Book/Author: Wolf Whistle Politics edited by Diane Wachtell
Age/Genre: Political Nonfiction Essays
Preferred Reading Environment: Definitely somewhere alone, where you can scream and groan without being looked at like you’re unwell.
Reading Accoutrements: WINE – or whatever beverage you find tasty and relaxing.
Content Notes: Sexism, Racism, Classism, 2016 election
I love that my husband works at a library. He often brings home movies, CDs, and graphic novels that pique his interest while checking stuff in. This week, he brought home an instant pot cookbook, which has tons of tasty recipes I can’t wait to try. Usually, he doesn’t bring me books because he knows I have plenty on my reading list, but he presented me with Wolf Whistle Politics and said, “This looked interesting. I thought you’d like it and that it would make you mad.”
The man knows me.
Wolf Whistle Politics is a compilation of political essays that were published between 2014 and 2017 in various news publications. They are all by different authors, with the common theme of “How women are treated by and interact with mainstream political discourse.” The term “wolf-whistle politics” was coined by Wendy Davis, known for her eleven hour filibuster to keep restrictive anti-abortion laws from being passed in Texas in 2013. Where the term “dog-whistle” refers to political speak that furthers racist sentiments using whispered code words, “wolf-whistle” refers to the loud obnoxious degradation of women by politicians, most prominently the man currently inhabiting 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Before I go further, some caveats. This is not an unbiased collection (nor does it claim to be). These essays are all written by people who fall to the left side of the political spectrum, though in varying degrees. I think it has some great perspective to offer people on all points of the political spectrum, but if you’re offended by the terms “pro-choice,” “socialism,” or “feminism,” then you probably won’t get far here. The message is best summed up by the end of Wendy Davis’s 2015 speech to Princeton students, which follows the introduction and precedes the essays that make up the compilation proper: “I stand, arm-in-arm with my sisters, regardless of who they are or the choices they make, because I stand unabashedly and unashamedly for women’s equality.”
Now, if you’re skeptical of this premise because you don’t believe feminism really represents all women, I don’t blame you. And truly, there were points in some of these essays where I thought the individual authors were missing parts of a bigger picture. But as a whole, I think it’s pretty inclusive. It talks about potential reasons that 53% of white women voted for Trump. It discusses why black women don’t owe democrats (particularly Hilary Clinton) their vote. And in a piece that discusses women who should run for president in 2020 (written in 2016), it even discusses a couple Republican candidates. I got most of the way through that one, thinking that the fact it was all Democrats was a little limiting, but when it lists the Republicans at the end, it makes pretty clear that the author didn’t really prioritize listing Republicans because Trump will be the incumbent, though she did mention that she thought Nikki Haley or Susan Collins could give him a run for his money in a primary.
It was hard for me to decide which pieces to talk about because there’s SO MUCH in these 25 essays, so I’m going to walk through the layout of the book instead.
Wolf Whistle Politics starts with an introduction by Naomi Wolf, followed by Wendy Davis’s speech that influenced the name of this collection. The rest is split into five parts:
Presidential Politics: The essays here focus on women and the presidency. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s presidential run is a huge focus, but first we get two essays that focus on the history of the ERA and women in politics in general. These essays (“The Women Card” by Jill Lepore and “The Woman’s Party” by Namara Smith) were probably the most educational of the bunch, and I definitely recommend seeking them out for some great context about how women got to where they are in politics today. Also in this section discussions of intersections between socialism and feminism and critiques of Clinton’s campaign. I loved Rebecca Solnit’s point that a Clinton presidency still would have required fighting from progressives seeking true social justice, but we would have been fighting someone who could be held accountable, and we would not have lost so many of the strides forward that Trump has reversed (see EPA guidelines, many governmental appointments of people who plan on dismantling the departments they’re in charge of, etc).
Sexism and Misogyny: The essays in this section focus largely on Trump’s statements regarding women and his willingness (entitlement) to sexually assault them. When I was looking at the table of contents, I was really looking forward to reading “Why We Trust Donald Trump’s Accusers but Didn’t Believe Bill Clinton’s.” I think it could have gone further with it’s indictment of political cherry-picking, but it had some great points about how far we’ve come since the ‘90s in believing assault survivors.
Women and Governance: This section might be the most inspirational for those wanting to get involved or become more knowledgeable about current politics. There’s an essay about Wendy Davis’s filibuster and what it accomplished. In “Women Actually Do Govern Differently,” Claire Miller shares some great statistics about what happens when there are more women in elected positions. Gail Collins shares a brief history of women’s bathrooms in the senate. There are lots of great examples of women fighting hard battles and getting work done.
Moving Forward: I was a little confused that there was a “Moving Forward” section as well as “What Happens Next?” but “Moving Forward” actually provides a lot of context to why discourse is where it is currently, and how to address that. In “The Men Feminists Left Behind,” Jill Filipovic explores how people interpret things differently, focusing on how many more men than women think Trump respects women, calling into question how “respect” is defined. The quote “I suspect for a lot of men, a more equal America – one with fewer cultural rules about how a man should be, and more avenues to identity and respect – would be a pretty great America to live in” really stuck with me.
LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant writes an open letter to white liberal feminists, indicting them for centering themselves after Trump’s election and welcoming them to the despair that black women have experienced for eons. This essay was quoted in several other essays here, and I definitely understand why. It is a call to action desperately needed. This section also has great essays exploring the evolution of “identity politics” (which are both critiqued and defended in different essays) and “political correctness.” Honestly, seeing solid examples of how the term “political correctness” has been weaponized was one of the things that made me the angriest, probably because it intersects with so many other biases and oppressions. This was frustrating, but informative.
What Happens Next?: This last section focuses a lot on the Women’s March, highlighting the surprising look of a revolution marked by pussy hats, and how a fractured women’s movement was able to mobilize so many people under so many causes. It was both heartening and discouraging in places, to realize how far feminist discourse has come, to think about how many groups have successfully fought against unjust laws, to see how much worse certain things have gotten – to reflect on how much momentum seems to have stagnated.
Wolf Whistle Politics was a roller coaster for sure, but one I definitely recommend. It provided some great context for our current political atmosphere and gave me some names and concepts to research when considering candidates for 2020. If you’re in a place where being frustrated by politics will motivate rather than discourage you, check out these essays.