The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I usually ignore the sexism and ageism directed at me. Now I’m calling it out.

Strega Nona books, by Tomie dePaola, on display at the Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, N.H., in December 2013. (Jim Cole/AP)

I begin with this somewhat embarrassing admission: Yes, I have set a Google alert for myself. So it was that I woke up the other day to see that a conservative writer had described me as “Strega Nona look-alike columnist Ruth Marcus.”

Strega Nona, for those who haven’t read and reread the Tomie dePaola children’s book series, is an Italian witch (the name means “Grandma Witch”) with an overflowing pasta pot and a magic touch for curing headaches, finding husbands and getting rid of warts.

Somehow, Strega Nona’s abundant talents notwithstanding, I don’t think the comparison was meant as a compliment.

Eddie Scarry, a writer for the conservative website the Federalist, was unhappy with my column about Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Graham’s warning of “riots in the streets” if former president Donald Trump is prosecuted over the classified information he had at Mar-a-Lago. When I clicked on his piece, the dePaola reference appeared as a strikethrough— “Strega Nona look-alike columnist Ruth Marcus” — which I took to be a kind of sorry not sorry way of hurling an insult without having to own it.

Sorry not sorry, but that won’t work. My column was an argument about ideas — about how prosecutors should deal with public response to controversial cases. Disagreement on the merits is fair game; bring it on. But why are looks relevant? What is it that impels Scarry to go there?

Ruth Marcus: Gray hair? Working women shouldn't have to care.

The sensible thing to do in response to this kind of behavior is to ignore it, which is what I usually do. Why let someone think they’ve struck a nerve? Why reward insults with attention? If size matters, my platform’s bigger than Scarry’s platform; ordinarily, I wouldn’t use it to boost his profile. And, of course, what he directed my way is mild in comparison with the threats and vitriol that permeate the internet.

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But I’ve been thinking a good bit recently about the toxic intersection of misogyny and ageism, so this time I’m going to speak up. I’m going to speak up because there are a lot of women who might be less well-established in their careers, less confident of their abilities, less resilient. Who would be too worried about the backlash — and, frankly, too embarrassed about having been described as old and ugly — to call out the Eddie Scarrys of the world.

I’m going to speak up because, when it comes to appearance, women can never catch a break. If a woman is too attractive, she risks not being taken seriously — most especially if she is too attractive and seems to be having a blast. See, for example, the partying prime minister of Finland. If a woman is not attractive enough — or, if attractive enough, has had the nerve to get older and let it show — that works against her, too. See, for example, Canadian television anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who was let go after letting her hair go gray.

I’m going to speak up because men, by and large, don’t have to put up with this crap, and because women, too often, are cowed into silence. If we’re quiet, the abuse continues. If we complain, we are strident harridans.

A friend — a female friend — whom I asked to read a draft of this column suggested some tweaks to “reach for funnier instead of angrier.” I’m a big believer in funny — derision can be more powerful than condemnation, self-deprecation more effective than outrage. Not this time. The impulse to be funny underscores the female compulsion to remain likable, for fear of seeming too assertive and thereby off-putting. Sometimes, it’s okay to be mad as hell.

Scarry, it turns out, isn’t new to this game. He had his 15 minutes of fame in 2018 when he tweeted a photo of newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — well, specifically, of AOC’s backside — with the snarky comment, “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Scarry ended up deleting the tweet, but not, apparently, learning from the incident.

I reached out to Scarry by email, asking why he thought his language was appropriate. No surprise, I haven’t heard back. But my point isn’t to fix his behavior or extract an apology — it’s to push back, Strega Nona style. As my daughter pointed out when I mentioned this incident, “Mom, you know, Strega Nona is kind of a badass.”

She is — and I am, too, I hope. In one of dePaola’s books, when Strega Nona’s helper, Big Anthony, uses her magic pot, causing pasta to overrun the village, Strega Nona decrees that the punishment should fit the crime, and orders him to pick up a fork and start eating. It’s probably too much to hope that Scarry will eat his words. But hey, here’s a fork.