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Women are told that fury gets us nowhere.
That sustained anger isn’t good for us. That our rage is irrational. That being spitting mad is counterproductive. That flying off the handle is a surefire way to lose a battle.
Rebecca Traister tells it differently. She’s here to correct the record — and convince women that our rage is the tinder that can spark revolution.
In “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” the feminist writer dissects the distant past and recent history — the 2016 election, Trump’s presidency, the #MeToo movement — to detail ways in which women are socialized to stifle their anger and instances where women’s rage led to legal, political and cultural progress.
We talked with Traister about some of the themes in her book, the penalties women too often incur for getting mad, and why, ultimately, leaning into anger can work to our advantage. Here are her insights, along with noteworthy quotes from “Good and Mad.”
“The idea that anger coming from women makes them inaudible is part of the system of lies that we are told about why our anger is disqualifying,” Traister said.
“What happened in the second decade of the twenty-first century is that women began to rage publicly in ways that made them audible to one another; we began to hear one another and understand that we were not as isolated in our rage as we had been led to believe. Whether it was about police violence, or the election of a megalomaniac, or the defeat of Hillary Clinton, or about gun violence, or about low wages, or about abortion, women began yelling, and the effect was — is — seismic.” Page 41
That loud airing of anger allows women to build alliances.
“The ability to tell another woman that you’re angry opens up the path to collaboration, connection and the possibility of becoming allies with her and working together toward changing the circumstances that enrage you,” she said.
“The brank — also known as a scold’s bridle, or a witch’s bridle — was a sixteenth-century torture device used to muzzle a defiant or cranky woman, her head and jaw clamped into a metal cage.” Page 51
“Some of the bridles, which were made of iron, included tongue depressors that would be inserted into the woman’s mouth; some of those had spikes on the bottom to pierce the tongues of the insubordinate. The Tower of London features an internally spiked metal neck collar dating from 1588, labeled a ‘collar for torture,’ but described in guidebooks as a device to be ‘put around the necks of scolding or wayward wives.’” Page 51
“Americans who might have exerted more energy to oppose Trump or support Clinton — especially white women — were goaded into inaction by the assurance that sexism and racism were things of the past, and that to work themselves up about either would look silly, would be unnecessary exertions on behalf on an imperfect candidate.” Page 25
“The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 was the biggest one-day political protest in this country’s history, and it was staged by angry women.” Page 29
“To many commentators, it surely appeared that it was all about Donald Trump. But in fact the fury was in response to many of the varied inequities, injustices, and abuses that Donald Trump’s ascendance had made so visible.” Page 35
“Among the greatest challenges faced by the women’s movement in all its iterations has been the structural difficulty of persuading women to express sustained, public anger toward their most direct oppressors: men.” Page 144
“If you’re talking about reexamining and working to reform and reshape the power dynamics amongst genders, you’re looking at altering intimate relationships and dependent relationships, which is also scary, right?” Traister said. “They’re the men we love and then the men we need and rely on professionally and economically.”
“Women’s challenge to male authority or power abuse can send a family into disarray, end a marriage, provoke a firing, either of a woman or of a man on whom other women — colleagues and family members — rely economically. Fear of these repercussions (alongside a long-engrained and realistic fear of simple futility) are very often fierce enough to inoculate women against expressing, and perhaps in many cases even feeling, the outrage at men that they might otherwise make known.” Page 145
“There’s been a really false narrative around Me Too — that it’s all a bunch of women running around with torches, you know, delighting as they knock every man out of his job,” Traister said.
That’s patently untrue, she added.
“I can tell you based on my own experiences, and endless untold numbers of conversations with women who are engaged in the process of identifying and objecting to ubiquitous sexual harassment and assault, that there is very little of that punitive glee.”
“It was not a witch hunt. But it was an instance in which some men had lost their jobs or sustained reputational damage, and apparently that felt to many men as if they were being massacred. Their hyperbolic language offered a hint of how instinctively men understood the potentially revolutionary power of women’s anger, and provided clues about what had prompted them to work to suppress it via so many strategies for so many years.” Page 193
In a New York Times opinion piece published two days after Christine Blasey Ford testified about her alleged sexual assault before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Traister writes:
“Her voice trembled in moments of intense recollection; it sounded as though she might be crying, though no tears appeared to fall. She described a past sexual assault and the more recent media assault on her in excruciating and vulnerable detail, but did not yell, did not betray a hint of the fury she had every reason to feel as she was forced to put her pain on display for the nation. That is how women have been told to behave when they are angry: to not let anyone know, and to joke and to be sweet and rational and vulnerable.”
She went on to add the following:
“Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims. What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.”
Many women — Traister included — wept over Ford’s testimony. In the book, Traister notes that sometimes our anger manifests as tears.
“Maybe we cry when we’re furious in part because we feel a kind of grief at all the things we want to say or yell that we know we can’t. Maybe we’re just sad about the very same things that we’re angry about.” Page 93
“I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick; that’s what’s making us feel crazy, alone; that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.” Page 245
“If we could alter the system to better encourage and take seriously the fury of women, we might all be healthier for it,” Traister said. “Not to mention our nation would be healthier.”
“The thing I want to recognize about anger is that it’s potent,” Traister said.
It has the power to galvanize. “Anger can be the thing that gets us off the couch and into an organizing meeting. It can be the thing that propels us out of our job and onto a campaign trail.”
But there’s a caveat.
“Because it is such a powerful fuel,” she said, anger “has the power to combust, to sever ties, because there’s all kinds of anger between allies about inequalities within movements. It has the power to imperil ties between activists.”
“Among the trickiest and most central dynamics between angry women is the degree to which they have often been angry at one another, and often for very good reasons, chief among them, the racial, economic, and sexual inequities that have contributed to making solidarity between women so elusive, so difficult, and often so painful.” Page 113
“Women in America are coalescing in anger again. It is messy; it is riven by division — racial and generational and political. It is not civil, it is often profane; calls for civility are designed to protect the powerful by casting them as victims. It is a mass fury: occasionally so frenzied that it makes people nervous. Were it any other way, nothing would ever change.” Page 40