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Katha Pollitt (born October 14, 1949) is an American feminist poet, essayist and critic. She is the author of four essay collections and two books of poetry. Her writing focuses on political and social issues, including abortion rights, racism, welfare reform, feminism, and poverty.

Early life and education


Pollitt was born in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father, Basil Pollitt, was a lawyer who championed liberal causes, and her mother, Leonora Levine, was a real estate agent.[1] Her parents were prolific readers, and they encouraged their only daughter to pursue her interest in poetry. Her father was Protestant and her mother was Jewish.[2]

Pollitt wrote extensively of her family in Learning to Drive, which is dedicated to her parents. New York Times Sunday Book Reviewer Toni Bentley writes about the discoveries she made in adulthood about her parents:

"Her father, Basil Riddiford Pollitt, a lawyer, was a kind of real-life Communist Atticus Finch, complete with an F.B.I. file about “five inches thick.” People had been informing on him since his high school days, and he lost his scholarship to Harvard as a 17-year-old freshman for “ ‘making communistic speeches and engaging in communistic activities.’ ” As a lawyer he argued that “grand juries were unconstitutional because they systematically excluded blacks and women.” (Decades later, the Supreme Court finally agreed with him.)

Pollitt’s mother, Leanora Levine Pollitt, was Jewish and also had an F.B.I. file, which revealed that she had had an illegal abortion and had protested against segregated restaurants and Nazi collaborators. She was beautiful and had received nine proposals before marrying Basil, played classical piano, could recite Heine in German, knew what President and Mrs. Roosevelt were doing at any moment of any day and had begun (though did not finish) law school. She had, Pollitt writes, her “dream self,” which included being a journalist and a “fiery revolutionary.” In a poignant legacy, the daughter has manifested the mother’s dream. Beautiful Leanora, however, drank herself to death by the age of 54."[3]

Pollitt earned a B.A. in philosophy from Radcliffe College in 1972 and an M.F.A. in writing from Columbia University in 1975.[4]

Professional life

Pollitt is best known for her bimonthly column "Subject to Debate" in The Nation magazine. Her writing is also featured in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Mother Jones, and the London Review of Books. Her poetry has been republished in many anthologies and magazines, including The New Yorker and The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006). She has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC.[5]

Much of Pollitt's writing is in defense of contemporary feminism and other forms of 'identity politics' and tackles perceived misimpressions by critics from across the political spectrum; other frequent topics include abortion, the media, U.S. foreign policy, the politics of poverty (especially welfare reform), and human rights movements around the world.

Pollitt wrote an influential essay for The New York Times Magazine, "The Smurfette Principle" (1991), [6] which became a frequently cited concept on the Internet: the Smurfette Principle is addressed in an episode of Feminist Frequency and is the subject of an entry in TV Tropes.[7] The principle is named after the cartoon character Smurfette which Pollitt explains in the essay:

Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield," or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.

Her more controversial writings include "Not Just Bad Sex" (1993), a negative review of Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, and "Put Out No Flags" (2001), a Nation essay on post-9/11 America in which she explained her refusal to fly an American flag out of her living room window. In the essay, Pollitt stated that "The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war…There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs – equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence….The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that’s wanted now."

In addition to her writing, Pollitt is a well-known public speaker and has lectured at dozens of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brooklyn College, UCLA, the University of Mississippi and Cornell. She has taught poetry at Princeton, Barnard and the 92nd Street Y, and women's studies at the New School University.[5] Pollitt is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the National Magazine Award (1992, 2003), the American Book Award "Lifetime Achievement Award" (2010), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (1983). She has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright Program.

In 2003 she was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.[8]

She is currently working on a book about abortion politics.[9]


Pollitt is known equally as well for her poetry as her non-fiction. The New York Review of Books' Cathleen Schine describes Pollitt as "a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist columnist for The Nation, as well as a prize-winning poet."[10] The process of navigating between the political and poetic has been the subject of many interviews, including a noteworthy conversation with Adam Gopnik for Granta in 2009.[11]

Essay collections

In 1994, Pollitt published Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Vintage), a collection of nineteen essays that first appeared in The Nation and other journals. The book's title was a reference to a line in Mary Wollstonecraft's 1794 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – "I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures."[12]

Most of her Nation essays from 1994 to 2001 were collected in Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, published by the Modern Library in 2001. Booklist reviewed the book favorably in 2001:

"Readers of The Nation depend on their Pollitt fix to stay sane, eagerly reading her zestfully argued, blazingly commonsensical (what a shock good clear thinking can be), and morally precise columns. A master stylist as well as a passionate champion of social justice, Pollitt introduces this powerhouse collection of more than 80 essays spanning the years 1994 through mid-2000 with a bracing overview of the state of feminism and feminism's role in the state, observing that feminism is not a monolithic force, or "plot," but rather a growing resistance against misogyny and the status of second-class citizenry for women by both genders. Adept at picking out the hypocrisy from the rhetoric and intent on voicing sharp, lacerating truths about society, she never misses an opportunity for wit, and her range is extraordinary. Here are incisive and exhilarating essays on women at work, domestic violence, dead-beat dads, panhandlers, school prayer, same-sex marriage, Larry Flynt, and the movie Titanic as "romantic feminism." Every beautifully executed piece is a touchdown, and no silly dances follow."[13]

On June 13, 2006, Random House published her book Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, a collection of 84 of her Nation columns. Publishers Weekly called it, "invariably witty, astute and relentlessly conservative interested in public debate should ignore so formidable an opponent."[14]

In 2007, Pollitt published Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories (Random House), a collection of personal essays. Learning to Drive is a departure from her political commentary, covering a range of topics from webstalking a cheating boyfriend to what she learned about her parents using the Freedom of Information Act.[15]The New York Review of Books calls Learning to Drive, “A powerful personal narrative ... full of insight and charm ... Pollitt is her own Jane Austen character ... haughty and modest, moral and irresponsible, sensible and, happily for us, lost in sensibility.”[10]

Learning to Drive was adapted by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan and director Isabel Coixet into the 2014 film Learning to Drive, which stars Patricia Clarkson.[16]


The first book Pollitt published was a collection of poetry called Antarctic Traveler (Knopf, 1982), which received much critical acclaim, including the National Book Critics Circle Award (1983). Critics noted Pollitt's "...poise, her skillful use of language, mature ear for rhythm, and her intellectual and cerebral interpretations. Reviewers credit her with unusual maturity as a poet, praising her ability to contrast romance with disillusionment and her skill at maintaining an objective distance from her subjects."[17]

Her second volume of poetry, The Mind-Body Problem, was published in 2009 and excerpted at Granta.[18] United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan wrote of The Mind-Body Problem, “It’s awfully good to have such a great-hearted poet as Katha Pollitt take on mortality’s darkest themes. Again and again she finds a human-sized crack of light and squeezes us through with her.”[19]

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pollitt maintains that abortion is a topic that needs to be discussed. While the topic is always in debate, Pollitt posits that it needs to be discussed in a different way that recognizes abortion as an integral component of the women's reproductive lives. Her argument is built upon the idea that abortion is a "positive social good" for all women.[20] Pollitt argues that the context of abortion needs to change. It needs to be looked at as "back into the lives and bodies of women, but also in the lives of men, and families, and the children those women already have or will have".[21] Furthermore, she argues that the access to abortion needs to be looked at more broadly. The issue does not start and end with abortion. Rather, the issue brings about how we discuss menstrual cycles with young girls and the number of resources we have available for families, both single parent and two-parent. Further the decision should not be looked at as the actions of a woman thinking independently because abortion requires the “cooperation of many people beyond the woman herself".[22] A group of feminist scholars and activists analyzed Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights for "Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism," an initiative of the feminist journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.[23] She notes that Jewish tradition "does not have the concept of the personhood of the fetus (much less the embryo or fertilized egg). In Jewish law, you become a person when you draw your first breath."[24] The commentaries include a response by Pollitt.

"Muddled Middle"

The target audiences of Pollitt's book are those who she refers to as the "muddled middle". The aforementioned includes those individuals who look at abortion through an opinion lens, those who do want restrictions on abortion, but don't want it to be completely banned. Politt maintains that many of the "muddled middle" are usually very conflicted about the issue of abortion, which is further encouraged by mainstream media which tends to take on the same stance regarding abortion. She does not disagree that abortion can be a moral issue, but instead upholds that the choice is always a woman’s right. The moral decision lies within her own choice to terminate a pregnancy, not within the debate about the legal status of abortion.[25]

Personal life

On June 6, 1987, she married Randy Cohen, author of the New York Times Magazine column "The Ethicist."[26] They later divorced. They have a daughter, Sophie Pollitt-Cohen (September 25, 1987), author of the bestselling book, The Notebook Girls, written while Pollitt-Cohen was a student at Stuyvesant High School.

On April 29, 2006, Pollitt married the political theorist Steven Lukes.[27] They reside in Manhattan.

Awards, honors, grants


  • Antarctic Traveller: Poems (Knopf, 1982) (ISBN 0394748956)
  • Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Vintage, 1995) (ISBN 0679762787)
  • Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (Modern Library Paperbacks, 2001) (ISBN 0679783431)
  • Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (Random House, 2006) (ISBN 081297638X)
  • Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories (Random House, 2007) (ISBN 1400063329)
  • The Mind-Body Problem: Poems (Random House, 2009) (ISBN 1400063337)
  • Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador, 2014) (ISBN 9780312620547)


  1. ^ "Pollitt, Katha (Vol. 122) - Introduction"., Contemporary Literary Criticism. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  2. ^ Bentley, Toni (23 September 2007). "Life, and My Evil Ex-Boyfriend". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Toni Bentley (23 September 2007). "Life, And My Evil Ex-Boyfriend". The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  4. ^ "Radcliffe Awards to Honor Distinguished Women". Harvard Gazette. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1996-05-30. Retrieved 2008-07-07. Katha Pollitt is the author of more than 250 pieces of nonfiction, as well as dozens of poems, which have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The Yale Review. Her book of poems Antarctic Traveller won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, was published in 1994 by Knopf (Vintage paperback, 1995) and earned her nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Essays and Criticism and for a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticisms. Since 1982, Pollitt has also held several editorial positions at The Nation, for which she writes a bimonthly column, "Subject to Debate." She has also reviewed books for many magazines, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. Pollitt has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, a Fulbright Writers Grant for travel in Yugoslavia, and a Whiting Writers Fellowship. Pollitt is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities. 
  5. ^ a b "Author Bios". The Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  6. ^ Pollitt, Katha (7 April 1991). "The Smurfette Principle". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2014-01-07. 
  7. ^ "The Smurfette Principle". TV Tropes. Retrieved August 6, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Notable Signers". Humanism and Its Aspirations. American Humanist Association. Retrieved October 6, 2012. 
  9. ^ "Katha Pollitt Bio at The Nation Institute" (PDF). The Nation. Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  10. ^ a b Schine, Cathleen (22 November 2007). "The In-Between Woman". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  11. ^ Adam Gopnik (13 May 2009). "Rhyme and Reason". Granta. Retrieved 16 August 2011. 
  12. ^ "Reasonable Creatures by Katha Pollitt"., Magill Book Reviews. Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  13. ^ Donna Seaman (1 February 2001). "Review of Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture". Booklist. 
  14. ^ "Review of Virginity or Death". Publishers Weekly. 13 June 2006. 
  15. ^ Terry Gross and Katha Pollitt, interview (8 November 2007). "Katha Pollitt: Learning to Drive in Public". NPR "Fresh Air". 
  16. ^ "Patricia Clarkson as Katha Pollitt in Isabel Coixet's Learning to Drive". Indiewire, August 21, 2013.
  17. ^ "Reasonable Creature by Katha Pollitt"., Magill Book Reviews. Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  18. ^ "Three poems". 2009-05-13. 
  19. ^ "Amazon Reviews for The Mind-Body Problem". Retrieved 14 August 2011. 
  20. ^ Jeffery, Clara. "Take Back the Night: Katha Pollitt's 'Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights'". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 May 2015. 
  21. ^ Pollitt, Katha (2014). Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (First ed.). New York: Picador. p. 2. ISBN 9781250055842. 
  22. ^ Pollitt, Katha (2014). Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (First ed.). New York: Picador. p. 25. ISBN 9781250055842. 
  23. ^ "Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism Pro by Katha Pollitt". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Retrieved 2016-02-02. 
  24. ^ Jewish Women's Archives: "Pro: An Interview with Katha Pollitt" by Tara Metal October 12, 2014
  25. ^ Pollitt, Katha (2014). Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (First ed.). New York: Picador. p. 23. ISBN 9781250055842. 
  26. ^ "TV Writer Wed To Katha Pollitt". New York Times. 1987-06-07. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  27. ^ "Katha Pollitt and Steven Lukes". New York Times. 2006-04-30. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  28. ^ "Honorary FFRF Board Announced". Archived from the original on 2010-12-17. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  29. ^ "This years AHA Conference Awardees & Special Guests". Retrieved 2013-06-05.