Susan J. Demas: Nice girls don’t say ‘vagina’ … or ‘motherfucker’

Rashida Tlaib (left) and Lisa Brown (right)

As exhilarating at 2018’s pink wave election was for feminists — those who believe in the radical notion that women are people  — we just got a 12-letter reminder that some things haven’t changed.

After being sworn in, new U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) declared of President Trump at an event: “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!”

Rashida Tlaib | Facebook

Most of the Washington, D.C., pundit class suddenly came down with a severe case of the vapors and joined the chorus that the congresswoman must apologize.

Now.

Former GOP strategist Matthew Dowd began his admonishment by stressing his Detroit bona fides in the most stilted way possible (“I completely understand and relate to the ‘chip-on-your-shoulder’ grittiness and saltiness of the area.”) He then argued that Tlaib’s swearing “is just something that should not be done when we are seen as examples for our children and for our fellow citizens.”

Dowd acknowledged the president’s potty mouth, although plenty of politicos haven’t while taking it to Tlaib. (My favorite social media comment on one of our stories was someone calling her a “fowl-mouthed woman.”)

Just this week, Trump had to apologize to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “for cursing so much” during budget shutdown negotiations.

But Trump’s swearing has never risen to the level of a five-alarm fire story, sucking away all the oxygen in the media.

Why, last year, Time Magazine even helpfully ran this story, “Donald Trump Keeps Cursing. Here’s Why It Might Help Him.” The article said this could solidify “his image as a truthteller unafraid of being politically incorrect.”

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Apparently, that maxim does not apply to ladies. Pelosi nailed it on MSNBC, asking, “Let me ask you this, if she was a man,” would there be such a flap over her words?

Of course not.

It’s fashionable nowadays to pretend that sexism in politics doesn’t exist, but the firestorm over Tlaib’s statement can’t be attributed to cursing alone. And it certainly can’t be in the age of Trump, where coarseness is considered a virtue.

It’s true that 2018 was a sea change for Democratic women running — and winning (no, the pink wave wasn’t bipartisan, despite lazy reporting to the contrary).

But it seems that some things haven’t changed much in the last six years.  

Back in 2012, I covered two female lawmakers who were silenced on the Michigan House floor. You might have heard of it. The scandal went international and was quickly dubbed “Vaginagate.”

Here’s what happened.

Barb Byrum

State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) had the audacity to use the word “vagina” during an abortion debate, which is pretty germane to the subject (something obvious to anyone who passed junior high health class). Rep. Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) deployed the term “vasectomy.”

The male House speaker was none too pleased. Ari Adler, who was press secretary for then-Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) before filling that role for former Gov. Rick Snyder, accused the women of throwing “temper tantrums,” as I wrote at the time. He said the comments violated the “decorum” of the House and blasted Brown’s in particular for being “inappropriate and uncivilized.”

This, indeed, was a political masterstroke, as it catapulted the lawmakers into the national news cycle and made Michigan a laughingstock.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

It was an interesting time to be one of the few female reporters in the Capitol, sitting next to a couple male colleagues who tittered every time a ladypart word was uttered. One Republican lawmaker told me I shouldn’t be covering abortion legislation as a “Vagina-American.”

Good times.

What’s been largely forgotten is that Tlaib had a role in that story, too, back when she was a state representative. In my column, “Nice girls don’t say ‘vagina’,” I noted:

Curiously, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who called for a sex strike in highly specific terms (‘Stop having sex with us, gentleman. Find somebody else to do it with!’) was spared from the ban by GOP leadership. That just adds to the arbitrary and capricious nature of the decision.”

What was inspiring is that a group of female lawmakers, including then-Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), banded together and put on a reading of “The Vagina Monologues” along with playwright Eve Ensler on the Michigan Capitol steps. I was invited to the private reception beforehand, where Ensler proceeded to tell me during an interview that my red teardrop necklace looked like (what else) a vagina.

More than 5,000 people attended — and yes, it was mostly women. If you want to trace the roots of the Resistance back in Michigan, I’d argue that it started there.

Gretchen Whitmer at the 2012 “Vaginagate” protest at the Michigan Capitol

Now we have a president who has shut down the government, leaving thousands of workers without pay during the holidays, because he wants his border wall and he wants it now. His administration has thrown migrant children in cages and forced toddlers to defend themselves alone at deportation hearings. He decried immigrants coming in from “shithole countries.”

Trump has encouraged supporters to be violent on the campaign trail, exhorting them to “knock the crap out of” protestors and vowing to pay their legal fees. He bragged about sexually assaulting a woman, declaring, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”

And this is just the short list of life under Trump.

Pundits can retreat to their fainting couches over a congresswoman’s curse word. It’s good for ratings and the undying premise that “both sides” are bad.

But if you think women are going to fold in the face of controversy and shut up like good little girls, well, you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

Susan J. Demas is a 17-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

9 COMMENTS

  1. SO sick and tired of the misogyny in this country. It is time women stand up to these old, ignorant, white MOTHERFUCKERS taking away our reproductive rights, birth control and rights to protect our VAGINAS! Men can go on Roman.com and get ED meds without actually seeing a physician! They don’t deserve help getting an erection if I cannot have a say in whether I want it in my body!!!!!

    • Lol.. get the fuck out of here.. it’s only okay to swear if you’re a man? What’s wrong with vagina? It’s not a dirty word.. it’s a damn word..

  2. My wife has corrected me when I say cocksucker “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Well if we say Vagina motherfucker in a nice slow sexy voice like Berry White how can that be a bad thing.

  3. Well said Ms. Demas, can’t argue with any of that. One little thing I would add about “Vaginagate” would be the role of Jim Stams in the GOP crackdown on Brown and Byrum. He’s now in the state senate, and continues to do his part to make the state suck (c.f. lame duck session). Having lived in his district for 18 years, until two years ago, I’ve had my fill of him and his Midland GOP brethren for a lifetime.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here