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Donald Trump and the disturbing history of calling women ‘nasty’

Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks during his final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton on Oct. 19. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
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Hillary Clinton was talking about Social Security. She wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy to bolster the country’s fund.

“My Social Security payroll contribution will go up as will Donald's,” Clinton said, “assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it …”

“Such a nasty woman,” Trump cut in.

Clinton ignored the jab. But the Republican nominee's muttering of “nasty woman” during Wednesday’s presidential debate, a national first, set Twitter ablaze with #NastyWoman and users claiming the title for themselves. 

Clinton supporters hastily designed T-shirts. Spotify, the music streaming service, recorded a sudden 250 percent increase in users streaming Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.”

Caroline Light, a gender studies professor at Harvard University, thought about the history of calling women nasty.

“It dates back to colonial times,” she said. “A ‘nasty’ woman is one who refuses to remain in her proper place, as defined by men. One who challenges male authority.”

Kathleen Brown, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explored the linguistic roots in her 1996 book “Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs.” Colonial men, she wrote, considered women who craved independence to be unnatural or dangerous. “Unsupervised wantons,” she wrote, were known to members of a Virginia colony she studied as “nasty wenches.”

The word also was used to describe “unwholesome” men, but less frequently.

To this day, strength isn't always seen as a positive quality in a woman, said Debra Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University.

“Women who exhibit assertiveness,” she said, “are often described in negative terms.”

Trump probably didn’t intend to hurl a historically gendered insult. Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter, has said her father is an “equal opportunity offender.”

The tendency to call women “nasty,” however, is baked into our culture, Light said. “Nasty man,” she said, just sounds awkward. (Though “nasty boy” became a popular phrase in the '80s and '90s thanks to Janet Jackson and Notorious B.I.G.)

Evidence emerges in how students nationwide describe their male and female professors. Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, crunched data from Rate My Professors to create a data visualization of popular terms used for men and women in academia. 

Teachers of both genders often come off as “assertive,” data from February 2015 show:

And “tough.”

But women are more likely to appear “nasty.”

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