Like many New Yorkers, I watched the election results come in at my local bar, where patrons cheered when states went blue and booed when they went red. As a swath of red spread across the map, the crowd thinned and those of us who remained grew quiet. “How is this happening?” someone asked. A friend of mine collapsed onto a recently-vacated barstool and said, “Because people aren’t ashamed of their misogyny.”
I immediately thought of the third presidential debate, when Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton to call her a “nasty woman.” Since that moment, many of us have adopted “nasty woman” as a feminist slogan – I proudly wore my “Nasty Woman Voter” t-shirt on election night – but the conversation surrounding the term was muddled at best, focusing mainly on how the term historically referred to women’s bodies and our perceived sexual transgressiveness.
Given the election results, now is the perfect time to acknowledge that Trump’s “nasty woman” comment was directed not at Clinton’s body, but at her mind. When he interrupted her, she was answering moderator Chris Wallace’s question about Social Security:
Clinton: “…My social security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it, but what we want to do is – ”
Trump: “Such a nasty woman.”
Clinton angered Trump when she suggested that his campaign promises were inaccurate (“My social security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s”) because he would be incapable of following through on them (“assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it”). In one fell swoop, she used her policy acumen, her preparedness for the debate’s talking points, and her sharp wit to call him both ineffectual and a liar.
And so he called her nasty.
This moment – and the popular response to Hillary Clinton as a whole – is part of a larger process wherein intelligent, outspoken, well-prepared women like Clinton are demonized because our intellect is seen as transgressive, as a betrayal of what women are “supposed” to be. Even in the 21st century, we are expected to use our intelligence and education in service of nurturing, supportive roles. When a woman is unwilling to mitigate her wit to make others more comfortable, she is deemed unkind. Mean. Downright nasty. In short, the discrimination against women of intellect is passed off as a reaction to their personal character instead of as what it really is: gender bias.
Although the postmortem of any election must involve an attention to multiple factors, this is a point we cannot overlook: Hillary Clinton was an exceptionally well-prepared, competent candidate. Her popularity was undermined by the public’s habit of levying sexist character assessments against women who are unashamed of the power of their minds.
This is a pattern I have been subject to my entire life, but it’s a pattern I only began to understand while watching Donald Trump call Hillary Clinton “nasty,” while hearing my friends and students say, “I don’t know, we just don’t like her,” while watching the map of my country redden last Tuesday night.
As the only child in a family of outspoken adults, I learned to speak up and never apologize for my forthrightness if I wanted to be heard. My mother taught me that, to foster diversity in public conversation, it is a girl’s obligation to share her opinions, provided they are well-reasoned and well-informed. If my peers didn’t like it, she said, it was their loss.
So in high school, I reveled in class discussion. My comments were hyper-thorough, professional, and unfailingly direct. I never apologized for disagreeing with others, and I was uninterested in mitigating my tone or hiding my knowledge to make people more comfortable. I never issued personal attacks or spoke unkindly of anyone, but you wouldn’t know it from the way my peers reacted. I remember the way my speech could silence a room. It was a silence heavy with judgment, the silence that follows someone crossing a line.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this line I’d crossed was inherently sexist. Looking back, however, I remember plenty of boys who were similarly intelligent and outspoken, and though they got some light jockeying for their commitment to academics (as any devoted teenage student will), nobody called them “mean” for daring to make a strong-handed argument in class.
Unfortunately, this was not just high school drama. I entered my MFA program at 23, with the knowledge – sown in my undergraduate program – that the best way to learn about writing is to give constructive criticism on peers’ work. I dove into this project with typical zeal, relishing the opportunity to simultaneously learn and assist my classmates. Excited to join a community of writers as engaged as me, I brought meticulous line notes to the first workshop, expecting a detailed, rich conversation about rhetoric.
Instead, I was bullied. Some of my peers took personal offense to the thoroughness of my notes and the confidence with which I provided commentary. I tried to clarify that my criticism was not an effort to “crush the competition,” but to learn by doing. In response, certain peers told me that I didn’t know my place. That it was arrogant of me to assume they wanted my help. When I pointed out, in the midst of one particularly aggressive tirade against my character, that they were the only ones making it personal, I was met with that familiar, resounding silence.
Interestingly, the peers in question were women. This demonstrates the pervasiveness of the bias against so-called “nasty women:” even fellow women have been indoctrinated into the process of keeping us in line. And it worked. Although I never stopped speaking, I internalized the belief that perhaps I wasn’t such a nice person after all. I began apologizing for myself before sharing my opinions.
But watching Hillary Clinton fight her way to the brink taught me what nasty women really are: women who don’t follow the social cues that exist to limit our expression of ambition and intelligence. We don’t qualify, we don’t apologize, and we never hide our preparedness. In response, a character assessment is levied against us, and those who maintain the status quo are given a reason to disinvite us from society’s most important conversations. As we’ve seen with the results of this election, it truly is their loss.
In this election cycle, I have been reminded of my mother’s lesson that it is not only a woman’s right, but also her obligation, to speak unburdened. I have learned to love again the nasty woman inside me. Moving forward, we must all learn to embrace the Hillary Clintons of the world, the nasty women with our books and our minds and our sharp words, for it is only with a widespread respect for women’s unmitigated intellect that we will finally shatter the glass ceiling.
Shannon Azzato Stephens is a New York City-based writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She is also adjunct faculty member at The City University of New York and the Fashion Institute of Technology, as well as an online instructor at Johns Hopkins University.