Mad And Paying Attention: On Women’s Anger As A Weapon Of Change

Talking with Rebecca Traister about ‘Good and Mad’

Between the time when I was originally supposed to interview Rebecca Traister, writer for New York Magazine's The Cut and author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, and when I actually interviewed her, a lot of things happened that made millions of women across the country incandescent with rage.

Like: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified about her alleged assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh some 30 years ago; Kavanaugh himself testified in his defense, ranting about his high school calendar and obnoxiously, irrelevantly questioning Senator Amy Klobuchar about her history with drinking-induced blackouts; thousands of women swarmed the Capitol, protesting Kavanaugh's nomination, only to be dismissed and told to "grow up" by a sitting senator; and, finally, Kavanaugh was confirmed by a remarkably slim margin to be the next justice on the United States Supreme Court.

And I haven't even mentioned that, during this same brief time period, we were also treated to the revelation that Donald Trump's fortune is based on a long history of tax code violations and blatant thievery. And learned that Louis C.K., an admitted sexual harasser, has been making surprise appearances at a New York City comedy club, where he makes creepy jokes about his 9-year-old daughter. Oh, and also, the New York Times released a report indicating that we are facing a climate change-induced environmental crisis within the next 20 years, making clear that the world's largest corporate polluters are not inclined to change their behaviors at all, so the whole notion of "burning it all down," could soon become our literal reality. In short, the question, "Are you mad yet?" has become synonymous with, "Are you paying attention?" 

In Traister's book, the women who are paying attention to systemic injustices—be they suffragists, civil rights activists, members of the #MeToo movement, Women's Lib leaders, politicians like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, or Traister's fellow journalists—are indeed the angriest, and Traister claims that it is precisely because of their rage that these women managed to make a difference. It is through anger, Traister argues, as well as through the denial of the "civility" with which women are expected to conduct themselves, and the adoption of the kind of aggressive tactics more routinely thought of as male-oriented, that revolutionary change can happen. Traister cites everything from the storming of the Bastille to Mamie Till's decision to show the world the mutilated body of her son Emmett as examples of how women's anger was the driving force behind societal upheaval, asserting that a woman's fury creates a sound impossible to ignore.

"I've been told my whole life: If you're angry, people won't listen to you," Traister said to me, over the phone. "But of course, for white men, anger works to make people listen to them more, because we presume a rational validity to their anger." We are talking about the way in which, at the Kavanaugh hearing, both Kavanaugh and Senator Lindsey Graham trembled with rage, screaming and shouting about the injustice of the entire proceedings. Traister continued, "Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham strengthen their position, at least with other powerful people, the ones powerful enough to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, in part by voicing a kind of rage over the injustice in their own mistreatment."

What we were hearing from these men, then, was fear. What we were hearing from these men was the same kind of weaponized anger, born of helplessness, that women are being told to embrace now, as a tool of deliverance from the very people—powerful men—who have long used their own anger to keep us off-balance, to keep us subdued, in all possible ways. But it feels not a little perverse to witness powerful men's anger over potentially losing their power when women have been told over and over again that, in order to gain any power of our own, we must contain our emotional distress.

"Women are trained to repress their anger," Traister said. "Or to express it in different ways—as tears—or to bottle it up. I think that's worse for us, physically, and in fact can become a feature of our personality if we're not allowed to just get it out and express it and have it taken seriously, but rather, we swallow it, and it sits in us and sort of marinates. We marinate in it because we can't just get it out and have it hurt and be taken seriously as politically consequential."

And the political and social consequences of anger spurred on by fear or helplessness or righteousness or, most likely, a combination of all the above can be huge, even if many of the victories are complicated ones, led by incredibly complicated people. 

Perhaps the most reductive aspect of the contemporary discourse around women's anger, its power and its purpose, is the tendency toward portraying the concept of women's anger as a discreet binary, in which anger is a tool for all women to use against all men. But, of course, not all women are angry at the systemic misogyny, racism, and classism that exists in this country, and many of the women who are angry prioritize which of those issues is most important to them, and fight solely for that issue. And some of the pushback against the idea that women's anger is a "timely" issue (which, I am no fan of the concept of timeliness, anyway) has come from women who have long fought against the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, and hate that feminine rage has become a "trend," something that can theoretically be put on or taken off as easily as a T-shirt that says "Resist" or, say, a fuzzy pink hat.

I get that. And so does Traister, who is not at all afraid to dive into things like the abject racism of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the course of her book, making clear that there is no such thing as a simple feminist hero. Traister explained, "Acknowledging the complexity of the suffrage movement, and really of any mass movement in this country, is our responsibility. And it doesn't mean that we can't acknowledge the rightness of some of its work. We just have to also acknowledge the wrongness on which some of it was built. But those things don't have to be incompatible. It's just life. We know this as human beings. We know this from a very human experience, that the very people that we are, and the very people that we love, are self-contradictory and complex and contain multitudes and are both beautiful and ugly, and this is just true of our history too."

Traister also is careful to point out that there are many women who use their anger not to fight for a movement, but to fight for themselves; ultimately working within the confines of the existing system to get their own power, at the cost of the power of other women. She said, "This is one of the things that minority rule and white patriarchy does: It incentivizes members of the majority to work against each other and to compete with each other for the resources that are on offer from the centralized power structure." 

Specifically, Traister expanded, "This is the case for white women, who benefit from and therefore are incentivized to uphold a white patriarchy, because they benefit from white supremacy; as well as men who are incentivized in some way to support it across races, because they benefit from patriarchy. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons—and this is something that Brittney Cooper has really helped me to learn and understand most clearly—that black women have so often been at the forefront of all progressive moments—although they are often erased from those movements, or their is work appropriated or not heralded as it should be—in part, it's because they're not offered a lot from the white patriarchy, which has meant that they are often at the forefront of the thinking and organizing that propels social movements for change forward."

But what happens when a way forward through anger seems untenable? Perhaps one of the most common frustrations I've heard from women I know is that they keep being asked, over and over again, to keep their anger at its peak, and then to... vote. It can feel like a muted end to an incendiary start. It can make you question if anger was what was needed to get to that particular place of action at all. It can also feel futile because voting has led to, well, Donald Trump, and a Supreme Court loaded with conservative justices. I asked Traister how she thought women's rage could best be utilized, and she replied, "Voting is a good start. But one of the things that we have to acknowledge, and this is something that Ari Berman has been writing about this and Nikole Hannah-Jones has been talking about this on Twitter for this past week, and all kinds of journalists, really, are writing about the efforts of voting suppression. You know, yes, everybody, vote, and get other people to vote, and register to vote, but we have to understand that one of the things we're battling right now is actually the efforts coming from the Supreme Court to suppress votes. It's just absolutely grotesque."

"But," said Traister, "there are a lot of other avenues. So voting, yes. And in terms of electoral politics, it can also be running for office, it can be organizing for candidates, canvassing, door-knocking, fundraising. Then there's the broader [aspect] of getting educated about the history of this, right? That's a big part that I think we're missing in this country."

It strikes me, though, that these are actions that might be frustration-driven, and that some of them (running for office, fundraising...) might indeed benefit from the rhetoric of anger, but they aren't going to be able to be sustained on anger alone. And this, for me, is always the stumbling block when it comes to embracing a narrative of rage—its inherent limitations and its long-standing use as a tool to build the system I most want to dismantle. Our anger might stem from helplessness, but what if its implementation only makes us feel more helpless? 

I thought about that recently, while reading Rachel Aviv's New Yorker article, "Georgia's Separate and Unequal Special Education System." Aviv highlights the vast, race-based inequalities within Georgia's public special education sphere through the experience of a young boy, Seth Murrell, who attended an understaffed, underfunded school; his teacher was caught on video hitting him after he ran toward her one day. It's hard to read this story and not feel angry about the treatment of this little boy and countless others like him, not feel helpless about the manifold ways this country is failing its neediest, most vulnerable people. But it was through this story that I also realized that anger was not necessarily the right way to effect change, that retribution—as was doled out to Seth's teacher, who was sent to prison—will not always get to the roots of a problem. It made me think about the ways in which anger can and has been weaponized by others—including many women—in order to achieve goals that are wildly different from my own. 

And Traister acknowledged this, too. After telling me, toward the end of our conversation, "The key is, let your anger guide you toward civic and political participation, whatever form it may take," she paused, and then continued: "The one other thing I would say is: Know that there are women who will be guided toward the same thing, who are ideologically different from you; there is also the anger of women, especially white women and conservative women, on the right that will also be recognized." 

I think, maybe, in the end, this is the thing I do know all too well: That, yes, more and more women—long privileged thanks to their race, their abilities, their class, their education—are only now coming to terms with all the ways they are helpless in the face of the patriarchy, because they're finally feeling the threats other women and marginalized people have faced for ages. But there are other women, those whose sense of self and status are reliant on keeping things the way they are now, who are also feeling helpless, and who are also getting angry. And so urging all women to embrace their anger is sort of like urging all women to vote: You'd like to think that women will use their anger to help work toward a common good, just like you'd like to think that an increase of women voters will lead to a more progressive government. It just doesn't always work out that way. 

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger is available for purchase here.

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