Popaganda: Burning down the House

The 2020 election is looming ever closer—and in this special episode of Popaganda, host Carmen Rios talks to some of the rabble-rousers leading the fight for a feminist agenda on Capitol Hill and political journalist Prachi Gupta about The Squad’s persistent leadership on the issues that matter to the movement, and what it will take to continue empowering women in politics to shake up the system.

A’shanti Gholar from EMERGE America and Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead talk to Carmen about why gender matters in policy-making—and what changed in 2018 that will shape the long-standing movement for parity in politics. Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, opens up about the untold story she’s determined to scream from the halls of power: one about the power, and urgency, of women of color leadership in politics. Jennifer Mandelblatt, founder of PLATFORM, talks about how women can own their political power—off the ballot and beyond election day. And Gupta, political reporter for Cosmopolitan and author of AOC: Fighter, Phenom, Changemaker, dissects the inspirational and viral power of The Squad, and reflects on the reverberations they’re already having on the scene.

Carmen knows the power of women in politics: she’s been covering the subject for the last decade. But in this episode, she digs even deeper and challenges listeners to imagine what an entirely new political system would look like. That system, she argues, has enough seats at the table for all of us, and makes space to tackle every issue we care about. Determined to figure out what it would take to build it, she susses out next steps and urges everyone to take action. (It goes without saying, of course, that she also assumes that next November, you’ll turn out.)


Let’s start with the basics: We’re assuming you wanna know more about all of these trailblazers. 

Photo via Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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[theme music]
CARMEN RIOS: Hi! Carmen Rios here, feminist digital media superstar and the host of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast. The seasons have changed, and we’re cooling down from our HEAT season and gearing up for a GLAMOURous winter. But rather than just sit pretty until then, I’m here today to bring you a special bonus episode of the show about some of the fabulous firebrands shaking things up on Capitol Hill. And so, while this episode is in session, let’s get down to business. Let’s talk about the squad.
[montage of different ads play, all with music in their backgrounds]
MJ HEGAR: That’s me, MJ Hegar, an Air Force combat veteran and a mom.
WOMAN 1: Lucy went from an ordinary mom to a powerful voice.
WOMAN 2: National Teacher of the Year.
JAHANA HAYES: I’m Jahana Hayes, and my story is my truth. I know the system does not reflect us.
WOMAN 3: When Republicans cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, life gets harder for women like me.
WOMAN 4: After I served our country in the Air Force, I came home to take care of Mom.
WOMAN 5: Through my work as a nurse, I know how critical it is to be able to get healthcare coverage.
CARMEN: In 2018, a record number of women ran for office, and a record number won. In what was maybe the most-reported story about those women, decisive numbers of women voters and candidates even changed the face of Congress and helped win the House back for the Democrats. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 475 women ran for seats in the House of Representatives in 2018, and 53 ran to represent their states in the Senate. (For the sake of contrast: In 2012, a then-record 298 women ran for the House. In 2016, 40 women running for Senate was historic.) 235 of those House candidates in 2018 won their primaries and ran in the general election. 23 of those Senate candidates did the same. And come election night, they changed everything.
A record 126 women have served in the 116th Congress, making up an unfortunately historic share of the body by holding 23.6 percent of seats. 102 of those women represent their constituents in the House, and 24 have settled in to session in the Senate. When all was said and done, the House saw its largest freshman class of women ever in the wake of 2018. 36 non-incumbent women were elected that year, surpassing the previous high of 24 who won in 1992, what was dubbed back then “the year of the woman.” All of that matters for myriad reasons. Having women in office isn’t just a matter of math. It isn’t just about the philosophical fight for parity. It’s about the impact gender diversity has on all of us across the country, and how it fundamentally changes the priorities of Congress and the conversations elected officials are having.
A’SHANTI GHOLAR: When you have women in elected office, it’s just different. The conversation is extremely different. The bills that get introduced are different. The outcomes for communities are different. We truly bring our lived experiences to serving in elected office, and that becomes reflected in our community and the work that gets done. So, for me, I really wake up every day to do this work to empower women to see themselves in this role, in these roles, and to make sure that there’s an organization like Emerge that can provide that support that they need when they go from considering running to office, to wanting to get trained to run for office, to running for office, and becoming that great elected official.
CARMEN: That’s A’shanti Gholar, the political director for Emerge America, the only organization dedicated to recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office. A’shanti is also the founder of the Brown Girls Guide to Politics.
A’SHANTI: When women run for office, it is to get things done. We like to say some men wake up, and they’re just, oh, I’ve really never done anything in the elected office government sphere. All I’ve ever done is just marry a whole bunch of women, bankrupt some companies, and I become president of the United States. So, that’s how a lot of men think. But for women, we want to be there to make sure that we are truly contributing. When you hear a lot of women elected officials talk about their journey, there truly is one specific issue that drove them to want to run for elected office. So, that is their main motivation. But when you look at the bills that women co-sponsor or introduce, it truly runs the gamut because they are there to represent the whole community. People like to say all the time that women lead on women’s issues, which is true. But I also disagree with that because when we talk about women’s issues—healthcare, family leave—these are community issues. These are things that everyone should care about. So, it really is seeing women driven for one issue, but because we are women, we like to become experts on all the things, we’re able to lead on so much more. And that is the main difference that you get when you have women in elected office.
But it’s also the smaller things that people don’t think about when it’s just men in those seats. And I’ll give two examples. Michelle Wu, she’s an Emerge alum from Massachusetts. She is the president of the Boston city council. But when she was elected, she was pregnant, and she realized there was no maternity leave policy. Why? Because it had been all men, and there had never been a woman who had had run while pregnant. So, she enacted a maternity leave policy. We have two alums in Maine who are leaders in the State House, and they created a breastfeeding room for pregnant elected officials, for visitors, for other people that were there on business. It had never existed before. So, it’s also these small things that really are big changes and have a positive impact on women.
CARMEN: Those small things, and that potential for a big impact, inspired Jennifer Mandelblatt and her fellow cofounders the launch Platform, a political training and lobbying organization dedicated to empowering young women and femmes.
JENNIFER MANDELBLATT: Representation matters. And as cliché as that sounds, it’s when we talk about policy change, when we talk about change, it’s the people who are most directly impacted who have the best solutions out of it. Who understand what it looks like when we talk about gun violence from a perspective that accounts for gender and ability and race. Who talk about reproductive justice in a way that understands access to reproductive health isn’t the same as, or the right to reproductive health isn’t the same as access to reproductive health. And unless you’ve lived those experiences or unless you’ve come up across those questions and understandings, it’s hard to really legislate forward. It’s hard to create policy forward. Because we need to make sure that our policy change accounts for all of us in the ways that we need and deserve. And the best people to do that are the those who are most directly impacted by it. And so, seeing so many women step up and share their stories and their truths has inspired so many others to step up and share their truths and share their stories and build community around that. And because of those women who came forward, because of those women who are leading and showing that you can too, we’re changing the narrative. And that wouldn’t have been possible unless those who are most directly connected to the narrative came forward.
CARMEN: Having more women in office also has a compounding effect: more women elected begets the election of even more women. And that’s good for our democracy.
ERIN VILARDI: Gender matters in two really strong ways. One is the sort of representation, the reflectiveness of seeing people who look like you. So, that role model effect, when we see women who look like us, when we see women of color, when we see young women, when we see immigrant women and first-generation women stepping into these places that have been, quite frankly, the realms of men and mostly white men, and just the visible contrast of new hairstyle, new colors. They brought in like good just life, right? And so, some of these photographs where you look at Congress. And then what happens is other women and girls in particular have a different understanding of what they can be. Boys also have a different understanding of who can be powerful. So, the effect is not just of course on, you know, inspiring more women and girls to run for office and to see themselves in places they’ve never seen themselves. But it also actually shapes the perceptions of men and boys around how women can hold power. So, that’s really powerful: the role model effect, the representative effect.
CARMEN: That’s Erin Vilardi, the founder of VoteRunLead, the nation’s largest and most diverse training program for women to run for office and win.
ERIN: And then there’s the policymaking effect. Women do the business of government differently. We’re more likely to work across the aisle. We’re more likely to get more things done, bring more money to our home districts, or put things on the agenda that’ve never been there before. You know, we actually care about churning out bills and making things happen. There’s less ego and higher productivity. So, the theory of change holds that the more women you get into government, the better government is, and I think, as just a function of sort of what it’s supposed to do. And it’s really expansive. We know that women, especially women of color, particularly research on Black women talks about how their leadership is much more open to the community. So, they’re more likely to bring in diverse perspectives, to go talk to people who aren’t exactly like them, to get really strong information before making a decision, to have more people hold more office hours. So, the function of government is actually thriving when you see more women and women of color in it.
CARMEN: The role model effect has caused a massive shift since 2018.
ERIN: We have twice as many women running for Congress right now than we did in 2018, which is awesome!
CARMEN: [Chuckles.]
ERIN: And they are, you know, they’re veterans, they’re immigrants, they’re just remarkable women that are really reflective of— A couple of them are running again, who didn’t make it in 2018, which I love to see. We have in 2019 races, we have, I think more than twice as many women who are running in local elections. It’s that kind of growth, right? Now, people are asking us, how do I be a campaign manager? You know, I need skills on, I don’t wanna run, but I wanna volunteer. So, the larger development of women’s skills on running campaigns and governing and serving as chief of staff, things like that, where women are really hungry for learning on that. So, we’re seeing the wave continue. And for us, it’s about twice as large as it was in previous years, and that’s really remarkable.
CARMEN: But it wasn’t just the number of women in office and the dismal representation of women in the halls of power that changed in 2018. It was also women’s own perceptions of themselves as political candidates and powerbrokers that changed too, which in turn changed the nation’s notions of what politicians look, sound, and act like.
ERIN: I’m thinking of Bushra Amiwala, who is the youngest Muslim elected official, Muslim American elected official in the country. She’s Pakistani American. She ran for school board. Now she’s a County Commissioner. I hope I’m getting that right. But nonetheless, she’s like 21, right? Super inspired by Ilhan [Omar]. Super inspired by the other women that are running. We’re seeing more Muslim Americans win. So, Sulfat Suara—I think that’s how you say her last name—a VoteRunLead alumni, just won, first Muslim American woman on the Nashville city council. You know, so not only is it inspiring women, it is readying voters to see and vote for and have confidence in people who, on their local levels are like, oh, okay. Right? Like, I can make space in my brain for thinking about this diversity of women as public officials, you know. ‘Cause previously, it was really just one type of mold. So, not only is it inspiring women, young women and women of all ages to get involved, to vote, to see what’s possible, but it’s normalizing that leaders in this country can come in many forms.
CARMEN: It’s been our long-held belief that politicians weren’t people like us, but the women who assumed seats in Congress in 2019 were just like us. They were social workers, teachers, veterans, judges, lawyers, refugees, doctors, nurses. They were activists and advocates who had worked on issues of homelessness, early childhood education, human trafficking. They were mothers who lost their children to gun violence, refugees who found safe haven in the U.S. as children and, infamously, waitresses and bartenders who wiped counters even during their campaigns.
ERIN: What we saw post the 2016 election where we would have maybe 50 or 100 women on our webinars, we now are seeing 1,100 women and 1,500 women sign up. And what was different about these women is one, they were coming from everywhere, and particularly did not have traditional political experience. And they were like, yeah, I’m still gonna do this. I’m still qualified to do this. That shift around qualifications really changed an understanding that the life skills that women already had were going to be really valuable in our politics moving forward. Research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation talks quite a bit about women’s mindsets, prior to 2016, sort of taking ourselves out of the game sometimes feeling like when we see when we research, when we apply for jobs, right, we’ve got to have nine out of the 10 things in the job description to apply. That same standard’s sort of held around how women were opting into public office felt like they needed more training, they needed a legal degree: I need this, this, and this before I can step in. And that really shifted.
I think one of the big things was seeing a man ascend to the presidency who had zero political or military experience now take the highest office in the land. Women were like, mm, I can run for my city council. They were coming to us not with, “Hey, I think I might run.” They were coming to us with, “I’m gonna run. Tell me what to run for and how to do it.” So, we actually had to change our curriculum and the way we were going about, you know, we didn’t really have to do that heavy recruiting. So, when we really dug in, all our curriculum is built by local elected leaders, by women who’ve been doing this work a long time in community. And we came up with “Run as you are,” because what was happening is the recognition that what women were bringing to the table, what women had long been known to be doing around their leadership, was actually what’s needed at the head of the table, and the sort of barriers just fell to the wayside.
CARMEN: According to reporting by Politico in 2018, VoteRunLead went on to train 9,700 women online and in-person in 2017. And they weren’t the only group to experience explosive interest and growth in the wake of 2016. The Run to Win recruitment campaign from Emily’s List signed up 6,500 women who wanted to run for office immediately after the 2016 election. And within a year of the 2016 election, over 42,000 women had contacted them about running for office. To put it in perspective: Just 920 women contacted Emily’s List to run in the 2016 election. And those Run to Win attendance numbers marked an over six time increase from the number of attendees they had signed up in the 22 months prior. Emerge America saw a boom, too: the organization received 87 percent more applications after the election. And A’shanti has similar memories of the shift the new women coming forward represented for the future of politics.
A’SHANTI: I really do think it was the day after the election when a lot of women woke up and they said, well, if not Hillary, then who than me. It has to be me. I have to be the one to step up and make change. I can’t constantly rely on anyone else to get this done. And a lot of people like to give credit to Trump, and I just disagree with that. I really think so many women were inspired by Hillary, and this is part of her legacy: continuing to see all of these women step up and wanting to run for office. And it wasn’t just Congress. These were women who were running for school board because they had saw how young people in their community were being attacked and threatened by other kids because they were just saying and doing what they saw Trump do. And they wanted to make sure that this did not become the norm for schoolchildren. You saw people stepping up to run for city council because their district was predominantly people of color, but there was not one person of color representing them on the city council.
People are looking around at the state and local level and realized that there were people that weren’t representing their best interests and that they had to step up and be those people, that they couldn’t wait for anyone else. And that’s very important because we do know that it’s the state and local elections that have the biggest impact on people’s lives. I think another piece of that is these women weren’t waiting for someone to ask them to run. They just did it. And normally, you do have to ask a woman, they say, at least seven times to run for office. I think that has totally changed. Women aren’t waiting for permission.
CARMEN: Jennifer immediately saw the reverberations of 2018 in her work with Platform, too.
JENNIFER: I think that there is almost this greater permission and audacity to question the system and realize that questioning the system doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for you to be heard and ways for you to engage. I mean, I think about, I was just watching a hearing clip where AOC apologized on behalf of the entire Congress, for what they were doing to immigrants. And so, the fact that a member of Congress—and not to say that there weren’t brilliant champions before—but the fact that a member of Congress using her time in a congressional hearing said, “I apologize for what we’re doing” gives us all greater audacity to question what’s happening and to get involved.
CARMEN: The women who won in 2018 were also remarkably diverse: 43 of those 102 women in the House were women of color, as were four of the 24 women elected in the Senate. The 116th Congress included not just the first woman to ever represent Pennsylvania, but the first Latinas to ever represent Texas, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House, the first-ever woman of color to represent New England, and the first Muslim and Native American women ever elected to national office. And that changes Congressional conversations even more.
A’SHANTI: The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power so that we have women who really have been impacted by these issues leading on these issues. For example, Congresswoman Lucy McBath from Georgia is an alum. For the listeners who don’t know about her, she is the mother of Jordan Davis, who was the young man who was shot and killed for listening to loud music in his car. She became a gun violence prevention activist. She had members of Congress telling her all the time, “There’s nothing that we can do.” She now sits in Congress, and she’s getting things done on this issue. That’s the first thing. The second thing is we have to make sure that there is intersectionality in the policies that women are introducing, which is why it’s very important that we do have women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women in these offices as well. Because they will be able to look at policy from all points of view. And it goes back to the issue of feminism. It can’t just say, okay, this is gonna be great for women. How is this gonna be great for women who live in rural areas as well? How is this going to be great for women who are really working hard to get out of poverty? You have to think about it from those different angles if we wanna have the success in policy.
CARMEN: That’s exactly why Aimee Allison founded She the People, a national network elevating the political power of women of color.
AIMEE ALLISON: Here we are, Black and brown women as being the dominant force deciding who wins elections, not only just swing States but even in places that are not associated with being Black States, like Ohio or others, we’re still the margin of victory and yet had gotten no acknowledgement of that. And the blindness that all the people in those universal ecosystem of politics had to recognizing the political power of women of color really served a racist and sexist agenda, and it made our politics—which unabashedly about racial, economic, and gender justice—it made our politics seem like we were out the edge as opposed to our politics were the most important. We wanted candidates that supported that. We wanted a bold politics. And if these campaigns, like in 2016, didn’t speak to us, then honestly, we would, though those who came to the polls would be supportive overwhelmingly of Democrats, but not enough of us came to the polls. ‘Cause honestly, no one was speaking our language and speaking to us. So, when I started, She the People, I was like, look, I am never ever going to allow this blindness, this willful ignorance, especially at a time where Trump’s ascendancy has put a fine point on the pain that our communities are feeling, and we’ll never allow this again. So, I was like, boom. When I started She the People, I was like, you will not win the White House, you will not win Senate, and you will not win a primary without us. Now speak to us. It was a game changer!
CARMEN: But the women elected in 2018 weren’t just intent on changing conversations and introducing new legislation. They also came to slay the very system they were now a part of.
[recorded clip from Knock Down the House plays]
[crowd clapping and cheering throughout as mellow music plays in the background]
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I’m running to represent the Bronx. I’m a third-generation Bronxite. I’m a Latina. I’m a Boricua. I’m a descendent of Taino Indians. I am a descendent of African slaves. I am proud to be an American! But we have to rise to that promise.
CARMEN: The “pink wave” of 2018 is, in large part, defined by the defiant voices of the women we now know as “The Squad.” That nickname has now become a commonplace reference point to talk about four specific Congresswomen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. And their designation as an infamously feminist clique started with a viral Instagram photo.
[recorded clip plays of The Squad’s interview on CBS News]
AYANNA PRESSLEY: We were asked to an interview because we each represent first. And at the end of the interview, they said, “Will you all take a picture?” We took the photo, and I’m not sure who said it.
ALEXANDRIA: It was me! [Chuckles.]
AYANNA: But just within the context of social media culture said, oh, let’s just do a hashtag #SquadGoals or something.
RASHIDA: I think it was #SquadGoals.
AYANNA: It was #SquadGoals.
RASHIDA: It was #SquadGoals.
AYANNA: And then it morphed into this thing. But I said, I’ve been saying in the days leading up to this moment, that the reality is that anyone, to your point about it’s not just about dismantling, but what we’re intentional about building and fostering
AYANNA: Anyone who is committed to the work of building a more equitable and just world is a part of The Squad.
CARMEN: Erin knows the photo well because it marked a turning point for VoteRunLead.
ERIN: So, the origin of the now infamous Squad photo taken by AOC on November 12 actually has a lot of powerful meaning behind it. It isn’t some random photo where the four of them were together. It was actually the four of them choosing to step out of their orientation program. So, they were in D.C. for the progressive caucus orientation, and VoteRunLead had also invited them to be a part of something we were doing just days after the election called Women & Power, a town hall. And we had 50 some-odd women in New York City from local elected offices all the way up to VoteRunLead alumni.
And so, they took time out of their orientation to livestream into this national town hall where there were hundreds of women in New York city and tens of thousands of women online watching. And that’s because Ilhan Omar, Representative Omar, is an alumni of VoteRunLead. Rashida Tlaib is a trainer and speaker for our organization. Representative Pressley’s finance person was an alum, and we had a relationship with her team. And of course, just sort of AOC, in her rise to power, really rounded out what was called the new faces of Congress. And that’s actually, it was, a lead staffer that took that photo and the photos of that day. And we had a journalist interview them to talk about what it meant to be this sort of remarkable group of women.
And it just totally warms my heart that they sort of dubbed themselves The Squad and that the photo was taken when they were coming together and taking time out of their busy orientation to talk to women about power, about what it meant for them to be elected. And it’s just so full circle, and the media has missed it so much, you know. They’re like, oh, they were at an orientation. It’s like, no, they came together to talk about women and power! Like you’re so missing it! It’s really about who these four women are that of course they’re gonna pause and give back to make sure that there are more women who look like them right behind them, getting ready to run for office and getting ready to win.
CARMEN: In the year since that photo was posted, The Squad—and their allies in Congress and across the country—have changed everything. But the change they started bringing began much earlier. Prachi Gupta was there when it started.
PRACHI GUPTA: I think after the election, it was very easy to lose hope. It was very easy to become cynical. And as a reporter, it’s just you’re mired down in this really depressing news. And I noticed that while some people were getting more engaged, a lot of people over time got news fatigue, and it was hard to keep people constantly focused on what was happening. And then the 2018 election cycle happened, and out from that cycle came this 28-year-old firebrand, a democratic socialist bartender who was just spitting fire and saying that, talking about what’s wrong with the Democratic party, talking about her vision for a brighter future. And she just, she won against all odds and inspired a generation of people, including myself, and fought back against that cynicism. And it was the first time in, I think, two or three years where I remembered feeling hopeful and that was a feeling that I had sort of forgotten.
CARMEN: She was so inspired, in fact, that she wrote an entire book about that firebrand: AOC: Fighter, Phenom, Changemaker.
PRACHI: And I think she was, you know, she was right to say that cynicism is the point, like when you get cynical, you get complacent. And so, her message really resonated with me, and it really inspired me. And then as I read more about her, I saw how her identity, kind of like my own identity, influenced her views on politics, influenced her views on equality and income inequality. And I wanted to just learn more about her and write more about the perspectives and contextualize her win. Because I think one really important thing is that if we don’t learn, as a country and as a party that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was not a fluke, like if we look at her and say her election was just this random thing, and it can’t happen again, then I feel that we haven’t learned a lesson. And I am worried that the same mistakes from the 2016 election will again be repeated within the party. So, I wanted to write a book that would contextualize her win and show why it was so effective and how this can help other campaigns across the country.
CARMEN: I wanted to talk to Prachi about what made AOC, and the women who ascended to power alongside her, so special.
PRACHI: I don’t think that identity defines a person’s politics. Like no one is just their race or gender or sexual orientation, and there’s no one way that that would necessarily inform their politics. But I think that AOC has been very vocal about how her upbringing as a woman who was brought up in between two worlds, like living in the Bronx, living in Yorktown Heights, to a Puerto Rican family, how that influenced her outlook on income inequality and also the racism that she experienced in her predominantly white school, where she was exposed to, at a very young age, the differences between race and class and the links between those two. And that she carried that with her for her whole life. So, it certainly played a strong role in how she saw, like how she developed and how she saw the world, and I think an attraction to understanding injustice and focusing on injustice at a very young age.
CARMEN: Because here’s the thing: The Squad has, for the last year, embodied much of what we know about women’s leadership in politics and proven the research on the impact it has to be true. They stand up for women and for other marginalized communities.
AIMEE: First of all, they, as a group, embody the kind of solidarity that is both beautiful and is an example for the rest of the country. When I hear Rashida Tlaib, the congresswoman from Michigan, who’s Palestinian American, say our hero, Shirley Chisolm—referring to the first Black woman, the first Democrat, to run for president in modern times—that’s a language of solidarity, when you claim the legacy of other groups. When I hear Ayanna Pressley go to bat for and be a passionate, outspoken advocate for humanity, treating migrants with humanity and really speaking for many, this is the language of solidarity.
CARMEN: They work hard for everybody, and they craft new and innovative solutions that require their perspectives.
ERIN: I think what is getting missed is that these women are really solution-oriented. They are idea after idea after idea. They are putting resolutions and policy proposals forward. These aren’t your sort of ladies who got into Congress and sort of resting on their laurels. There’s actually a lot of idea generation and solution orientation coming out of their offices. And that gets missed sometimes when we’re talking about how savvy they are in social media or when the president acts like they’re not American, right? When in fact, the opposite is true. They are really reflective of American women who we know to be solution-oriented when they get into leadership. We know that when women step into executive or private leadership positions, it’s the same thing, right? We’re producing ideas. We didn’t get here because we wanted to say, “Oh, I’m a Congresswoman.” We got here because we had really bold, new ways of thinking that we think other people needed to get on board with and get this thing done.
AIMEE: I think that these women are deeply connected to movements. It’s different. It’s not just, it’s not enough to have melanin and [chuckles] identify as a woman or have a uterus, or it’s not enough! It’s not enough! What we’re looking for are people who are deeply connected to organizing and movement. They’re the ones who are most effective legislators. And so, that’s a significant difference where I think that we’re showing what’s possible, even with a system that’s stacked against us, it’s possible to organize people and to win. You’re not gonna win every time, but to stay closely allied to movement and to be a partner, like having elected officials as partners, kind of an inside/outside strategy. And it also means that there are different groups and people who are validators and who can support leadership. And part of what I’m, a big part of what I’m doing is to continue to make the argument how critical women of color, our experiences, makes us expert in what ails this country. And it makes us expert in leading the solutions.
CARMEN: But this also isn’t just a sequel to a Year of the Woman. It’s more. This is an entirely new era for women. One major difference? This Year of the Woman is led by women of color.
AIMEE: Women of color are leading. Almost all of the major national movements that are happening right now have women of color at the lead. So, it’s acknowledging that that’s the way to build. And that we can’t win— Like women of color are 20 percent of population. And we don’t all agree; we’re not a monolith. But I will say that when we have people that win or politics or win, we organize across race. And that kind of organizing that we’ve seen in some pretty remarkable examples, like in Georgia when Stacey Abrams ran, and other places with The Squad, man, that gives us a different view about how we can go forward even in the age of Trump.
CARMEN: And The Squad is different in a lot of ways, too, than the generation of women who came before them. Their work marks a massive departure from what pundits typically call “politics as usual.” They refuse to play respectability politics or change themselves to make the mainstream comfortable.

A’SHANTI: They know that the things that they say, that they do, even how they wear their hair, their nail color is really going to be impacting this next generation of women that they can see Ayanna Pressley wear her hair in Senegalese twists. That they can Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and her red lips and Ilhan with her black nail polish and say, “I look like a congresswoman.” They’re challenging those norms that you can still be authentically you and serve in elected office. And I think back then, it was still, you gotta wear your suit, you gotta have your dress on with your stockings. And for them, they’re like, no, you are enough. And I think that’s fabulous.

CARMEN: They’re not about to kowtow to anybody or any party.

AIMEE: AOC, we look at Deb Haaland, we look at Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman from Minnesota. We should also look at Veronica Escobar, the congresswoman from Texas. We should look at Lauren Underwood, the congresswoman from Illinois. All these women are in their first term. Not a single one got support from the Democratic party in their primary, not one! Not Lauren Underwood, who was in a flip district, who had to defeat five white dudes to win. Not Deb Haaland who was from New Mexico, which is right now a purple state. Not AOC who was in a district that was decidedly Democratic, but some, you know, an old, kind of out-of-touch guy was representing the district. Each one of those women had to organize differently and bring in new voters in order to win in the primary. So, what we know is The Squad isn’t dependent on the same monied interest. So, they came out, more than any other particular group of leaders, swinging clear, showing a moral example and showing such courage that they were the first ones to call for impeachment. They were the ones who were calling for Green New Deal and other things that are the game changers right now. They’re giving the Democratic party relevance in an age where a lot of people are like, what are you doing?!

CARMEN: [Chuckles.]

AIMEE: So, I’m really, really proud. I want them to be successful. And so, that’s why I’m organizing a million women of color nationally. We need our leaders to be successful, but we also need to identify more like them. If we think that those are the only women [laughs] in the country who are willing to lead, there’s a lot more.

CARMEN: And they’re damn proud of it.

ERIN: These are representatives and have lived experiences in the U.S. that have yet to be in public office, as four women of color, as first-generation and immigrant women, as Black women that have just not simply had enough of them. So, their visibility around social media, their sort of inhibitions when it comes to being public, right? Like they’re like, yeah, let’s talk about it. Let’s do it. They call out journalists. They really live and operate in their values. And while I don’t think that some of these other new women that have come in are any different, I just think they have a real, I hate to say the word “savvy,” but a real savvy about how to do it. Like they’re smart. They know what they’re doing. They know how to use all the tools in their toolbox.

CARMEN: And the best part? They’re not the only ones. The Squad is a symbol for an entire generation of women in politics who are determined to fix structural problems nobody else has cared to acknowledge, even if it means playing the game from inside of an institution that wasn’t built for them.

AIMEE: The Squad isn’t four women in Congress in their first term. The Squad is tens of millions of us and generations of blood, sweat, and tears to have representation.

A’SHANTI: I love the fact that they say everyone is a part of The Squad. I think that for them, they really take to heart what they are representing. And that because they are in a new time, they have more eyes on them, and they have a much wider reach, particularly for young women.

[recorded clip of a press conference]

AYANNA: Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world. And that is the work that we wanna get back to. And given the size of this squad and this great nation, we cannot, we will not, be silenced.

A’SHANTI: Women know that there is way too much at stake, period. And especially with this administration, this president, we’re just seeing so much damage being done on a daily basis. We know that we can’t keep quiet, and we have to say loud. And we have to let other people know what is happening and ask them to join us and mobilize. We can’t keep quiet. And I think The Squad knows that. Every single woman who has stepped up to run for office since 2016 knows that, win or lose, that we really have to be the leaders.

So many people feel that their elected officials have failed them. A lot of those elected officials are the ones who have said, “Well, I can’t take a bold position. I don’t wanna do that.” And that’s why they’re seeing a lot of challengers. And I do definitely believe voters are paying attention. They’re no longer just looking for the candidate who has the name recognition, who can raise a lot of money, who has a big war chest, or is getting all the endorsements. They’re looking for that person that they can relate to, that person who’s going to speak to them, and that person who knows that they need change. So, that’s why we see women leading the charge because they are those people that voters are looking to in this day and age.

PRACHI: I think we can only go from two analogies or thinking about what comparisons AOC herself has said. And she’s often said that she sees, that basically, she sees herself as part of a group that’s bringing the Democratic party back to its roots. So, she heralds back to FDR’s New Deal, which is part of where the name of the Green New Deal comes from. But I think it basically is, in some ways, it’s a total overhaul, but in some ways, it’s not. It’s just a reprioritization, refocusing the priorities of the Democratic party, of national politics, leading, you know, creating more regulations against, you know, just creating more protections that prioritize the working-class people over corporations. And shifting priorities, I think, is a really big part of what they’re trying to do.

So, I think that there’s a lot of, I think, scaremongering talk about a complete overhaul and changing, you know, turning America into a quote-unquote “socialist country.” But I think that what they’re ultimately trying to do is change the priorities of the government and fix things that have long been broken that, within both the Democratic party and beyond, that haven’t really put the interests of people of color, immigrants, minorities first. I think that what they’re ultimately asking for is a reprioritization of the government’s initiatives and priorities.

JENNIFER: You know, this system was not built for all of the people. It was built for the power for a limited few. And I think that women today recognize—I mean, women have always recognized that—but are willing to and are able—not willing, ‘cause they’ve always been willing, sorry—are more boldly and finding more community around speaking out and calling out the way that these systems don’t serve people. And so, I think that there is both a level of understanding the system so that you can disrupt it. And so, playing the game a little bit, but also defining new rules and saying this might’ve been how it was done before, but that doesn’t mean it has to happen now. I mean, one of the things we’re doing is we’re teaching young women who have no traditional powers of money and privilege to lobby. And that’s a pretty wild thing to do. When you think about lobbying, you think of bald guys in backrooms with big cigars and bigger wallets.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JENNIFER: [Chuckles.] And that’s not who we’re putting in elected office anymore or putting in the rooms with their elected officials anymore. And I think it’s because we understand that there’s a system that we have to play with, but there’s also a system that we’re willing to undo and define on our own term.

ERIN: I do think a lot of these women who ran for office do believe government deeply has a role. You know, this isn’t a sort of Tea Party wave of women that wanna shut it down. They do believe that our institutions of a positive force for good because those institutions need some major, major rewriting about how they’re built.

A’SHANTI: When we think about this as women, we are playing in a system that did not exist for us. Politics was made for white, land-owning men. They didn’t envision us having these roles. If you’re a person of color, they most certainly never envisioned you sitting at those tables. So, even for me, when I think about what I do at Emerge, I walk into a room a lot of times, and I’m the only woman there, and I’m the only woman of color there. So, my presence lets them know that I have disrupted this system. So, not only am I sitting at this table as a disruption to the system, I’m here to tell you that I’m also gonna recruit and train more women to run for office and disrupt this system some more. That scares the hell out of a lot of people because it’s not just their power as individuals. It’s going to change this entire system, and a lot of people focus politics on themselves. So, the people who get scared are those who are in politics for the selfish reasons. For those who are doing it for the right reasons, they don’t get scared. They welcome this change.

CARMEN: The Squad is marching toward that change, and they’re succeeding at transforming the political landscape.

PRACHI: What we’ve seen is that they have, you know, they practiced what they preached. So, they came in with a lot of energy, and then it remained to be seen whether they would actually follow up, you know, whether they would continue to speak up against corporate interests, speak up against Donald Trump, speak up against people within their own party when they made mistakes or said offensive or racially-insensitive things. And time and time again, they have done that, and they haven’t really backed down. And they‘ve continued to be about the things that they’ve talked about. And that has been really inspiring. And to see a block of young freshman Progressives come in with that much force and keep it sends a strong message to so many people, especially young women and people of color that this is possible.

People talk about pulling a seat up at the table, and if there’s no seat, you make one or you make a new table. And I think we’re seeing that in action, and it’s very inspiring. And that’s, I think, going to have a lasting impact on this generation of people who are getting involved in politics for the first time and realizing that there is a place for them. And that if there isn’t in their local, state, federal levels that they can force their way in and make room for themselves. That there is always that option. And I think seeing this group of women do that has helped other people realize, in their own lives, that they can do that as well.

AIMEE: I started this work, there was almost no public acknowledgement of women of color, both as a group, you know, as a voice, as a set of politics. And now, you have people like Dan rather tweeting, oh, Trump is afraid of women of color ‘cause they see right through him. Dan rather was on TV for 40 years and never mentioned us. Never! [Laughs.] You have the Democratic party leadership #ThankBlackWomen as if we were just new on the scene. [Laughs.] Yeah, our culture’s changed, and that’s the work.

I mean we organized a presidential forum, the first presidential forum focused on women of color, way back in April. And I had this very compelling argument, which was telling reporters—and these are from the New York Times, Washington Post, the Boston Globe. I mean, just every, Politico, every major outlet. And MSNBC came in, CNN, NPR. I mean, we had 150 credentialed members of the media. And the reason is, is because I think that those who shape public opinion, starting first and foremost in the media, realize that they’d missed something really important in 2016, and they wanted to tell that story differently. And when I say it’s not race and women, there is no women’s— Like the consciousness around lots of things associated with women of color, not only how powerful we are. Just to tell women of color, “You are powerful” is to interrupt the BS stories we’ve been told our whole life. But to tell a reporter that you have a missed the major drivers of American politics and that you’re not seeing something that’s important is a very compelling thing for reporter.

So, a lot of the coffees and stuff on background I would do is to say, I’m gonna tell you something. “Women of color will deliver the White House.” And they’re like, “Why?” And I say, “There’s seven states where Trump won where women of color or one of four voters, where the Democratic party did a piss poor job of talking to us and engaging us and went to us six weeks before the election when Hillary Clinton was on the ballot. And if we focus on women of color, who are six times more likely to vote for Democrats than white dudes, we forget about switching Trump voters ‘cause they’re gonna stick with their dude. And we focus on women who are most likely to vote Democrat and carry those states, we’ll have enough electoral votes to win the White House.” And they’re like, “Holy shit. I’ve never, [laughs] I’ve never heard of that!” And I’m just like, “I’m gonna just tell you what’s gonna happen! Because we’re positioned to do that. Then we’re gonna win. Then we’re going to take credit.”

CARMEN: It’s true that we all stand to benefit from The Squad’s legacy. But it’s gonna take work to sustain it and even more work to extend it. It’s gonna take all of us to dismantle the system and even more of us to build a better one.

ERIN: I’d like to see things like ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting is one of those voting systems where it’s not a winner take all system. So, if there’s 11 candidates in a primary, you actually get to vote for your top five candidates. You get to rank them. Here’s choice number one, choice number two, here’s my third favorite, fourth favorite, right? And the way the math works is if nobody gets a majority, then the sort of the overall majority wins. So, the last guy gets knocked off, and any of votes that he, you know, his number twos all go to the people who were his number two or number three. And it’s a really more inclusive and fair way of actually having the voters really get to decide writ large who is their representative as opposed to 50 percent plus 1, right? So, there’s a much more collective agreement on who that representative is, and the results that we see around the country actually end up with more women city council members, women mayors, more people of color in places that you see ranked choice voting being used. So, that’s one.

The idea around expanding the House of Representatives, right, that now these representatives in some places are one representative to millions and millions of people. And is there sort of some level of expansiveness to the literal number of people that we have in office at the congressional level. Fair district drawing of maps. How critical the census is right now to making sure that those voices who have, those people, that have been left out, that literally have not been counted, are not only one, counted, but two, then proportioned in a way that they’re not all the sort of communities of color, immigrant communities are drawn into a squiggly line of a district. I mean, gerrymandering comes from the word “salamander,” like that is a squiggly line of how the shape of a district can be drawn.

CARMEN: [Chuckles.]

ERIN: It’s political folklore, but it’s exactly that idea that we’ve set the rulemaking in an unfair way and given it to a small group of people who then get to decide how to kind of keep the oligarchy alive.

PRACHI: I think that we are still sort of learning what the long-term effects are going to be. Obviously, there’s something called, the way the media has dubbed the “AOC effect” that 2018, we ushered in the most diverse Congress in us history. And more and more women have been inspired to run, and we’ve learned that when women run, they win. So, all of that’s really positive. But I think what we’re also learning and discovering is that, just because we have this new energy doesn’t mean that that’s translating into institutional support. We still have the old systems of, entrenched politicians have this huge machinery behind them that supports them the way Joseph Crowley did in Queens. And we still are seeing that machinery all over the country, and it’s very hard to dismantle that.

So, while more women are excited, while there are more organizations like Justice Democrats is supporting insurgent challengers, it’s still really hard to overcome this sort of mentality within the party, especially from the party leaders that say, well, you know, AOC did what she did because it was a very blue area, and that’s not gonna translate anywhere else in the country. And you know, there’s still, even within the Democratic party, you look at the D triple C blacklists, they support incumbents, even at the risk of an incumbent being a moderate versus a new progressive woman of color challenger. So, I think it’s showing us that there are, while it’s a really exciting moment, there are still a lot of institutional challenges that we need to overcome and that the party is at this sort of critical moment of figuring out where it’s going to go and what it’s going to be.

JENNIFER: When we talk about why people show up in activist spaces, in elected office, in all of these different converging political spaces, I know that as a Jewish woman, there are spaces where my rights are on the line. But I also know that in many spaces, and in most spaces, I’m good. I’m okay. I have a college degree, I am white, and I can navigate the world on my terms. And for so many of these people who are risking at all, it’s because they have to. And I think we have to reframe a little bit of the way we talked about activism in politics to understand how personal it is and what it means for people to show up when everything is on the line and when there’s no choice to engage. And that is why we have to be doing what we’re doing.

And so, for these incredible Squad members, the members of Congress who come from communities that are experiencing horrifying Islamophobia, who are being told to go back to their countries, who are being told that they are insignificant members of Congress, that their districts are small, they’re fighting for the real needs of people. And the way that we support that is by changing who gets to define what power is. And right now, the people who define what power is are those with money. And so, we need to overturn Citizens United. We need to get money out of politics. And it needs to be about the people who are showing up. We need to reinstate all pieces of the Voting Rights Act. And if we put the power back into people’s hands, the people are going to show up for members like The Squad—AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna, Pressley, Rashida Tlaib—because they’re fighting for real solutions that impact real people. And when we create a system where the power is truly in the hands of the people and not the corporations acting like people, we have a better shot of supporting candidates who actually support us.

CARMEN: What I’m saying here is, what happened in 2018 was earth-shattering and important. And what happens next matters just as much.

A’SHANTI: This work does not have an end date. When we talk about parity, that’s basically 50/50, but parity doesn’t mean that every state is going to have 50 percent women. That doesn’t mean that there’s gonna be 50 percent of women in all of these elected offices. It most certainly doesn’t mean 50 percent women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women. There is a lot to do. So, we still have a lot of work to go. But that system means that when we have women sitting at the table, it is normalized. When we have multiple women running for the same position, that is normalized. Women shouldn’t be told that they can’t run because there’s another woman running. It is when we open up magazines about politics and see women, when we turn on the TV, and we have another woman Speaker that isn’t just Nancy Pelosi, when we have multiple women that are presidents, that is what the new power structure will look like, where we’re really not thinking anymore about the first woman, the first woman of color, the first LGBTQ woman. It just becomes a norm in this country. And that’s what we’re fighting for at Emerge.

CARMEN: For Emerge, the next step in this fight is continuing to empower every woman who looks to them for resources with the support they need to get Democratic campaigns off the ground and take over every single district in every single state in the whole damn country.

A’SHANTI: One of the things that I say all the time is when I look at the political map, when I look across the country, I don’t see red states, I don’t see blue states, I don’t see purple states. All I see is opportunity: the opportunity to get more women recruited and trained and running for office. And for me, that’s where I’m gonna be focusing my efforts for the next several years. I know where all of my colleagues will be focusing their efforts and everyone in our network. There’s still so much to do, so many offices that have never had a woman, a woman of color, an LGBTQ woman. Again, the work has no end date. So, it’s continuing to let women know that the Emerge Network exists to get them trained to run for office, to support them when they’re running for office. But even when I think about the women in our network, they inspire women who aren’t in this network.

I just had a dinner event, and Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small was there. And she told the story of how she was at the airport in New Mexico, and this woman ran up to her, and she said, “I saw you run your race. It inspired me so much that now I’m going to run because I saw you do it.” So, our alums inspire other women, so this is just going to continue to keep growing until we change the power structure in this country.

CARMEN: VoteRunLead’s mission heading into the 2020 election is similar, with their larger goal to recruit more and more women from the margins to come to their trainings and to focus in on state legislature races.

ERIN: So, VoteRunLead is continuing to train. whether that is, gosh, every like six to eight weeks, I feel like we are [chuckles] somewhere in America doing a training, if not hosting a webinar.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

ERIN: So, you know, VoteRunLead.org/events, and you will find a variety of places that we will be. I was just in South Carolina for the first ever Rural Women’s Summit. Really diverse room. You know, not just of course, from women coming from all corners of America, but around the racial and ethnic diversity, the religious diversity that was in the room. So, really going forward in 2020, we’re gonna be looking at rural women, rural women of color. We’re gonna be focusing on the state legislatures because we saw once women got in 2018 and the state legislatures, what happened in the states where you see close to 40 percent women? Bills got churned out like crazy, and they got done in bipartisan ways. And they protected reproductive rights, and they passed bills on climate change and common sense gun reform: all these things that we know 70 percent of American women care about. When you put women into these state legislatures, they actually get it done. So, we’re really looking at a particular program around state ledge. We’re looking at rural women of color. We’re looking at, we make room.

We make room for our Republican sisters. We make room for our center-right sisters. VoteRunLead will never deny a political education to any woman in this country who wants to learn how to run. And it is really that diversity of thought of getting women in a room with one another because we bring your values, come talk to people who don’t have the same values as you, let’s have these conversations. Because what we’re doing now in the sort of two-party system and the leadership that’s there, we’ve gotta, like I said earlier, really rethink, not only who’s in power, but who’s writing the rules.

CARMEN: Aimee at She the People will continue, in advance of the 2020 election, to put women of color at the center of political discourse and to mobilize millions of women of color at SheThePeople.org to do the same in their communities.

AIMEE: Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan. We win those states, we win the White House. And we win those states by focusing on women of color. So, what we’re doing is we’re creating a voting engagement process over the next 12 months. Notice, I didn’t say six weeks before election day. It’s 12 months to create a political home and voter engagement specifically for women of color, by and for women of color, to elevate turnout nationally, but also in those states. And so, people can be supported by going to SheThePeople.org and being part of it, registering, by donating, by being a part of it, participating in our calls, and things like that.

We just, part of what we do is we elevate the groups on the ground who are doing phenomenal work. So, we had a woman named Amy Castenel from the New Georgia Project. They are the most amazing women of color-led statewide kind of voter engagement group in Georgia who are responsible for elevating turnout to historic levels in 2018. They now are continuing doing the work, preparing for 2020, and we had them talk about how they’re doing voter protection. So, people in the She the People network who live in blue states are like, what do I do? Freakin’ join the New Georgia Project and help phone bank to let people know that the Republican governors are trying to take people off the voter rolls. There’s concrete things that the entire national network for She the People can do in order to win in 2020.

CARMEN: And until election day, and long after it, Jennifer will be building Platform and transforming women everywhere into politically-savvy lobbyists who can make magic happen wherever pressure needs to be applied in the halls of power.

JENNIFER: On election day, the skies aren’t going to clear. The angels aren’t going to sing. We have a lot of work to do every day after because yes, there were a lot of wonderful campaign promises. Now we actually have to make them law. And we navigate this place of election day is important. You gotta show up to vote. But there’s also a way to engage every day after. And so, one of the things that we’re really doing is we typically do the national convention. Right now, we are in conversations about doing state summits in battleground states where we have energized and mobilized young people to talk about before the election, to say, “Here are the issues that matter to me. My issues are on the ballot, and that’s what I’m voting for.” And so, it’s not just about single champions. It’s not about an elected official or a candidate being our saviors and saving graces. It’s about what are they running on, and how are they gonna work with me to make that happen and make that law?

And so, that’s what we’re really aiming to do is, is to go into communities where we have strong bases, help connect them to leaders who are on the ground in their communities. We’ll be asking a lot of the officials and candidates to take that pledge and say, “Do you want our votes? You have to protect our rights. And are you going to work with us as a partner in progress?” So, that’s how we’re mobilizing our base is these issues are on the ballot. What are you doing about it?

CARMEN: Now, look. This wouldn’t be a political episode without a call to action. So, here it is. As soon as this episode is over, I want you to go online and sign up to participate in or support the programs and campaigns being run by all of the women in this episode and the dozens of feminist organizations working on every level to shift the political system. Nominate your friends for political incubator programs. Volunteer for feminist candidates. Get your own campaign off the ground. Learn to lobby, and tell your friends how they can do it, too.

It’ll take each and every one of us to make that win happen. But together, we just might burn down the house and finally build the equitable, inclusive government we deserve.

AIMEE: We have big forces, but all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not defeat Trump! Because Trump represents something pervasive and generational. I mean, he’s like, he represents something terrible that we’ve known has been part of this country for a long time. And in order to defeat him, we have to have new ideas, new leaders. And, also it’s not just that one dude. He’s a terrible person, but he represents millions of people and institutions that we have to dismantle. How do we do that? We’ve gotta do it with a new way of thinking, and we gotta do it with love! I mean, I just wanna say—and it might not be that popular to say—but electoral politics has never been about power over, for me. It’s been about love and justice, creating a country of belonging, and making this democracy live up to its promise for all of us. And these core values are what’s gonna save us.

[theme music]

CARMEN: Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was edited by Emily Boghossian and produced and hosted by me: feminist writer, editor, and activist Carmen Rios. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Aimee Allison, A’shanti Gholar, Prachi Gupta, Jennifer Mandelblatt, and Erin Vilardi. And you can find out more about them and the work that they’re doing at BitchMedia.org.

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. And follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like it in your feed (algorithm willing). And find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr. You can also send me hate mail at CarmenFuckingRios.com.

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Stay tuned for our upcoming GLAMOUR season, which will premiere NEXT WEEK! on December 19. ‘Til then, I’ll see you on the internet.


by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”