Book review: Nasty Women Talk Back!


In 2017 a formidable force descended onto the streets of Washington – hundreds of thousands of women put foot to tar and voice to rage.  The images that flashed across my TV screen were powerful – a sea of bobbing posters engraved with slogans such as “hell hath no fury like a nasty woman scorned!” and “pussy grabs back”. The sounds were even more invigorating as a crescendo of women’s voices demanded to be heard. The camera pans over to a group of women standing in a circle – their voices harmonizing one overall sentiment: “I can’t keep quiet”.  The lyrics go as follows: “Put on your face, know your place, shut up and smile, don’t spread your legs. I could do that. But no one knows me, no one ever will if I don’t say something, if I just lie still…”.

Each time I hear this song my skin tingles – neurotransmitters on hyperbolic drive – as deep within me surges feelings of competing emotions…I am as angry as I am deeply sad because, like millions of women across the world, I can relate to the deeper meaning behind each of these stanzas. But I am also deeply excited as I marvel at this coming-together of women who will not be told to shut up and take it lying down.

I have just had similar feelings after reading a collection of feminist stories in the about-to-be launched book, “Nasty Woman Talk Back!”.  The book, edited by feminist author Joy Watson and political scientist Amanda Gouws, was inspired by the very same women’s march in Washington, and the many others that took place across the world in protest to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America. This is a man, let me remind you, that described his presidential contender Hillary Clinton as a “Nasty Woman”; and who once said that you can do anything to women including grabbing them by the pussy. The fact that so many Americans saw fit to place this misogynist in power was equivalent to, as the editors so eloquently put it, a “metaphorical kick in the feminist gut on a global scale… bad news for human rights and social justice from all perspectives and intersections”.   And it is from this premise that the book surges.

The first essay, ‘Pussies are not for grabbing!” is written by co-editor, Joy Watson. She starts her story off by describing an experience she had at the age of nine. Joy had been taken to the doctor because she wasn’t feeling well. But, what should have been a routine medical examination turned out to be anything but. And neither was a similar experience with yet another doctor years later as a young woman. While this introduction initially leaves the reader a bit winded, her story is by no means a harrowing tale of sexual abuse. Instead, it serves to set the scene that brings this book to life.  

“Nasty Woman Talk Back!” takes the reader along a journey of feminism across different spaces and times.  Joy’s essay is a compelling and deeply meaningful read on how, through feminism, she was able to question the experiences she had as a child and as a young woman; to gain a deeper understanding of the world in which she was growing up  – a world that was oppressive towards women and more so towards black women. Through this awakening, which she describes as being both “frightening and liberating”, she was able to find her own voice, to claim her own space and power in ways that she had never felt entitled to do.  

In her essay, political consultant Anastasia Slamat, talks of how she was inspired by the first feminist she met – a 14-year old girl – who dared to question why, after starting her period, she was being made to take a vow of purity to God while her male peers happily played outside.  In response, Anastasia and her friend were told that it was their responsibility to “keep their bodies pure” as “men are naturally lustful and lack self-control”.  While Anastasia’s young feminist friend dared to challenge the status quo – an act which had her labeled a rebel who would never get married (as, of course, this is every women’s purpose in life) – Anastasia took a different route, one that would bear heavily on her for many years until she was able to make sense of it through feminism.

Much like Joy and Anastasia’s journeys through feminism, you, the reader, will travel a path along with each writer who, in their own multi-faceted ways, live lives of resistance and activism that contribute to social change.  Whether it be from within the confines of refugee camps in the Balkans to women’s prisons or along the corridors of parliament in South Africa. At a time where it feels that many human rights, but particularly women’s rights are being trampled on, each of the stories encourages the reader to not give up.

Co-editor Amanda Gouws describes how she has carried many signs in protest for women’s rights since the late 80’s. And, while she’s “tired of holding this sign”, she encourages the reader to not let gravity take over. “The present”, she says, “is presenting itself as crude, boorish, misogynist, dishonest” and “it’s business as usual” while women continue to bear the brunt of male privilege that feels entitled to doing what it wants, to women’s bodies. “How long will we have to hold up these signs?” Amanda asks, “as long as it takes” she concludes.

Pick up this book, read it from cover to cover, let it ignite your flame, for now is not the time to lie still. It’s time that Nasty Woman Talk Back!

Nasty Women Talk Back launches at the Open Book Festival on 6 September.

Claudia Lopes is a women’s rights activist with a particular passion for advocating on issues related to violence against women. A postgraduate degree in Psychology led to a specialization in supporting victims of trauma and violence in South Africa and, for a short stint, in the United Kingdom.