Column: A year after the election, there’s still ferocious power in the phrase ‘nasty woman’
In a campaign of so many low blows, this one registered like a sucker punch — Donald Trump, in a presidential debate, talking right over Hillary Clinton to call her “such a nasty woman.” One year after the election, that phrase still crackles with power — and now it’s the power to enrage and engage, and to galvanize. Women’s marches, women’s protests, women wearing the red robes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to hearings on abortion restrictions; the T-shirts and the buttons and the bumper stickers that take ownership of the insult. And now, with the double-barreled power of the #metoo campaign by women standing up to sexual harassment and sexual assault, “nasty women” is a force multiplier.
A new collection of essays, “Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America,” is edited by Kate Harding and Samhita Mukhopadhyay; it brings a multitude of women’s voices to this new empowerment. As Harding makes it clear, these genies are not going back into that bottle.
This term, nasty woman, reminds me of the word Obamacare: It began as a Republican insult and then President Obama claimed it and was proud of it. Nasty woman, straight out of Donald Trump — and now what is it?
It’s become kind of a rallying cry that means a lot of different things to different people. To us, we were asked this question enough that Samhita and I have refined our answer to: It’s about being opinionated and outspoken, and saying the things that women are often not supposed to say, that we are supposed to keep to ourselves and bury.
As soon as Donald Trump said that that to Hillary Clinton during the debate, I said, there’s going to be a “nasty woman” shirt online by midnight tonight, and indeed there was. And I bought it. It just seemed immediately like that was going to be ripe for reclamation.
Was that feeling always out there and it just needed a label?
I think it was. But I think a lot of women maybe didn’t even want to admit to themselves that the feeling was there, or that it was so strong, that we would have so much anger that came up after the election, or even in the preamble to the election, seeing the way he treated her in that other debate, where he just stalked Hillary Clinton and stood behind her menacingly. A lot of us had a very visceral reaction to that.
We are demanding purity of women candidates that we don’t demand from men.
And we’re seeing that come out now with the #metoo campaign, and women talking about their experiences of harassment and humiliation by powerful men. It’s all of a piece that many of us recognize that behavior in Trump.
We saw the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz, on television wearing a shirt that read “nasty,” when she was pushing back against accusations by the Trump White House about her loyalty, her ability, her competence.
Mayor Cruz is a really interesting figure that we’ve seen come out of this horrible tragedy in Puerto Rico, compounded by the way that our government is treating them. The idea that she needs to be literally screaming, literally saying, “People are dying, send us help,” and that then is seen as her being nasty, not knowing her place.
It’s so frustrating to see the way she’s treated and the way that people still act, as though she has no right to be so outspoken and so angry when literally her people are dying.
What span of viewpoints and life experiences by the essayists did you want to get into this book?
We really wanted to make sure we had as many perspectives as we could get. We didn’t want it just to come from our perspective. So we wanted to make sure we spoke to some younger people who had been very moved by Bernie [Sanders], and didn’t feel themselves connecting as well with Hillary Clinton.
I went to the women’s march in Washington, D.C., and it was a profoundly transformative experience for me. But there were lots of people who felt very alienated by the march. Ijeoma Oluo, a writer who’s not in the book, watched the march at home and sobbed because, “You are all out there in the streets for what might happen to you, but we have been begging you to join us in the streets about what is happening to us.”
People are coming at this from so many different angles. We have Mary Kathryn Nagle in the book. She’s a member of the Cherokee Nation, and, not to oversimplify her essay, but the gist is, “Look, we survived Andrew Jackson, you’re going to survive Trump, but it’s going to be hard and terrible.”
One essay in the book points out the paradox that women were called out for having gender loyalty in this election, but also for not having gender loyalty.
It’s such a clear case of “You can’t win.” I think we would have seen this with any woman in that role, but it’s just that much clearer with Hillary Clinton. For those of us who are old enough to remember the ’90s, where she was painted as this radical left-wing woman who was going to destabilize the centrist Democratic Party, to, in the last election, and even in 2008, being painted as the Establishment, too much of a centrist, not enough of a progressive. I think it’s not hard for us to get behind a white man in a suit still, as much as we would like to say we have progressed beyond that.
A big thing that was going around was a lot is guys saying, “Oh, I’m not sexist, I would vote for Elizabeth Warren in a heartbeat.” And then Elizabeth Warren endorsed Hillary Clinton, and these same guys were screaming, “Oh my gosh, she’s a traitor, she’s the Establishment, she’s not one of us like we thought she was!”
You look at Kamala Harris, who is this multiracial woman and powerhouse politician, but because she has a history as a prosecutor — and I’m not saying there aren’t things in that history that we shouldn’t judge — but she is suddenly getting ripped apart by the left as people talk more and more about her as a potential candidate.
More and more, I feel like we are demanding purity of women candidates that we don’t demand from men. It feels like the way we’ve made “racist” such a dirty word that people will openly go to a white supremacist rally, but then still object if you refer to or characterize them as racists. People are reacting the same way to the word “sexist.”
I guess it’s a good thing that people don’t want to be labeled as “sexist,” that we consider it a bad thing. But when people won’t even listen to women and people who have been living in female bodies when we try to tell you, “No, this is sexism,” you have a super-shallow understanding of it. We’re trying to explain to you how it actually operates, and how it actually holds back women in a million subtle ways. And people say, “Nonononono, I’m a man, I know, that’s not it, it’s not sexism.”
Let’s talk about what has happened since the election — maybe an energy that wasn’t even present on Hillary Clinton’s behalf during the campaign is there now.
A lot of people really were jogged out of complacency by Trump’s election. And there is this massive energy; what we’re hearing from older women especially, all the time is, “You know what? I’ve been a good girl and I’ve kept my mouth shut all my life, and that ends now.” That’s another version of reclaiming that “nasty woman” label.
I think history will remember that as part of Hillary’s legacy, for sure, that people, especially women, are galvanized in a way that I’ve never seen in many years of being a feminist writer and activist. And a lot more men, too, are really waking up to how prevalent it is and are ready to join us in the fight.
One essay in the book challenges what it calls “gendered strategies” —postcards, speeches to sympathetic audiences. “Now is not the time to be conciliatory. We must be prepared to rebel and disobey, to risk physical harm and imprisonment.” This sounds like the suffrage movement in England a hundred years ago. Are American women ready to put themselves on the line like this?
That’s a great question. Some definitely are. I am someone who has led quite a comfortable life, and I’m not the person who’s going to say, “We’ve got to throw a brick.” But I wanted to make sure that perspective was in the book because I think it’s important to be considering all facets of this.
I do think the way the women’s march was praised for being nonviolent says a lot about how we judge these other movements that are poor people’s lives and poor people’s bodies. Black Lives Matter is literally reacting to people being gunned down in the streets by state actors for no reason. To then criticize them for being imperfectly polite seems like maybe you actually don’t care that much about things changing there.
Who are the leaders in this new, revived sense of the women’s movement, whether it’s poor working women, whether it’s black and Latino women? We see Congresswoman Frederica Wilson from Florida, who received a lot of attention for speaking out on behalf of the widow of a service member who was killed, and the controversy over President Trump’s call to her. These are not necessarily going to be the next candidate for president. But who are these women, and what are they doing?
What we’re seeing now is a movement that is largely leaderless, which is why you see people like Congresswoman Wilson emerging. Maxine Waters is a Los Angeles congresswoman; she’s been there doing the work for decades, and now she’s become a bit of a darling of the left because she is there speaking truth to power.
And then you have people who organized the women’s march — that has become a brand and a movement, where there are groups all over the country working now. The Indivisible Movement — they’ve got a national network. Then you have groups that have been around forever, your NARAL [Pro-Choice America], your Planned Parenthood, who have the experience with lobbying and protesting. And the newer groups like Reproaction, and obviously Black Lives Matter, too, which was started by queer women of color; even though it’s become this enormous movement, people don’t necessarily think of these women who started it.
In Arlo Guthrie’s very long ballad “Alice’s Restaurant,” he says at one point, “I’m not proud — or tired.” Is there the energy to keep this up for three or seven more years?
“Yes” would be the short answer, because I think there are enough of us now who are fired up that some of us can take the rest we need to take, and other people will keep it moving. I don’t think it’s on just a few people or just a few groups to do that any more.
It is exhausting. I don’t want to sugarcoat how tiring and frustrating it is, and how much that is deliberate on their part, in terms of fomenting this chaos; every day, there is something that would have been a six-week news cycle before this presidency.
But I think as long as there are so many of us who want to fight back, and who don’t want to have our rights and our freedoms taken away by this authoritarian government, we will keep it going, and we will resist as long as it takes.
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