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What Happened?

Nasty Women, a new collection of feminist writing, looks to the future but gets stuck in the election

Here’s a secret I keep from my friends: shoved in the back of a drawer, among the ill-fitting bras I can’t bring myself to throw away, there is a tank top emblazoned with the words “Feminist As Fuck.” I purchased it years ago, and I mainly keep it as a reminder that political commitments can evolve. Still, I feel it’s important to establish that I was, at one time, a woman who bought the shirt. For feminism.

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America is a new collection that asks some rather large questions about what feminist commitments look like now. In her introductory essay, editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay notes that she and co-editor Kate Harding “curated some of the strongest voices writing at the intersection of feminism, identity, and personal experience . . . to meditate on what we lost that fateful night in November 2016 and what lessons we can take from it.” The title—an insult thrown at Hillary Clinton that quickly became a merchandising campaign—hints at one possible answer: for women who still buy the shirt, many of these essays will feel like worn-in cotton.

With its over twenty contributors from various backgrounds, it would be impossible to pitch Nasty Women as a cohesive unit—that’s one thing the collection does right. It includes big names like Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit, yet the strongest work comes from perhaps lesser-known writers like Collier Meyerson, Melissa Arjona, and Sarah Jaffe. Some essays are polemical, while others are more personal meditations (including standout essays from Samantha Irby and Nicole Chung), and its topics range from the historically poor treatment of Native American women to self-care (sobriety) under the Trump administration. So while the guiding question may be “how can women unite as a political class in Trump’s America?” the panoply of voices and interests presented here is rich enough to demand something more complex—or even preliminary.

After all, unity is more often than not a hollow virtue—it’s how we end up being asked to defend unrepentant racists like Megyn Kelly.

It may simply be the case that “feminism” as a unified political project has never been achievable or desirable—and that’s fine. After all, unity is more often than not a hollow virtue that serves to paper over meaningful ideological difference; it’s how we end up being asked to defend unrepentant racists like Megyn Kelly or Tomi Lahren. It is laudable, then, that Nasty Women doesn’t seek to define the correct way to be a feminist but aims instead to highlight the ways a variety of women feel about feminism. It also offers, of course, a glimpse into how a variety of women feel about the election, and it’s here that the book announces itself most forcefully. It turns out there are many ways to be a nasty woman, but there are few ways of being a feminist who isn’t thrilled about Hillary Clinton.

In this sense, the book works less as a view of the world we have now than a lament for the one that could have been; in its ritual of mourning you see a compulsion to repeat. We are reminded over and over that Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate to ever run, that she won the popular vote and therefore represents the views of the majority of Americans, and that she lost because the majority of America hates women far more than we want to believe. This includes forces on the left, for which many writers here share a palpable ire. While the categories of “progressive” or “leftist” are never rigorously defined, now-familiar shibboleths are played on repeat: men on the left poisoned Hillary’s reputation, criticism of Hillary is rooted in a distaste for powerful women, the left wants to abandon women’s interests and cater to white men. Mark Lilla’s post-election essay is cited multiple times as an example of how the left wants to disavow identity politics, despite its being largely condemned by anyone to the left of say, Mark Lilla.

And, of course, there is Bernie Sanders. One essay—“We Have a Heroine Problem” by Carina Chocano—is devoted almost entirely to the scourge of the Bernie Bro. Chocano claims “the stories the Bernie Bros told about Hillary Clinton were horror stories—dark fairy tales about a monstrous woman who could not be contained or repressed. They hinged on Gothic themes—hidden pasts, long-buried secrets, ancestral curses, generational decay, gender instability.” I’m still deciding if this analysis offends me more as a leftist feminist or as a former scholar of Gothic fiction. To remake critiques of a consummate technocrat like Clinton—made by both women and men—into primal, psychosexual grotesqueries is, either way, an unsubtle ruse. The argument often goes that while misogyny may not be more pronounced on the left than the right, it is more keenly felt when it comes from a purported ally. I am sympathetic to this sense of betrayal: imagine what it feels like to have other feminists hold forth as though you don’t exist. Though I suppose I should be grateful none of these writers suggest I came to my politics because the Bernie camp is where the boys are.

It’s not until halfway through the book, when you reach Collier Meyerson’s “Pulling the Wool Over Their Eyes: The Blindness of White Feminists,” that you arrive at the difficult questions we were promised. And it’s not until Meyerson that we get any sense of feminism having faced not merely a “loss” or a “backlash” but a failure. In recounting her suspicions about the Women’s March, an event that, while enormously well attended, still “looked like a celebration, and also like boilerplate and mainstream feminism,” she diagnoses a problem many women were discussing before the election: mainstream feminism had become less of a politics and more of a marketing effort. And for middle-class white women, whose interests have historically been centered in various iterations of the women’s movement, justice was less of a concern than palatability.

Since Nasty Women promises a conversation about “how we got here and what we need to move forward,” I was interested to see if the purveyors of mainstream, liberal feminism would reckon with the extent to which they had struck a shitty deal in bargaining popularity over politics. My own sense after the election was that I had been terribly wrong in assuming the T-shirts and celebrity endorsements—and endless meditations on whether certain sexual acts are feminist—were merely silly and not actively harmful. Surely other women were experiencing this same crisis of conscience?

Maybe Nasty Women don’t admit failure because the answer is mainly no. The closest approximation is Jessica Valenti’s “Permission to Vote for a Monster: Ivanka Trump and Faux Feminism.” Here, she articulates a central tension: though we’ve essentially elected, in Donald Trump, a dismissed rape charge made flesh, we’ve also seen the growing popularity of feminism. “Nearly every mainstream publication was promoting stories by women about their lives,” she writes, “books with ‘feminist’ in the title were climbing the bestseller lists . . . Feminism was no longer misunderstood or maligned—it was, of all things, cool.”

This understanding of feminism finds itself beholden to a confidence game worthy of the futures market. In the run-up to the election, it didn’t matter what feminism was doing so long as the right people felt optimistic about it. But what neither Valenti nor many other contributors to the book admit is that for the last few years things have been going well for feminism if not, precisely, for women. Millennial women are faring worse than their mothers on almost every conceivable metric: we are poorer, more prone to suicide and depression, more likely to be incarcerated, and more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes. This is to say nothing of the labor conditions, threats of deportation, and increasingly limited access to abortion faced by marginalized women. Yet one of the hallmarks of the Clinton campaign was its performance of an unwarranted optimism. Unfortunately, America Is Already Great rang hollow for a number of women.

Valenti argues that white women failed to turn out for Clinton “in part, thanks to the lie that feminism is simply anything a woman does rather than a well-defined movement for justice,” and she laments that conservative women have been able to take advantage of this nebulousness and claim the feminist mantle. Ivanka Trump “is a perfect fit for this kind of faux feminism,” and she has “branded herself as a sort of Sheryl Sandberg Lite.” What a full-calorie Sheryl Sandberg did for real feminism is left to the reader to surmise.

Ending on an optimistic note, Valenti writes, “We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to ensure that the next wave of feminist activism is so clearly defined that it will be impossible for conservative women to claim it.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I would add that a vehement rejection of capitalism serves that end very nicely, with the benefit of improving the material conditions of life for women.

And while there is still time to seize this opportunity for clarity, so far the #resistance has struggled with a certain amount of ideological incoherence. In an essay on the lessons feminists can learn from trans women and gender-nonconforming femmes, Meredith Talusan suggests we should not shy away from throwing bricks if bricks need to be thrown. In the past, I’ve half-jokingly proposed the idea of a Rosé Bloc, in which wine moms adopt antifa tactics, but the use and justification of violence remains a contested issue for liberals.

To be a feminist on the internet in years past has meant spending a lot of time asking what you were allowed to do. Sadly, there are indications that this trend is alive and well.

There is also the fundamental question of how to both rigorously define feminism as an emancipatory political project and, as Nasty Women suggests is possible, unite women as a political class. To be a feminist on the internet in years past has meant spending a lot of time asking what you were allowed to do: Watch porn? Wear makeup? Read romance novels? Sadly, there are indications that this trend is alive and well: Can you join the resistance as a pro-life feminist? Can you join the resistance and support Israeli occupation? Beyond highlighting how lousy feminist media is with incurious and unsubtle thinkers, this raises the question of how women engage with feminism. Do you want a politics of permission that allows you to live the way you do now, or one that makes demands of you?

One possible way to avoid the impasse of definition and inclusion can be found in an essay by Melissa Arjona (“Dispatches from a Texas Militarized Zone”), who writes about her work in South Texas. Border feminism is often a place where theories of intersectionality manifest, but Arjona also understands it as a site of collaboration. Rather than seeking to bring more women in under the banner of feminism, perhaps more feminists need to bring their politics to bear on other projects. Women being detained by ICE is a feminist concern. Unyoking access to health care from employment or the employment of a spouse is a feminist concern. The minimum wage is a feminist concern. Besides being an effective tactic, it also forces mainstream feminists to stop fetishizing female success and attend to vulnerability and precarity by embracing a politics that serves women whether they buy the shirt or make it.

Valenti is right that we have both an opportunity and an obligation. Though, to my mind, the question isn’t how to properly define feminism so as to defend it from the likes of Ivanka Trump, but how to foster an antagonistic relationship to power that goes beyond any and all Trumps. The promise of the Clinton campaign—one that far too many feminist writers still hold out for—is that given sufficient access to power women can administrate our own liberation. The question at the heart of feminism now is whether we hew to our current ways of living and hope to make it less terrible for more people or fundamentally reimagine what it means to live with each other in the world. Seems nastier to do the latter.