When you work for a magazine called Bitch, the phone tends to ring a lot when the word pops up in the news. Since a supporter of Senator John McCain used the b-word to refer to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, it has been ringing like crazy. People want to know whether it is still a bad word. Or they already think it's a bad word and want to discuss whether its use has implications for free speech or sexual harassment or political campaigns.
Bitch is a word I use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. I use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn't apologise for it. I use it for the woman who doesn't back down from a confrontation.
So let's not be disingenuous. Of course it's a bad word. As a culture, we've done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and unfeminine - and sees uncompromising speech from women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world.
It's for just these reasons that when Lisa Jervis and I started our magazine in 1996, no other title was up for consideration. When we were on tour with a 10th-year anniversary anthology, men wandered up after several readings to ask, nervously, if we hated men. We always told them the same thing: "If you actually read the magazine you'll find that it's not about hating men but elevating women." But too many people don't see the difference. And that's why the b-word is still so problematic.
People who don't like Clinton have been throwing the slur at her since at least 1991. So everyone in the room laughed knowingly when a woman at a campaign event in South Carolina asked McCain: "How do we beat the bitch?"
In fact, the most surprising thing about the whole dust-up is that something like this hasn't happened sooner. Sure, it was disrespectful of McCain to laugh off the insult. (Rather than admonishing the supporter, he called it an "excellent question", before adding: "I respect Senator Clinton.") And, sure, the questioner was transparently courting soundbite fame. (Congratulations, faceless woman! Stay classy!) But for Clinton, this episode has to be pretty much a case of another day, another insult.
When people call Clinton a bitch, it's an expression of pure sexism - a hope that they can shut up not only one woman but every woman who dares to be assertive. Simply put: if you don't like Clinton's stance on healthcare, there are plenty of ways to say so without invoking her gender.
So the word remains as incendiary as ever. In 1996, when the word was barely squeaking past network TV censors, I would never have thought it could get any more loaded. But the rise of the first serious female runner for the presidency has proved me wrong.
I'm all for a lively discussion of how the word is used in daily life: by men, by women, in jest, in earnest. But I don't foresee that dialogue taking place in a political arena that considers mere femaleness a deficiency. Talking about the use of the word just isn't helpful if we don't also address the many unsaid words that follow in its wake.
My own definition of the term being what it is, I can confidently say that I want my next president to be a bitch, and that goes for men and women. Outspoken? Check. Commanding? Indeed. Unworried about pleasing everybody? Sure. And guess what? I'm not even sure that person is Hillary Clinton.
Andi Zeisler is the co-founder and editorial director of the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. A longer version of this article appeared in the Washington Post
© 2007 The Guardian