Heated Conversations

Heated Conversations

Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive.

Learning to Drive
by Katha Pollitt
Random House, 2007, 224 pp., $22.95

After years of feminist pressure to integrate the bylines of America’s journals and newspapers of record, women’s opinion pieces and political commentary remain scarce. Flora Lewis and Elizabeth Drew were notable forerunners, but the real change came with the women who broke into print in the late 1980s and 1990s: a group that included Barbara Ehrenreich, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Ellen Goodman, and Katha Pollitt. To varying degrees, they transformed the voice of the pundit on high to an identifiably female one, routinely treating “women’s” issues, setting up confiding relationships with readers, and using feminist tartness as a weapon of choice when it came to deflating and skewering enemies. I say “varying degrees,” because each used these components in a different mixture, with Goodman, for example, writing closer to a genderless stance and Dowd lurching between feminism and acid misogyny, whichever suits her essentially destructive purposes of the moment.

It’s been Pollitt who’s gone the farthest in using the feminine “I” as the linchpin of something new, an amalgam of opinion and personal essay. Over the years, a domestic backstory has wound through her articles in The Nation, turning the column into a little stage where family members and friends might stroll on from the wings to advocate positions, argue with the writer, and play out scenes about political ambiguities and debates. To start out, there was a shadowy and adored husband who then turned into an ex-husband. Pollitt’s daughter, Sophie, was always a regular guest, a funny preternaturally perceptive New York child; a toddler when we first met her, Sophie became a young woman over the years Pollitt was writing. Friends male and female wandered in and out, and sometime in the late nineties, a more assertive domestic partner appeared, the Last Marxist, who took up quite a bit of time on stage (too much for my taste), speaking up for the Old Time Religion. You couldn’t help but get interested in these people, and take sides with or against them, and admire their cleverness, and wonder about the “real” story—which, of course, you never really knew.

The characters allowed Pollitt to inject the columnist’s monologue with the dramaturgy of heated conversation, an idealized representation of the ongoing talks we all have—or want to have—with the people we’re close to about the things that matter. Sometimes she was the debater and provocateur (in a notorious piece written after 9/11, she stopped Sophie from hanging an American flag out their apartment window) and sometimes she was the commentator stage right, as she mulled over the Last Marxist’s certainties or sifted her daughter’s teenage perceptions through the sieve of her own feminist beliefs. The tone was comic and...