Rebecca Traister is a writer-at-large for New York magazine and contributing editor at Elle. She is the author of All the Single Ladies and Big Girls Don’t Cry. Her latest book is Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning writer, activist and Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. Her new book is Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.
They held their discussion over e-mail in September.
I confess that my bluntest and most immediate response upon considering the question is “Why the hell shouldn’t – why wouldn’t – we be?” But we probably should flesh it out a little bit more.
My book is about the political impact of women’s anger but yours deals so beautifully with exactly the kind of prescriptive messaging that gets sent to women and girls about what they should and shouldn’t be.
I’m curious to hear why you think people are so interested in how women should be, and sometimes less in what they are. How do these ideas about how women should and shouldn’t express themselves get communicated to them, and how early does it start, and what impact does it have on their range of expression, both personally and publicly?
I start my book at the earliest time of life – infancy and childhood – to examine exactly how early and deeply we learn to disassociate anger from femininity. These messages about how we should be are really about prescribed social roles – who does what, when and for or to whom. They’re how we think about and construct society. If we are angry about our roles, as women, we’re generally socialized not to show it.
As with other emotions, we tend to think of anger as an internal state, but the way we think about our emotions is, in fact, powerfully socially constructed. If you are a baby, designated a girl, adults are more likely to treat you in ways that are substantively different from if you are a baby, designated a boy (this binary being, still, the dominant one).
One of the more notable differences is in regards to what we learn about our emotions, particularly anger. As children move from infancy to adulthood, girls are encouraged to think about and talk about a wide range of emotions, with the exception of anger. Boys, on the other hand, are not encouraged to do the same. In boys, it is still too often the case that adults actively discourage feelings that might, for example, suggest “weakness” or vulnerability – sadness or fear, for example. Anger, however, is amply available as a “masculine” feeling and resource. Adults will emphasize this emotion while de-emphasizing others for boys. Socialization rewards people for conforming to these norms and punishes those who don’t. So for girls, and eventually women, anger is seen as transgressive and a violation of rules. By the time we get to adulthood, as studies show, men who display anger – professionally or politically – are rewarded with people’s confidence and trust, but women who do are penalized – seen as less credible, trustworthy or competent.
Women are very aware of the penalties and of the double bind that they face in trying to defend themselves or express justifiable anger. As a result, we often ignore, suppress or minimize our strong negative emotions, often in unhealthy and nonproductive ways. When we speak, we struggle to maintain an affect that won’t be mocked or that won’t easily be used to portray us as unhinged. For black women and women of colour, this is even more difficult. A black girl or woman, for example, simply for existing as she does or for asserting herself confidently, is often categorized as an “angry black woman.” Stereotypes such as this one are used to shut down women’s attempts to be heard and listened to, to be authoritative and respected.
In your work, you discuss the long-tail effects of these dynamics. How powerful do you think these biases and stereotypes are still and, in particular, in our political lives?
Ah yes, I guess I am looking at the long-tail impact of these messages about what forms of expression are encouraged and what forms are discouraged. So one of the things I look at politically – and a lot of my work is about the history of social and political movements in the United States – is the way in which the anger (i.e., the dissent) of women, especially non-white women, and more broadly, of non-white non-men, is suppressed as part of a strategy to quell potential political insurrection.
When I began to write my book, I hadn’t fully understood the degree to which those who’ve been subjugated or oppressed have been trained to feel shame about our fury at inequity – trained to feel it’s marginal, or theatrical, or irrational, or that expression of anger makes us unappealing. More than that: The rage of women, to the degree that it’s been politically and socially catalytic – and it has been! In just about every transformative social movement in the nation’s history – has been obscured. So we’re taught about Abigail Adams asking politely to “remember the ladies,” but not about her more acerbic assertion that “all men would be tyrants if they could” and her promise of political insurrection if women don’t find representation and voice in the new government; we’re asked to think of Rosa Parks as demure and stoic, but not asked to consider her lifetime of fury at racial and gendered inequity, not to think of her as a committed activist and organizer. A lot of this misdirection – the marginalization of women’s anger – is part of the system that protects the powerful from the kind of furious dissent that might threaten them.
One of the things I’ve struggled with in writing my book is the question of: Okay, we know that women’s rage is quelled and discouraged and obscured, so what do we do to change it? Because I don’t think it’s as simple as telling women to rage on; I think it requires us changing the whole system, the whole architecture of how women’s full range of human response is received. What do you tell people to do to try to combat the twisted messaging around women’s anger?
I agree wholeheartedly and, in the book, urge people to understand that social change, starting in early childhood, is vital. We aren’t talking about loosening explosive anger on the world, or expecting women, as individuals, to radically shift their displays of anger or perceptions of anger. Whole systems do need to be changed – our schools, our religious lives, the way we think about family life. What I wanted to explore was the social construction of anger – its uses and abuses.
The ideas you mention, for example, how internalized shame and stereotypes shape anger, affect people’s lives every day. These prohibitions – tied to status and inequality – inhibit our ability to defend ourselves or advocate effectively for the things we believe in.
I also, funnily enough, write about Rosa Parks and the popular depictions of her as a tired, older woman. She herself was clear that the only thing she was tired of was giving in. I also thought this mischaracterization is particularly telling. I use this story as an example of a woman who clearly was angry and used that anger powerfully. I find it interesting that we are talking about whether women should be angry in the context of living in a world in which we seem to be, still, culturally uninterested in an honest answer. Are there others that stand out to you that illustrate similar dynamics?
I think there’s a terrific resistance both to ferreting out and taking seriously the anger in women – so not only Rosa Parks, but Mamie Till, who’s always presented as grieving; her fury at the murder of her 14-year-old son Emmett is never emphasized, just her loss and vulnerability. Which were of course real and crucial. But we’re not asked to consider the kind of rage that must have driven her to demand that her son’s body be returned to Chicago, that his casket be opened and that his mutilated body be put on display to the world, via open casket funeral and photos published in a national magazine.
Part of what I’m doing now is looking back at history and seeing where women’s anger has been clearly catalytic, but has been obscured in the retelling by versions of emotions that are less electric or threatening. But there’s the other part too: not just looking for where the anger was, but where the women were. Here I think of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, which is so often depicted in popular retellings as having been a riot of cisgendered white men. But in fact, though no one quite agrees on what happened on that night, many who were there recall that it was three women and female-identifying people of colour who incited the insurrection: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLerverie. But those stories have been smoothed over, replaced in the Hollywood retelling by the straight blond cisgendered young man from the Midwest.
There’s a bit of detective work in staring at the pictures – the stories of our own history and our political present that are offered us – and finding where the women and their rage is.
But I write tonight in the midst of confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh, and not only am I consumed by my own anger, but the people around me – my colleagues and friends and family and social-media community – are alight with ire. Do you think that the political fury unleashed over the past few years is a step toward changing the system, the attitudes about women and anger?
I am not so sure about this change. Often, women are given freer reign to act openly angry and politically during times of crisis, but then comes intense backlash and a reassertion of gender norms, including those tied to displays of anger. I do think that, in the United States in particular, there is an interesting difference now, however. It’s in the role that Title IX [a federal civil-rights law that states: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance] has played vis-a-vis girls' socialization around assertiveness, aggression and anger.
We tend to think of Title IX in terms of equality of sports participation and funding, but it is really about leadership. The most vocal and activist women today are those who grew up not only participating in sports, especially team sports with public support, in unprecedented ways, but also having powerful women role models that did the same. It’s enabled girls and women to learn valuable lessons about how to think about, regulate and strategically employ anger and aggression and to make the important distinction between them in ways that were not common previously.
Like you, I feel consumed by anger to think about the trajectory of the Kavanaugh nomination. Anita Hill is a brilliant thinker and I am hoping that her enduring and current contributions to what is happening right now are visible and appreciated. However, it does seem, in very substantive ways, that very little has changed institutionally, particularly on the right, since the Clarence Thomas hearings. The GOP’s Senate Judiciary Committee has no women on it at all and, aware of the very bad optics of this situations, they have asked a woman sex-crimes prosecutor to question Christine Blasey Ford. The format of the questioning will undoubtedly mirror courtroom proceedings whose adverserial structure is known to disadvantage women in Ford’s position.
The fact that Ford is Kavanaugh’s social peer and a white woman will alter the equation in ways that I can’t predict, however. I think Ford herself, immersed professionally in understanding the dynamics of abuse and trauma, will be formidable. If she displays any real anger at the injustice of what happened and continues to happen, though, she will encounter deep biases. She’s already been threatened and had to move and incur great costs to ensure the safety and security of her family. It means that the Democratic women – Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono – will have to defend her and with carefully calibrated affect.
Do you think that women’s anger in these political settings is more acceptable – outside of the occasional press for an “angry black woman,” such as Maxine Waters, for example?
I guess I think the process of social change, mass enough to upend power structures, is so long and so often circular, marked too often by regress and backlash, as you note. And I don’t always believe that these arcs bend toward justice. But I do believe that there has been structural change since Anita Hill’s testimony. There are not any women or people of colour on the Republicans’ side of the judiciary, true, but back then, there weren’t any on the Democratic side, either, and that’s changed now.
When Anita Hill testified there were only two women in the Senate, and there had never been a black woman elected to the Senate. The year after her testimony, in part because of the way that anger at her treatment drove candidates to run, and drove voters to the polls, the first black woman – Carol Moseley Braun – was elected, as part of that Year of the Woman record year of four women who came to the senate. Today’s Democratic judiciary includes the second ever woman of colour elected to that body, Mazie Hirono, and the second African-American woman, Kamala Harris. Both of them have been absolutely instrumental in questioning Kavanaugh. So I see change, just not as much as we’d like as fast as we like.
If I didn’t believe, though, that the anger was pushing us somewhere better, I think I’d lose hope. Because it’s true that those in power have the power. Right now, in reference to our court battle, they have the power to shape the mechanisms and make the laws that will suppress the freedom and diminish the power of the masses. And so I have to believe in the power of the mass anger, or I’d give up. Is that a terrible thing to say?
I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to say at all. I also sometimes feel a tendency to despair and then rally when I stop to think of the progress you describe. The changes in women’s political participation that you describe in the wake of Thomas’s confirmation are most visible and almost all on the left. Women’s anger drove them to run for office, as has Donald Trump’s election. I mean, no woman, given his victory and the bald-faced incompetence and criminality of so many in his administration, should ever doubt that she is capable of running for office. That being said, there is no denying the unsettling truth of power as reflected in the current Kavanaugh situation.
The dynamics of Kavanaugh’s confirmation feels not like a redux of the Clarence Thomas confirmation so much as a prolonged extension of it, with Trump’s election, and the backlash buildup to it, in the middle. The current confirmation is important for many reasons, but also for what it will, in the end, say about the development of conservative white women’s political consciousness. I fear that Kavanaugh will still, despite everything we know, be confirmed and what I find most disturbing about this is not the dismissal of harms by male legislators on the right, but the number of white women who are toeing the patriarchal line. The “battle of the women’s letters,” those written by his supporters and those supporting his accusers, illustrates both this and a gender split that fuels our larger and growing political divide.
There is a strong media unwillingness, still, to combine, as we critically must, an understanding of white supremacy with an understanding of male supremacy. On the right, women’s anger is reinforcing white male supremacy, in the same way that on the left it is challenging it. The funny thing is that this anger is still, in the larger framework, not necessarily thought of as “political” the way men’s is. It’s one of the reasons I love your book, and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. We are all pointing to the vital political necessity of respecting anger and connecting it to the public sphere. That is happening more, predictably, on the left. Women – diverse in almost every way – are running for office and winning, a critical difference between them and their conservative peers and also, as you point out, a direct legacy of the Thomas confirmation. Do you see shifts in women’s political ambition on the right? In their willingness to break racial ranks to dismantle these systemic harms? I don’t see very much evidence of that.
It’s of course true that those in power have the power, and they always have. They have shaped the mechanisms – courts, laws and economic structures; they have used this power to suppress and impede the progress of those who haven’t had power: the non-white, the non-male.
And yet. And yet. We have seen anger – very often women’s anger – serve as a catalyst for movements that have, against all odds, altered and in some cases broken those mechanisms, changed the laws, remade or revised the oppressive structures: we’ve seen it in suffrage, abolition, labour, civil-rights, gay-rights and feminist movements. I believe we can see it again!
Whether or not it happens next week, or next month, in the midterms, angry women do have it in their power to change the world. I know it because they’ve done it before.
I like to think of the two steps forward/one step back nature of the change in terms of backlash leveling up.
In the case of feminism and women’s rights, today, even anti-feminists are using the language and framing of feminism to make their arguments. Forty years ago, a woman such as Phyllis Schlafly would never have called herself a feminist, even as she enjoyed all of the fruits of feminist movements. Today, those who are perpetuating her legacy do claim to be feminists, and use words and ideas, for better or worse, that spring from feminist intellectual thought.
Even if they reject the idea of righteous feminist anger, it is, in fact, what has made it possible, as it will continue to, to envision and achieve radical change.