Female Rage Has Fuelled America's Greatest Political Movements
Rebecca Traister, author of 'Good and Mad' discusses the power of women's rage.
Photo via Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
In the past two years, Trump's Administration has demonstrated a continual disdain for our country's most vulnerable—particularly women. This was most recently punctuated by last week's Kavanaugh hearing, where Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of a nearly completely white, male Judiciary Committee about her alleged assault. The disparity between acceptable forms of male and female emotional expression were put on display—a woman calmly stated the facts of her alleged assault, and a man raged at the notion that these facts might cost him a prestigious job promotion.
In response to this seemingly never ending pattern of dehumanization, women have been expressing their anger in droves—across social media feeds, in heavily attended marches—and using that anger to mobilize political change through voting, running for office, and supporting candidates that reflect their interests. New York Magazine's senior writer-at-large and feminist author Rebecca Traister calls the unifying principle behind these acts of resistance "righteous anger." And in her new book Good and Mad, she explains how righteous anger has been the historical through line across the most impactful civil rights movements in history, despite being an emotion that women aren't socially allowed to express.
Good and Mad dissects the patriotism of American rage, the way it was pivotal to the founding of the United States, and how it is still only afforded to white men. Fury in a white man is "heroic" while in a woman it is "shrill." She traces our perceptions of women back to the roots of American patriarchy, dissecting the ways that white supremacy retains its power by harassing, assaulting, disenfranchising, invalidating, and isolating women, as well as turning women against one another. For women, expressing rage comes at a large cost. But it's also our greatest political tool.
I spoke to Traister about the unifying force of righteous anger, the constant labor of black women in social and political movements, and how we might restore justice to those who have so long been harmed:
VICE: What inspired you to write about the incredible political force of women's anger, and why now?
Rebecca Traister: A lot of my work as a feminist journalist who writes about racial, gender, and economic inequality and the history of social movements has been grounded in anger. But I’d never thought about that, in part because we’re so discouraged from thinking of ourselves as angry or valuing our own anger or recognizing it as one of the rational organizing principles of our thinking. I don’t think we’re trained to value it as an intellectual principle. But when I was writing my second book All the Single Ladies, I did all this historical research about unmarried women in American and how crucial they’d been to our history’s most transformative moments. Anger had been a through line, through all of that history.
The book is not about me, but just the ability to see how I’d written about anger for over a decade but never thought of it as a valuable aspect of my thinking—if anything, I worked to obscure it, to make my voice more palatable and make whatever anger was driving my thinking hidden under jokes. That helped me look at how all kinds of writers thinkers, activists, and politicians have been doing the same thing. I try to see its value and the way that its shaped our past, present and (I hope) our future politics.
I was taken by this line in particular: “People discredit female anger, no one thinks to ask why we’re so mad.”
That is the thing that every woman I interviewed has said in one way or another. “You’re the first person who has ever asked me why I’m so angry.”
In Good and Mad you describe anger as a tool of communication that finally allows women to bond and form political coherence. How have women been mobilizing in 2018, and why do those in power work so hard to keep us isolated?
Communication and affiliation between women has always been discouraged by the power structure that understands when women are in communication with each other, they might also be organizing with each other and in cooperation with each other. When you quell anger, you perform a service on behalf of white patriarchal power structure. You make women silent on the things they’re frustrated about, and isolate them from each other. When it comes to anger—it’s not just coincidental or aesthetic preference, because it’s loud or shrill when women yell. If you can yell, you might become audible to other women who share your frustration and your anger. And at that point you can find each other. You might find community and communion with each other. You might organize, you might begin to form coalitions.
What opened my eyes to that was reporting on suburban women who were newly politically activated in Georgia. Typically it was around the John Ossoff race. And he lost, but the network that was formed was really remarkable. Lots of those women described how they felt completely isolated and alone in their conservative communities, never able to put out a yard sign. They were Democrats but they never made a noise about it, because they thought it would be disruptive and socially frowned upon.
After the 2016 election, they were so upset that they couldn’t hold it in—they yelled—and suddenly they realized the whole time there’d been a woman down the block that they never knew existed. Now they knew about each other, and began to talk, and began to go to meetings with people who wanted to get involved in elections. The next thing you know, they’re spending their every waking moment volunteering, knocking on doors, and registering voters. That is incredibly powerful and it’s a great example of what a power structure hopes to discourage. Power structures try to make sure women don’t express their anger and therefore never find each other in angry communion.
You describe women as a "suppressed majority," and detail the ways that men in power have sought to separate us by highlighting our differences. But there is a huge difference in the privileges that a white woman can afford from white supremacy, and the righteous anger of black women (and other women of color) who have never had the privilege of "not being angry." To whom is Good and Mad addressed, and how do you hope it impacts readers?
Coalition is very precarious, because there are internal inequalities and injustices between theoretical allies. Those inequalities and the fury that they produce are very real and crucial, and we have to air it and talk about it. The book is aimed, in part, at a lot of the newly angry women—many of whom may not have been angry in the past, may have been white and suburban and previously politically apathetic or quiet about their politics, and who have become loud and active and engaged in the past few years. I value their engagement and believe its necessary and correct that they feel this anger and that they have felt compelled to enter a political battle.
But, at the same time, I put the anger that’s being expressed right now in historic context. And in the context of a power structure in which many white women—including me—benefit from some of the very kinds of structures that oppress many of the women that we not only need to be allied with, but who have spent years engaged in this fight. I want to make sure that those who are entering the conversation understand that it has been going on for a long time. And that much of the work that they’re beginning to learn, the thinking that is new to them, is thinking that has been done by leaders and intellectual pioneers—many of them women of color, women who have not been able to enjoy proximal power of the white patriarchy. And everybody who wants to be engaged from this will benefit from knowing the history that precedes it, the work that has foregrounded this.
I hope that this book resonates for people. I wanted it to be a tool to help people make sense of what’s happening, and understand that it has political and historical context, and that anger is not quirky, irrational or strange, that it makes perfect political sense.
I appreciated your use of the word “insurrection” to describe the collective furies of women, both as a nod to history and as a tool of reframing anger in all of its righteous force.
This is what I learned from Maxine Waters, not in recent years, but going back to when she addressed the unrest in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King Riots, and the wake of his verdict. She really pushed back against the term “riot.” She said she wouldn’t tell those people not to be angry, there were people angry about racism and discrimination and injustice, and they had a right to their anger. “What we’re seeing is an angry insurrection,” as a political and a politically valid act. She has been talking about that and understanding that framework and valuing anger as politically crucial for all of these years.
What kind of rage did you hear or see coming out of the Kavanaugh hearings and what do you hope it mobilizes?
Inside the hearings there was this very distinct difference between how Christine Blasey Ford could reasonably have been taken seriously. If she had gone in screaming or yelling or calling on any of the righteous fury that Brett Kavanaugh did about what happened to her—“she sounded hysterical, she was very over-emotional”—we can imagine the coverage of this, right. She would have not been taken seriously, it would have undermined her own project there, which was to tell a story that was hers and was listened to, respected, and believed. Brett Kavanaugh's anger could be used to bolster the notion that he was really serious about how badly he’d been treated. That was a very traditional split and quite a stark view of the ranges of human expression that are permitted in men and women, if they want to be taken seriously.
The thing that happened afterwards that I think was incredibly powerful was Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronting Flake in the elevator. They were not conforming to that narrow set of expectations for how women are supposed to comport themselves, or communicate their displeasure. They were yelling and crying with fury and anguish, and pointing a finger at his face demanding that he meet their eye and look at them and listen to the story of their voices raised in anger. That was so moving.
It may or may not have had an impact on Flake, I think it probably did, even if it was just the sort of strategic, “I can’t have this video out there and then appear to be cold-hearted,” whatever the reason was, I’m sure it had something to do with why he called for the F.B.I. Investigation, (which is a total sham anyway, so it’s not going to make a difference), but I do think it had one kind of immediate political impact which was to delay the process another week.
But also, I think it had a massive communicative impact. The power via social media, and the ability for something like that to go viral meant that millions of people could see it. And for millions of women who have experienced assault or not been believed or are angry in a way they felt they could not express—seeing these women confront a powerful man and be given space to give voice to that anger, I think we’re going to see in the long term, and we’re talking decades maybe, it’s going to be one of those moments that proves to be incredibly politically important.
What does effective and good restorative justice look like to you, in 2018?
The quickest path to restorative justice is women winning an unprecedented number of seats. Obviously my preference is for Democratic women and left-leaning women to win more power. And restorative justice in the professional sphere is incredibly hard to achieve, because one of the points of systemic disadvantaging of women within a professional sphere means that even when the men at the top who have engaged in power abuse have been removed, it’s usually white men who are just waiting to take their jobs.
If you’ve been exiled from a field, either by sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination, it’s not like you can just jump back into that field you exited long ago and enjoy any kind of comparable seniority or power or renumeration. But politics is a place where a kind of quick response can happen, and in fact, you can see among the candidates running this year there are so many who have spoken about their own assault, the abuse they’ve suffered. One of the women that claims that Donald Trump harassed her is running for office and won her primary. So many of the women are talking about how they’re angry. This is in the spirit of women running for office after Anita Hill. There’s different thinking, but there’s also some sort of pursuit of restorative justice too, because we got a view of this all-white, all-male governing body that was so disrespectful and dismissive of Anita Hill. There was a sense that we’ve got to change this, and that you can enter politics.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.