Jun 8, 2009

Reasonable Creatures by Katha Pollitt

Reasonable Creatures by Katha Pollitt

I like to think that they [these essays] are drawn together by a common concern for women’s entitlement to full human rights: to say what happens to their own bodies, to develop their abilities without being defined and constrained by stereotypes of the “feminine”, to make their own choices and their own mistakes without being punished for them more than a man would be. I’ve taken my title from Mary Wollstonecraft, the first woman to present a full-dress argument for female equality. “I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes,” she wrotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, “but reasonable creatures.”

Human beings, in other words. No more, no less
Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism is a collection of essays that Katha Pollitt wrote for her column in The Nation, “Subject to Debate”, between 1986 and 1991. She covers several topics, all of which involve women but which are, it almost goes without saying, of interest for everyone: social attitudes towards rape, gender roles, surrogate mothering, reproductive rights and prejudice against older and unmarried women, among others. Two decades later, these topics are all still being debated.

Let me tell you how I came to this book: I read somewhere that Pollitt was one of the main opponents of Carol Gilligan’s theory of gender differences, and I suspected that if she opposed Gilligan, she was someone I would really, really like. I was not mistaken. Therefore, it’s not surprising that my favourite essay was “Marooned on Gilligan’s Island.” Gilligan wrote a book called In a Different Voice, which in my opinion is little more than a jargon-laden reworking of Victorian stereotypes of the Ruskinian type about female docility, purity and nurturance. On a side note, I was exposed to Gilligan during my first year as a psychology major, and I took her to be much more representative than she actually is. Because of that, I didn’t quite know what to make of feminism for a while. The emphasis on gender differences went against all my gut feelings. Of course, I have no one to blame for my ignorance but myself, but I thought I’d let you know where I’m coming from.

Anyway, what Katha Pollitt says (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that there are more differences between individual men and women than there are between women and men as a whole. Sometimes I almost think this is too obvious to need stating, but then the countless adds, magazine and newspaper articles, and everyday conversations I’m exposed to that still seem to be based on a Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus philosophy remind me that no, it's not. Pollitt puts it perfectly here:
But the biggest problem with all these accounts of gender difference is that they credit the differences they find to universal features of male and female development rather than to the economic and social positions men and women hold, or to the actual power differences between individual men and women. In The Mismeasure of Woman, her trenchant and witty attack on contemporary theories of gender difference, Carol Travis points out that much of what can be said about women applies as well to poor people, who also tend to focus more on family and relationships and less on work and self-advancement; to behave deferentially with those more socially powerful; and to appear to others more emotional and “intuitive” than rational and logical in their thinking.
I love her. My other favourite essay was “Not Just Bad Sex”, in which she argues against a book that claims that because of feminim, women are reinterpreting what is nothing but “bad sex” they regret having the morning after as rape. Okay, deep breath. Just writing these words made my blood boil. You know, as much as any attempt to dismiss rape deeply repulses me, I think that what got to me the most was the I’ve-discovered-gunpowder tone of the whole thing. It’s as if the author of the book believes that society automatically sides with rape victims; that the veracity of their experience is never, ever questioned; that in a rape trial the victim isn’t as judged as the aggressor. Fortunately, Katha Pollitt says everything that needs to be said. I'd post my favourite bits, but the essay is available online, so you can read it yourselves.

A lot of the essays in Reasonable Creatures, if not all of them, deal with political issues, so your own political alignment will no doubt affect your enjoyment of this book. To me, Pollitt sounds passionate but never forceful, but as I identify very closely with her ideologically, it’s hard for me to say how someone who doesn’t would react. In any case, for me Reasonable Creatures was relevant and sensible, and I found myself nodding along through all the essays.

Notable passages:
What we should be asking is not how the most sensational crimes against women are different from run-of-the-mill threats, rapes, bashings and murders but how they are the same. We need to stop thinking of male violence as some kind of freak of nature, like a tornado. Because the thing about tornados is, you can’t do anything about them. The onus is all on potential victims to accommodate themselves or stay out of the way (What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Why didn’t she flee/scream/fight back/stay calm?)

The pernicious tendencies of different feminism are perfectly illustrated by the Sears sex discrimination case, in which Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor of women’s history at Barnard College, testified for Sears that female employees held lower-paying salaried jobs while men worked selling big-ticket items on commission because women preferred low-risk, noncompetitive positions that did not interfere with family responsibilities. Sears won its case.

Although it is couched in the language of praise, difference feminism is demeaning to women. It asks that women be admitted into public life and public discourse not because they have a right to be there but because they will improve them. Even if this were true, and not the wishful thinking I believe it to be, why should the task of moral and social transformation be laid on women’s doorstep and not on everyone’s—or, for that matter, on men’s, by the you-broke-it-you-fix-it principle? Peace, the environment, a more humane workplace, economic justice, social support for children—these are issues that affect us all and are everyone’s responsibility. By promising to assume that responsibility, difference feminists lay the groundwork for excluding women again, as soon as it becomes clear that the promise cannot be kept.
‘Strident’ and proud: Jessica Valenti interviews Katha Pollitt

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)

The very awesome Kailana has been inviting friends and fellow bloggers to write guest posts for her Music Mundays posts, and this week she invited me. If you're curious about what my five favourite music videos are (well, five of my favourites, anyway), head over to her blog and say hi.


  1. O Nymeth, I do love the way you think. and write. Great review. I wish I could add something meaningful but these issues usually have me asking question after question, if you know what I mean. (Did you see my post on The Awakening? :P )

  2. "there are more differences between individual men and women than there are between women and men as a whole"

    Love it love it love it!! This is what I've been saying for years, and it irritates me to no end when people think there is an inherent difference (other than the obviously biological) between men and women.

  3. So, I understand that I'm running the risk of stepping on toes here but I'll try to tread carefully...

    My problem with most Ivy-league 'feminists' is that their experience with equal rights can be boiled down to talking the talk and not really walking the walk. They talk and they preach... but they remain secure in their ivory towers and rarely, if ever, get their hands dirty.

    Please remember that I am not one of those women. I do not call myself a feminist. I am a person, my sexual identity is secondary to that. I have been in a male dominated field (law enforcement) since 1982. With my first job, I was the first female officer in three counties. I was tried. I was tested. I was watched. I did my job and let that speak for me.

    In other words, I have actually gone out and made a difference for the women who have followed me.

    The fact that they still, 27 years later, come face-to-face with some of the same crap that I did earlier is disheartening to say the least. But, women like me continue to fight the fight. We don't ask for special treatment; we ask for the opportunity to prove our worth. I didn't want to be hired because I'm a woman. I wanted to be hired because I could do the job.

    So, with all that in mind... is this a book that would drive me crazy?


  4. Strong stuff. This really is a book that makes you stop and think doesn't it.

  5. Care: And I love the way YOU think! I haven't read your review of The Awakening yet, but I'll make sure I do.

    Amanda: It almost seems too obvious, doesn't it? But there are everyday reminders that it's not. It really bugs me when people say things like "But we're better than men!", because in the end that's just returning to the same old stereotypes.

    CJ: From what I know of your political views (and I mean this with total respect) I think it might be, yes. It was only recently that I started seeking out more formal works on feminism, so I only know so much (and if anyone more informed reading this wants to join the conversational, you're more than welcome to. Debate is good and there's a lot that can be learned from it.), but I'll tell you what it means to me: 1) That men and women are both human beings with the same intellectual capacities who should have the same rights; and 2) That we still don't have the same rights, and we live in a society that discriminates against women in many ways - some subtle, others not so subtle. Another thing I learned is that feminism encompasses different positions on different issues, as Pollitt's disagreement with Gilligan shows.

    I think it's really great that you opened the path for other women in law enforcement. But personally I don't think there's always a distinction between talking and doing something. For me, talking and writing and raising awareness and pointing out problems is doing something, and it often leads to solutions. Also, I really don't think feminism is about asking for special treatment. Just the same treatment and the same rights. And this - "I am a person, my sexual identity is secondary to that" - I wholeheartedly agree with, and to me that's part of what feminist is about. But I also think that as long as we live in a world that treats people differently according to their gender, gender is not something we can afford to ignore.

    Scrap Girl: It really does.

  6. I love that blurb at the beginning!!! Feminism isn't just about being equal in the workplace. It isn't just about being in charge of what happens to one's body. It isn't just about any one particular piece of the human experience. It's about the whole of the human experience. Despite the fact that I can see parts of this book being very hard to read, I do want to read it very, very much. Thank you, Nymeth.

  7. I've found myself increasingly drawn to ideas surrounding gender ever since I read A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, and I think this would be a perfect addition to my List. It sounds fascinating.

  8. Nymeth -

    You bring up a very valid point, one I didn't mean to dismiss. I'm sorry I did. Bringing problems to light, via writing, is a good idea and it is necessary. My disconnect comes when I feel I'm being lectured to by those who have only written about things. I hope that makes sense. And, I have a huge disconnect when I am questioned about my political views, as in how can I as a woman be a conservative. My answer is generally, it's easy.

    But, in general, you think I should give this one a pass? I'm asking seriously here because there is a part of me that would like to learn more about the feminist movement but not if it's going to make me crazy. Is that even possible, given my viewpoint?


  9. See, this is why I just you an award today (http://www.whosabiblioaddict.com/?p=740) - you're great!

    I read Katha Pollitt's most recent collection of essays, Learning to Drive, I loved it. Those essays are more personal than political, but she's a feminist to the marrow of her bones and it shows in some of my favorite essays, like "When the Men Are All Dead." Anyways, I'm so happy you liked this, and I so need to get myself a copy!

  10. This sounds like a wonderful collection and something I would love. I have to admit, I'm very one-sided when it comes to issues like this. I try to see both sides, but I find that I just can't do it. I have very strong opinions and I just can't seem to keep my mouth shut when it comes to people that talk in such huge generalizations...."women are so emotional, women aren't strong enough to be in the (...) field, women who dress like that, ask for it". Makes me want to scream!

    I will definitely be looking for this one!

  11. Hey, Nymeth! I have an award waiting for you here: http://imlostinbooks.blogspot.com/2009/06/bookfriends-award.html

    Because you rock like that. :)

  12. aw, thanks for saying I am awesome! :)

  13. Debi: They are hard because she's responding to things that drive me mad, but at the same time, it's very satisfying to see her responding to them, if you know what I mean. On a side note: When I was looking for other reviews of this book to link to, I found a mention of it at Dewey's blog...she said at one point that she had it on her TBR pile. I wonder if she never got to it, or if it was one of those hundreds of books she read but never got around to reviewing. Anyway, it made me miss her. And I so wish we could have heard her thoughts on it.

    Memory: I hope you enjoy this one! And I so need to read A Room of One's Own again.

    CJ: Well, Pollitt is very very liberal, so the book might annoy you for that. I'm not saying that a point of view different from yours will automatically annoy you, but it's difficult for me to be able to tell if she'd come across as pushy to you. The things we believe in always seem more natural to us, so it's really hard to tell. But politics aside, I think there are other books that would work better as an introduction to feminism and its history than this one. This is really a collection of newspaper columns written from a feminist perspective. One I really enjoyed was Feminism: A Very Short Introduction, which is part of the Oxford short intros series. But like I said, I've only read a few, so I'm sure others would be able to give you better recommendations.

    J.S. Peyton: Thank you again :D Learning to Drive is going straight to my wishlist!

    Stephanie: I hope you know that your inability to keep your mouth shut about injustice is one of the things I love about you :D

    Rebecca, thank you so much! YOU rock too!

    Kailana: Well, you are :P

  14. Excellent review Nymeth. The first time I ever heard of Mary Wollstonecraft was in a class where they put down her ideas and scorned feminism. Things have progressed much since then but there is still a long ways to go.

  15. these essays really sound interesting. I hadnt heard of this book before. I need to read more books like this one, ones that really make you think.
    great review ;)

  16. Yeah, that's exactly the kind of "hard" I meant. Especially with the "Not Just Bad Sex" essay. I've no doubt that my blood will boil just as yours did. Those attitudes, those claims that she is fighting against, always feel like personal attacks. It doesn't matter that I know better than to give idiots who make such claims the time of day. It's a knife that never seems to lose its deadly edge no matter how many years pass. But maybe this is just what I need...to read her words. To hear someone fight back against them.

  17. This reminds me of a recent discussion I overheard where the people at my table were talking about men and women ( I can't remember what, specifically) but someone said something to the effect of, "Well, of course you're going to run into problems when you don't consider how different men and women are," and someone else countered with, "Actually, I was just reading something that talked about how assuming that men and women are SO different is what causes a lot of misunderstandings. If we would all just see each other as fellow human beings instead of "men" or "women" we would probably get along a lot better." It sounds like it might have been this book-I'll have to find out.

  18. Jaimie: Wow...I'd have been really uncomfortable in that class :/ I also studied her work, but fortunately in my case it was obvious that she was one of my professor's heroes!

    Alice, I'm glad we agree :D

    Naida: I'm a fan of those :)

    Debi: *hug* I don't think the person who wrote that book can even pretend it's not an attack on women who went through that. Not with a straight face. There will always be idiotic people, but fortunately there are also Katha Pollitts to call shenanigans on them.

    Dreamybee: I am a fan of person #2! I definitely think that assuming there are so many differences is the source of many, many problems.

  19. Nymeth, after reading this review I'm kicking myself for not reading your blog before now! (I've now subscribed, so I won't miss anything in the future.)

    I studied Gilligan in university (I have a BA in sociology and women's studies) and her essentialist stance disturbed me at the time. This sounds like a very interesting book, although I'm wondering how personal she gets in these essays? (I love to know where the essayist is coming from when I read essays.)

    Thanks for this great review!

  20. avisannschild: Aw, thank you! I've subscribed to yours as well! The essays are mostly political and social commentary, but they're also self-referential enough that you get a sense of the person behind them. I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to pick it up!

  21. Nymeth - I'm so pleased you like Pollitt. She is one of my favorites and I hadn't seen the book before. Am running off to find it.

  22. Okay, I wrote out a comment - you know one of my long rambling ones - but then I decided not to post it. You know how they say things get totally mis-translated over the internet? I knew what I wanted to say, but I wasn't sure if my opinion would come across as intelligent and though out or as anti-feminist babble.
    So let's just say, I really enjoyed your review, it brought a lot of thoughts to my mind and different perspectives. But generally I cannot read any type of feminist/anti-feminist/gender-equality texts without ranting :P

  23. Gavin: I wish I'd discovered her years ago! She's amazing.

    Joanne: Aw, I wish you'd posted it! But I understand worrying, because I'm a worrier too :P


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.