On feminism, a slow coming to activism, Hillary Clinton, and the anger we cannot not have when we see the world for what it is.
The night of the second presidential debate, I called my mother. It wasn’t supposed to be a political call; I was walking — prime New York City phone-call-making time — to the bar where my roommate and I would watch Hillary Clinton coolly handle Donald Trump as he stood menacingly behind her. Everything was fine until I asked if she was ready for the debate.
“I’m not watching. I’m just too upset about everything,” she paused. “I am probably not voting.”
My mother doesn’t love Hillary. I know that. But to not vote? I lit up, marching furiously down the street and yelling into the phone about the importance of her support regardless of what she thought about Clinton’s character, because we couldn’t have Donald Trump in the White House — ”No, we can’t,” she sighed — and that every lost vote was one that didn’t go towards stopping him. It was incredible to me that she could think not voting, in this election, was okay. I barraged her with Hillary facts, Trump fuck-ups, and chidings about doing her civic duty, unable to stop even though the low meekness on the other end of the line told me I was upsetting her.
“Do you care about this country at all?” I screamed, passersby staring.
“Of course!” she cried, noticeably upset. I capitalized on that, a fem political bully, demanding that if she did, she would watch the debate and vote for Hillary. If I can just impress upon her enough how vital this is, I thought, she’ll understand. We hung up, me angry, she defeated, our Sunday call ruined.
As I approached the bar, I saw a man walking towards me with the eyes, the eyes every woman sees daily, the eyes that say “nice,” like we’re meat dangling from a butcher’s hook. He whistled at me as I passed.
“That’s sexual harassment,” I snapped, whipping my head to fire at him with my own eyes, eyes that said I am sick enough of this bullshit to do you bodily harm. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, the cat-call rebuke, because after 26 years of pretending not to hear them, I just can’t anymore. There is a tiny pin of Hillary Clinton’s head on my purse, and my shirt reads The Future Is Female.
If you had shown this version of myself — the epitome of the angry feminist stereotype — to me a year ago, I wouldn’t have recognized her. But that’s what this election, and 2016, has brought out. And while I would never say it’s a bad thing, I don’t know that I feel good about it either.
I have not always been political, and I have not always been a feminist. Shameful admissions, but then, we aren’t all forward-thinking youths.
Potential factors as to why: I am a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman from an average American middle-class family. I grew up comfortable in small-town Maryland where everything is several years behind the rest of the country. The light progressiveness I managed to develop in my youth came from pop culture magazines, music, books, and a hippie phase spurred by a love of weed — in other words, the old-fashioned way, the same ways teens have been liberalizing themselves for generations. (The Internet was not yet such an idea factory, and Twitter did not exist.) I was the average American teen flirting with the counterculture, who entered college in New York City at age 18 content to leave heavy things like politics to other minds.
Thankfully, that did change. But it didn’t happen all at once.
2008. Senator Barack Obama is feeding the country with hope and change and I, a new freshman at Fordham University in New York, eat up the idealized rhetoric, joining a student newspaper and an anti-war club that will prompt me into vague activism for some weeks before I decide I’d rather party than protest. The economy is terrible; I am completely broke and will be for four years. In spite of this, Obama wins, and I think — believe — naively, things are going to be okay.
2009. I stuck with the student newspaper, inspired by both its raunchiness and ability to incite real campus activism, and am now an editor. The staff, my friends, are mostly male — whiskey, Bukowski, philosophy types — and flirtatious in a way where I feel included; I don’t understand that the jokes are at the expense of my body and exist because I’m a woman in their male space. I’m reading Hunter S. Thompson, convincing myself I like whiskey, and saying no to nothing except my emotions, which are lame. I desperately want entry to the boys’ club; want their approval, their admiration, in some cases, them. I like the male gaze on me because I don’t understand its history; no one has told me what a patriarchal society is, or that it has been subconsciously contorting me for my entire life, or that I don’t have to abide by its rules to be someone worthy. If you ask me if I am a feminist, I say no. On a trip to California to see my father, I’m asked to meet his then-girlfriend. She is fine, pleasant enough, but then he and I see her in the streets of downtown San Diego on St. Patrick’s Day drunk and in a skirt shorter than mine. She falls all over my father. They break up days later. She horrified me then, but I kept silent. Something had clicked, but I wouldn’t recognize what it was for years.
Originally, in our current election cycle, I did not support Hillary Clinton. I resented the knee-jerk assumptions that women must support the first female contender because we’re of the same sex, and pushed back on it. I felt that made me a good feminist: Not choosing based on gender but on merit. Especially when considering the allegations against her husband; we have to consider that, don’t we? But Bill isn’t running. She is. And in the course of much reading on the candidates, I realized that she merited consideration. In spite of Clinton’s problematic bits, I found myself drawn to her.
It was that term, “in spite of,” that changed the election, and everything, for me. Hillary has risen in spite of knee-jerk pushback due to her sex; loved her husband in spite of his transgressions; succeeded in spite of constant questioning, scrutiny, and bashing that no male has ever been put under; been a woman in politics in spite of having to politicize her whole life to do so. Things I could not imagine doing for a lifetime.
To be a woman is to live in spite of.
2010. “You’re a feminist, you just don’t know it yet.” A female friend is dragging me to a reading by feminist author Jessica Valenti. In spite of my protests, Valenti’s words resonate: Women don’t have to be modest to be respected; what we do with our bodies is our choice; there is an inherent double standard in our culture. Common sense, but I’d never heard anything like it before. In that room with Valenti, I see the male gaze of my friends, understand what slut-shaming and body-shaming are — the ways that I have been taught to feel about myself by society, by my family. I understand I don’t have to feel any way about myself other than the way I want to feel, though it will take me a long time to figure out how I want to feel.
2011. I’m interning for free to get ahead and working double to not get behind on rent; drinking heavily; feeling defeated by the city and the economy. As a bar waitress, I let men eye me as I serve their beers for better tips, but on the 2 a.m. subway ride home I hope no men eye me, or worse. I hate the required short skirts because they remind of the ones I had to wear at age 18, in the restaurant where I waitressed in my hometown, where a chef used to ask me to spread my legs when I sat on the counter adding up tips. I hope I’m past those days, but there’s no way to know. Frequent happy hours with a former editor friend are small joys that let me momentarily forget that I’m so unmoored. He and I hooked up a few times, years past. In spite of this, I maintain that we are sincere friends and I believe it wholeheartedly. He only occasionally mentions, snidely, that I slept with a mutual friend, or makes not-quite-jokes about us hooking up again. He calls me “darlin’” or by my full name, which I’ve asked him not to do many times. I allow it because to protest would be uncool.He begins dating another girl and shortly after stops speaking to me entirely. At parties, she gives me the stink eye, though our first meeting was friendly. I later hear that they tell our other friends I am a heartless bitch who strung him along for years. I realize what I always maintained was not about sex was, actually, about sex.
My present relationship with feminism is strong, but conflicted. In spite of being a writer surrounded by staunch feminists and on the fringes of both the academic and the women’s writing communities, I feel I should be on some more-involved level. But I’ve never much enjoyed feminist texts or felt a desire to politicize every element of my life. It’s too much. I don’t have the strength for it, and deeply admire those who do. Of course, feminism is a political stance. It took me a long time to realize this. All of this makes me problematic, I know. I am a bad feminist. But I am trying to be a better one.
My mother doesn’t like Hillary Clinton because of what happened with Bill. A lot of women feel this way. She also doesn’t trust her because of recent issues — the overblown emails, Benghazi. She’s Republican and Catholic, but surprisingly progressive despite those. She actually shares the same views as Hillary’s policy details. But she won’t go for her. At some point, I realized it’s because she has never had much use for feminism; that she does not feel the politicizing of herself, her body, that I and others do. I was like that once, too. I feel grateful I’m not anymore.
2012. I’m a copywriter at a corporate department store, disillusioned and disinterested in the culture journalism I once aspired to do. This was a crushing revelation, that something you believe to be amazing is inherently flawed. I’ll later feel this way about America. My office is mainly women. I don’t realize yet what a blessing this is, that I don’t have to work under men. I know Obama is contentious; he hasn’t done everything he promised. In spite of this, the dream of hope and change still lingers — I don’t have the paralyzing fear I will have four years later. In truth, I never think he might lose, because I am still young enough to believe that everything will work out in the end, that the right thing happens, the good guys win. Politics has been on my idealized side since I’ve been paying attention to it.
2013. I start an email newsletter of links to share with people instead of constantly emailing articles to dozens of friends and family members. I “try to keep politics out of it” because I don’t yet feel I am qualified to talk about it. Because I think people find it boring, and I don’t want to send a boring newsletter. Because we aren’t in the frightful time yet.
This newsletter is a barometer for the political climate. Over two and a half years, it has become increasingly more political in content and feminist in tone. First, because I could not ignore the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin; then because I realized not enough people talked about women’s rights to men, or saw racism and misogyny as systemic problems. People click on and read these political articles the most, but I wonder if after the election people will begin to not care again.
2014. Another trip to California. My father makes a joke on my inability to see something as funny because I am a woman. (I believe it was a bad gay joke.) My brother laughs. I tell him I don’t want to hear anything said about me “because I am a woman” ever again, especially as I’m currently making more money than anyone in the family and am the only one with a stable job. They’re chastised, though only briefly. I understand the patriarchy now. I’ve begun to get larger tattoos: A ship, an anchor. It’s art to me, my body a canvas. My father is deeply upset. At a reading for the book Bodies of Subversion: The Secret History of Women & Tattoos, the author, a scholar, speaks to three famous female tattooists from around the world on breaking barriers, the struggle to be successful and treated as equals, the constant fighting of the tattooed-woman taboo. I’m reminded of Valenti’s speech, and similarly galvanized. I refuse to feel guilty about my body or a thing I love. I get a new tattoo of a mermaid — glorious, voluptuous, her ample curves fill my tricep. She holds a trident. When my father sees it months later, I smile widely and tell him to expect more. I’ve begun to politicize my body.That fall I break up with a man I love because he has become a man I detest; alcoholic, self-absorbed, someone who thinks of my writing as some kind of hobby and constantly talks about how hard he works in a way that implies I don’t work. He resents me taking weekends to write when I could be drinking with him. In spite of all this, it takes me longer than it should to realize he’ll never respect my work (me) and leave him. I realized love can make ordinarily unthinkable exceptions seem acceptable.
I have cultivated a strong sense of self-worth in spite of the men I have surrounded myself with over the years; in spite of their opinions which I internalized and which kept me down for years; in spite of the taboos against being an outspoken, fiercely independent woman with tattoos; in spite of the engendered antagonisms that tell me everything I want to be and value about myself is wrong, that I should change it; in spite of being not a male writer or catering to them.
When I look at the news today, I see a powerful woman who refused to change. Who has always known that she is strong, even when others act like that strength is wrong for her to have. Who has been forced to make many exceptions, yet has not allowed them to weaken her.
2015. I am 25, in an MFA program in New York. I’ve recently remarked in a bookstore that “I’m not reading male writers these days” and find I don’t enjoy the male writers I once liked as much. In truth, I’m sick of men entirely. In spite of many recent successes, I let being single make me deeply unhappy. Dating is more difficult than I imagined. It’s depressing how accustomed I’ve become to fielding comments about my tattoos, like “Why would such a pretty girl like you do that to yourself?” But I am starting to refuse to accept the bad dates, the bad men, and the bullshit. I’ve become more vocal, hard-nosed, assured in what I want and believe I deserve. This will soon translate to politics. The election cycle is underway. I, like many people, am unsure about everyone, but still consider Donald Trump a joke.
The general consensus about Hillary Clinton is that she is untrustworthy and unlikeable. I felt this at first, but then, after reading on her and her career, I don’t. The scope of her accomplishments is staggering, and convinces me. The tenacity and no-bullshit attitude are coping mechanisms, necessary requirements for a woman in her field to be taken seriously, as she is constantly battered and surrounded by men; I recognize them in myself now. In her, I see a woman who’s worked her entire life for something, proven herself time and again to be not only qualified but superior (if flawed, as we all are) in her field, yet, in spite of all that, is still questioned. Her opponent has literally no experience whatsoever, and is deemed a contender. It becomes clear to me that this is not just about politics. This is about our society. Our laws, our practices, our mores and norms — they have led us to a world where feminism is in pop music but women still make 77 cents to a man’s dollar, where the country’s most qualified politician is constantly subjected to scrutiny that her male peers would never receive.
2016. My roommate and best friend, another successful woman, have, for years, had frequent conversation (over wine, about everything in life) discussing our roles as women in the world. Lately, in this political climate, our conversations have become heated. Frustrated. We’re disgusted, watching a powerful woman having to contend with a blustering buffoon, a racist, sexist, misogynist. The inherent fear of powerful women in this country is now readily apparent, yet we know others—men—don’t see it; don’t see the things put in place, socially and structurally, to keep us down. Sometimes, they do get us down. We say things like “What are men even for, anyway, other than sex and building IKEA furniture?” and actually mean it; we’ve realized we can do everything ourselves, because we’ve been doing everything for ourselves forever.A dinner with her and two male friends from college. The boys don’t like Hillary because they don’t trust her. She and I bring up sexism, in the lightest way you can bring up sexism, noting that Hillary gets so much ire because she is a woman; that if she were a man, the same points used against her would have been framed as strategic gambles, bold risks; that the narrative would be positive. This is our experience too, we say. In spite of knowing better, we truly believe they’ll see this as we do: As fact. The boys disagree. They think it’s because of her political career, and list her failings. We shake our heads. It’s a battle we — all women — are tired of always losing.
In my hometown on vacation, I have beers with two old, dear childhood friends. Men. Their tone when mentioning Hillary is a warning that makes me, for once, not speak up. I feel outnumbered — hear their loud voices, voices of men who are so staunch in their beliefs that mine would be laughed off — and stay silent. Trump is no longer a joke, and it occurs to me that these boys — men — might somehow connect to his hate speech and fear-mongering. The alarm I feel at that will only worsen as time goes on. The next day I buy the T-shirt that says The Future Is Female. No one compliments it in my small Southern town.
I wear the shirt back in New York and am constantly complimented. In spite of this, I remind friends of the disparity in the country’s views, liberal city versus disgruntled country, when they say “Hillary’s got it.” We aren’t done yet.
When Hillary gets the nomination over the summer, I cry. I didn’t expect to feel so much, but the historical significance of seeing a woman on that stage does something to me. Pride and joy and relief in one. When Trump gets his nomination, I want to cry in fear. Instead I start campaigning, sharing investigations into Trump’s lies and failings and profiles on Hillary’s success. My newsletter, feminist to its core, keeps gaining readers. I feel I’m doing something, if small. Privately, I read many, many articles on Trump trying to understand why people — like my father, my uncle, my childhood friends — support him, but I simply can’t. For the first time, I avoid discussing politics with my father. I call my mother and email my brother weekly to get him to register. I’m no longer afraid of yelling at people. I go on a date with a guy who says he “just isn’t really following the election” and “isn’t into politics.” I stare, dumbfounded. “Even this one, though? How could you not be?” He shrugs, smiles, changes the subject to Pokemon Go. I leave after one beer; when he texts me later I tell him we aren’t fundamentally compatible.
I watch the first presidential debate in the same bar I watched Obama fight Romney, then take office. It’s packed, the cheers all for Hillary; New York is a blue city. But when it’s over, my roommate and I go home and have another glass of wine and talk — worry, really. Worry that this country could soon not be a safe space for me, women, anyone who isn’t a right-wing white man. In spite of knowing she did better, we’re still afraid. We know the battle isn’t won.
So here I am. Angry. Frustrated. Fearful for myself, my body, my future, the future of all women in this country, of anyone in this country who isn’t a straight white man. And I can’t escape these feelings because we haven’t had the election yet. The news cycle is 24/7, reminding me at every moment that the world I’ve grown up in is stacked against me. Over the years, my gender has become my political party; my sex my stance; my emotions triggered towards a type of justice that doesn’t exist yet. How did I get here? I would have gotten here eventually. Because I am a woman in a world that does not value women fully yet. Because the body politic is my body.
I did not want to ever have to feel this way. I don’t think anyone does. I imagine members of the African-American community, the Latino or Muslim communities, the LGBTQ community; we all are sick of feeling this way. But there is a choice: To ignore the feelings and let things get worse, or to feel all the feelings so much that you scream at your mother and at random men on the street. Willful ignorance versus willingly making yourself sick, daily. Awareness is a kind of incurable disease; once you see something, you can’t ever forget it’s there, lurking below the surface of your world and waiting to suck you down.
I chose to feel the feelings. It has made me a better person: Active, an activist; aware, spreading awareness; a smarter person, but a bitter one. There is little room for optimism these days. Is that what being political is all about? Rueful acceptance and pessimism and, often, anger? Someone who has felt the feelings for longer, please let me know.
Does it get better, in spite of it all?
Do we get better, in spite of it all?
Edited by Joyce Chen.
Featured image provided by author.