Laurie Penny is a devoted advocate for gender equality, LGBTQ rights, mental health awareness and political reform—someone who does tenacious work echoing both Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Hunter S. Thompson. Penny is an anarchist, a post-riot grrrl, a gonzo journalist and a chaotic force of literary and revolutionary proportions.
Based in London, Penny is currently a contributing editor to New Statesman magazine, but her work has also been published at the New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Vice and The Nation. She is the author of six books, including Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism and, most recently, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults.
Equally adored and abhorred, Penny is certainly one of the more controversial young feminist figures today, usually sporting a crushing imbalance of “dislikes” in any YouTube videos featuring her and a concerning number of videos dedicated to men practically spitting their misogyny at her. These trolls typically carry over to her social media platforms and harass her there as well, unrelenting in their cyber-blitzkrieg for the past several years. Despite this, she continues pushing forward, only getting stronger—like the human embodiment of that famous Nietzsche quote.
Ms. spoke with Penny about Bitch Doctrine as well as activism and anti-feminist backlash in Trump’s America.
The title of your new book is Bitch Doctrine. How did that phrase come to you, and what exactly does it mean in your own words?
Well, one thing I’ve learned as a person who writes and speaks about gender is that there’s no point in being conciliatory. I’m always told that I “love to cause trouble,” that I’m “provocative.” I don’t set out to be, and certainly not for its own sake. But I’m not prepared to moderate my language or my public politics in order to make men feel more comfortable—and apparently, that makes me a bitch. I’m all right with that.
Let’s talk about that. I’ve known about you and your work for years, and one thing that I often see is just the amount of extreme hate toward you for speaking out your opinions on certain topics. Do you have any comments on this backlash, and do you believe it has had any effect on you either as a journalist, an advocate or just a person?
Yes, of course it has an effect. Seven years of consistent psychological assault would shake even the strongest constitution, and I’m a sensitive person. There have been many moments when I’ve considered packing it all in—but I would never give them that satisfaction. Given that walking away was not an option, I’ve found the experience has tempered and hardened my anger, given me greater insight and resilience. It has in the oddest way made me stronger. It has also made me extremely cross. Nobody should be punished like this just for speaking about social justice—but so many people I know have suffered the same. It’s not acceptable and it needs to stop.
What do you believe makes this book stand out from past works like Unspeakable Things and Penny Red?
I’m older and surer now. I give far fewer fucks. I was always told, as so many of us are, that I’d “calm down” about feminism when I left my twenties, but time has only made me more determined to keep on learning and to stay radical. I’m more confident now, though, in speaking from my own expertise. I do a lot less apologizing. And that’s good, I think. At the same time, the political climate has changed, too. This is the darker half of the decade, and we’re far away from the optimism of the Occupy movement and the student rebellions in the U.K. There is an enormous anti-feminist backlash underway, and the fight feels more urgent than it did even a year ago.
Based on what I’ve read about the book so far, there seems to be a bit of a focus in some of the essays on Donald Trump, or at least that’s what’s being highlighted. Despite all the blatantly misogynistic and horrifying things the president has said about women, it seems like these comments have motivated women to push even further for feminism and gender equality. Do you think Trump’s prejudices in some ways helped the movement become stronger?
Well, most of the book was written before Trump was elected—there are only a few Trump-centric essays in there. I think it’s important to recognize that the political violence of modern patriarchy does not begin and end in the White House. Trump is a symptom of a much bigger problem. It has, of course, made the stakes very clear. There is rather less need to argue about whether feminism is still necessary, which is something of a mercy. But some of us were galvanized long before we’d even conceived of Trump as a political possibility. But yes, it is striking how the new campaigns for healthcare, wealth equality, childcare and reproductive choice are not content to stay on the defensive. It’s okay to ask for more.