Every Right to Be Angry: Two New Books on Women’s Rage Are Timed Perfectly for the Brett Kavanaugh Debacle

Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly explore the function of women’s anger in U.S. politics, but we need to look to the margins to see true feminist power.

Christine Blasey Ford testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/Pool/The Washington Post)
Christine Blasey Ford testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington D.C., on Sept. 27, 2018. Photo: Melina Mara, Pool/AP

Last week, the country watched as Christine Blasey Ford sat in front of a panel of white male senators and relived the trauma of sexual assault from her teenage years — without anger. She was poised, open, and, in her own words, both “terrified” and “collegial” toward Republican lawmakers who have accused her of lying and said that her decision to come forward was a cynical piece of political calculus, timed conspiratorially to undermine their pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. For his part, Kavanaugh put on a sputtering display of anger that was petulant and self-pitying. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., put it, he was “aggressive and belligerent.”

Ford has not spoken at all of anger. She has spoken, however, of all the other ways, familiar to many who have been through sexual assault, that she tried to minimize and bury the experience, to move on. She has spoken of shame, trauma, and anxiety caused by the event itself, of fear and resignation at Kavanaugh’s nomination — but not anger. She has stood up for herself: In her prepared remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she said that people who suggested she was acting out of “partisan political motives … do not know me. I am a fiercely independent person, and I am nobody’s pawn.” But, during the hearing, Ford did not get angry. One can only imagine the reaction if she had. The oldest, most familiar tropes would surely have been unleashed; she would’ve been called vengeful, shrill, hysterical, deranged.

While Ford herself stayed collected, the rage felt by many women on her behalf has been palpable — from the text messages checking in on one other; to the rape whistles blown by protesters in the Senate; to the women who called into C-SPAN during a break in the hearings to tell their own stories of sexual assault. The anger is aimed not just at Kavanaugh, but at what he stands for: puerile masculinity, elite entitlement, and, especially, the power of men to make decisions over women’s bodies. After a year of #MeToo and two years of President Donald Trump, we’re having none of it.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Two new books, Rebecca Traister’s “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger” and Soraya Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger,” make apt primers for the Kavanaugh debacle. They discuss the ways in which women’s anger has historically been suppressed, sublimated, or used against them. Anger in men is to be expected, at its worst an uncontrollable and thus forgivable impulse. It is more often celebrated as a sign of strength and authority. Anger in women, by contrast, is seen as unnatural, unattractive, and dangerous; as Chemaly documents, we’re socialized from a young age “to go out of our way to look ‘rational,’ and ‘calm.’ We minimize our anger, calling it frustration, impatience, exasperation, or irritation.” We learn to “put aside anger in order to de-escalate tension or conflict” and to try to put others at ease. When we do show anger, the viciousness and revulsion with which men often react — and the very lengths that men will go to in order to ignore, delegitimize, or punish women’s anger — are acknowledgement of its destabilizing force and the threat it poses to the status quo.

Both Traister and Chemaly learned to embrace their own anger at the world’s injustices and to channel it into feminist advocacy and writing.

Deeper and less U.S.-centric books on the politics of women’s anger certainly exist — two recent ones include Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life” (with its “Killjoy Manifesto”) and Jacqueline Rose’s “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” which handles the particularly fraught topic of mothers’ anger. Both Traister and Chemaly, however, focus largely on the last few years in the United States, taking the 2016 election, the Women’s March, and #MeToo as their central examples, while also spending time on other activism, from the women of Black Lives Matter to the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both Traister and Chemaly learned to embrace their own anger at the world’s injustices and to channel it into feminist advocacy and writing. They believe they are seeing something similar emerge in the large number of American women who’ve joined these and other movements.

Both books are very much about the discourse, and for any woman who has been very online the last two years, it will feel familiar to rehash the tweets, the think pieces, the cable news clips, the memes, and the sound bites. (Motion to end the practice of writers citing their own tweets, and especially the number of retweets or faves they received.)

As a lightning-fast analysis of the present moment, absorbing all the takes, Traister’s book makes for engaging reading, especially the firsthand accounts from organizers she reports on and the sprinkling of American women’s history throughout. Chemaly’s entry is more of a landslide of statistics and surveys about misogyny and discrimination, unresolved biases, and gendered expectations — all convincing evidence for things we ought to be very angry about, but piled on in such a heap that they start to feel numbing rather than enraging. My heart sunk a bit at each sentence that began “studies show.” She’s most interesting when analyzing the effects of suppression of anger, especially intergenerationally.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Chemaly’s great-grandmother was essentially kidnapped by her husband at 14 and gave birth to seven children by age 26; her grandmother was a hard-edged woman with a temper. Chemaly, in contrast, also returns several times to the image of her own mother, a model of domestic tranquility — though she once found her hurling china plates to the ground in the garden. Even as a very young girl, Chemaly found herself asking what it took these women to “survive, intact … living in countries rent with violence and in a family, like most in the world, dedicated to men’s rule.” She recognized that “their anger was not the problem. A lack of understanding about their anger was.”

Traister and Chemaly promote anger as salubrious, a primal source of solidarity and change. I agree that we should push back against the wellness industry’s mantra that anger will always eat you up inside. And we should dispense with the op-ed handwringing that, at a movement level, it will cause things to burn so hot as to turn destructive. (Traister addresses how divisions within the women’s movement have often been exaggerated or manipulated by its opponents, without dismissing real class- and race-based splits.) In the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I remember a spate of self-care articles that caused me to worry that the teeth-gnashing, headline-gulping first months of the presidency would give way to a new literature of coping and complacency, instead of teaching people how to channel their anger toward effective organizing.

Both books applaud a resurgent feminism that embraces anger and is at once unapologetic and uncivil. Be loud; be humorless when things are not funny; refuse to smile when a man tells you to.

Both books applaud a resurgent feminism that embraces anger and is at once unapologetic and uncivil. Be loud; be humorless when things are not funny; refuse to smile when a man tells you to. And be uncompromising, even — especially when the institutions targeted by the movement are ones to which you have gained entrance as an individual.

It is the #MeToo section, focused mainly on the news industry, where Traister seems most honest about the limits of counting on women’s anger as an inherently progressive force. She writes about the difficulty so many women in media, herself included, had in confronting the fact that men they liked — men they wanted to be like, men who had mentored and supported them — might also have been abusive to other women. She writes that it felt “too much, too risky, too intense” and “not fun” to “stare at the ugly scaffolding on which so many of our professional lives had been built.” Some women, for instance, condemned the “Shitty Media Men” list, a spreadsheet of rumored misconduct that circulated last fall; or they sprang to the defense of accused men (like Tom Brokaw) in open letters; or they said #MeToo merely expressed a generational gap between oversensitive younger women and a tougher, older cohort. (The latter is a rehashing of an argument about coddling in academia beloved of conservatives and, increasingly, of a certain type of liberal man.)

Traister seems much less cynical toward power when it comes to the political arena, as indicated by her analysis of Hillary Clinton as a candidate and of the surge in women candidates running for office this year. She acknowledges the critiques of Clinton’s policy positions from left feminists, but seems to blame the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton on women voters rather than on the candidate who failed to inspire them with an unapologetic and robust feminist agenda. Few women on the left would deny the viciously gendered attacks on Clinton and the way she was hamstrung by the double standards facing female politicians in her reactions to Trump’s cruel and oafish candidacy. But the tepid support was not because, as Traister argues, we 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 of an imperfect candidate.” Even while defending Clinton against her critics, Traister quotes Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, noting that when Clinton expressed rage at losing, it “wasn’t just at the men who kept her down,” but also “very much at the people who challenged her around things she absolutely should have been challenged around.”

It should go without saying that not all female politicians have radical feminist politics; nor should we assume that every woman running as a #resistance candidate this fall will carry out an unflinching progressive agenda, as the narrative arc of “Good and Mad” seems to suggest. Traister notes a common sentiment among longtime organizers who are overwhelmed by the influx of pussy-hatted, newly activated white women in their meetings: They want to follow rules, and they want permits for actions. In office, they may also want incremental change.

It’s true that studies around the world show that certain gains for women on child care, health care, even less bellicose foreign policy could be achieved almost automatically through more equal representation in government and industry. But public office and boardroom seats will always come with compromise. The value of women’s anger might be best expressed in the places where it is anonymous and hardest to measure: in its amorphous online manifestations, in whisper networks, in street protest, or in the brave shouts, for instance, of the immigrant mothers who yelled for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she toured a detention center holding families who’d been separated at the border this summer. (Rose notes in her “Mothers” book that the U.S. and the U.K. are particularly unwilling to see migrant mothers as agents, not even in the classic form of “suffering motherhood, a mother bereft of her child.” Instead, these women “are either overlooked completely or are the target of blame, with migration and its miseries the true story behind both.”)

Hundreds of thousands of activists from across the United States and abroad took to the streets of Washington, D.C., participating in the "Women's March" on the day following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, on January 21, 2017. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***(Sipa via AP Images)

Hundreds of thousands of activists from across the United States and abroad took to the streets of Washington, D.C., to participate in the “Women’s March”, on Jan. 21, 2017.

Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA via AP

The anti-Trump contingent shows a clear split between those who are appalled by Trump’s assault on the norms of American power and those who are appalled by Trump but also by those norms. The norms will push back, as is seen in the fretting over whether Kavanaugh’s messy confirmation hearing is “likely to leave a stain on Washington.”

As the classicist Mary Beard wrote in her short manifesto “Women & Power” last year, changing the structure of power “means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.” It means, as Moira Donegan wrote this spring, minimizing individualist feminism in favor of social feminism. It means thinking of Kavanaugh’s confirmation not in terms of the challenge to one man by one woman’s testimony, but in terms of the anger of the millions of women behind it.

Top photo: Christine Blasey Ford testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27, 2018.

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