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The Resurgence of Blatant Sexism

How opponents of women's rights have gained audacity and degraded American politics.

Patricia de Melo Moreira / Getty Images

When I published a book called Vagina four years ago, arguing that targeting the genitals and sexuality of women was a political ploy, and that women need to defend their sexuality—and even their genitals—overtly in order to be a potent political force, the topic was seen to be outré, and I was chastised for introducing women’s reproductive organs into politics. The vagina has since made many rather shocking appearances in the political fray. Donald Trump and Billy Bush talked about grabbing women’s vaginas without permission. The New York Times ran the word “pussy” on the front page for the first time in its history. And when a woman with a national platform—Fox News’s Megyn Kelly—called Donald Trump out on broadcast television, like a metronome, Trump invoked for viewers the image of Ms. Kelly’s bleeding vagina. This attack was meant to silence Kelly, just as attacks on women’s vaginas always have been.

But on the Mall in Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, you couldn’t shut nearly a half million women up about their genitals, their reproductive organs, and the politics of defending and attacking them. A groundswell of furious, mainstream-as-can-be women carried signs that were newly combative and explicit: “This Pussy Grabs Back” was one, and “If I wanted the government in my body, I’d fuck a congressman” was another. The icon of a uterus with fallopian tubes was on many signs; in one, the organ itself was giving Trump the finger.

In DC, New York, Seattle, London, New Delhi, and Christchurch, women—and the men who support them—flowed into a vast, iconic river of “pink pussyhats”—1.7 million of these were knitted by the PussyHats Project and worn at protests around the country and the world. Women of every background and age showed up wearing an item symbolizing a very personal part of their bodies, screaming mad in defense of their genitals, their wombs, their vital organs. Sick of sexual abuse. Sick of loss of reproductive control. Sick of being degraded. They even brought their kids to the marches; today’s rage was going to inspire the next generation.

This huge response was a result, I believe, of women’s awareness of a newly brutal form of political engagement, an overtly misogynist approach, aptly described by former Texas state senator Wendy Davis (of filibuster and pink running shoes fame), in a speech she gave at Princeton in 2015, as “Wolf Whistle Politics.”

What accounts for such explicit, in-your-face sexism at this moment in time? I would hazard that it’s the prospect of women in power at last. The presidential race clearly inflamed this new brutality. But it was just kindling that has been ready for some time to set a bonfire ablaze. 2016 was the year in which gender issues exploded all over the American political map. Everywhere you looked there was evidence of a gender crisis: gendered hope and gendered hostility; gendered rage, violence, and fear; pussy grabbing and invocations of Seneca Falls.

Even in his manic, tantrum-y chaos, Trump inhabited the current moment in America in which men and women really live: our world of social media impulsivity, nonstop porn, shock jocks, celebrity worship, and raw emotional battle. He particularly called out to the serious divides between haves and have-nots, both male and female. It all erupted continually during the last presidential campaign in America, and the shards poked awkwardly—and at times painfully—through what had been the last fragile veneers of polite traditional political discourse.  Yes, of course, the presidential race was where most of the action was, but pulling the lens back broadens the discussion to include a wide range of women and issues in the openly bigoted and sexist public sphere today.

In her Princeton speech, Wendy Davis likened wolf whistle politics to the coded signaling of “dog whistle politics,” which scholar Ian Haney Lopez used to characterize racist political pandering, as exemplified by Richard Nixon’s infamous Southern strategy. But where dog whistling is covert and happens at a pitch that can’t be heard by many, wolf whistling is right there in your face. Wolf whistling is an undisguised lasciviousness that condones and informs, Davis asserts, “the sexualized nature in which women candidates and women’s issues are often framed.” Women candidates, Davis notes, are viciously and openly sexualized with impunity. She talks about how she was targeted with sexualized imagery to demean her during her senatorial bid. As she points out, “the ploy works, so why stop?”

At this moment in history, Davis’s phrase can easily be expanded to include the play of overt and violent misogyny throughout public life, including women of all kinds: voters, marchers, spokeswomen, workers, patients, moms, and other everyday female leaders, political and not. Though the Trump/Clinton matchup in 2016 was the catalyst, like Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” in the 1960s, and Susan Faludi’s “backlash” in the 1990s, the concept of “wolf whistle politics” allows us to discern the contours of a contemporary constellation we may not have perceived before. If we trace the thread of vicious, angry, and eroticized sexism—as opposed to the more polite, condescending sexism of the first decade or so of the twenty-first century—we can use the concept of wolf whistle politics to smoke out and name a whole gamut of tactics that have somehow, appallingly, made their way back to America’s center stage.

Within days of assuming office, President Trump signed an executive order limiting access to birth control and safe abortions in countries that receive US aid. In the photo of the signing, he is flanked by seven white men with their hands folded nervously over their gray-suit-clad penises. With its painful irony, the photo went viral.

Why are the vagina and the uterus the sites of such naked political battle right now? The retrograde, throwback nature of wolf whistle politics must be placed in the context of the history of the women’s movement, which has always seen a one-step-back reaction to any steps forward. Many of us feel as if the current of history is suddenly flowing in reverse. Younger women may simply be stunned by it, but the frenzy of public sexism reminds those of us who are older of earlier days. Women who remember firsthand the violent hostility of the mid-1960s to early 1970s, when feminists were openly derided in the media as bitches, dykes (in a bad way), and harridans, say, “I can’t believe I am here again—we are here again.” As one midlife feminist put it, incredulously, “It feels like we are back on the barricades with Nora Ephron and Eleanor Holmes Norton.”

During the current era of wolf whistle politics, fights that appeared to be over—Title IX protections and the basic fight that won Roe v. Wade, for instance—have been reawakened. State by state, laws have been passed to make abortions practically unattainable if you can’t drive far, if you don’t have a lot of money, or if you don’t have childcare options for your family. The last election cycle also saw a red-in-tooth-and-claw attack on funding for Planned Parenthood—that staid, mainstream organization that most Americans understood was there, no matter what, for your Pap smear or, quietly, no matter what you said in church, for your daughter’s emergency Plan B. The ghosts of old dangers—of the horror stories of back alley abortions and the images of bloodied coat hangers—that terrified me as a child, when I leafed through my mother’s Ms. magazine in the early 1970s, are haunting our homes and our dreams.

Exemplifying this return to an earlier era is the use of the term “locker room talk” to excuse and legitimize the sexual demeaning, domination, and abuse of women. The term was deployed by Donald Trump to explain away the infamous “pussy grab” video, in which Trump shared his penchant for what is legally defined as sexual assault. And the phrase gave cover to Billy Bush, when he sought to normalize his predator-enabling behavior by invoking that time-honored, all-male-space “the locker room.” As if, somehow, attitudes and propensities acknowledged out of earshot don’t inform actual conduct with actual women. Many athletes signed a letter vociferously objecting to this “guys will be guys” view of sexual violence, and men of all backgrounds publicly disavowed such attitudes. But had guys changed? How many guys had changed? Did that lightning-rod moment mean that, while some “guys” held tight to old and savage gender privileges, thousands, or millions, of others were done with them? Only near-term history will show if patriarchy is finally tired of itself.

The uterus made other dramatic appearances in politics recently. Mike Pence was breathtakingly candid during the vice presidential debate about his view that women should not control their own reproductive rights. And women are coming forward again, as they last did in the 1970s, to speak out about their own abortions.

The penis has made dramatic political appearances as well. Anthony Weiner’s snaps of his genitals on social media became a powerful opposition tool for Republicans. Missteps—even serious missteps—of errant sexuality by powerful white men in the past were politely glossed over by other white men. Now, they have became lurid fodder for political battle. Anthony Weiner’s penis was used as a way to attack both his wife, Huma Abedin, and her boss, Secretary Clinton, replaying traditional uses of the phallus to smite powerful women.

Other important fragmenting points in the drama of wolf whistle politics were caused by how diverse kinds of women reacted to the same instigations. Many white women voters countenanced or explained away Trump’s predatory proclivities in ways that other white women couldn’t fathom. Class, region, race, and age were all dividers. The debate between Maggie Hassan and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire over whether Trump was a good role model for kids showed political divides about appropriate male behavior: All women were obviously not the same. On a recent day in my social media feed, a video of a furious African American woman at the March, with a sign about the erasure of race, was backed by three ditsy-looking white women in pink pussy hats taking selfies, exemplifying the tensions between women of color and white women in a female-hostile political season.

Michelle Obama versus Kellyanne Conway. Loretta Lynch, Samantha Power, Alicia Garza, Eve Ensler. In the face of raging misogyny, everyone deployed “their” women. This moment made clear that there is no one feminism and no single way of addressing gender war.

By summer 2016, we were witnessing a flat-out gender war in the national US psyche—one that took some of us back to memories of Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King in a different kind of competition. It seemed as if the looming prospect of a potential shoo-in first woman president—heiress to the well-heeled Clinton legacy and political machine, former secretary of state, darling of power brokers on both sides of the aisle—had raised, with fairy-tale logic, its oppositional id: the walking, vengeful phallus.

Was Secretary Clinton issuing noble-sounding sound bites urging people to “Stand with me”? There was Mr. Trump, with his inflamed face and ever-bouffant hair, serving as a mouthpiece for the male resistance to this specter of ultimate female empowerment. Did Secretary Clinton present an image of a woman giving a leader-of-the-free-world-type speech? There was Candidate Trump, directing attention continually to what was gross, demeaning, or objectifying about women’s bodies, calling even beauty pageant winners “fat pigs” and “eating machines.” Trump commanded the power of male judgment of female physicality, exercising one of the last privileges standing of a fading, furious patriarchy. As Secretary Clinton paced about in her overly polished candidate’s manner, asking us to imagine her in the Oval Office, all Trump had to do was stalk behind her and stand there, looming.

Wolf whistle politics represents a new and frightening thing in twenty-first-century American public life: naked primal political rage howling at women, in filthy and scary ways. And, it must be said: women howling back. One of the signs I especially loved at the march was that of my daughter’s twenty-one-year-old friend, which read, simply, “I am so mad.”

This article is adapted from the introduction to Wolf Whistle Politics: The New Misogyny in America Today, forthcoming from The New Press.