Book Review: Nasty Women edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

Review by Heather Stewart

When I set out to cast my early vote for the 2016 United States presidential election, I recall proudly donning my “Pussy Grabs Back” t-shirt as a direct response to the words of the GOP candidate’s sexually assaultive remarks, uncovered and wildly publicized in the weeks leading up to the election. As strongly as I felt a sense of shame, humiliation, and disappointment that America could nominate a man who described women’s bodies in such utterly disrespectful and dangerous ways, I felt a roughly equal sense of pride that I had the opportunity to support his opposition in the form of Hillary Rodham Clinton. I recall feeling both honored and empowered to cast my vote for what would surely be a historic election—America would finally elect its first woman-identified president after 238 years and forty-four male-identified folks holding our highest office. On election night, I threw on my “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, accompanied by a male-voter in a matching “Bad Hombre” t-shirt, and excitedly made my way to a watch party hosted by my city’s Democratic Party. I fully expected the night to be unforgettable—the celebration of a lifetime; the symbolic victory of decades of feminist struggle, marked by the shattering of one incredibly firm glass ceiling.

33932361While many of my expectations were shattered that evening, I was absolutely correct that the night would be unforgettable. Indeed, I will never forget where I was when the United States failed to elect its most qualified candidate in recent memory, in favor of a racist misogynist facing multiple sexual assault allegations, who had been caught on tape bragging about making unwanted sexual advances on women, and feeling entitled to do so given his wealth and power. I will never forget the crushing blow of the reality that people I knew—even people I trusted and respected—had voted this monster into office, surely without regard for how his policies would affect people like me, and people, programs, and policies I care about deeply. I will never forget sitting in a circle with friends in the immediate aftermath of the election, listening to the diverse perspectives of people I cared about voicing their concerns about the campaign promises and potential policy initiatives of this administration—queer women, women with disabilities, women of color, women in the United States on DACA, victim/survivors of rape and sexual assault. Together, we cried. Together we attempted to make sense of how we got here, and what we would do—together—to move forward. Together we tried to process what this election would mean for our futures in this country, for our health—physical and mental—and for our wellbeing and status as Americans from various intersections, identities, and walks of life.

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America (New York, N.Y.: Picardor Press, 2017) is a collection of essays, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, which brings together an incredibly diverse group of writers to reflect on their experiences of 2016 election and its immediate aftermath. Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a writer, editor, and public speaker, as well as the former Senior Editorial Director of Culture and Identities at Mic. and former Editor of Feministing.com. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Jezebel, and others. Kate Harding is the author of several books, including Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It, and her popular writing has appeared in various media outlets, including The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, U.S News and World Report, Cosmopolitan, Salon, Jezebel, Mic., and others. The contributors to the collection span various academic and professional backgrounds, and include such names as Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Sarah Jaffee, and many other important voices of our time.

I am writing this review just days before the one year anniversary of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America, as well as (on the day after the inauguration) the largest single-day political demonstration in the history of the U. S.  — the Women’s March on Washington and its satellite marches across America and abroad. A lot has transpired in the space of that year: Donald Trump has issued multiple iterations of a “travel ban” (primarily targeting predominantly Muslim countries); neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia and were defended by the President who insisted there were good people on “many sides”; the Trump administration has fought to repeal (or at least seriously undermine) the Affordable Care Act, as well as repeal the DACA program; and, most recently, Trump questioned why America would want more immigrants from Haiti or nations in Africa—places he ever-so-eloquently referred to as “shitholes.” All of the very worst fears that progressive activists and folks of various marginalized identities had are quickly becoming reality.

Which is why this collection is needed. As difficult as many of the essays are to read, they provide valuable insights and reflections on the many pressing issues now facing our country, as well as push us to think critically about how we can effectively organize our social movements to help move us forward toward a more just future. The collection begins with an essay by co-editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay that transports the reader back to the fateful election night—a night many of us are probably not mentally prepared to reflect upon, even now just over a year later. In the essay Mukhopadhyay recalls how so many of us were preparing for Clinton’s victory, and many contributors to the anthology take up the theme of overwhelming disappointment and sense of loss they felt when that anticipation was not met with a victory.

Various authors in the collection suggested that — while Clinton was not a “perfect candidate” (3, 13) — we nonetheless had good reasons to support her—even if that reason was that Trump represented a serious threat to our democracy and the wellbeing of manyin our nation and beyond. However, as Rebecca Solnit points out, the very fact that so many of us felt compelled to continually justify our support of Clinton is itself gendered (133). One of the major critiques of Clinton’s campaign was that she was not attentive enough to class (a critique which does not actually bear out in analyses of her campaign), and that she was too consumed by “identity politics” (4-5). This common critique of Hillary Clinton and her supporters as unproductively fixated on identity ignores two important facets of the campaign: first, that sexism did indeed play a role in the election, and thus, that gender was indeed significant in this election; and second, that Trump’s campaign, too, played into identity politics (namely, it played upon the anger and anxieties of the white working class). Mukhopadhyay reminds us to consider how there is a problematic inequality in tolerance for “identity politics,” where the very same people who were critical of Hillary Clinton for giving attention to various facets of identity (i.e., LGBTQ identity, immigration status, etc.) were quick to accept Trump’s message, which centered white male experience (6-7). Contra “identity politics critics,” the reality is that focusing on the ways in which various groups of people are impacted unequally by policies and experience American life and culture differently, is not only necessary and politically responsible, it is also — as Trump’s ultimate victory shows us —  pragmatic and politically effective.

Many of the essays in Nasty Women draw our attention to the need for self-care in these politically polarizing and often traumatic times. Collection co-editor Kate Harding focuses on common emotional responses in the days leading up to the election, on election night, and in the days, weeks, and months following (11). Cheryl Strayed, too, reflects upon being emotionally destroyed in the wake of the election—finding herself weeping and inconsolable (29). Strayed describes the feeling as a “blunt-force blow” followed by “numb shock” resembling a “manic zombie/teary/rager dream state” (31). She recalls feeling Hillary Clinton’s loss on a physical level, like a blow to her [physical] body (33). While Strayed focuses on the effects of the election to her individual self, Katha Pollitt considers the ways in which the election of Trump puts the reproductive health of all American women at risk, insofar as anti-choice politics have found a voice, and are gaining steam, under Trump’s administration (77).

While it is important to focus on the impacts of Trump’s election for women in the United States, Jill Filipovic’s important contribution reminds us that we are also responsible for implications of Trump’s election in the global sphere. As such, her essay considers consequences of the Trump election for the health of women on a global scale, focusing on the expansion of the global gag-rule which impacts access to accurate and comprehensive information about reproductive health and impedes health outcomes for patients worldwide (57). While many of the essays focus on the impacts of the election for our individual health and wellbeing, Filipovic’s essay reflects upon the power of the U.S. to shape lives abroad, often through coercion driven by fear of losing U.S. money and aid (63).

One of the most important (for me) recurring themes of the collection was the effect of Donald Trump’s victory on those of us who are victim/survivors, many of us struggling with PTSD.. We had to endure the release of Trump’s recorded comments degrading women and the subsequent accusations of multiple incidents of assault, followed by the dismissal of their significance by so many men—strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, even friends and family. Rebecca Solnit argues that while these words and the subsequent defenses of Trump were a disrespect to all women, they were violent to many victim/survivors, especially those of us struggling with PTSD (123). For those of us struggling to trust men around us, being remind that men see it as perfectly normal—as mere “locker room talk”—to discuss assaulting women, was re-traumatizing. This has been one of the most difficult aspects of Trump’s election, and continues to be traumatic as more and more accusations are surfacing against powerful men in our highest offices. This pervasive issue of sexual harassment and assault among male politicians makes the failure to elect the most qualified woman possible to our highest office even more salient.   

Mukhopadhyay and Harding aim to present a genuinely diverse range of authors: a person with disability (35-44), a queer Jewish woman raising a black son (78-87), a recovering alcoholic resisting the desire to numb the pain with alcohol (96-102), a Mexican living near the Texas-Mexico border (103-114), a woman of color questioning neoliberal white feminism (115-122), a person with mental illness reminding us of the dangers of excusing Trump’s behaviors by attributing them to mental pathology (which simultaneously reinforces stereotypes of those with mental illness and does further harm to victim/survivors) (136-156), an Indigenous woman reminding us that Native women have always been excluded and marginalized in America (157-166), a black feminist reminding us that meritocracy is a myth and structural and systemic barriers still prevent even the most qualified and hardest working from making political and professional strides (167-175), a Muslim woman struggling to feel at home in this America (206-217), and an immigrant trans woman of color who reminds us that trans and gender non-conforming femmes have always been radical, and need to be centered in our political movements (197-205). While the collection offers us very different voices, representing very diverse identities and perspectives, they all share in the project of helping readers make sense of how to remain mentally healthy and physically safe, while simultaneously working to resist the toxic, invasive, and often humiliating Trump agenda. The essays in Nasty Women point to the many and diverse ways in which we are all affected by this administration, and encourages us to make sense of these intersections, helping to motivate our participation in a shared resistance effort. We need, as so many of the authors remind us, a forward-looking coalitional politics with a vision for how to work together to make our nation truly great for all within our borders and across the world.

StewartHeather Stewart is a current PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. She holds an MA in Philosophy and a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her main research interests are within the areas of applied ethics (bioethics, psychiatric ethics), feminist philosophy (epistemology and ethics), social and political philosophy (global justice), and queer theory. At present, Heather is working on research pertaining to improving health outcomes and medical experiences of transgender patients.

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