It’s been a million years since November 8, 2016, and for many of us, the interminable stretch of embarrassments committed by the Trump White House since 45 took office in January—the ham-fisted political power plays; the barely concealed racism and sexism; the cartoonish, chest-beating Twitter bravado—has been made that much worse simply because it didn’t have to be this way.
So I worried that reading the recently released anthology Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America would feel like masochism, digging into a half-healed wound with magnifying tools. In less capable hands, it might have been. But coeditors Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding are two women who for years have explored and reported on feminism with intersectional acuity and plenty of humor, and they’ve corralled a group of contributors who are just as sharp and nuanced. Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Irby, Alicia Garza, and Rebecca Solnit are just a handful of the voices in Nasty Women that set out to ask how feminism might move forward in a moment when there’s a narcissistic, bloviating sexual predator in the Oval Office—and a critical mass of white woman who helped put him there.
Mukhopadhyay and Harding don’t want to wallow in the past, but instead galvanize a future where the first president to brag about grabbing women by the pussy is also the last. In that spirit, they have launched the podcast Feminasty, on which fellow feminists like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes and author/comedian Sara Benincasa talk with the editors about humor, power, resilience, and more. As Mukhopadhyay and Harding passed through Portland to promote the anthology, we sat down to consider the past year.
Andi Zeisler: I wanted to start with identity politics. It’s one of those phrases that is used with incredible disdain in discussing the 2016 election and politics in general, but mainstream media seems either unable or unwilling to really try to understand it. Can you talk about your experiences grappling with it, in the book and beyond?
Samhita Mukhopadhyay: That’s what my essay [in Nasty Women] is about. We tried to set up the book to focus on the backlash that came after the election. Everything is about identity, but this election in particular was—with Clinton being the first female candidate from a major party and Trump running a campaign on white identity, white anxiety, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. It’s unfortunate to see that progressives want to step away from identity politics, [and] I honestly think it’s because they don’t understand what it is. It’s deeper than just saying, “Oh, that’s a person of color and that matters, so we should have that person of color.”
We had an event recently, and Zerlina Maxwell, who has an essay in the book, said, “Don’t hire a bunch of Black women and then not listen to what we have to say.” It’s really about shifting from these vanity projects of identity to: What does it look like for us to actually incorporate identity? What does it look like when we talk about welfare reform, or Indigenous women, and their needs? What does campus sexual-assault activism look like if we talk specifically about women and this particular time in their life? You make better policy if you consider and incorporate identity.
Kate Harding: People really do reduce [identity politics] to an issue of representation, when that is only one part of it. When it comes to the “you can’t vote with your vagina” stuff—actually, I can, because my vagina is under attack. My vagina is a site of a whole lot of political wrangling. So it did matter to me to have a female candidate. Higher numbers of women in [politics] changes the dynamics, regardless of whether those women are perfect politically. It’s also so much deeper than that: Basically, white cis men are the only ones who think that they can just live without an identity.
Just in the past five or six years, there’s been a mainstreaming of terms like “intersectionality.” Things that have come out of feminist, progressive, anti-racist spaces are starting to seep into mainstream culture. I wonder what it’s going to take to reach people who think they are progressive, but who also feel like making things about “identity” is bad.
KH: It’s hard. I think it ties into your work on the commodification of feminism, where we’re in a time where there’s a certain amount of cachet in saying you’re a feminist. And if you’re at all savvy about young people in media, then you have to be an intersectional feminist—even if you don’t quite know what that means or where it comes from. The end result of that is the BuzzFeed article where it was revealed that an editor at a purportedly feminist website hanging out with actual Nazis. It was kind of frustrating to us. Back when we saw Broadly coming together, all of us had seen that [former Broadly editor] Tracie Egan Morrissey wasn’t the most feminist person for years, even though she kept publicly identifying as a feminist. People participating in hipster racism and ironic sexism is not my feminism. But that’s the kind that gets paid by an organization who thinks it can get some clicks if they have a feminist website.
One of most relatable quotes in the book is from Carina Chocano’s essay, “We Have a Heroine Problem”—“I was so focused on the right that I missed the oncoming truck from the left.” I wasn’t ignorant about the left having a long history of sexism, but the vitriol of it in this case, and the way that otherwise progressive people began parroting right-wing Hillary horror stories, was really remarkable.
KH: I knew it was coming. I feel like I was less blindsided than a lot of our peers because I was for Clinton in 2008. I liked Obama a lot, and I was thrilled to vote for him for president; in any other year, he would’ve been my choice for the primary. My main reason for choosing Clinton [in 2008] was that she was older and I didn’t think she would have future chances. The amount of resistance that mounted then just repeated with Bernie Bros—except that Bernie Sanders did nothing for me and I was not at all conflicted about my choice.
But this time it was much more of a fuck you. The depth of hatred of Clinton doesn’t surprise me anymore, but the breadth of it does; I thought it was one narrow vein and we could kinda work around that. Of course, we don’t know how much of it was [Russian interference], but I was watching all of these things that were used against Hillary Clinton by the right in the ’90s suddenly showing up in the mouths of young leftist men. Like: You are literally repeating right-wing talking points from 1993 and don’t even know that one of the reasons the right wing went after Clinton at the time was because she was trying to pass universal healthcare. It was so incredibly frustrating.
SM: I supported Obama in 2008 and I wrote a lot about it. I, and a lot of young feminists, felt like Obama created a much more cross-coalitional group of support and was more of a centrist than Sanders presents himself to be, so it was more of an establishment-focused conversation. I think in this last election, Sanders supporters thought they were really antiestablishment and so they felt more emboldened because of that. I wasn’t surprised, but I was really disappointed. They’re supposed to know better. You’re going to liberal arts colleges where you have to introduce yourself with your gender pronoun. I knew the anarchist dudes that I grew up with in the ’80s and the ’90s were a bunch of sexist pigs. I knew that even if they had good politics, their gender politics were garbage. But you’re supposed to know better [now] and that was really frustrating. These “new” arguments against Clinton were just a cover for not wanting a woman to be president. I kept saying during the campaign, if you really want to see a socialist make it to the White House, run him against a woman.
KH: I want to highlight something that you just said there about having good politics, but shit gender politics. So many of us see those two things as separate, as opposed to understanding gender being a basic requirement of good politics.
That’s a really good point. When I read Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the book, I related sort of shamefully to her point about a lot of women feeling like they had to qualify their support for Clinton by prefacing their statements with “I know she’s a flawed candidate…” It is a given that every politician, presidential or not, is a flawed candidate. But with Clinton, it was like it needed to be explicitly stated as a form of feminist self-flagellation.
KH: It’s absolutely that. It was a ritual abasement.
SM: There’s never been a perfect candidate. That doesn’t exist. Everyone kind of knew. I didn’t because I voted for Ralph Nader three times. [Laughs] In my defense, I lived in New York and California then. I was that lefty until Obama came around and earned my vote. Obama didn’t have the same track record, but with John Edwards or John Kerry, there was never this thing of, “If you support this candidate, you stand by every single thing this person has ever done.” Why did that happen with Hillary Clinton?
Most of my friends are old, so my exposure to the Bernie Sanders set was working in a newsroom with a lot of young people. They were questioning my radical politics, which is the number-one way to get me to hate you. Don’t tell a 39-year-old fat Brown woman who is a daughter of immigrants and the working class that her politics aren’t radical enough. I’ve talked to other women of color who feel this way: They supported Clinton, and all of these really entitled white male Sanders supporters felt comfortable calling them establishment feminists or questioning their politics. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s inaccurate.
It also made me wonder if this is going to be the m.o. going forward with all female politicians. So many people held up Elizabeth Warren as their political goddess until she made a misstep, and then it was “Oh no, not her.”
KH: I think a lot of us who looked at this through a gender lens saw immediately that “I would vote for Elizabeth Warren in a heartbeat” was nothing more than a fig leaf. The way I put it in my essay in [Nasty Women] is that for these people, the right female candidate is always the hypothetical one. As soon as Elizabeth Warren saw the writing on the wall and endorsed Clinton, it was like “burn the witch.” Now we’re seeing Kamala Harris taking the same shit—although, again, I don’t how much is actually bots and paid Russian trolls feeding it. What we saw [in 2016] was a lot of young, politically inexperienced people reading that stuff coming from those sources and combining that with socialist politics and anticapitalist and antiestablishment values into this powder keg of Clinton hatred that is now going to become hatred of any female candidate.
I wonder if some of this has to do with age. It would have never occurred to me, even in my most idealistic youth, that I was entitled to a presidential candidate who reflects everything I believe. Idealism is crucial, but the idea that you can only vote for a candidate who ticks literally every one of your boxes is not realistic. How do we talk about that?
KH: History exists. Cycles exist. I don’t mean to shit on young people; I love young people. People ask me what gives me hope, and I say it’s young people. The college kids that I worked with last year and my nieces and nephews are amazing, beautiful, smart people with insights and ideas that challenge my thinking all the time. Just demographically, statistically, we know the whole thing begins here. You’ve got to listen to the young people. But we also know that in 10 years, half of them aren’t going to be socialists anymore, and that’s just the reality. Your political views change as you get older.
SM: You learn how a bill becomes a law, how Supreme Court justices are appointed, and how branches of the government work… [Laughs]
KH: I really relate when I go back to how I thought in my late teens and early twenties, to that idea of “Don’t hold me hostage to a Supreme Court justice or some other thing that makes me vote against my conscience.” No, actually you’re constantly trying to vote for what hurts your conscience least, and things like Supreme Court justices matter for generations. There should have been no choice this time. Just looking at the age and [composition] of the Supreme Court should’ve been enough. The fact it was Donald Trump should have been enough. There were people actually saying it’s not enough to just say that Clinton’s not Trump. Really?
There was a young activist who stalked me on Instagram like, “Give me a reason that you want Hillary Clinton to win, other than the fact that she’s not Donald Trump.” I don’t need a reason! I am a single-issue voter and my issue is Donald Trump not being the fucking president.
SM: We could have stopped fascism, but apparently that’s not good enough.
KH: You have to be young or hopelessly idealistic or out of it to think there is so little daylight between actual fascism and moderate liberal capitalism.
SM: There was that group of people who said “Obama is just another Bush,” but at least that was a silent group, not like this dominant group. But there was that set of super radicals that felt that way, which was just measurably wrong.
KH: In some ways, Obama gives us a model, except he’s such an exceptional person that it’s really hard to [compare to] someone else. If you have that incredible charisma and a little bit of youth and a lot of political savvy—all of which he had—you can convince people that you are way more progressive than you actually are. Hillary Clinton was never seen as anything other than what she was: a middle-of-the-road person, very reasonable, very pragmatic, not gonna promise shit she can’t deliver. All of which I like about her. The part where she goes to a prayer breakfast and works with conservative Republicans I like less, except sometimes it’s politically useful. Obama was the same person. The one thing he didn’t do was vote for the Iraq war because he was not in the Senate yet.
In 2008, I was living in Chicago and Obama was my senator. I wanted to keep him as my senator and then send him to the White House after he’d been in the Senate a little longer. I am thrilled that he was president, but people acting like there was so much difference between [Obama and Hillary] politically and he was this progressive hero drove me insane in 2008. Nope, he’s a centrist, but Bernie Sanders could claim he was the progressive hero that Obama never was. It really drove home for me that it’s not about who you think can make the most change in our favor. It’s about who you think is more pure.
Clinton demonstrably moved to the left in the past couple of decades. For some reason though, it almost seems like the sentiment against her is that she has no legacy other than being a war hawk.
KH: There’s no trust of her and an unwillingness to give her the benefit of the doubt. I personally believe—and I could be wrong—that she has always been more left in her heart. That was actually my appraisal of the 2008 field: Obama was running left and would govern more right while Clinton was running right and would govern more left. I think that’s kind of true—not that we know how Clinton would govern. She’s never been a socialist or a radical and never will be, but within the realm of Democratic politics, I think her calculation has always been that she wants to be as far left as it is feasible to be. The problem is she hit the national stage in the ’90s when moderate Republican was as far left as it was feasible to be.
SM: I don’t know if I totally agree with that. A lot of the pushback that Obama got from Southern senators was so based in racism; they couldn’t handle the fact that a Black man had become president. I feel like Clinton would’ve had a better relationship with a lot of those senators because she is a white woman. After they got over the initial shock [of having a female president], there might have been a chance they would’ve had a better relationship. She’s older and she probably would’ve worked better in coalition with them. I would have been worried about the compromises she would have made.
I have argued before that Obama pushed the country to the left, to a certain extent. A Black president allowed for an even further left to rise, the Van Joneses and Black Lives Matter, and I think all of that happened because we had a Black president. That forced [Clinton] to talk about race during this campaign in a way she wouldn’t have had to in 2008, and as a country, we’ve gone further to the left in some ways. That’s why I wanted her to be president because I thought, “Now you’re ready.” I don’t know if I would have trusted that in 2008.
KH: I think she certainly had interesting connections with a lot of those men, but I’m less optimistic that they would’ve been happy to work with her as president, if only because their constituents hate her, whether it’s because she’s a woman or just because she’s Hillary Clinton. But I think you’re absolutely right that it’s created a completely different political field in terms of racism, in terms of the way we talk about it, in terms of how subsequent politicians have to talk about it, and that in itself is moving us to the left. Would she have been making deals with asshole Republicans? I don’t know. One of things I criticized Obama for before he was elected was saying that he would’ve confirmed John Roberts because “he seems like a really reasonable, thoughtful guy.” That is completely fucking selling out women’s bodies. 2008 was this flashpoint of we as a country having to deal with a lot of shit, and now whatever ground we’ve gained we are just trying to not lose.
What were your reactions to the women’s marches, and to the idea that this wake-up call, for white women in particular, is a good thing? In January, a lot of people were like, “Okay, white women fucked this up, but maybe the turnout for the women’s march signals that we’re ready to face that and fix it!” I’d guess this is something you’ve heard a lot while promoting the book.
SM: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot that this is somehow good for the left or this is good for America. I just don’t think that’s true—that’s the most privileged thing you could possibly say. I did not need Trump to be president to know America is still racist. I already knew that; I have been working on these issues for the last 20 years. I do think there is an opportunity and how we take that opportunity is the spirit in which this book was put together: [We wanted to] elevate this diversity of voices to say, “We may not all agree, but we have to start listening to each other.”
People keep asking me “What’s the political strategy you think we need to [enact]?” I don’t know. I don’t work for the DNC. I’m a writer who wants to elevate diverse voices so we can start to see what it looks like to build a left and progressive movement that moves forward instead of one that says, “We need a new feminist movement.”
The women’s march was really exciting to me. I understand the criticisms of it, but I also think it was a huge flashpoint: It says something that the largest mass organization that we’ve ever seen in American history happened the day after the inauguration of a president. I don’t know whether that momentum has been able to continue; I don’t fuck with old white ladies. I do think the momentum started and it’s time for us to really get strategic how we use that power. I don’t think we need a feminist movement: We need immigration-rights proposals that are feminist. We need a reproductive rights movement that focuses on class. We need coalitional movement building right now.
KH: I think that there’s hope for change. It’s white women—who already identified as feminist and were at least a bit engaged with an intersectional perspective—who have realized they need to step up their game. Where it gets confused is when people want to suggest that the women’s march either did or did not say something about the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. Those are just two completely separate groups of women.
What I think is important about the march is that it made a lot of people feel [like they’re] a part of something. People can’t understand why white women didn’t vote as a group. There’s nothing that coheres us as a group except for those of us who participated in feminism and feel like we belong to a movement. Don’t confuse the women’s march with the Trump-voting women, but look at what the women’s march might say about what happens if white women get involved in this movement and say, “I’m going to think politically of myself as a woman and what that means and how that intersects with race and class and gender identity and sexuality, and how these oppressions are interlinked.” As white women, we are very much encouraged to see ourselves as individuals whose political beliefs are formed in this special perfect vacuum that is you. [Laughs]. Recognizing that you are part of this larger thing where a lot of forces are working against you isn’t gonna wake up anybody who wasn’t on their way, but it might make some people make more of an effort.
SM: I do think that some of the women who didn’t connect to Clinton had a wake-up call with the election. Some of them who said, “I’m just politically more into Sanders because I am an undergrad and those politics speak more to me” were like, “Oh wait, it’s actually terrible to be a woman in politics in America.” But that’s not a lesson that’s being learned by the left, and it’s frustrating.
This gets back to the idea of feminism being seen as cool and people being encouraged to at least perform as though they’re feminist. But when we see stuff like that BuzzFeed exposé, we’re seeing that for a critical mass of young people, particularly those whose social capital comes from connections in a media world that is very male-dominated, lived feminism that requires rocking the boat is still not cool.
KH: We were talking about this the other day. A lot of women don’t get how much gender has been a major factor in the shit they’ve eaten until they get into their 30s and start looking back and connecting the dots. You thought it was one-off incidents or individual bad people, but then [realize] “oh my god, this all fits.” I was that woman 25 years ago: I was raised in a household with two Republican-voting parents in an all-white town who were always saying, “You can be whatever you want to be.” So it didn’t occur to me until much later that I had already experienced sexism and would again, many more times. I don’t know how we get around that. In some ways, good job to the feminists who made it so that young women didn’t notice how fucked up the world is. That itself is feminist progress.
SM: Again, you’ll see that in the book. I really wanted to curate voices that don’t necessarily agree on this stuff. I do think it’s progress in feminism that I can talk to another feminist civilly about Clinton, but I still don’t think we can do that in public. I actually wrote a piece recently about Kamala [Harris], because it’s a very similar thing. Yeah, she made her career as a prosecutor, but at the same time she will lose so much more if we publically criticize her because she’s a woman of color and a rising star. People are already after her.
KH: This is something I was afraid of with Obama: He was a rising star who was relatively young, [and] I was afraid that if he got down knocked down on the national stage, both he and any other candidate of color would be doomed for a long time. We can see that with Kamala Harris: Either we’re gonna have our first female president who’s also a woman of color, or she’s gonna take way too much shit. I also don’t think we could elect a woman of color unless she had some kind of imperfectly progressive background, like being a prosecutor. You still have to appeal to centrists to get the votes. I’m not saying that you need to cater to centrists, but you have to think about how you’re going to get votes from people who aren’t like you.
You also have to think about how to govern people who aren’t like you. This is one of the things we are seeing so clearly with Trump: He’s president of the United States and still talking about the “other side” or us vs. them, in partisan terms. I had a conversation with a woman during the primary who said, “Don’t you listen to Bernie [Sanders] and it’s everything you want to hear from a politician’s mouth?” Yeah, kinda—but as soon as I hear everything I want to hear from a politician’s mouth, I’m suspicious about what they’re trying to sell me and whether they’ll be able to run a country that includes a lot of people who are going to be wildly hostile to those political beliefs.
SM: The answer to that Sanders question is no. Which is why the idea of women “only” voting for Clinton because she’s a woman was so wrong. Look at the job. She was the best person for that job.