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Novelist Cheryl Strayed on #MeToo, the horror of election night, and identity politics

“I don’t know a woman who can’t say ‘me too.’”

Cheryl Strayed in Los Angeles, California, in November, 2014.
Amy Graves/Getty Images for Syracuse University Los Angeles

The pain and disbelief many women felt the morning of November 9, 2016, when they learned that Donald Trump would be president, was visceral. Novelist Cheryl Strayed was one of these women.

“I knew the American electorate was divided politically, but I also knew something else: For all our flaws, we were not a people who’d choose a man to be our president who was so plainly, so essentially, so completely, a disrespectful brute,” Strayed said over the phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. “I was wrong.”

Strayed is the author of the best-selling novel Wild and the woman behind the popular advice column Dear Sugar, which appeared in the online literary magazine the Rumpus and is now a podcast hosted by the New York Times. In a new collection of essays, Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America — edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding — Strayed and two dozen other writers reflect on what the Trump presidency means for them and for women across the globe. Contributors include Rebecca Solnit, Carina Chocano, Jill Filipovic, Katha Pollitt, and Sarah Hollenbeck.

I spoke with Strayed about how she has come to think about Trump’s election, identity politics, and the “me too” campaign, among other subjects. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

Writing about politics is new for you. How did you get involved in this project?

Cheryl Strayed

The day after the election, Kate Harding DM’d me on Twitter saying she wanted to talk to me about this anthology about the election. Immediately, I said yes. Like so many people, I was absolutely devastated by the election results. I was in absolute shock and horror. It felt like the right thing. If there was some way I could speak up in this time of political despair, I would.

Hope Reese

How did you feel when Trump called Hillary a “nasty woman” in one of the debates? What does the term mean to you now?

Cheryl Strayed

I have to consciously remind myself that “nasty woman” is a criticism. The response, by so many of us, was that we were appalled but it was hilarious. When someone is on a presidential stage and they’re calling people “nasty,” it’s a joke. So many women around the world realized, immediately, that we were thrilled to be called “nasty” when it came from someone who was so nasty in his opinions of women.

Hope Reese

It’s almost been a year since the election. Does that day still feel surreal to you?

Cheryl Strayed

I’m still confused. Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. But it shouldn’t have even been that close. He shouldn’t have been the nominee. I was aghast when he was winning, and I took solace in the fact that he couldn’t actually win. So when it happened, I was reeling.

The only way I can make sense of it is that I didn’t realize how real the fear and resentment is about things like the advancement of women, of people of color, of gays and lesbians. That there’s a lot of rage out there. The group of people who feel like some power was taken from them at the table by “others.” People who voted for Trump don’t agree with me. They’d say “the feminist movement ruined America.” So I think it’s racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant. That’s a more powerful force than I imagined it could be.

Hope Reese

You wrote an advice column, Dear Sugar, for years –– now a podcast and turned into a play. What advice would you give today to someone who is struggling with the result of the election and the current state of the world?

Cheryl Strayed

I wrote a Dear Sugar column after the election in an online journal called Angel’s Flight. The question was: What is the impact of writing and literature in these times? This letter is aimed for writers and artists. Whether it’s despair over the state of the world or the state of your marriage, or whatever, remember the things that aren’t terrible. Remember the things that are real, and alive, and vibrant, and do everything in your power to expand those. I’m not going to stop writing because the world is falling apart, because Donald Trump is president. I’m going to double down. I’m going to get more political. I can’t afford not to.

Hope Reese

Do you think there’s a silver lining to Trump’s election — that women are coming together, as evidenced by this book?

Cheryl Strayed

Absolutely. It’s hard for me to say there is one, because really when I think about how different things would be if Hillary Clinton were president, something little dies inside of me. But the silver lining is that a lot of people have connected to others who are like-minded. A lot of people have had awakenings about their responsibilities as citizens. A lot of people have decided to use their voice in the public forum. In so many ways, there’s a positive force in response to Trump’s negative force.

Hope Reese

I was upset after the election to learn that so many women voted for Trump — feeling that it was somehow a betrayal. But Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay in the collection arguing that we shouldn’t blame women any more than we blame men. What do you think?

Cheryl Strayed

When I first heard that a significant portion of white women had voted for Trump, I was just like, “That can’t be true.” I was gobsmacked, to be honest. But people voted out of their fears, their racism and sexism. And women are capable of having those same fears. Just like there can be men who don’t have those fears — who want to share their power across race and gender.

I was amazed when people would say, “Oh, they’re voting with their vaginas,” when women would vote for Clinton. First of all, that’s ridiculous. But I would also think — well, why not? Why is it invalid to finally be excited to think of finally having a woman president? Just the same way that I was ecstatic to finally have a president who wasn’t white when Obama was elected. I don’t think a preference for wanting diversity means that your brain has flown out of your head.

Hope Reese

Many election reporters prefaced their reporting with “Hillary’s not perfect, but…” or that Hillary was “flawed” in some way. What do you think about these kinds of statements?

Cheryl Strayed

Plain misogyny. Absolute misogyny. There’s no other explanation. When has the notion ever been that anyone is perfect? I’ve never assumed anyone I’ve voted for is perfect. I’ve never heard so many people have to preface their comments by saying, “Well, she’s not perfect.” Even I would say, “Well, it’s not that I agree with everything she’s done…” It’s like, well, I don’t agree with everything Obama’s done, but somehow we’re much more free to say, “Isn’t Obama amazing? Don’t we love him?” There are all kinds of things he did that I didn’t agree with.

It’s misogyny. We are very comfortable belittling women. Even evolved, feminist women do it. It’s embedded in our language, our psyches. The very way we ponder what women get to do. She was a powerful, ambitious, smart, prepared woman. Everything she did was turned against her.

Hope Reese

The concept of “identity politics” — whether we should align ourselves with certain identity groups such as black or female — has been deeply debated. Where do you stand?

Cheryl Strayed

I think we call it “identity politics” when it’s politics that don’t affect white men of economic privilege. A recent example: Progressive, leftist men will say, “We have to support candidates even if they’re not pro-choice,” since that’s an “identity issue,” not an economic issue. I was so glad when women rose up when Bernie Sanders said that [at the Women’s Convention].

It’s a central issue. I’m always asking the question: Who’s at the norm? The center? The average person who’s in the position of power? And who has an asterisk after them? When I grew up, people were still saying the “lady doctor” or the “lady lawyer.” As if you need an adjective. I frequently talk about “women writers.” If I talk about “men writers,” it just sounds weird.

There’s a corollary there when we talk about identity politics — the assumption that the white male is at the center, and everyone outside is a special interest group.

Hope Reese

What do you think about the controversy over Bernie Sanders being asked to speak at the Women's Convention? [Sanders has since announced he will not be appearing.]

Cheryl Strayed

I’ve learned that he’ll no longer be the opening speaker, but my concerns about his selection still remain, for the two the reasons I cited: the fact that he’s a white man and at a women’s conference. I think women’s voices should be heard, but also he’s a divisive figure to so many who supported Clinton. I respect Sanders and agree with 99 percent of his political positions. I simply think his presence opens up arguments we’d do best to put behind us.

Hope Reese

With the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, we see a lot of women coming forward to report their experiences of harassment and assault. Are we, as a society, more ready to listen to these stories?

Cheryl Strayed

There’s an onward march of progress. The voices now speaking up on Twitter saying “me too” and all of these other women are standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.

I don’t know a woman who can’t say “me too.” None of the Harvey Weinstein stuff is remotely surprising to me. And yet, what’s cool is that there is progress. It sucks that Harvey Weinstein exists today, that this is going on, but we are slowly coming to acknowledge all of this. This is what we saw with Anita Hill. She said, “He did this to me, and now he’s a Supreme Court justice.” We didn’t rise up. We didn’t effect change in the outcome of a decision. We effected change in the culture, but it took years for that to come to fruition. I do believe that the “me too” campaign can change things. I’m happy that this watershed moment is occurring.

Hope Reese

You tweeted as part of the “me too” campaign that it took you 10 years to talk about the sexual abuse you suffered, in part because you didn’t believe it yourself due to our culture that protects predators.

Cheryl Strayed

I was sexually abused by my grandfather when I was ages 3 to 5. The “not admitting it” part was all about my bewilderment about what had even been done to me, followed by the fear I wouldn’t be believed. When I was 14, I asked my sister about it because she had also been sexually abused, and that’s when she affirmed and verified my experience. She remembered the same things too. We told our mom. She believed us.

Hope Reese

But do you think that simply saying it is enough? Or do they make us feel that we’ve done something when there’s really much more to be done, in terms of action?

Cheryl Strayed

I don’t quite agree with that. It depends what you mean when you think of “action.” To me, a lot of people who weren’t going to say anything to anyone, ever, in terms of sexual abuse, have spoken up. That’s an action. That’s an action that changes a life. That has consequences that we can’t necessarily see immediately.

The question is do industries sit down and say, “We’ve made some progress on sexual harassment — but how can we make this a safer environment for everyone?” But still, the naive optimist in me says that, yes, [women speaking out] is going to make things change.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.


Correction: The name of the publication where Strayed published her post-election Dear Sugar column was corrected to Angel’s Flight.

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