Activist, author, and Women's Media Center director Soraya Chemaly felt paralyzed by the anger she felt operating as a woman in a patriarchal society—until she realized that she could marshal it as a vital tool for positive change. In her new book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger, Chemaly argues that rage is a woman's most important resource and a powerful force for liberation and change.
This excerpt is taken from Chemaly's upcoming book, out on 20 September on Simon & Schuster.
What now? What to do with all the rage? This was not a question I could have even asked myself ten years ago. The anger I felt was so deplorably mismanaged that I didn’t recognize it. The first time I did, it was in the most socially palatable form: as a mother.
One day in 2010, I found myself standing, panic stricken and shaking, in a small bathroom in my house. Only minutes earlier, I’d been standing less than ten feet away in my kitchen, calmly and
cheerfully making dinner and talking to my daughter, who had recently turned thirteen. It was a lovely evening, one of the first of spring. Despite having just finished two hours of soccer practice, she was bursting with energy.
This was a child who’d spent years perfecting how to climb doorframes and stair rails. She’d once disappeared, at the age of six, in the middle of a basketball court. I found her sitting in one of the hoops, twelve feet in the air. She would lie on the crossbar of park swing sets like a cat and was so full of energy that even hours of intense sports couldn’t tire her out. When she was eleven she applied to a school in Italy, though we had no intention of moving. She was confident, fearless, and full of excitement about the world.
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I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, when she asked if she could walk to our local ice cream shop. I excused myself, walked out of the kitchen and, saying I’d be right back, locked myself in a bathroom. Once the door was closed, I was stunned to find myself crying, my thoughts flying incoherently. Our neighborhood did not regularly present undue threats, and her asking was unexceptional. She had walked by herself many times, but I was struck that afternoon by how “adult” she looked, a concept that I actively resented, for what that meant to her freedom.
It felt too early. I knew I would have to teach my daughters about harassment and to adjust to the constant threat of rape, but I didn’t want to. Mainly, I could not imagine the sadness we would feel, in different ways, for different reasons, and in different measure. At five foot seven, my athletic and physically adventurous daughter already looked much older. Walking alone, she was certain to experience harassment, if she hadn’t already. She would, from now on, have to be alert in public spaces. Vigilant. She might, as many girls and women do, turn in on herself or, without even realizing it, begin limiting herself, her curiosity, and her exploration of life. Her openness to new experiences and natural inquisitiveness would now be bounded by her femininity, by the reality that her gender mattered and in ways that made her unequal in the world.
Then I realized I wasn’t having an anxiety attack. Instead, anger was washing through me like a tidal force. The wave of white heat rippling through me, material and intense, felt like another person in the room. Why hadn’t I ever said or done anything about this? What made me absorb my own experiences in silence?
I collected myself, went back to the kitchen and gave my daughter some simple and practical advice about what to do if a person made her wary or uncomfortable. Walk into a store, I explained, or look for a woman with children, or knock on someone’s front door and explain to the person what is going on. I talked to her about her right to walk freely and look people in the eye. I explained the dynamics of street harassment and made clear that the attention she might receive had nothing to do with her clothes or her stride; that there was no shame in being a girl and walking with confidence.
The more I thought, the more I shared, the more I wrote, the more I understood—and the angrier I became.
The rage I felt that day grew. I desperately needed to give the memories and feelings I had context. The more I thought, the more I shared, the more I wrote, the more I understood—and the angrier
I became. It had been years since I’d engaged in any kind of activism. I had no time. That too became an issue. I was exhausted by the demands of wifehood, motherhood, and work, and resented the imposition of other people’s social expectations, including their gendered norms, in our lives.
When my anger began to interfere with my ability to have a conversation about virtually anything, when my family wondered what had transformed me into a vortex of frustration and rage, I turned to other women. I found, if I scratched the surface of their regard even a little bit, they were often also simmering with a lowgrade and silent rage.
“What to do? What to do with all this rage?” I kept asking myself.
If you have ever looked for ways to think about anger, chances are, like I did, you immediately found advice about “anger management.”
It’s an interesting term, as it implies we have control over how and when we feel anger, and that it must be controlled or reined in. The problem, however, is that anger management techniques often take into account only an excessively narrow band of anger expression recognized as problematic: destructive, monstrous rage—mainly the kind that is stereotypically associated with men.
For women, healthy anger management doesn’t require us to exert more control but, rather, less. We are managing anger all the time without even realizing it. even this idea of “control” and management” is a limiting way to think about anger if you want it to be purposeful, deliberate, engaging, and change making. For so-called anger management to be truly relevant, it must focus equally on self-silencing, somatization, unhealthy anger diversion, and negative social responses.
But my research on anger yielded very little information about women and its positive uses. Almost all of the available clinical research I found focused on negative mental health impacts and, where aggression was concerned, focused on men. There was a mountain of information about explosive rage and chronic anger, but a relative molehill about silence or denial or useful expression.
What I wanted was a way to cultivate what I think of as “anger competence.” I didn’t want to think of my anger as being outside of myself. I wanted to own my anger, because it brought me back to myself. It gave me clarity and purpose.
Anger is an emotion. It is neither good nor bad. While uncomfortable, it’s not inherently undesirable.
Anger is an emotion. It is neither good nor bad. While uncomfortable, it’s not inherently undesirable. Most of the anger-related problems we encounter come from its social construction and how our emotions are filtered through our identities and social location relative to others. Anger should not be an entitlement.
When women are asked why they continue to associate being angry with negative outcomes and fear, they say it is because they do not want to “lose control” and act in “inappropriate” ways. This desire not to be disliked or seen as crazy, irrational, or dangerous, masks the lack of control that we already live with as the result of the silencing, sublimating, denying, and social opprobrium. It is still the case that gender-role expectations continue to make anger expression taboo for women. This is truer in some cultures than in others, but within each culture, anger almost always belongs to the domain of masculinity.
In 2010, for example, a large-scale study conducted in the United States and Canada found that only 6.2 percent of people thought that women’s expressing anger was “appropriate.” Locating this difference in gender is descriptive but not entirely accurate, since the dynamic of who gets to express anger matters in all unequal social relationships. Among men, status related to race, ethnicity, and class also limits the expression of rage and affects the perception of risk. Within like groups, however, meaning same class/ethnicity, for example, it is generally more appropriate for women to keep their anger to themselves.
If there is a word that should be retired from use in the service of women’s expression, health, well-being, and equality, it is appropriate—a sloppy, mushy word that purports to convey some important moral essence but in reality is just a policing term used to regulate our language, appearance, and demands. It’s a control word.
We are done with control.