Trump, Lucille Clifton, & Menstruation

Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly

Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly

The secret to success, every good carnival barker knows, is always keeping your audience off balance. By these standards, Donald Trump is putting on the performance of his life. Who could have predicted that we would suddenly be awash in conversations about menstruating women?

Part of me would like Trump to read a Lucille Clifton poem that would teach him a few things about menstruation. Unfortunately, I know only too well he wouldn’t read it and that it wouldn’t change his mind anyway.

In case you’ve managed to stay away from all things Trump (and if you have, let the rest of us know how you did it), Trump went after moderator Megyn Kelly for plying him with tough questions in the first Republican debate. Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon sums up all that happened:


In the days since [Megyn Kelly] dared to ask Donald Trump — the apparently not just a bad dream serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — about his public record of referring to women as fat pigs, Kelly has [been?] the target of some of the most vile slime the Internet has to offer. Naturally, it was Trump himself who helped get the ball rolling, excoriating her on Twitter for not being “professional” enough for his liking, and calling her a “bimbo” while insisting she only has a job because she’s “sexy.” And then just to bring it all home, he made a not so veiled insinuation that that Kelly was uppity because she [was?] probably on the rag, explaining, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever. You could see she was off-base.” (Trump says he meant her nose.)

Everyone was immediately convinced that Trump had committed a gaffe, and his comments were predictably labeled “wherever-gate.” Trump was promptly disinvited from a conference hosted by Red State’s Eric Erickson, who himself has a history of misogynist comments, and everyone thought that Trump had finally gone too far. After all, he had attacked the darling anchor of Fox News.

Instead, Trump somehow managed to upend once against the conventional wisdom as his rabid fans came to his defense:

This promptly led to — as Web developer Izzy Galvez has helpfully quantified for you in easy to read chart form — an astonishing spike in online abuse toward Kelly. If you’re a woman who’s ever expressed an opinion out loud or just didn’t give enough attention to some random jackass who demanded it of you, you can probably guess the terminology and the tone. You’ve probably experienced it! Trump, meanwhile, has been rewarded with a continued lead in the polls. 

By early the following week, Trump, not Fox, appeared to have won. Fox president Roger Ailes brokered a truce with Trump, promising him fair coverage from here on out.

Trump, however, appears to be just the tip of a larger misognyst iceberg. In another Salon article, Joan Walsh puts “wherever-gate” in a larger context by citing numerous instances of people on the right attacking her and other liberal women for their biology. Walsh concludes,

Trump reminded Megyn Kelly, and all of us, of the primitive fear of women at the heart of the conservative backlash, when he smeared her with one of the oldest reasons women can’t be trusted to play a role in public life. For days now, we’ve been marinating in ancient primal male prejudices against women. It’s progress, of a sort, that most of the world recoiled in horror at Trump’s insult. But the fact that Trump would suggest it at all shows we’ve got a lot more progress to make.

I want to take a step beyond men who assume that an aggressive women must be menstruating, however, and turn the argument upside down. According to Lucille Clifton, arrogant men have the illusion that they control the universe because they don’t menstruate.

Earlier this week I discussed a Tolstoyan fantasy of a tyrant suddenly experiencing what it is like to be one of his victims. Lucille has a comparable woman’s fantasy. I heard Lucille read “wishes for sons” many times when she taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and it was always the audience’s favorite. At times, practically all the women would spontaneously rise up and give it a standing ovation:

wishes for sons

By Lucille Clifton

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn’t believe.    let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

I think the audience appreciated someone finally acknowledging the secret desire that insensitive men go through the same experience. Even worse that putting up with your period is dealing with arrogant men who think they rise above biology.

I’ve taught this poem a number of times in my Literature and Nature class, and I often break the students into groups, making sure that there is a mixture of men and women in each group. It proves an immensely enlightening experience for the men, especially when they discover how much their response to the poem differs from the women’s. Some are glad to learn what women go through, some become defensive.

When we discuss it afterwards, however, I point out that the poem is titled “wishes for sons,” not “wishes for men.” Clifton sees herself in relationship with men, not set against them. The poem starts a dialogue that, pretty clearly, our society needs to have.

I tell the men in my class that their female partners and female co-workers will very much appreciate that they’ve had these conversations.

Maybe next time the Republican Party has an autopsy on why female voters keep deserting the party, they can read and discuss “wishes for sons.” Think of poetry as a path to enlightenment.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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