatures. So I think it might wake up the feminist movement, but the feminist movement might not be able to win. So then you would have an awakened feminist movement and no reproductive rights. That’s really going back in time. 

So do you think there’s anything else that might reawaken the feminist movement?

I think that there are areas in which the feminist movement is a victim of its own success. There have been so many victories, but again, spread in a very uneven way. So, if you’re an educated person, if you’re able to compete in the current economic setup, things are so much better for you than they were in my generation, let alone my mother’s generation. We forget about all those people who are not so well equipped to compete: single mothers, poor people, people who are not equipped for this modern sort of weird economy that we have. If you’re a factory worker, then you’re really in trouble. 

It also used to be that all throughout your schooling you had a very sexist experience that filled one with a certain amount of rage and anger. There’s so much less of that now. Where discrimination really comes down like a ton of bricks is when you have children. Then you’re in a different position from men. It’s really difficult to do political work when you’ve got a baby, a job and some relationship with some man. You don’t have the same kind of time you did when you were a student or just breaking into the work pool. 

A lot of your columns in this book deal with 9/11 and its aftermath. I wanted to talk about an essay that got you in trouble, called Put Out No Flags.” You wrote it right after 9/11 – your daughter wanted to post a flag in your window, and you said no. Tell us about the reaction from readers.

Well, this essay is the reason I’m the 74th entry in Bernard Goldberg’s book, 100 People Who Are Screwing up America. But you didn’t mention the money quote, where I say that to me the flag is a symbol of racism, and jingoism and war. That’s what got them so mad. And then my daughter says, Well, for me, it’s a symbol of We’re in this together and solidarity.’ “

So there was a big uproar. The Weekly Standard had a campaign to Send flags to Young Miss Pollitt,” my daughter. This was then picked up in the horrible New York Post. And I’m thinking, Oh my god, we’re just going be deluged with flags.” 

Well, you know, how many flags do you think we got? We got one flag. These people are so cheap! It wasn’t even a full flag; it was a little nylon flag. 

Made in China

And then we got a little flag you could put in your drink. Some people drew flags. And my daughter got a check for 10 dollars.

Patriotism pays.

We got a lot of letters that were very nice and thoughtful, along with some hate mail. And then we got some hate messages left on our answering machine. That was really interesting, because I played this message for my daughter and I said, You see, this is what I mean about the flag being a symbol of racism, jingoism and war.” And she said, Yeah, I know, you win.” It totally backfired. 

And did she take her ten dollars and go buy a flag? No, she bought a Green Day CD. 

God bless America. 

Here was the lesson: It put the conservatives in a funny position, because they’re very big on the authority of the parent. I did say that she could hang a flag out of her bedroom window – but the living room is mine, I pay for the living room, it’s my furniture. 

So some people wrote in, Dear Sophie, you should give your mother a kiss. She’s wrong about this, but…” That was very interesting; for them it was patriotism versus family values. 

You live in New York City. How were you personally affected by 9/11?

It was horrible; it’s still horrible to think about. But it’s been so fetishized that your own little personal feelings can’t really live up to it…that whole 9/11 kitsch thing.

Now, they’re building those horrible buildings, they’re so ugly. Would you want to work on the 3000th floor of the Freedom Tower? I wouldn’t. And they can’t even build it, that’s the other thing. It has been five years. You begin to think, Can’t we do anything right anymore?”

What’s the matter with this country? We used to have this big can-do spirit and now everything just seems to get bogged down. 

What do you think about the way that people have reacted to 9/11 in the intervening years? There’s a lot of conspiracy, a lot of speculation.

Two thoughts: First, 9/11 had a different meaning outside New York; its patriotic meaning was very magnified. I think in New York we had a personal reaction, a lot of people’s lives were affected in all kinds of concrete ways, and a lot of people had trouble adjusting. But New York was one of the most anti-war places in the country. I kept thinking, Hey, don’t talk to us about how 9/11 is why we should invade Iraq; we were there and we’re against it.” 

And about all of this conspiracy theorizing: It’s like somehow it has to be that because the Bush administration has benefited, it has to have caused it. Those are two very different things. You can exploit all kinds of things that come along without having arranged for it first. 

Yeah, there were warnings, there were things people could have picked up on, but a lot of stuff just sort of goes under the bridge. Balls are dropped in every area of life. I would even give the administration that. It’s just that what they made of it is so terrible. That’s what I find just unforgivable. Its just obscene to take these natural feelings people have of fear, vulnerability and sorrow and turn them into an excuse for invading a country that didn’t have anything to do with this. 

One of our writers, Christopher Hayes, wrote about the post-9/11 symbolism the administration used, tapping into an identification with the Greatest Generation, and the yearning for a sense of national vision, a sense of purpose, a sense of community. 

Its amazing to me – and it says good things about this country – that despite all these things and the appeal of war, which is always exciting, that most people are against this war. They might have been for it in the beginning and if we had won,” whatever that means, they probably would still be for it. But they do see the handwriting on the wall. 

The terrible thing is, even though most people are against war, it doesn’t come together in a way that is a real political threat. And people keep looking for that. It’s as if people don’t really know what to do with that antiwar feeling they have.

I think that in a lot of ways, the left is always looking for that one cause, that one rallying point, or the one big event that will justify or really unify the movement. And I’m not sure what that is or what it’ll take. 

Well, isn’t there also a sense that history will do the work of politics for us? People glom onto, in a slightly opportunistic way, whatever seems to be the going thing. Like, outsourcing, you don’t hear so much about outsourcing anymore. Or the Dubai company owning the ports.

Before we stop, let me ask you about one more controversial aspect of your work: You don’t have a lot of patience for religion. I really appreciate that, but I feel like there’s been a lot of fear, even among progressives, to say anything about religion because of the values” discussion that happened after the 04 election.

What sort of reactions do you get from those columns? 

I get two reactions: One is, Oh it’s really great that you’re saying this, Katha,” and the other is, Shh, shh, quiet, pipe down – we have to show the Heartland that we love them.”

I don’t have anything against religion. Well, I do, but that’s not relevant. What’s relevant is that I just don’t think that religion should be involved in government. 

Each of us has all kinds of beliefs that don’t have anything to do with reason or proof – we’re probably all completely insane. So, I’m not one of these people who says that if you’re religious you’re just an idiot, you’re evil. But history shows us that when religion gets into the realm of government, it’s bad. Soon everybody’s fighting everybody else and tyrannizing everybody else and justifying the most horrible things because they think God wants them to do it. 

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Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).
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