Feminist author Rebecca Traister's new book, Good and Mad, documents the ways women’s anger has been used as a catalyst for sociopolitical change.
Traister’s whiplash chronology pits tales of 19th Century ire, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s role in the Suffragist Movement, up against recent events, like comedian Michelle Wolf’s excoriating set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“It’s pretty powerful to hear the echoes of contemporary conversations when you’re reading about arguments that were had a century or two centuries ago,” Traister says.
One thing the book covers is the double-standard that allows men to use anger to their advantage while women must suppress it. Take the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, for example.
“She didn’t raise her voice at all,” says Traister of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. “Had she raised her voice, she probably would have been written off in a million different ways as having been theatrical or unhinged or playing a victim. Her expression of rage would have hurt her case and that is emblematic of the way that women’s rage is marginalized and discounted.”
Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s fury amplified his points, lent legitimacy to his arguments, and helped persuade powerful people that he had been wrongly accused.
Another example: During Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote in the Senate, angry female protestors were audible in the gallery. Unfortunately, the outrage didn’t appear to change any minds, at least not immediately.
Traister says that doesn’t mean the protest was without value. “I think it does have the power to change things. It’s just that it has the power to change things in ways that are probably not yet discernible to us,” she says.
Women’s anger can be constructive, but it can also be combustible, divisive, and controversial. Among the complicating factors: profanity.
“I don’t want your condolences you fucking [piece] of shit,” tweeted 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick at President Trump. As a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Chadwick reacted angrily to the President’s response after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at the school in February. (She apologized a day later.)
“I have found that cursing can be a communicative and connective tool. It can make us like each other more,” she says. “Of course, it can also be a turn-off for people who are offended by profanity. It’s certainly not the cure for our problems, but I think it can be very communicatively effective.”
Traister also writes of extreme acts fueled by women’s anger, such as Florynce “Flo” Kennedy’s infamous 1973 “pee-in” at Harvard Yard to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms on campus. Is this revolutionary? Or just a vulgar form of stooping to the oppressor’s level? What happened to Michelle Obama’s edict that “when they go low, we go high”?
“I think asking women to be better than we ask men to be robs them of all kinds of weapons,” Traister says. Referring back to the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, she asks, “Do we want a woman who is telling a story of assault to yell and scream? I don’t know if we do or not, but if we determine as a society that she can’t because it would seem ugly or unhinged or unpersuasive, but the man can, then he has a tool to use on his own behalf that the woman doesn’t.”
Good and Mad does give short shrift to conservative women’s anger, a potentially dangerous omission given that white conservative women were key to Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential election. Can feminists afford to disregard the voices of those women? Or would it be wiser for women on both sides of the aisle to stop shouting and start talking?
“I feel like anger can be a crucial ingredient when it comes to social and political change, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only ingredient,” she says. “I think anger can be mingled with hope and joy. If you’re angry about what’s wrong with the world, you’re also optimistic that it can be better.”
Ultimately, getting good and mad is easy; it is far more challenging to express that anger without alienating your allies (or suffering far worse consequences).
“Being mad is correct; being mad is American; being mad can be joyful and productive and connective,” Traister concludes in the book. “Don’t ever let them talk you out of being mad again.”
Is Good and Mad the definitive handbook for understanding and weaponizing women’s anger? No. But it’s a good start.
IF YOU GO:
Talking Volumes: Rebecca Traister
7 p.m. Tuesday, October 17