The Big Problem With Using "Nevertheless, She Persisted" As A Feminist Rallying Cry
Like anyone who frequently chooses Twitter over sleep, I was online last night at the moment Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admonished Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate, stopping her from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King about attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions — creating an instant feminist rallying cry in the process. McConnell said of Warren, "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." The words were so arrogant, so sexist, that it felt like he was a soap opera villain reading from a script. I thought, "God, is he just trying to write our protest signs for us now?"
I watched the memes pile up — Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Sally Ride, Princess Leia. Image after image of inspiring women who had dealt with obstacles at every turn in their work, whose power had partially resided in their persistence in the face of incredible odds. I searched the word "persisted," and found tweet after tweet saying that McConnell had handed Warren a gift by denouncing her with a string of words that would make a perfect memoir title. I saw people announcing that this was the new slogan, asking (both in jest and in seriousness) when we could buy a "Nevertheless, she persisted" T-shirt. Hillary Clinton herself tweeted about it, just to confirm, in case anyone wasn't totally sure, that this was the newest battle cry of feminist resistance.
I kept waiting to get swept up in the passion and pride that everyone else seemed to be feeling about those words. But the feeling never came.
When I finally closed Twitter and went to bed, I realized that McConnell's words didn't fill me with righteous rage or inspire me to fight for another day. That the Senate Majority Leader thought it was OK to publicly speak this way about a woman as accomplished as Elizabeth Warren just made me feel depressed.
Over the course of the 2016 presidential election, you could barely swing a National Organization for Women membership card without hitting a meme that repurposed one of President Trump's sexist statements as feminist fire. Trump's comment from the Access Hollywood tapes that "When you’re a star, they let you do it. ... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything" turned into "Pussy Grabs Back" shirts, signs, and chants at protests, as well as "pussy hats" that showed up on thousands of heads at the Women's Marches and beyond. Trump's debate comment that Clinton was a "nasty woman" instantly signaled a new way to show not just your hatred of Trump and his policies, but also the joy you took in being the kind of woman he would loathe.
At first, repurposing this crude, insulting language felt natural to me. As a teenage riot grrrl, I had been obsessed with reclaiming words like "slut" and "bitch." I loved to wear them on a shirt or, on occasion, write them on my arm in magic marker, because it showed the boys in the halls of my high school (and in the abstract, the world) that I wasn't afraid enough of those words to let them control me and keep me from demanding my rights. It wasn't just that I wanted to take the sting out of those words; I thought the personality traits they described were worthy of celebration.
I felt that same way about "nasty woman" at first. I'd been called every name that "nasty" hinted at — bitch, ball-buster, "wishes she was a man," etc. I knew that men attacked us with those names because if we were afraid of being called "nasty," we might hesitate to challenge them for power. So I went all in on "nasty." I asked my friends when we nasty women were finally going to meet up for drinks. I imagined how much fun it would be if someone played Janet Jackson's "Nasty" at Hillary Clinton's victory party.
And then the election happened. Donald Trump won — and for me, "nasty" stopped working.
Reclaiming words that are used to degrade is powerful, and can help connect us to the anger we need to keep fighting. It can also be an incredibly important tool in helping people outside our world understand what we're actually dealing with. We all had someone in our lives who couldn't believe that Trump talked about women the way he did on the Access Hollywood tapes, right? I found in the weeks surrounding the release of those tapes, I had a great chance to educate a lot of men about the sexual harassment that lots of women and gender-nonconforming people deal with every day — information they were suddenly willing to believe or able to understand due to the prominence of those words.
But over the course of December and January, as I realized the Trump administration was not a bad dream, but rather a reality that I and everyone else would have to live with for the next four years (at least), I began to feel that I no longer wanted to focus so strongly on the reclamation of slurs and insults. I didn't want to spend any more energy wearing or repeating the words of racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes, and others who want marginalized people to have ever-fewer rights. It's the best, most productive course of action for many people; it might have even been the best course of action for me under different circumstances. But I felt that I had given the oppressors more than enough space in my mind, and I was done. Repeating their words was no longer inspiring me to fight back; it was just drowning me in toxicity.
What I wanted to hear now, above everything else, was words from those marginalized people. Words about anything — their fears, their hopes, their words of resistance.
I attended the Women's March in D.C. When my section of the crowd — which included people of a broad swath of ages, genders, and races — all started chanting "Pussy grabs back!" there was a part of me that was nearly moved to tears. But I was moved to actual tears later, reading America Ferrara's speech, by its lines "The president is not America. His cabinet is not America. Congress is not America. We are America."
I wished I had been able to rally a crowd to chant that, too — I wished we could have hopeful words from someone who was a part of us become a part of the cultural conversation as easily as the negative words of someone who is against us. I wished that I could buy a shirt with Alice Walker's quote "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any" which was as sharp as the "Pussy Grabs Back" shirts. I wished it was as easy and simple to find out what the people who are putting their well-being — and in many cases, their lives — on the line to fight against the Trump administration were saying as it was to find out what new, terrible, degrading thing a man had said to a woman who didn't deserve it.
The thing about resisting is that there's no right or wrong way to do it. You know best what energizes you, motivates you, makes you able to get out of bed in the morning. You know what quotes convey the things you feel far more sharply than you're able to yourself. Reclaiming negative words is always going to be a part of that arsenal, and it absolutely should be. But it's not the right mode of resistance for me right now. So when I see you at that next protest, I will cheer your "She Persisted" sign. But I won't be holding one of my own.