There’s been a lot of palaver in the last couple of weeks about “nasty” women. Well, actually, one so-called “nasty woman.” I was in New York the night of the last Clinton-Trump debate. My friend and I hived it back to our hotel room after dinner, changed into our jammies, and settled down with a glass of wine in front of the TV. We didn’t want to miss any of the drama. Sorry if that sounds flippant. But to us Canadians, the election drama south of  the border is pure theatre. I do realize that it’s serious business if you are American. Probably more serious for us than we realize, too. But I don’t want to talk about that here.

I do want to talk about “nasty” women. That word has been on my mind ever since I came home from New York. How it seems to have become a rallying cry for some women. How society has historically tended to demonize strong women or women with power. And I’ve been thinking about all the nasty women I know. And have known.

And even about those nasty women who are characters in books and plays I’ve read. My favourite being Goneril and Regan, the two elder daughters from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Ian Holm as Lear. Victoria Hamilton, Amanda Redmond, and Barbara Flynn as Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril.

I’m sure you know the story, but in case you don’t. Lear, the king of England, is an old man who, wanting to divest himself of his kingly responsibilities, decides to divide his kingdom, giving each of his three daughters a share, the size of which is based on how fulsomely they profess their love for him. The two eldest play along, lay the flattery on with a trowel, and each get a big share. The youngest is flabbergasted, and says the idea is silly, of course she loves her father, as a daughter should. He goes ballistic, and disinherits and banishes her, his previous favourite, and divides her share between the other two, who are of course gobsmacked that he’d kick out the baby sister. Then the two eldest play a lot of dirty tricks on Lear to make sure he stays weak, with no power. Because, for one thing, they feel that it’s high time he let them have a go at power, but also because they don’t trust him. He’s always been erratic, one sister says. How do they know he won’t turn on them like he did the baby sister? How indeed? I won’t go into what happens in the end besides the fact that most of characters end up dead. It is a tragedy after all.

The classic interpretation of King Lear depicts the older daughters (plus the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester) as the villains. But I’ve always felt sympathy for Goneril and Regan. And when I was still teaching, we used to have a lot of fun in my classes looking at the play from the point of view of family dynamics. Imagine growing up in the Lear household. I mean, those girls were nasty and manipulative because that’s exactly the behaviour they learned from a self-centered, manipulative father. We used to have some rousing discussions about how daughters ‘should’ behave, about good parenting, about power and how to wield it judiciously. About strength and competency, and if society viewed strong, competent women differently from strong, competent men.

I’d sometimes relate the story from my first year as a department head when an angry student told me that the work I had just assigned was “ridiculously hard” (his words) and he was going to have a word with my department head. “Go ahead,” I said, “I am the department head.” Afterward, his buddy told me confidentially that the boy thought a male colleague of mine was the head because “he always wears a suit.” Hmmm. I wore suits. But even though the school had a female principal, I didn’t match his idea of someone in a position of authority.

I learned a lot about how to wield authority from that female principal whom I admired very much. She was smart, very smart. And not afraid to tell us when we had messed up, or when we had done something fabulous. I loved that about her. That plus the fact that we could have a giggle every now and then… about shoes. Unlike other bosses for whom I had worked, she could effortlessly draw a line between me the competent teacher and head, and me the shopper and shoe-lover. Like the time we interviewed K, a fabulous young teacher whom we really wanted to hire. And when K had left the interview room, and we both agreed that we’d be lucky to have her on “our team,” I leaned closer to my principal and whispered, “And did you see her gorgeous shoes?” And my boss whispered back, “And the bag to match.”  Ha. Love that moment. That’s how the rumour began in my school that you had to have good shoes to work in the English department. Not sure I didn’t start that myself, actually.

I will say that this principal whom I admired was not universally liked. She really knew her stuff, followed board policy and expected her staff to do likewise. But she did not have the gift of bonhomie, was a bit reserved in large groups, generally in meetings got down to business instead of shooting the breeze. She was not a game player. And thus was not liked by those who saw these as admirable, even necessary, qualities in a boss. What a nasty, nasty woman! Ha.

Yep. I’ve known a lot of nasty women in my life. And learned a lot from each of them. But the original nasty woman in my life was my grandmother Sullivan. Five feet tall, red-haired with the cliché temper to go with it. She was smart, very smart in fact, sharp witted, and sharp tongued. We all loved her, but we also knew that you did not mess with Grammy. That’s her below with my grandfather. He was a big man. But he didn’t mess with Grammy either.

My grandparents outside their North Devon home
My grandmother Sullivan did not have an easy life. Her mother died when she was 15. And as the eldest daughter, she managed the home and her younger brothers and sisters who were 3, 5, 7,10 and 13 when their mother died. Later, she managed my grandfather Sullivan, too. I remember her telling me that she fended off Grampy’s original proposal by telling him she wasn’t prepared to marry a potato farmer; she’d grown up on a potato farm and knew what hard work it was. When he found something better to do, he could come back. So he did. He started his own successful well-drilling company, and handed it on, eventually, to their sons. Their 1922 marriage certificate says she was 23 when they married. And it also says that he was 30… and a “well digger” … not a farmer.

Yep. I think very highly of nasty women. The nasty women I’ve known have taught me a lot. How to be strong. Competent. Organized and efficient. Unapologetic for doing a good job, my own way. Somehow, I absorbed, from the nasty women I’ve known, when to hold my ground, and when to give way. In particular, I learned from my grandmother and from her daughter, my mum, to value books, and education, and all kinds of learning. And although I was a long time feeling comfortable about doing it… how not to back down in a fight. Actually… if I’m truthful… I learned from my mum how to fight to begin with… literally. Ha. But, I’ll save that story for another day.

How about you, dear readers? Have you been influenced by so-called nasty women in your life? You know mothers, teachers, colleagues, or bosses who were unapologetically smart and strong and helped you learn to be strong too?


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34 thoughts on “In Praise Of Nasty Women”

  1. You know what really gets me? That a man who is "smart and strong" would 1) never have to be apologetic about it and 2) never be called "nasty" – he would just be admired and held up as exemplary. And Trump called HRC nasty during the debate because she brought up his not paying taxes, something he has admitted to doing, so she was being accurate and truthful! Pointing out that Trump is doing what he says he is doing is somehow "nasty," but telling outright lies daily isn't nasty? Some people certainly have serious problems with women with brains and power. I believe that the only reason HRC is so unpopular is because she is a woman and didn't "know her place" (the kitchen) starting all the way back in Arkansas. For that she has been vilified for years. If she were a male candidate, there would be no issue. So yes, thank you for pointing out that what some threatened people of a certain gender call "nasty" is really just strong and smart, something men are routinely rewarded for being. –Catbird Farm

    1. Leslie in Oregon

      I couldn't agree with you more, Catbird Farm, and thank you for speaking up! Mr. Trump is so oblivious to anything but his own self-asserted glory that he had no clue that, or why, coming from him, "What a nasty woman" was no insult to Secretary Clinton. I just hope that enough American voters see him for what he clearly is, because if they don't, the whole world is in for a truly nasty, and very dangerous, four years.

    2. Thanks for weighing in, ladies. As a Canadian, I'm not going to say anymore on the issue… don't think it's my place except to comment on the state of women's' issues in general. Anyway, you guys know way more about your own political issues than I do, for sure.

  2. My favorite kind of post Sue . You're such a good story teller , especially because your stories are true . My mum had a very hard upbringing with thirteen siblings & very little money – her father was a coal miner with lung problems . She didn't take any nonsense & always earned some money of her own in some way . She passed this attitude onto her four daughters . Her mantra was ' nobody ever said life would be easy' & we never expected it to be . But she also passed on to us that humour & a sense of the ridiculous made life a lot more bearable – no self pity allowed . I wonder how your Grammy would feel about people like me , dotted around the world, enjoying your stories . Again , I wish I'd had teachers like you . Such an important vocation when done well .
    Wendy in York ( staying out of the weird politics )

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I think that living in a coal mining community must have been a very hard life. I've read stories about the coal mines in Yorkshire. My grandmother would have laughed at people in far away places reading about her. She could be a hard woman but she also had a great sense of fun…and I was so very fond of her. Sometimes wen I hear her coming out of my mouth, I try to keep it clamped shut…or at least soften the delivery:)

  3. (If this comment is duplicated, please rmove- I'm using someone's network.) I don't see the qualities you describe in your principal or Grammy as "nasty". Rather, they sound strong, tough-minded (able to withstand challenges), purposeful. Nasty persons are win-lose players (that's how they see life) who use whatever tactics it takes to "win". That's not to say there are not genuinely nasty persons. This post reminds me of an article I read decades ago that ran something like, "He is strong, she is a bitch; he is firm, she is dictatorial; he is straightforward, she is blunt; he is ambitious, she is scheming…" etc.

    1. I meant "nasty" only as a euphemism for strength and intelligence….kind of how the women who latched onto the comment meant it as a rallying cry for women who have been demonized for being strong. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough. I'd better go back and re-read. Thanks, Duchesse.

  4. what about mentioning the nasty woman dishonest way of life that the nasty woman has been all her life ,and I dont mean your grandmother!!! Please dont insert politics in your blog without educating yourself. There have been plenty of nasty women throughout history. Being a woman is not the epitomy of woman's goodness etc… You are a canadian fine, keep your remarks to your own backyard…. I am tired of men bashing, just like all the police bashing we are suffering right now. Men are men and women are women and no faults or qualities should be attached to gender they are both capable of greatness and meaness or whatever.

    Annie v.

    1. Sorry if you think my post was out of line… or out of my "backyard" as you put it. I wasn't trying to discuss HRC in particular, more the hue and cry after the debate. And I also wasn't trying to hold all woman up as being wonderful. Of course we aren't, but we also want to be held to the same scrutiny as men. Being strong and smart is good no matter what gender you identify with.

    2. I think it is WONDERFUL that Susan 'inserted' her opinion and I completely understand what she is saying about 'nasty' women. We, the United States ARE in Canada's backyard, and past Presidents here have always and will always have an effect on the rest of the world, so why shouldn't she have an opinion?? IF you see this only as a men bashing article then you are missing the point entirely, Annie v. If you are going to read blogs you should probably keep an open mind and a kind heart. Signed…. proud to be a nasty woman.

  5. Your post is refreshing, I must say. I live in a part of the US where bigotry and stupidity along with misogyny are a way of life for the majority of the community. Very religious group as well. Women have to be strong in the face of so much adversity, even perpetrated by their own gender. They adore "the good old days" when women were in servitude to their husbands. I grew up in a liberal, progressive part of the country so it's quite a lifestyle change. I may have to move!

    1. I hear you. My mum raised four of us as a single parent. She always drummed into me and my sisters that we should get a good education so we could make our own way in the world. So important for young girls to hear that, I think.

  6. Trump did not call all women nasty, just one. Ask the security people and military personal that protected her what they think of her. I think you might find the word nasty used or something similar. I agree with Annie v. and see she felt strong enough to leave her name on her comment. I'm tired of men bashing also! It has seeped it's way into our culture and is now accepted as the thing to do in movies and commercials. We have to stop that. Do women really want to be on the same playing field as men and get there by stepping all over the men in our lives and demeaning them. As far as using the word nasty as a euphemism for strength and intelligence, I deplore that, and HRC has neither.

    1. I can understand that people feel strongly about HRC and DT… but I don't believe I expressed any feelings about either of them either way. In fact I expressly said that I was not intending to talk about politics. Just the idea that historically strong women have been demonized into "nasty" women. I also don't think that I or any of the commentors here are demeaning men in general. Sorry if I somehow offended you, but my intention was to use the debate and the furor following it as a jumping off point to talk about my own experiences.

    2. By using Donald Trump's words I feel you opened the door and inserted yourself into US politics. Your post could have been titled "In Praise of Strong Intelligent Women." But that might not have gotten as noticed. Also, there are many strong intelligent women through out history that have not been demonized, but praised and honored.

  7. I thought the blond in the picture was you with a different hair style. Very attractive. I like smart and confidant women. The nasty women I have met and known would stab you in the back the minute it was turned.

    1. I've also met women ( and men) who are truly nasty… back stabbing and all. Some of them have been strong and smart and some of them entirely the opposite… probably more often the latter. Backstabbers tend to be not confident in their own abilities, I've found. The blonde woman in the shot is Amanda Redmond. I've seen her more lately in the BBC series New Tricks. I love her acting.

  8. Ha, ha! Reading these comments you should get a sense of the state of mind of most Americans! We're at the "break the glass and hit the red emergency button" stage right about now. I'm with you all the way on the attitudes towards strong, intelligent women. It runs from my friends son in law who didn't want a female minister (friend of the family btw) to marry him because he " just can't see a woman marrying people". This is a 27 yr old! And then there's my husband who met with critisism when his friends discovered his surgeon was a woman. Last my next door neighbor who actually said he admired Hillary Clinton but didn't think a woman, any woman, should be president of the United States! So there you go. The biggest problem we face here in the USA is total bombardment of news…and slanted news channels that feed whatever side you take. Unfortunately, lack of historical knowledge coupled with no understanding of basic civics or constitutional law puts the once simply enthusiastic political discussions into the realm of bizarre ranting and raving. Here in the states NH is considered a battleground state. Up here you get non stop rhetoric and the candidates are swinging through quite a bit. I had a chance to witness both a Hillary rally and a Trump rally. My take away? Hillary spent about 4 minutes on Trump and 60 on our country and the Democratic platform. Trump spent no time on any platform but spent the hour inciting chants from the crowd. The vulgarity at his rally on tee shirts can't even be relayed here. The chanting was scary and when a local news anchor quizzed a few people on things like …what does NAFTA stand for…or how would an amendment (they are big on guns) get repealed…no one could give an answer. The real tragedy for the US is clear. It's not really whose running for president, it's the lack of education and reason of my fellow citizens. Sure Hillary has faults and issues, but they would have been exposed no matter who ran against her. But the hatefully underbelly of our citizenry would not. I'm not scared of Hillary, I'm scared of them. Sorry to go on and on but a few comments made me reach for that red button!

    1. Feel free to go on and on, Jill. Up here we have been bombarded with media reports as well, so I can understand people are feeling like pulling their hair out. Interesting that you attended both rallies. Good for you for looking at both sides of the issue. That's the way to really "educate" yourself about anything, isn't it?

    2. I enjoyed your comments on strong women and can fondly remember many of them. Like yours, my grandmother was a tough survivor and my mother-in-law (a teacher) was my inspiration since the day I met her when I was 15. She was the reason I went to college and studied and worked so hard. I've also enjoyed working for some talented women – and men, so I'm not man-bashing here – but I never understood how some women didn't ant to work for another woman. I think it's the person that counts. These women I admired may have irritated a few people along the way but I don't think anyone was rude enough to call them "nasty" to their face, nevermind in front of the world. I am mostly saddened that this campaign has made my country look foolish in the eyes of the world. Jill said it best when she mentioned a lack of education as a contributing factor and it has become evident, with so many people seemingly not having an understanding of Civics and Government and the Constitution. My husband and I started out not agreeing on the candidates but he has been gobsmacked by the lunacy of what's going on and, as a former military offficer, he is nervous about the whole thing. I can't figure out a conclusion to my reply, it is what it is.

  9. I have worked with women who were powerful and also compassionate, women who were powerful and downright unpleasant and women who were shot through with steel. The nasty women were genuinely vile – manipulative, cruel and devious and one in particular had an uncanny ability to say snide things without anything outwardly unusual being spoken. It was only afterwards that you thought: that wasn't right, but what was it? I have never met such a passive aggressive operator before or since. Agreed; many women who just won't behave as expected get labelled nasty because you simply can't say: she is being firm and decisive and taking control and I don't like it. When I think about it, I have probably been the nasty woman myself. And I really cannot care any more. Being cruel, hard and selfish…all have been levelled at me by people who don't like what I am saying. Mostly because I am not agreeing with them. But, you see, here is the truth: I am not particularly good at constant sympathy. And I really cannot abide being expected to listen to complaints and not offer any possible solutions. I am not – and never have been – good at acting as expected. Thank the Maker. I fear that Trump will win. No matter what he does, Hillary is a woman and lots of people just won't accept a female Head of State. She is being tarred by the actions of men around her. And that tar is sticking. I think we will all feel the backlash.

  10. Well, I'm sure I've been called nasty as well at some point in my career, if not to my face. My DH says I don't suffer fools gladly and that about sums it up. That said, I'm not mean and I do have empathy for those who need it. As a couple of others have said, I think Hillary really takes a lot of c*ap simply because she is a woman. I can't imagine the backbone it would take to be in her position. And while I don't always like Bill's actions, he's a very congenial guy who has traditionally had high likeability ratings. And he was elected twice, so there is that. Many of Trump's accusations seem like projection to me.

    All of that said, you can see what's it like to be in the US right now by a few of the comments. I like Jill's explanation that we're at the "break the glass and hit the red emergency button" stage. I think everyone will be happy when this is over, although I doubt things will get much better – just easier to ignore.

    Great post. And I love that you have that old marriage certificate. What a treasure.

    1. Thanks, Laurel. I don't have the original of my Grandparents marriage certificate…I found it and one for my great-grandparents marriage on the New Brunswick Provincial Archives website… and I couldn't believe my luck.

  11. I was waiting,afraid of making mistake with the "nasty" characterization-I've known some people ,and worked with them,who were,well,nasty with or without being strong and intelligent!
    But,strenght and intelligence was something I value in people.I was raised in a family where women were supported to become strong,intelligent and independent.Even when it was not usual,my grand- and grandgrandmothers had properties of their own and were pretty strong minded about it,educated or not.
    I was also raised in circumstances where women were supported to achieve high education,high positions,to go to work,to earn,to be independent. There were glass ceilings,too,but even less than now!
    It was certainly different in a lot of homes and some working environments-maybe a lot of us were demonized for being strong and smart,no-nonsense kind of women,but it was mostly privatly,not publicly.
    But,frankly…..I didn't give it a second thought-except for watching my back :-). Maybe,I had to do so more
    Great post,interesting comments

    1. Thanks, Dottotessa. We were lucky to be raised by families where women were expected to achieve, get an education and be independent. My mum was widowed at 23 with three small children and her refrain as we grew up was to get an education and be independent. I am a bit dismayed that my post could be so misinterpreted as a political apologia for any candidate. Sheesh. Thought I said exactly the opposite. Ah well. Next one will be on fashion. No controversy there.

  12. Wow. You really seemed to open up a can of worms with this post 😀

    Things are pretty tense down her in the States, you may have noticed. A few of the Trump supporters above seemed to have missed your point. It is often that strong and intelligent women are labeled as "nasty" or that other word that rhymes with witch. It gets tiring having to worry about being too forward or too intelligent or too direct. These are all negative traits for a woman to have, but seen as an asset in a man. I don't consider it man-bashing to point out those facts. You weren't saying anything negative about men at all. I was raised in a very matriarchal family, and it has definitely shaped my life experiences. I love and admire my husband, my brother and my son, but that doesn't mean I can't also want more for myself, my daughter and my mother. This circus tent of an election has really brought sexism out in the open and shown society that the fight is far from over.

    I really enjoyed your post. I will now be finding my way to the subscribe button 🙂

    1. Me too… raised in matriarchy, I mean. Strong women in several generations. I'm sure everyone in the US (and in Canada, by the way) will be happy when November 8 is just a memory. Glad you enjoyed the post:)

  13. This is a fascinating subject made even more so by some of the passionately expressed responses to your post, Susan.

    I'll pick up on Jill's point about a lack of education on the electoral debate. We had just that situation here in the U.K. over the EU referendum. To me, it is extremely worrying how blatant mistruths can be unabashedly presented by politicians in order to win the vote. (And in our case, immediately retracted once victory was achieved). I fear for democracy

    1. Thanks, Ceri. I hear you. Fact checking articles abound these days, but they don't seem to have any impact. Some people just don't want to hear the truth…or maybe they only want to read articles which reinforce their already entrenched ideas.

  14. Great read. The double standards are so infuriating and ingrained. I like you need to stop treating the US elections like a side show, the results arefar reaching . Yvadney (style after nine) x #saturdaysharelinkup

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