Truth be told, the term “nasty woman” or “nasty women” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But when I heard about the book, Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, I felt compelled to give it another shot.
Edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the former Feministing.com executive editor, and Kate Harding, author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It, Nasty Women critiques, redefines, and revives the term that, in recent months, has faded in the lexicon of resistance.
After then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump called his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “such a nasty woman” in the middle of a debate last year, many feminists seized the opportunity to adopt and repackage the term as a mantra and a movement against misogyny. #IAmANastyWoman trended on Twitter. Feminists, including some celebrities, testified about the ways in which they topple the patriarchy. Political commentator Samantha Bee emblazoned “Nasty Woman” on T-shirts to raise money for Planned Parenthood, and more recently called for a “Nasty Women Week.”
The well-intentioned and earnest reclamation of “nasty woman” became a moniker for white feminism and raised the questions—who, other than white, cis, hetero, Christian, able-bodied upper middle class women can afford to identify as “nasty women”? And what role does privilege play in rebellion?
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This critique of white feminists’ dominance in post-Trump resistance was not an isolated one. The day after Trump insulted Clinton, Libby Chamberlain created a private Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation for Clinton supporters to share their testimonies in support of her candidacy and don pantsuits on Election Day. The group went viral, and within weeks, it counted well over 3 million members. Marginalized folks were quick to point out the group’s lack of inclusivity and real-world activism, and after Chamberlin announced a forthcoming book, many members decried her decision to profit off of people’s personal stories.
The Women’s March the day after the inauguration also faced ample criticism regarding the lack of inclusivity, particularly from disability activists who felt that their rights had been largely left out of the Women’s March platform, indigenous activists whose prayer circle was disrupted and disrespected, and Black activists who found the March leaders’ remedial actions (such as when the March initially appropriated names from two civil rights marches for Black people) to be inadequate.
Which is a long way of saying that the feminist resistance to Trump has been an imperfect undertaking, and that moving forward, it must recognize and meet the needs of everyone. This push for intersectionality—the notion that marginalization due to race, religion, nationality, sexual and gender identities, ability, and socio-economic status is interconnected—is at the heart of Nasty Women. As a result, the book serves as an important guide showing what intersectional feminism actually looks like.
Co-editor Mukhopadhyay tackles the post-election backlash against “identity politics” (which some cultural critics blamed for Clinton’s loss) in “I’m a Woman, Vote for Me: Why We Need Identity Politics.” “Identity-based organizing is our best tool in the fight for equality,” she writes. “Granted, it’s not always easy. Within each of these communities there are robust, sometimes difficult, and sometimes agonizing discussions about the fickle borders of identity.” Mukhopadhyay argues that because the United States is, by nature, a diverse nation, a movement that meets the diverse needs of many will be the “best shot at building a progressive future” and building a powerful coalition.
These myriad identities, of course, speak to the kinds of oppression that are deeply rooted in U.S. history. “If you’re an intellectually honest American,” writes co-editor Harding, “at some point you have to find a way to live with the knowledge that this country was founded on genocide, slavery, and misogyny.”
“This is not us,” was a common refrain during the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. Editors Mukhopadhyay and Harding and the other writers in “Nasty Women” contend that quite opposite is true—this is exactly us.
In “As Long As It’s Healthy,” Sarah Michael Hollenbeck, co-owner of the iconic feminist bookstore in Chicago, Women and Children First, unsparingly grapples with whether to adopt a child or risk raising a biological child who could inherit her disability. Her dilemma stems from an increasingly hostile environment for people with disabilities, as well as comments from friends and acquaintances who insist they don’t “see” her disability. “I’ve spent so much of my life measuring my quality of life not by my acceptance of my disability, but the erasure of it.”
Watching “The Bully” mock Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Serge Kovaleski’s disability at a November 21 South Carolina rally recalls the traumas of her youth. “I felt humiliated with every viewing, shoved back to that hot sandbox, the word ‘retard!’ freshly launched in my direction.” She concludes with a searing sentiment: “I never expected anything from The Bully. But I expected more from us.”
As Samantha Irby, author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, relocates from liberal, urban Chicago to small-town Western Michigan, she poignantly addresses the audacity of today’s Trumped up racist, and how her previous methods of confronting subtle racism prove inadequate in the brazen land of Make America Great Again. “I’m not used to this other kind of bold racism just yet, the kind that screams THE PERSON WEARING THIS RED HAT MIGHT ACTUALLY HURT YOU,” she writes nimbly in “Country Crock.” “I don’t have a plan ready if he spray-paints a swastika on my car or loses his shit on the Mexican woman at the apple orchard while I’m paying the real price for a half peck of freshly picked Honeycrisps. I know in my soul that I can’t fight but would I try?”
Melissa Arjona is a “border feminist” in South Texas, where reproductive justice is intimately tied to immigrant rights. The election for her was a stark reminder that intersectionality is the only path through fascism. “Being able to take your child to school without being deported—and being able to focus on your classwork instead of worrying about your parent being deported—is a reproductive issue,” she writes in the sublime “Dispatches from a Texas Militarized Zone.” “On the border, feminism means fighting so that everyone—U.S. citizen or not—can live free from the threat of a militarized state.”
Journalist Collier Meyerson, who covered the Black Lives Matter movement for three years, explains that she was not surprised by the whiteness of the Women’s March in “Pulling the Wool Over Their Eyes: The Blindness of White Feminists.” “The optics of the march reveal much about who this fledgling anti-Trump movement is speaking to and how it’s being characterized.” She’s also weary of the post-election surge of pop feminism. “Now, I’m not a killjoy, or an ideologue, and I think memes and T-shirts are great, but when they become the dominating cultural touchstone or clarion call for all feminists, they obscure the more substantive aspects of the movement.”
In the superb “Nasty Native Women,” Mary Kathryn Nagle places the Trump presidency in the context of the federal government’s long-term abuse and dehumanization of indigenous people going back to colonization, as well as the more contemporary violence codified in 1978 by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which prohibited Native Americans from prosecuting non-Indian violence on tribal lands. “Because of Oliphant, non-Indian-perpetrated violence against Native women and children has become a crime that, for the most part, goes unprosecuted,” she writes. “Many perpetrators have learned they can abuse and harm Native women and children with impunity—and so they take advantage of the shield Oliphant provides them.” With this history, Nagle offers a sobering truth about the war against fascism all Americans now find themselves in. “No president can polarize a nation without our consent.”
In the searing, “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Nonconforming Femmes,” Meredith Talusan relays what trans and gender-nonconforming folks have been arguing for years—the gender binary itself is toxic, and in order to effectively combat white supremacy and patriarchy, this binary must be dismantled, gender essentialist rhetoric and symbols dumped, and the pussy de-centered. The category “women,” she posits, fails to protect some of the most marginalized voices and results in the tokenism of trans women, like at the Women’s March, where only a few trans folks out of 60 spoke during the six-hour rally.
“Even among cisgender women who don’t believe that someone needs to be born with a vagina to be a woman, we continue to be seen not as potential leaders with unique knowledge, but either as victims or as tokens to include, as long as our opinions don’t stray too far from the majority,” she writes. “In this era of crisis, feminists must turn to the example of transgender women and femmes, who have always been nasty.”
As a whole, the collection is compelling, and it’s apparent that Mukhopadhyay and Harding were intentional about ensuring the book represented diverse points of view. But almost all of the essays strongly support a Clinton candidacy, and if anything is missing, it’s more dissenting voices. The second woman presidential candidate for a major political party was not the first choice Democratic candidate for many women, non-binary, and trans people. If intersectionality demands that people are accepted for their multitudes, shouldn’t differing political opinions be part of this “nasty” conversation?
Randa Jarrar, in the exquisite, “X Cuntry: A Muslim-American Woman’s Journey,” considers what it means to be a Muslim Arab who passes for white, while articulating her frustrations with a U.S. political system that resembles an oligarchy. “Why, I keep thinking, why would our next president be someone who is married to an ex-president?” she writes. “The ways power in our country remains in a fixed place angers me.” Her essay suggests that what would have been a monumental moment in American history—the election of the first woman president—might not have been as radical of a break from politics in the recent past as one would have hoped.
One hopes 2017 is the beginning of a new era of feminism, one that honestly confronts our country’s history of oppression in order to better understand how we arrived at President Trump. “[B]ecause many of us know how it happened,” writes Kera Bolonik in “Is There Ever a Right Time to Talk to Your Children About Fascism?” “[that] doesn’t make it any less frightening.”