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“The left is worse on gender issues than they realize”

A new book tackles the complexity of feminism in the age of Trump.

3rd Annual Amber Rose SlutWalk Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

“Such a nasty woman.”

That’s how Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton near the end of their third presidential debate on October 19, 2016. Trump, a known misogynist, was interrupting Clinton’s response to a question about raising taxes on the rich.

That Trump won the presidential election in spite of his sexism, in spite of the fact that he was caught on tape admitting to sexual assault, says something significant about the electorate’s indifference to misogyny. That the term “nasty women” became a rallying cry for anti-Trump women and feminists also says something about the anger his campaign generated.

A new book titled Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America is an attempt to reckon with the reality of Trump’s presidency — what it reflects and what it demands from feminists. The book is a collection of 23 essays penned by self-proclaimed “nasty women.” The essays cover a lot of ground — from identity politics to class conflict to race.

But the overarching theme is simple: What does a feminist revolution in the age of Trump look like, and how do we achieve it?

I spoke with Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who co-edited the anthology with Kate Harding and authored one of the essays. I asked her what happened in 2016, why she argues identity politics isn’t the problem, and why she thinks so many women voted for a man like Trump.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “more white women were seduced by Trump’s racism and misogyny than Hillary’s message of empowerment.” Part of the problem, she adds, is that Clinton doesn’t conform to traditional gender stereotypes, and that causes resentment among women and men.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.

Feminism and identity politics

Sean Illing

You kick off this anthology with an essay titled, “I’m a Woman, Vote for Me: Why We Need Identity Politics.” So tell me, why do we need identity politics?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Obviously, the title is playing off the famous Bernie Sanders quote, where he said it’s “Not enough to say, I’m a woman, vote for me.”

What I think is really interesting is the way that identity politics is really perceived in the current moment. So, it's kind of understood as simply as, “I am a woman, vote for me.” And yeah, that’s a very superficial way to do and think about politics. I also think the left and the right has used tokenizing references to people of color for a long time. But I think that the progressive movement needs identity politics.

Sean Illing

What does embracing a more nuanced understanding of identity politics add, in practical terms, to progressivism?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

My view is that we need an understanding of identity in order to understand the lived experiences of different people, and how policies and problems impact them differently. I don’t think it’s enough to, for example, talk about welfare reform or health care or the criminal justice system in broad, abstract terms. We need to know how this affects specific groups of people, and I think it’s hard to clarify that without doing something like identity politics.

Sean Illing

When we talk about identity politics, we tend to assume we’re talking about race — for good reasons, I suppose. I wonder how you think feminism fits into this conversation.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Yeah, it’s a good point. I think when people think of identity politics, they think of Black Lives Matter or immigration organizing or the Muslim ban. I don't think that people necessarily think about gender as a form of identity politics, but it clearly is and gender is clearly part of identity and how we experience the world.

Maybe it’s left out because it’s not convenient for people on the left to think about gender as much as other issues. Frankly, I think the left is worse on gender issues than they realize at this moment. Which is why I think gender should be a bigger part of the identity conversation.

The founders of Black Lives Matter, for instance, are all queer women of color but you don’t hear much about that. I think a lot of the interest on the far left right now is on class, and I get that. But black women are the ones most impacted wealth and income inequality, and so if you want to talk about class, we can’t avoid these broader social problems.

Sean Illing

You said the left is bad on gender issues. What do you mean exactly?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I believe the continual vehement criticism of Hillary suggests that the left hasn't internalized the role that sexism played in her losing the election. Additionally, the Women's Convention having Bernie Sanders as the opening speaker also suggests a desire to placate the left (and unite it, I'd imagine) but is also tone deaf to the feelings that many progressive women voters feel about Hillary losing because of her gender.

The Women's March was a response to both Trump winning and Hillary losing to an open misogynist. Although, they did apologize, it suggests the left overall hasn't fully reckoned with the barriers women face in attaining political leadership.

Why Hillary Clinton lost

Sean Illing

Do you think Hillary Clinton lost because she’s a woman?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I don't think that's the only reason, but I don't think that helped.

Sean Illing

I struggle with this question. I think it’s obvious that misogyny is real and that it had an impact on the election. But it’s not clear how we measure — or if we can measure — that against the fact that Hillary was a qualified but deeply flawed candidate, and millions of people just didn’t connect with her in the ways politicians have to connect with voters.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I think the question of likability and the way she was received is rooted deeply in gender and people’s experience with gender. We have all these expectations of what a woman or a man should be, and that colors how we perceive others. If Hillary was a man and that qualified, would she have faced the same kind of scrutiny? Would she have been perceived in the same way?

And the fact that someone like Trump, who is openly misogynistic, could win against Hillary definitely makes me think her loss had something to do with her gender. I mean, it shows how comfortable people are with misogyny in public politics.

Everyone’s a flawed candidate. No one’s perfect. But Hillary wasn’t nearly as flawed as Trump and yet she lost anyway. Look, I’m critical of Hillary — even in that essay. And I recognize all of her faults.

But I believe misogyny is so encoded in our social programming that we can’t even identify it.

Sean Illing

I had no illusions about the reality of sexism in this country, but it’s still a little shocking to see a man that openly misogynistic stroll to the White House in 2016.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

We've always given men a pass for their misogyny. R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen — there are so many men who for so long have gotten away with this stuff. There are so many men who have toxic views on women, or toxic relationships with women, or documented instances of abuse against women, and they still get jobs, and they still get record deals, and they still get honored at awards ceremonies.

Feminism in the era of Trump

Sean Illing

You describe this anthology as an attempt to “meditate on what we lost that fateful night in November 2016 and what lessons we can take from it.” What did we lose? And what lessons can we draw?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I think it was a major step back from some of the most productive wins of the past few years. I think of Standing Rock and of health care and of abortion rights and of immigration — these are huge losses for the progressive movement.

As for feminism in particular, I think Trump’s win has splintered left in many ways, and that’s certainly true within feminist circles. Part of what we were trying to do with this book was to gather as many diverse voices as we can and provide space for their perspective. Feminism is not this monolithic thing — we need perspectives from across the spectrum. And we need to build a shared understanding of what’s happened and what we have to do moving forward.

If people draw anything from this book, I hope it’s that, despite our fundamental differences, there are shared goals among feminists.

Sean Illing

What does feminism mean in Trump’s America?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

It needs to become a movement that's functioning at several different levels. I think what we need is really targeted organizing efforts that also include gender perspectives in them. So when we look at the Muslim ban, we should talk about how women are impacted by that. When we look at immigration reform or health care, we should do the same. There are explicitly gender-focused issues like abortion or Title IX entitlement rollbacks, but we need stronger gender perspectives on other issues too.

I think we also need to be more policy-focused. This is more important than debating what the meaning of feminism is. Honestly, feminism is always going to mean different things to different people. Our focus should be on policy rather than, “This is my identity and here’s what it means to me.”

Sean Illing

As someone who thinks and writes about feminism, I wonder how you explain the fact that so many women voted for Trump in spite of his misogyny. I don’t think about this as much as you, but it’s hard for me to make sense of this.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

It’s a good question. If you look at historically, white women have always tended to vote Republican — at least in the modern era. I also think a lot of them had great disdain for Hillary. They don’t know how to relate to that specific type of woman.

Sean Illing

That’s interesting. What do you mean by that specific type of woman?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I mean Hillary doesn’t come off as nurturing or loving even though she’s a grandmother. That’s not who she is. She’s that urban elite woman who goes against all these housewife stereotypes, against what’s traditionally considered feminine. I think a lot of women actually resent that, and that was kind of shocking to me.

At the end of the day, more white women were seduced by Trump’s racism and misogyny than Hillary’s message of empowerment. More women, ultimately, were able to relate to Trump than to the feminism of Hillary.

A feminist resistance

Sean Illing

This book is explicitly about a feminist resistance. What does that mean in this climate?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

For me personally, it means to be the most me that I can possibly be in this moment. It means putting this book out and not being afraid to take a public stand and talk about the issues I feel need to be talked about. It means organizing around all these concerns, and encouraging others to get involved. As my friend at work likes to say, “There are no weekends under fascism.”

I think we have to really take care of ourselves and each other. All of this is exhausting — the bad news never ends. Sometimes I feel like I can’t function anymore. But there’s a big fight ahead of us, and we’ve got to get it done.

So that’s what I’m about. And that’s what everyone who contributed to this book is about.

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