A 2015 study published in the journal Law and Human Behavior shows that angry women are less likely to wield influence over others, while the inverse is true for their upset male counterparts. According to the study's abstract, researchers set up a deception paradigm in which participants "believed they were engaged in a computer-mediated mock jury deliberation about a murder case."
Unbeknownst to the study's participants, the other jurors in the simulation were simply reading lines. Of the five other jury members in the mock trial, four were scripted to agree with the study participant's verdict of the case; one juror was a holdout. When the holdout was labeled with a "male" name and expressed angered dissent against the participant's verdict, the participant was more likely to question themselves. When the holdout juror, following the same script, expressed anger and was identified by a typically female name, study participants were more likely to trust their initial verdict and not question themselves.
Anger is a really justified response to the world we live in.
Dr. Jeanne Vaccaro is a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Indiana University and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. "My initial reaction [to this study] is thinking about hysteria," she says, "and the historical use of hysteria to pathologize women—any kind of eruption being seen as irrational as opposed to grounded."
Dr. Vaccaro says that the perception of women as irrational is deeply ingrained in the contemporary cultural psyche. Sexist beliefs manifest in the unconscious; people are often totally unaware of the biases they're carrying around. "There's this really strong pairing of the feminine and the hysterical; they've been sutured together," she says. "Even the etymology of the word uterus traces back to hysteria. In the Victorian era they sent women off to the sanatorium to 'relax' or whatever after these [hysterical] 'episodes.'"
Read More: The History of Female Anger
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is an internationally recognized medical tool. Historically oppressed demographics have often been classified as disorders in it. The status quo of neutral persons has long been defined by straight, white, cisgender, and heterosexual males, and the behavior of people who don't qualify as neutral persons has long been pathologized in the DSM. This is not inconsequential, as the DSM is considered to represent scientific fact about the human mind.
As social justice movements progress and change society, concrete manifestations of discrimination are often the first to go. Policy and legislation reform attempt to level out inequality. In 1973, in the wake of the gay liberation movement, for example, homosexuality was famously declassified as a mental disorder and removed from the DSM.
Right now, it's very important in our world that people are allowed to be angry.
Dr. Vaccaro explains that it's the same with hysteria, which was declassified in the 1950s. But, she says, a change in the documentation of cultural bias doesn't mean the stereotype is gone. "There are other things that have appeared in the wake of hysteria. We still have the legacy that women aren't rational."
According to Dr. Vaccaro, some people have even suggested that the gender bias inherent in hysteria shifted after hysteria was declassified and is now manifest in the way physicians dismiss medical conditions like fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and chronic fatigue. "Even though there's no longer hysteria as a diagnosis, people have said these new diseases have come to fill this gap left by hysteria," she says. "Female patients complain of not being listened to by their doctors. These are people who report experiencing chronic pain. You go to the doctor over and over again, and nobody listens."
The form of persistent bias seen in the unsettling results of this study isn't exclusive to women, Dr. Vaccaro adds. Like the pathologization of difference, emotions of historically oppressed demographics are often not taken seriously on a person-to-person level, such as when the anger of people of color is written off or used against them. "People should and can be really angry about post-colonialism, institutional racism, everyday racism, or everyday sexism. Anger is a really justified response to the world we live in."
These biases are not inconsequential. Female survivors of sexual assault, for example, fear social persecution, which makes them much less likely to speak out against their rapists or abusers. Anger is a natural response to assault, but when being angry is likely to undermine your case, it's much more difficult to step forward—and thus much more difficult to move on, or share your story to help other victims.
"Right now, it's very important in our world that people are allowed to be angry," Dr. Vaccaro says. "Angry at the police, or angry at sexism." She explains that anger is a right, and that it's threatening because it disrupts the sexist order of things. "It's like you're being defiant, you're being political, you're resisting the status quo. That upsets people who have a stake in power relations as they currently are. Their power is antagonized by resistance. [But] how could you not be angry?"