MOLLY: From the Cut and Gimlet Media… This is the Cut on Tuesdays... I’m your host… Molly Fischer…
I was always told I could be “whatever I wanted” when I grew up. Like every other girl in my class, I wanted to be the first female president, or else a marine biologist. I grew up reading books with heroines who were feisty and really good at things like sword-fighting; I had a "girls kick butt" soccer T-shirt.
My official understanding, at the time, was that girls ruled.
<<We girls can do anything… isn’t that right, Barbie?>>
<<Spice girls mux: bla bla bla feminism girl power>>
<<Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you>>
MOLLY: It was the mid-nineties. Girl power was everywhere. And while my fourth grade friends and I might not have been old enough to have paid attention to Bill Clinton, or Anita Hill, or Clarence Thomas, our moms definitely had.
I was thinking about all of this recently when my colleague Naz told a story about her six-year old daughter. Naz had taken her to this unicorn-themed store in Brooklyn. After the kids pick out their sparkly horns or whatever they want to buy, the store employees have them recite a unicorn-slash-girl-power credo. This place is basically the Wing for six-year-olds. So, it’s Naz’s daughter’s turn, and she’s supposed to say, “Girls rule the world!”
NAZ: And she goes, “... but that’s not true.” And I’m like, yeah…
MOLLY: Even a six year old knows that if someone’s smiling and trying to convince you that you have power...you probably don’t.
It’s been a while since I was six but a lot of times it feels like someone’s selling me the same kind of girl power - or, its grown-up version, “empowerment”.
In the end, empowerment tends to be mostly a nice feeling you have about yourself. Which is good! But it’s not really the same as power. A yoga class can feel empowering. A pop song can feel empowering.
Neither of them do much in the face of this…
<<I, Brett M Kavanaugh do solemnly swear… that I will administer justice…>>
<<Some of the 1500 minors there have been held for more than a month>>
<<Collectively, Americans now owe as much as trillion dollars in student loans>>
<<We have just over a decade if we want to maintain life on earth as we know it>>
<<We won. It doesn’t matter, we won.>>
MOLLY: On this episode… our first episode… we’re talking about POWER. The Cut and New York Magazine have undertaken this huge project on women and power, which you check out online and in the magazine.
And it’s coming at this crazy moment: after a year of talking about #MeToo, on the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and on the eve of midterm elections in which tons of female candidates will be running for office. ...
So, in this episode, we’ll be talking with women about being powerful and powerLESS... and about the relentless work of actually changing who has power
And we’re starting with a woman who thinks about power more than anyone else I know. She also has power over me, specifically. She is… my boss. Stella Bugbee.
STELLA: Hi, Molly.
MOLLY: Do you want to introduce yourself for the purposes of this podcast?
STELLA: Yes, I’m Stella Bugbee, I’m the editor of the Cut.
MOLLY: Have you ever seen the show Deadwood? I realized a while back that I sort of think of Stella like Al Swearengen.
Al is the saloon-keeper-slash-crime-boss at the center of Deadwood... he basically runs the camp, and it’s because he’s the best at figuring out who wants what and why... and whether they’re going to get it…. In other words, POWER…
And so he’s always having to explain to his somewhat dumber underlings what he’s thinking
In this analogy I am one of the dumber underlings.
But I don’t MIND, mostly, because I appreciate the chance to learn from a master. She’s been thinking about this stuff for a while.
STELLA: We had this career fair In second grade. And they were like what do you want to be when you grow up and I think (laughs) I said something like I don't care what it is, but I want to be in charge. (laughs) I think I've always been very impatient with people, um, in power feeling like they were messing it up somehow.
MOLLY: I want to hear about what you as someone who thinks about power a lot thinks other people don't understand about power.
STELLA: Yeah, I think um most people think that they want power and then they are either given it or they stumble upon it and realize that it is not at all what they want. What they really want is to be heard and to have a voice. A lot of people I know who think they want power actually just want to be in on the decision-making process.
I mean, I think the thing that no one tells you in all these conversations about like, women should be leaders is that people hate you.
MOLLY: Yeah. (laughs)
STELLA: They don't like what you're doing a lot of the times and you have to be, to be a leader is to be supremely comfortable with a lot of people disliking you and disapproving of your choices and, you know fighting. Like there's a lot of fighting that goes on with being a leader. So, when I say that I don't think everyone's a leader, it's that I don't think everyone has the fortitude to be disliked to the degree that most leaders end up having to be disliked.
STELLA: One of the things I often talk about with my daughter, like when we argue and she wants to do something and I don't want her to do it, sometimes we've had these conversations where I'll say if you believe in what you want to do, do it and you don't need my approval. I'm going to disapprove of this and you're going to have to live with that. And if you can live with that, that's a good thing.
That means that you have overcome my disapproval and by the way, that's good practice because the rest of the world is going to disapprove of you a thousand million times. Boyfriends will disapprove of you, teachers will disapprove of you in ways that you can't control. And if you can get comfortable with that feeling of persisting in the face of disapproval and disappointment, that's power to me. That's the true personal power that comes with knowing that you'll be fine. You'll be fine.
[INTERSTITIAL BED UP AND UNDER]
My name is Liz Meriwether. I'm a writer, I'm a producer. I've created the show New Girl and now I'm co-creator of the show called Single Parents on ABC. I had no television experience when New Girl started. I wrote the pilot and suddenly I was running the show. And I had no idea what I was doing (laughs). And it's definitely intimidating to, like, walk in and have to to say, "No, trust me. Listen to me, I know what I'm doing." (laughs) when you don't.
So anyway, after I think, like the first two weeks, I completely lost my voice. Like, one of the situations where I was like whispering, I couldn't talk. It was a real big problem and the producer of the show knew this kind of fancy ear, nose and throat doctor.
So I went in to see him and he took a look at my throat and he looks at me and he says, "Have you been drinking a lot of coffee and/or trying to sound authoritative?" (laughs) And I said yes to both of those things.And I actually ended up going to therapy, so, (laughs) really getting into it.
No, but and- and- and I remember this kind of amazing moment where the therapist said you're only going to be like the leader that you are. You're not going to be the idea of a leader in your head. And that was a huge thing that I wish I had realized in the ear, nose and throat doctor's office instead of three years later (laughs) in a therapist's office.
MOLLY: At the Cut… one of the places we are reliably fascinated to observe the workings of power is in the fashion world… it’s like this insane microcosm… and it’s part of why Stella does what she does…
STELLA: I think fashion is all about power and that's why I am able to work in the field of fashion and also not get bored thinking about it. (laughs)
Fashion is an industry obsessed with hierarchies... it runs on money and reputation... And every few months, the people in charge host shows where they seat everyone in the front row, or the second row--or maybe they don't seat them at all--based on how much they matter. People WEAR their status. It's all extremely blatant.
So, yeah, if you want to think about power, fashion might not be a congressional election ... but it makes a pretty good case study.
Lindsay Peoples Wagner has been a fashion editor at the Cut since 2015… and in the last year she has taken on the power structures of the fashion world in a way that has changed her life…
LINDSAY: So, when I started in fashion, I was, I started in the closet, the fashion closet, where like, all the samples are trafficked in. And, you only get paid $9 or $10 an hour. So, great money. I was working two other jobs. So, I was exhausted, but I had to do all this because that's what you have to do to get your foot in the door.
And, I remember, like, at that time, we had to fill out timesheets by hand. Every week I would be like, chasing down my boss and be like, "Hey, you have to sign this time sheet." cause I had to get paid. And, all the other girls would never get their timesheets signed. And I one day had the courage to ask one of them, I was like, "Why don't you guys like, chase them?" And, she's like, "I don't need the money." And, it just, like, clicked. And, I was like, "Oh, right. You're rich. I got it." Like, it just never, like, and then it all made sense. Because, from the get-go it was like, how are, is everybody in full Chanel and Prada and like, $10,000 outfits? As an assistant, you're expected to look like somebody who makes $300,000 a year and you're getting paid $9 an hour.
MOLLY: You have to get your foot in the door by looking like you're already well within the door. (laughs)
LINDSAY: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Which is impossible. Um, I mean, most people in fashion come from wealth. Which, I don't, I don't think it's a bad thing. Like, I'm happy for you. But, I do think that, I think it would've helped me if people would have been more transparent about it. In hindsight, I was like, girl, you were not thinking this through. But, I just… it became very clear to me that people in fashion that have money are able to navigate the world in such a different space.
And of course money isn’t the only thing that makes the fashion world a hostile place...
LINDSAY: I was in a car with one of my bosses and she started to ask me about my family and my dad is from Alabama. And she was like, "Oh so does your family still live in Alabama?" And I said, "Yeah, I go down there regularly." And then she went on to ask, "Does your family still live on the same plantation that they were slaves on?" I was like, "My parents weren't slaves. Like what are you talking about?" I was confused because mathematically that's not possible. So I ... Literally I just remember saying, "Huh?"
MOLLY: That's insane.
LINDSAY: It's ... It was one of those conversations where I remember it so clearly because I kept replaying it. Like should I have done something differently?I just hear my parents' voices in my head and I know that they would have been like, "Get outta that car. Don't ever talk to this person ever again." Because that's just how I was raised. Like my parents has raised me to just be very proud of my blackness and in that moment I felt a little ashamed.
MOLLY: Lindsay KNEW she wasn’t alone in this...
So...earlier this year she decided to write about it for The Cut. She reported a piece called “Everywhere and Nowhere: What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion”. It’s all about how the fashion industry uses black culture to sell stuff while denying black people within the industry real power...
She spoke to over a 150 people about their experiences... from successful designers... to assistants just starting out in the fashion closet … But getting those people to publicly share the conversations they were already having in whispers..was harder than she ever imagined…
LINDSAY: Everyone was worried. Everyone was nervous. I had to do a pep talk with every single person. I have never encouraged this many people in my entire life. (laughs)
It was like people were really fearful for their jobs. And I had to just keep explaining to people over and over again like I'm not trying to, you know, make you lose your job, like, and there were some people that said some things that they felt like, "No, this is definitely gonna get me fired."
but, I mean, I've had a lot of conversations with people after it that were in it and they were so ecstatic that they were part of it but I think they also realize, like, "Oh my gosh, I really do have a duty to do things differently. I really have to make things better. I really have to use my position for good."
MOLLY: You now have a position of power. (laughs) Tell us about it.
LINDSAY: I'm now officially Editor-In-Chief of Teen Vogue. It's-
LINDSAY: Thank you. Honestly, it's r-, it's very surreal. It's the first brand that I interned at.
LINDSAY: so it is a huge full circle moment. When I wrote Black In Fashion, at the end of it I was like, man, it would be really cool if some of these things change.
I've gotten into this because my mother who's always told me like be what you needed when you were younger, and I always take that with me.
I'm looking forward to it. We want so many things to change in the industry, I am not Jesus Christ, so like I can't do everything, but like I will do everything that I can in my power to, to make things better.
[INTERSTITIAL BED IN]
I’m Lindy West and the first time I really thought about my own power was when I started writing about bodies specifically being fat and happy and successful. And I realized that I had the power to be the role model that I needed when I was growing up
MOLLY: After the break, we’ll have Rebecca Traister breaking your heart with tales from Capitol Hill.
MOLLY: Welcome back to the Cut on Tuesdays…
[INTERSTITIAL BED IN]
I’m Carrie Brownstein and I am a writer, director, and musician. My first moment thinking about my own power lacking it. I was on stage with my band, Sleater Kinney, and my bandmate, Corin Tucker, was having an issue with the monitor system how musicians on stage hear themselves and the man running the sound was annoyed that she was questioning his prowess, as a sound guy, and so he shut off the PA. And I thought, wow, we have no power here to even perform the songs that we wrote, and it was a big wake up call realizing that we might have to take things into our own hands as we move forward.
MOLLY: First could you just introduce yourself for us…
REBECCA: Yes I’m Rebecca Traister, I’m a writer at large for the Cut and New York Magazine, and I am the author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
MOLLY: Anyone who’s been paying attention to women and power in the public sphere for the past few years has probably been reading Rebecca Traister ... of course, she’s been covering feminism and politics for much longer that.
Part of the reason I find her work so satisfying to read is that she’s got this encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff she writes about. But that can also be unbelievably depressing, when you realize how little has changed.
She told me that there’s this one photo that really captures what she’s learned about women and power ...
REBECCA: There's an image that is very important to me. It's actually a photograph that my husband gave me framed a couple of years ago of a crucial historic moment which is the women of the House of Representatives running up the steps of the Senate to interrupt and demand that Anita Hill's testimony be heard and it's this iconic photo and it's just of women, you can't see their faces--women in their, you know, 1991 blazers and pumps, you know running up the steps of the capital and it's Eleanor Holmes Norton and Barbara Boxer and Pat Schroeder and that to me is this iconic and very fraught image.
MOLLY: That photo was taken on October 8th, 1991…. It was two days after a woman named Anita Hill alleged that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her for years at work.
He was her boss, and she said that he’d repeatedly asked her out, that he’d encourage her to watch porn, that he’d measure his penis and tell her about it.
That news breaks on October 6th. On October 8th, the Senate was scheduled to vote on Thomas’s nomination.
A group of women representatives in the House wanted that vote delayed and an FBI investigation of Thomas. But they had no power to make that happen - they were in the house, and Supreme Court nominations are up to the senate.
So, on the morning of October 8th...the women did what they could do: they started giving speeches. They each got one minute and one by one they railed against what was about to happen in the senate.
There was Nancy Pelosi from California…
NANCY PELOSI: To respect women in this society...
MOLLY: And Pat Schroeder from Connecticut...
PAT SCHROEDER: Mr. Speaker we are at a very critical time in which a woman has come forward to make very serious allegations and there’s an attempt to brush them under the rug…
MOLLY: Then Patsy Mink from Hawaii...
PATSY MINK: And so it seems to me that when the character of a nominee is placed in question that time must be taken to assess the evidence...
MOLLY: This congress in 1991 - both houses - were controlled by democrats. The president was a republican, but these women were directing their fury at the Senators in their own party--the ones who controlled whether or not the Thomas vote would happen that day.
For every woman who spoke, a man would stand up and decry the injustice being perpetrated against Thomas. The best example of this is probably Republican Representative Dana Roerbacher from California - who is still a sitting member of the house...
DANA ROERBACHER: The last minute personal attack on Judge Thomas is yet another example of the rotten gutter level politics which is now the standard operating procedure of liberalism in America. Has liberalism really sunk to this nasty destroy your opponent style of politics? Liberals, have you no sense of decency?
MOLLY: Finally... Rosa Delauro from Connecticut got up to speak…
ROSA DELAURO:The Senate is about to embark on a misguided journey. The vote this evening on the Thomas nomination.
Point of order Mr. Speaker...the gentlewoman will refrain from direct reference to the other body.
MOLLY: There’s this rule in the House where you can’t criticize the senate directly… you can, for example, obliquely express your rage at the Senate, but complaining about particular actions is generally off limits… anyway, Rosa Delauro kept going…
ROSA DELAURO: How can there be a vote to place Judge Thomas to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court under this cloud. To be sure, a person is innocent until proven guilty. But without a full and public hearing about the veracity of these very serious charges of sexual harassment, a decision this evening to elevate Judge Thomas to the Supreme Court, casts doubt on the entire process. What kind --
MAN: Mr Speaker I demand the gentlewoman’s words be taken down.
DELAURO: The actions of the Senate Judiciary Committee say loud and clear…
MAN: Mr Speaker I demand the gentlewoman’s words be taken down.
MAN 2: The Gentlewoman will suspend.
MOLLY: Watching it now, you see these incredibly powerful women grappling with the fact that they have no real power in this situation. All they can do is demand to be heard.
So they do. They march over to the senate, they corner senators from their own party, who were apparently in the middle of lunch, and get in Joe Biden’s face - he headed up the Judiciary Committee at the time. They demand a delay in the vote. And it’s on this walk over to the senate that someone snapped this photo that Rebecca is talking about...
REBECCA: It's women running up the steps and it's and they are going to fucking interrupt this. Am I allowed to say fucking interrupt?. OK. They are going to interrupt this fucking legislative white sausage fest and say we are asserting our power and saying you have to hear the voice of this woman and this is these are the senators they did not want to hear Anita Hill. They did not want this story to count. They did not. They had no time for it. And they went in and they caused a disruption. And that is a kind of power--the power to disrupt. Because to express our anger is to disrupt the continued power of the people we're angry at. And so here is this moment of these women charging forward. Fuck you. We have power we work here too and you are going to listen to us. And that is captured on film and it's so important to me.
MOLLY: What happened after that day, of course, was that Anita Hill testified, Thomas was confirmed anyway, and in the next election, women ran for office in record numbers.
REBECCA: You actually get a literal charge of women the next year into Washington for elected office. And we have what has long been referred to as The Year of the Woman in 1992 when four women are elected to the Senate and that is a motherfucking record. Including including Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein….
BARBARA BOXER: And in California, two women will be elected to the Senate of the United States…
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: To my teammate Barbara Boxer, we will be the Cagney Lacey one two punch for the state of California.
REBECCA: And Carol Moseley Braun, who is the first black woman ever elected to the Senate in 1992.
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: You have shown what we can do when we come together, when we stop them from dividing us along race lines and genderlines and geography, when we come together.
REBECCA: So and this is a year after a black woman is treated with derision and dismissal by a white male--all white male--judiciary. So those women charging up that step. You know it's like it's like a symbolic preview of women charging into Washington. But you look at that and you also come to understand: it didn't work, right?
Clarence Thomas got confirmed to the Supreme Court. There are three other women who were willing to support Anita Hill's claims. In my mind there is not and has never been a question that he was a serial sexual harasser and he has sat on the highest court in this country.
Clarence Thomas has had a enormously powerful and authoritative role in determining this country's political future and the kinds of policies that determine what kind of power millions of Americans have: to vote, to keep their families safe, to have health care that they can afford, to determine whether they have autonomy over their bodies and thus their economic professional and familial lives.
Clarence Thomas is one of nine people who's gotten to make those decisions for 27 years despite those women running up those steps.
And so what is that picture?
REBECCA: A lot of people are participating in the really really hard work of trying to get it right and trying to more equally distribute the power that has for so long been in the hands of a certain kind of American.
If we knew how to do it… somebody would have done it... And if it were easy, we would have done it.
This fucking process has taken centuries and is going to take centuries….
MOLLY: That’s it for this week’s show. I’m Molly Fischer… we’ll see you next Tuesday.
The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh. We had more help from Jasmine Romero.
Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler.
We’re edited by Stella Bugbee, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and Alex Blumberg, who does not know what the Wing is.
Music, sound design, and mixing by Haley Shaw. Our theme song is “Play it Right” by Sylvan Esso. Thanks to Greater Goods and Jennifer at Big Deal Music.
Special thanks to Anna Silman, Gaby Paiella, Alana Casanova Burgess, David Haskell, and Pam Wasserstein.
The Cut on Tuesdays is a production of Gimlet Media and the Cut.