“Where Do They Think They Got These Ideas?”

Katha Pollitt on the younger generation’s misunderstanding of second-wave feminism.

Feminists including Betty Frieden and Alice Paul.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Sam Morris/Getty Images, DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images, Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, TAO-CHUAN YEH/AFP/Getty Images and Harris & Ewing, Inc./Library of Congress.

In a recent article for Jezebel, Stassa Edwards wrote that “[t]he backlash to #MeToo is indeed here and it is liberal second-wave feminism.” Her piece followed a number of stories from female writers in their 40s and older—such as Daphne Merkin—taking issue with some aspects of the #MeToo movement. In Merkin’s words, there has been a “reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception, turning a bona fide moment of moral accountability into a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations.” Merkin’s sentiment and others like it outraged a number of (often younger) feminists. (A particular source of ire was the anticipated publication of a Katie Roiphe story in Harper’s, which was expected to be critical of #MeToo and out the person who started the Shitty Media Men list; the creator of that list, Moira Donegan, ended up outing herself instead.)

To talk about all this, I spoke by phone recently with Katha Pollitt, a longtime poet and columnist for the Nation who often writes about feminism and whose most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether many of #MeToo’s critics are really feminists, what the moment needs to be even more effective, and why differences between younger and older activists are so hard to bridge.

Isaac Chotiner: What have you made of the generational tensions or differences between different waves of feminism that have arisen lately?

Katha Pollitt: I’m a little bewildered by it, for several reasons. One is that second-wave feminist is being used as a synonym for woman writer of a certain age. I mean, Katie Roiphe is not a second-waver. Daphne Merkin, Andrea Peyser—these women are not feminists at all, in my view. And they are not old enough to be second-wavers. I mean Katie Roiphe was minus 5 years old when The Feminine Mystique was published. So I think I would wish that the young women who are making this claim would read a little bit of history. I found it very offensive when Katie Way, who was the author of that piece on about Aziz Ansari, insulted Ashleigh Banfield by calling her a “burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist has-been.” I mean, it’s at that point you want to say, “Hello, my pretties, soon you too will be wearing the burgundy lipstick.”

The second point is that the very concepts that these young women are relying on—consent, date rape, acquaintance rape, sexual harassment, believing women, intimate questions of power relations between the sexes—where do they think they got these ideas? They got them from the second wave, those old harridans who are now, in fact, 75 and 80 years old. So that does bother me—the lack of history and the ageism. I mean, the young people always have this idea: It’s like no one ever had sex before I had sex, and no one had these ideas before I had them.

Putting aside the debate over who is a feminist, do you feel like, broadly speaking, you’ve noticed generational differences in the way people who are older versus younger write and think about those things?

I think there’s a difference that I would call the mother-daughter difference. And it’s this: Mothers tell their daughters to avoid sketchy guys and situations. They try to be realistic about what can happen in this fallen world. That is not the same as saying that women are to blame when they’re a bit naïve or shy and tongue-tied in a situation that becomes sexual. And I think those things are being confused. And I like to think that I would have been out of there like a shot if I had gone home with Aziz Ansari.

And then I think about my 22-year-old self, and this Grace was only 22 at the time. And I was pretty fearless, pretty clueless, and sexually inarticulate. And I wonder, if I liked him it might have been hard for me to process what was happening and say, “Oh, I get it, this person is just using me for sex. I’m leaving.” So I think that from the daughter’s perspective: “Don’t tell me what to do. I want to have a big adventurous full life. I’m going out.” The mother is the person who worries a little bit and I think that that is a little bit of what’s going on.

I think that there is a certain amount of resentment, ill will, bad faith, whatever you want to call it, on both sides. But I actually have to say, I haven’t seen a whole lot of public condemnation of young women in the #MeToo context from women who are actually feminists.

The one generational thing that I’ve noticed is something that I would not ascribe to any feelings among women per se—I think it’s a very human thing, men do it too—which is that an older generation says some version of, “In our day it was worse than you realize it is now. We had to put up with all this shit, and the stuff you’re complaining about is stuff we had to deal with.” In other words: “Oh, when I walked to school when I was a kid I had to walk eight miles through the snow and here you are complaining about the fact that your bus broke down.”

I think that that’s a very common human reaction. And we have to resist it. Because the point is that if things are better now than they were then it’s partially because people work very hard to make that happen. And we want it to get better still. It can’t just be, “Oh, hey, I suffered. Why shouldn’t you suffer?” That’s a recipe for political stasis.

How active are you on social media?

I’m on Twitter constantly.

What do you think social media has done for feminist discourse and the feminist movement?

The mirror always has two faces, right? I think it’s been very good in that it allows people to find each other. I think there are a lot of people who live in places where feminist discourse, and feminist activism, is not something that they would find in real life. And they can go online and find it. So I think that that has been very, very helpful in getting the word out and linking people up with other people.

But the other side of it is, as with everything on social media, it goes so fast and it can become so thoughtless and things just blow up. There has to be a villain and that person has to be demonized and ritually humiliated, and that side of it, I think, is not so great.

I think there’s also a performative aspect, what right-wing people tend to call virtue signaling, that is real. I think that it becomes quite hard to have a nuanced conversation. Because there are always people out there pushing it to the edge of the cliff and if you don’t go over that cliff with them you’re a terrible person.

Specifically regarding its effect on feminism, though, what would you say?

Well, I think that I’m not the first person to point out that older people are much less adept at social media than younger people, so I think it’s had the effect of promoting younger voices, which is a good thing. I think it’s opened up the conversation in all kinds of ways. I mean, if you think back to before social media, the gatekeeping was so iron-bound. If you didn’t get published in the op-ed page of a newspaper or have an article in a magazine you were voiceless. And now that’s not true. So that means that some foolish people get a very loud voice, at least for a while. But it also opens up the conversation and makes it more democratic and I like that.

Do you think we’re going to look back on this moment as being momentous for feminism?

I think it’s a very important moment. I think that sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge and, up until now, overlooked and marginalized and even made-fun-of issue. And I think that’s changing. Whether it will stay changed, I don’t know. I mean, there are many, many issues that come to the floor and everyone’s really excited about them, and then you think there’s going to be lots of change and then there kind of isn’t. I mean, look at school desegregation for heaven’s sake. There’s more school segregation now than before Brown vs. Board of Ed. So I think if you don’t keep pushing and have receptive people in positions where they can help make change it does go back. I mean, you can see that with reproductive rights too, and people are pushing. But there are very strong forces the other way. So I would say, there’s nothing magical about #MeToo that means it will never go back.

Is there any aspect of #MeToo that you think is sort of missing from the dialogue that makes you less optimistic about it?

Well, I think there’s a way in which it’s focused on individuals. You know, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, whoever. That is going to limit it, if it stays that way. It makes these notable news stories more salient than maybe they should be. For example, now you hear people saying, “Well, OK, he did this or he did that but he’s no Harvey Weinstein.” You know? I mean it’s like if you’re not Harvey Weinstein maybe you’re not so bad. And these singular incidents, these individual incidents, come to be more representative. Whereas, you know, that wonderful article in the New York Times about the Ford factory in Chicago was a year of research. And there you got such a flavor of how sexual harassment functions in the workplace and how hard it was to fight. And how many institutional forces that should have been helping, like the union, were actually maybe not so helpful sometimes. It was all very granular and I thought that was great.

When did you join the Nation?

I wrote my first piece for them in 1980.

OK, so you’ve been in the media for decades. I was wondering what you thought of the Shitty Media Men list? And I mean that in two ways: one, if you could just talk about how you think things have and haven’t changed for women in media. And two, what you thought about the Shitty Media Men list’s creation.

I think things are better for women in the media than they were in 1980. I was the Nation’s first woman columnist and I got my column in 1996. That’s kind of amazing given that the Nation was then the country’s oldest journal of opinion. There’s just no comparison between how many women have bylines now, how many women have really good jobs now than in 1980, which was only a few years after women at Newsweek and the New York Times brought lawsuits. So I think things are better. But I think one reason why we’re having this conversation is that things are better.

When women were confined to lower-level positions, when it was just taken for granted that a woman editor would be the copy editor but not the managing editor or the editor in chief, those women didn’t have a whole lot of traction to make change. They would have to bring a lawsuit. And certainly, at that time you would not have a lawsuit that said, “Oh, my boss keeps asking me out on dates.” So I think that things are better for women but precisely because they’re not good enough, that’s why we’re seeing all this. And that’s what the Shitty Media Men list revealed, which is, well, this is what’s really kinda going on under the surface. And I had complicated feelings about it. One was that it was basically unedited. It was basically unverified. There may well be—I mean it would be surprising if there weren’t—people on that list who hadn’t done those things.

However, I think that when people feel very vulnerable, and some of these situations are so ambiguous, and there’s so little help out there for you, that the Shitty Media Men list really is—it’s like a whisper network. Which, you’ll remember, Katie Roiphe thought would have been a good idea back in the day. She said, Oh, if all these women were being raped wouldn’t I have heard about it? Wasn’t there a whisper network? Well, now there’s a whisper network and there it is. I think that Moira Donegan wrote very eloquently about it. It got out of control quickly, as things do on the internet, right? So it might have been a little naïve to think that you could do this and it wouldn’t be in BuzzFeed within minutes. But I’m not going to condemn it. I didn’t forward it. I didn’t reveal any of the names that I knew were on it, precisely because of this unverified nature of it. But I just think, as a gesture, what are women supposed to do? I’d like to leave you with that question. What are women supposed to do?