Christine A. Kray, Tamar W. Carroll, and Hinda Mandell, editors of the just-published Nasty Women and Bad Hombres: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election (University of Rochester Press), share their insights on how this book came about and what they hope readers will learn from it.
An anthropologist, a historian, and a communication scholar decide to edit a book together—about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, American politics, gender, race, and the 2016 presidential election.
It sounds like the setup to a classic American joke, although there’s no punchline—yet—even if there have been many moments when the machinations of the US political system in recent months have seemed to border on unreality, coopted as they have been by a real estate mogul turned reality TV star turned (nay, elected) president of the United States of America.
The drama, the turmoil, and the political chaos since the 2016 US presidential election have made for gripping plotlines, but this is real life—and with implications for the future of our country, which our national past and histories inform.
In the two years since we—the book’s editors—jumped head-first into this writing and editing process, we’ve marked our own milestones personally and professionally. We have watched our three daughters, all of different ages, as they have experienced the various stages of babyhood, toddlerhood, and girlhood. During this time, two of us received tenure; one had a baby.
Through it all this book project has been a constant in our lives, as we shaped the book’s narrative, clarified terms and focus, conducted research, drafted and reworked chapters, and collaborated with our contributors.
Now we are excited to pull back the curtain on our process, as we reflect on what we learned from working together.
What drew you to the idea of putting together this book on the election?
Christine: Living here in Rochester, NY, we witnessed a rush of commemorative activity at Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in 2016. While in recent years, a very small number of people had made ritual visits to her grave on election days to express gratitude for her efforts in securing women’s right to vote, much larger numbers visited throughout the year in 2016, including around 10,000 people on Election Day itself. I found myself wondering—Why do people think so much about the historical past in moments of great significance in the present? Why do people engage in what we in this book call the “historical imagination”? It wasn’t just the voters, either. Hillary Clinton aligned herself with the suffragists as she aimed to become the country’s first female president nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” stirred up nostalgic visions of white working-class male prosperity and pride.
We three editors perceived that presidential elections are moments when the nation is engaged in a collective project of imagining its contours—who counts, how are they counted, and who is heeded? In Bronislaw Malinowski’s terms, myths become “charters” for the future. In election seasons, certain stories about the past are held up as exemplars of what the nation’s rightful future should be.
Our book’s title, derived from two slurs hurled during the third presidential debate (“nasty women” and “bad hombres”), points to the fact that throughout the 2016 election cycle, gender and racial identities inflamed passions. In this book, we aimed to bring together research chapters and personal essays that would capture the intense debates whipped up by the election about how gender and race fit into our nation’s past, present, and future.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Tamar: I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of how misogyny and racism reinforce each other in our contemporary politics. Misogyny tends to manifest not as a general hatred of all women, but rather hatred of those women who step over the boundaries of femininity and take on rights and responsibilities traditionally reserved for men, like being president. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump drew on this longstanding suspicion of powerful women, labeling Clinton “nasty.” At the same time, in order to position himself as protector-in-chief and the candidate who would best uphold the traditional social order, with its hierarchies of race and sex, he leveraged fears of racialized immigrant criminality (“bad hombres”) and the danger this posed to white women’s sexuality.
Further, I hope that readers will gain an appreciation for the history of African American and women’s civil rights activism—from abolition and women’s suffrage to today’s Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and be inspired to act on their own beliefs.
Christine: I hope that readers will reflect on how masculinity is as entangled in “identity politics” as feminism is. When women run for office and refer to “women’s issues,” they are often faulted for being divisive and, as Trump said of Hillary Clinton, “playing the woman card.” Donald Trump’s strategy throughout the race, though, was to position himself as a champion of men. He did so through his body language, his interpersonal and international bullying, his policy priorities (mining, manufacturing, the military, and policing—all the traditional preserve of men), and his habitual misogyny. Yet Donald Trump was not faulted for “playing the man card.” In this country, we are so accustomed to thinking about men’s interests that we scarcely notice when they are being prioritized.
Hinda: I hope readers will also have a clearer sense of the historically informed dynamics that brought Trump into the White House. If media outlets and the general population of the U.S. can agree on one thing, it’s that Donald Trump’s presidential victory was a “surprise” and a “stunning upset.” I hope our book makes the outcome of the 2016 presidential election less surprising, even if it is still disorienting.
What types of readers do you envision for the book?
Hinda: I welcome readers who still have questions—perhaps even more so now than ever—about the complex dynamics and politics that resulted in the campaign outcome.
Christine: We created this book with the general public and undergraduate college students in mind. Since the 2016 presidential election is the most controversial and consequential in modern US history (we write this in the aftermath, for example, of the recent rancorous and gut-wrenching spectacle of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh), we felt an obligation to engage a broad readership in these conversations. While many books published by academic publishers are steeped in specialized jargon, our authors use a minimum of jargon. While all of the research chapters adhere to the methodological standards of their disciplines, the writing is accessible to nonspecialists.
Tamar: The book is accessible, yes, and also meaty. Our book offers a clear explanation of concepts from feminist theory, such as intersectionality, gender consciousness, and benevolent patriarchy. These can help readers understand not only the 2016 election and its aftermath, but the social forces around them beyond the most recent presidential election.
Can you tell us about the range of authors and types of essays included in this book?
Hinda: I’d like to pull upon our national motto—“E Pluribus Unum”—and adapt it to our book: Out of many contributors, one book. Our volume features scholars from the fields of history, anthropology, communication, philosophy, criminal justice, and gender studies, in addition to the punchy and personal voices of journalists and essayists. It would be an injustice to the complexities of the 2016 presidential election to create a multidisciplinary volume that was purely academic and scholarly in scope, for a limited audience. We wanted a portion of our contributors to write in a style that privileged a first-person account, offering prose that is smart, gripping, and even humorous. This book demonstrates that a marriage of scholarship and commentary is possible, with each complementing the other’s strengths.
The three of you are from different disciplines: communication, history, and anthropology. How do your disciplinary backgrounds affect how you looked at the election and approached this project?
Christine: We all approach the subject from different angles, using different research methods and lenses of analysis, contributing to a volume that is multifaceted and rich. For example, as an anthropologist, I am trained to pay attention to values, beliefs, and how behaviors often express symbolically that which is difficult—or too risky—to put into words. Consequently, I am fascinated by the ways people express political values obliquely—through symbols, ritual performances, festivals, and art. The immense pilgrimage to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite on Election Day, for example, is best understood as a symbolic stand in support of women’s rights by thousands of women whose voices were muted by the thunderous misogyny enacted by Trump and many of his supporters. Other chapters in this book engage in similar sorts of interpretation, including of campaign paraphernalia (Caputi), body language (Schwartzman and Simon), fashion (Schwartzman and Simon; Rabinovitch-Fox), and Internet memes (Stevenson), collectively demonstrating that a great culture war about gender equality was being waged through artifacts of the cultural imagination.
How did working on this book shift your understanding of the election?
Tamar: As a specialist in American women’s history and the mother of a young daughter for whom I have limitless ambition, the thought of electing our first female president 100 years after women got the right to vote in my home state of New York brought tears of joy to my eyes. Frankly, I couldn’t get enough of Clinton’s white pantsuits. Our contributors helped me realize, though, that Clinton’s embrace of suffrage symbolism was not entirely effective in activating women’s gender consciousness. This was due in part to the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and the split within it over the 15th Amendment, which gave black men but not women the right to vote following the Civil War. The ugly racism that some suffrage supporters expressed during those debates over enfranchising black men still haunts the legacy of the movement today. There is clearly a need for a celebration of genuinely inclusive leaders like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Shirley Chisholm alongside (or, some would say, in place of) suffragist heroine Susan B. Anthony.
What do you think is the most important element for understanding the election outcome?
Hinda: That there is probably no way that Hillary Clinton could have won the 2016 presidential election. The cards were already stacked against her—because animosity toward her has grown exponentially since her days as First Lady of the United States. For those who allied against her, Clinton triggered an anti-feminist repugnancy so deeply engrained in a strong segment of the population that there was no messaging that could have been effective in convincing them that she wasn’t America’s “anti-Christ.”
Christine: I agree that Hillary Clinton’s gender worked against her. After the October 7, 2016, release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump bragged about repeatedly committing sexual assault, it seemed impossible that he could win. And yet, Trump was able to drown out the furor by downplaying his remarks as “locker-room talk” and by faulting Hillary Clinton for the prior sexual misconduct of her husband. A man would not be held responsible for his wife’s misdeeds in the same way. Pamela Aronson’s chapter shows that Clinton’s campaign was timid in using the “Access Hollywood” tape against Trump, apparently because women are not permitted to take up too much political space in advocating for their bodily autonomy.
Tamar: The interviews with conservative women voters discussed by Lee, Liebler, and Powless really reinforced for me Hinda’s point that there was no way Clinton could have won, because so many women voters were willing to accept Trump’s demeaning of women, in part because they are used to being treated as subordinate to men in their lives and have come to accept it, and even, as Jamia Wilson writes, to trade autonomy for the benefits of whiteness. The #MeToo movement that has come to prominence since the election, however, also indicates that there is a strong base of women voters that are not willing to accept patriarchy as a given.
You started planning the book before the election. How did your approach change in its aftermath?
Christine: Like most of the country, the three of us thought that Clinton was going to win, and we imagined that this book would chronicle the electoral victory of the country’s first female president, despite a contest characterized by misogynist and racist invective. After the election, we had to quickly take stock and aim to discern why millions of American voters found Trump’s persona and promises appealing. Then, postelection events, such as the tsunami of feminist and progressive activism, starting with the Women’s March and through the debates about confederate statues and the #MeToo movement, filled pages and pages of an epilogue and drove home the conclusion that Donald Trump tosses fuel on the fires of culture wars rather than seeking to extinguish them.
This interview was conducted with the editors of Nasty Women and Bad Hombres: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Christine A. Kray is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Tamar W. Carroll is Associate Professor of History, and Hinda Mandell is Associate Professor in the School of Communication, all at Rochester Institute of Technology.