On a narrow stretch of sidewalk outside of Trump Tower, a woman dressed as a vagina was being directed to keep moving by a male police officer. Behind her, a blonde woman in a tiara and formal wear — a beauty queen — was trailed by a giant black octopus labeled "TRUMPTOPUS," its tentacles coiling around her. A doorman in a suit stood in the doorway, staring steadfastly ahead.
A crowd numbering somewhere in the hundreds had gathered, as the Facebook invite declared, to “protest the pussy-grabber at his place of residence.” The event had been orchestrated by four individuals, but no official group or organization was in charge. While tourists gathered to take pictures, chants alternated between various pussy themes: “This pussy votes” faded into “hands off my pussy,” followed by “power to the pussy.” The protesters gathered here, representing different races, sexualities, ages, nationalities, and abilities, were here to protest Trump: a man they see as a fundamental threat to their rights and existences as women.
The feeling on the ground was one of pride and power, but with a strong undercurrent of fear. One woman laughed when she said “Who knew that sexually abused women were a voting bloc!” but it was a sad laugh about a sad fact. Shortly thereafter, she grew enraged as a small group of Marxist socialists tried to hijack the rally, yelling “dissent is possible!” into a megaphone. “You can’t be here!” she shouted. “You’re going to ruin it for all of us!”
She was angry at the Marxists, but many of the other women there were similarly enraged, or just frustrated, with the women who’d stuck by Trump. Out of two dozen women I spoke to, none could come up with one topic, or policy, or fundamental right on which all women in America, regardless of class or race or political persuasion, could agree. “I thought that everyone agreed that it wasn’t okay to assault women,” one told me. “I thought that our safety was something we could’ve agreed on. But these past weeks have shown me I was wrong.”
That feeling of disunity, of the difficulty of actually communicating with the other side of the political spectrum, has permeated the presidential race for months. But it’s been amplified by the cascading release of tapes and testimony that paint a picture of man who believes, as Trump said in the Access Hollywood tape, that "you can do anything" when it comes to women.
Many Trump supporters have expressed disbelief that the alleged assaults ever occurred; others believe that Trump’s “locker room talk” and groping is just how men behave. Last week, a female Trump supporter told me that “if my husband didn't talk like that, I'd think there was something wrong with him.” That’s a reaction that's difficult for many anti-Trump women to understand. As one commenter on the story about the rally declared, “internalized misogyny is a hell of a drug.”
Part of the problem is that each side struggles to empathize with the fear felt by the other side. At the Trump rally, many women expressed genuine anxiety over the future of the country: Their desire for a wall on the Mexican border wasn't because they hated immigrants, but because they wanted to keep their state safe from the drugs that had killed their family members. And regardless of whether or not the wall would actually be built, or stop the flow of opiates into the state, or go on to make them feel safer — regardless of whether or not the very idea of it is racist or xenophobic — that fear is nonetheless real.
Yet a different sort of anxiety ran through the protests at Pussy Power. On the edge of the police barricades, Stephanie and Lisa, both from Manhattan, held a sign spray-painted with GRAB MY PUSSY. They were against Trump, but they were particularly frightened by Mike Pence, whose stance and policies as governor of Indiana have attempted to marginalize and demonize queer citizens. “He wrote the most horrible stuff about LGBT people, among whom I am one — that we’re disgustingly dirty, that we have all kinds of STDs, that we’re not even good workers,” Stephanie said. “He’s anti-women’s rights, he’s anti-choice, anti-abortion. There’s no pro in there.”
Swati, a South Asian woman from the Bronx, believed Trump and his supporters would infer things about her based on her skin color: “Even though I’m not Muslim American, attacks against Muslim Americans affect me. My husband’s Puerto Rican, I’m a feminist, I pumped at work: We’re exactly the kind of family Donald Trump hates.” Taji, also from the Bronx, wore a printed shirt that read ANGRY LIBERAL FEMINIST KILLJOY. “Even if he has a daughter, he doesn’t see us as women,” she said. “He doesn’t care about us. And there’s even more at stake for me as a person of color. In my neighborhood, right now, Planned Parenthood isn’t really even an option.”
As busses drove down Fifth Avenue blasting their horns in support, a pair of women held signs that paired “HANDS OFF MY SACRED PUSSY” with a Georgia O’Keefe-like rendering of a vagina. Meryl, with close-cropped lavender hair, had designed the posters herself. “Mike Pence is in some ways more dangerous than Trump, because he wants to control every woman’s pussy: Get that transvaginal ultrasound in there, force funerals for miscarriages,” she said. “I had a miscarriage, and the last thing I want is for someone to tell me how to handle that. They want to legislate women’s bodies. That’s my biggest fear.” Her friend Ceci added: “All of my rights as a woman that are really hard fought, hard won — they’re at risk.”
The crowd was dotted with children: Willow, a 10-year-old from Park Slope, Brooklyn, was at her first protest. The week before, she’d had her first conversation about sexual assault with her mom, Sonja. Willow held a sign that read “TEN YEAR OLDS AGAINST TRUMP,” and thinks that Hillary is great. “I’m wearing her shirt!” she exclaimed. She doesn’t like Trump because “he’s a racist and a sexist,” and also because he’s not nice in the debates. Susana, who’s from Mexico but currently living in New York, brought her daughter Carlotta, age five. She explained that they were going to protest a man who said bad things about girls and about Mexicans, and Carlotta decided she wanted to wear her Supergirl costume to protect against the insults. “I’m not a citizen, and we can’t vote, but at least we can protest.”
Just hours after the protest, Clinton and Trump took the stage for the last presidential debate in Las Vegas. On the subject of Roe v. Wade, Trump decried that “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby” — a procedure that does not, in fact, exist. Clinton countered that she would defend not just the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, but also Planned Parenthood and women’s rights, broadly speaking, when it comes to their bodies. “I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice,” she said. “And I will stand up for that right.”
Later in the debate, Clinton offered details about how she would attempt to address issues with social security, suggesting that her personal contributions would go up — as would Trump’s, unless he figured out a way to get out of it. “Such a nasty woman,” Trump interrupted, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
In the short time since, the phrase has become emblematic of the gender dynamics of the debates — and Trump’s attitude towards both Clinton and any woman who’s attempted to challenge him. Memes declaring “Nasty Women Vote” have already proliferated across social media, along with GIFs of Janet Jackson, aggregations of the best Nasty Women tweets, and assorted merch declaring yourself a Nasty Woman or affiliating yourself with one.
In truth, it’s not that different from what happened after Clinton described a swath of Trump supporters as “the basket of deplorables” — "the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” In the months since, “deplorable” merchandise has become a best-seller at Trump rallies; in Cincinnati, six women wore matching pink and white “adorable deplorable” shirts they’d made at home. They were owning what the opposing candidate had said was the worst part of them — and the worst part of America.
As the sun went down in Manhattan, Trump hadn’t yet called Clinton a “nasty woman.” But that’s precisely what these “pussy power” protesters were owning: what is so often treated as the most nasty, most abject, most different, most female part of themselves. And, as such, most threatening — in part because they were demanding control of not only their pussies, but their entire bodies. “We should be safe in our own bodies,” Kindra, who identified as a “queer woman from a tiny Oregon town,” told me. “We should be safe from everything, but at the very fucking minimum from getting touched without our consent.”
In the Access Hollywood video, Trump suggested that the pussy was not only something that he could grab, but whose owner he could control. With their chants ringing out down Fifth Avenue, their graphic signs, and their vulvic costumes, these protesters forcefully countered that logic. After all, the word “pussy” only becomes dirty when it’s uttered in public — and women only become nasty when they refuse to remain silent.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.