Contradictory Feminism

Eleanor J. Bader Jan 13, 2008

Learning to Drive and
Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Random House, 2007

The eleven essays in Nation columnist Katha Pollitt’s latest book are a sharp departure from the savvy political writing she’s known for. Instead of skewering the Bush administration or anti-abortion activists, Learning to Drive is Pollitt’s reflection on who she has become: a widely-read, progressive intellectual of middle age.

The result of this foray into identity is both deeply personal and deeply engaging. But it Is also unsettling, for while the collection is devoid of heavy-handed messages, Pollitt’s feminism is not without its contradictions.

For example, despite her deep appreciation for the gains of feminist social activism — gains she participated in winning — she has not shed her need for male approval. A come-hither look or the flirtatious banter of a male aggressor is enough, she admits, to send her aflutter.

Or worse. In an essay called “Webstalker,” Pollitt confesses her obsession with an ex-boyfriend once she discovers that he is a philanderer. After seven years of what she believed to be devoted monogamy, evidence of numerous peccadilloes sends her soaring into cyberspace, desperate to learn his conquests’ names, addresses, ages and occupations.
Humor is abundant, but the fact that someone as publicly self-assured and astute as Pollitt can end up compulsively prowling the Web, is proof that anyone can go a little crazy given the right circumstances. I found myself wincing at her admissions while cheering her bravery for laying them bare.

“Learning to Drive,” the title tract, is similarly themed. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2001, it introduces a then 52-year-old Pollitt at her most incompetent. “I am here because I lost my man,” she writes. “How did this happen to me? For decades, all around me, women were laying claim to forbidden manly skills — how to fix the furnace, perform brain surgery, hunt seals, have sex without love. Only I, it seems, stood still, growing, if anything, more helpless as the machines in my life increased in both number and complexity.”

Ben, her driving teacher, is patient, but he is becoming frustrated by her ostensible inability to master the task. Should you be wondering, this story has a happy ending — other essays position Pollitt behind the wheel, barreling from hither to yon. Still, her vulnerability is reassuring, for who among us quickly masters everything we attempt? Self-deprecation is abundant throughout Learning to Drive as Pollitt homes in on the source of her insecurities: her communist father and fierce, alcoholic mother.

Other essays blend autobiography and observation to lampoon Marxist study groups and assess the ways women compete and console, deal with motherhood, and adjust to aging and physical deterioration. In one piece Pollitt reminisces about editing pornographic novels as a fresh-out-ofcollege twenty-something.

“Goodbye, Lenin” zeroes in on Pollitt’s father’s life and death and is the most moving commentary in the collection. In it she recounts how a FOIA request led her to her father’s five-inch FBI file. Reading it, she gleans information about blacklists, the Communist Party and the Smith Act and finds a way to understand the many pushes and pulls that governed his life. The writing is lovely, rich with reverence and wit.

And that’s true of every entry in Learning to Drive. Of course, some essays will resonate more than others for individual readers.

Regardless, Pollitt’s insights cogently remind us of a 20th century feminist truism: Even when it is only implicit, the personal is political and vice-versa. — Eleanor J. Bader

Illustration by Akiko Kato

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