Hope Reese | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,838 words)
“Women’s anger is not taken seriously,” author, journalist, and political commentator Rebecca Traister told me. “It’s not taken seriously as politically valid expression.”
That’s a major oversight, Traister argues in her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Women’s anger has the power to spark major social and political movements; it’s an essential ingredient for democracy. In Good and Mad, both a political history and critical reflection, Traister chronicles women’s anger and shows the ways in which it’s been downplayed, stifled, and underestimated — from the anger of suffragettes to the achievements of activists like Florynce Kennedy, Rosa Parks, and Shirley Chisholm, to the groundswell of anger that erupted in 2017 with the #MeToo movement. Traister, a writer-at-large for New York magazine and contributing editor at Elle, has devoted a large part of her career to writing about women in politics, spending years covering Hillary Clinton, authoring All the Single Ladies in 2009 — a deep dive into the sociological significance of the rising number of unmarried women — and most recently covering women’s anger in our current political moment, like the response to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice.
I spoke to Traister on the phone while she was preparing for her book tour. We talked about how women’s anger in public can be perceived, how quickly women’s anger is forgotten and how easily it is written out of history — even recent history — and how it felt to write about these issues at the height of #MeToo. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: You decided to write this book quickly, “in order to capture the rebellion before its contours got smoothed.” How does history have a way of smoothing out the edges of rebellions?
Rebecca Traister: I was just thinking about this the other day, because the week this book is published will be the one-year anniversary of the Weinstein piece.
I keep thinking about that period — specifically, October, November, December — and I think about how it’s written about now. Even how it exists in my brain. I have a couple of visceral memories of that period because writing about it was among the most intense periods of my life. And this [was] coming just a year after the election.
The volume of people I was hearing from every day, the wrenching, horrifying stories I was getting. The kind of intensity of navigating it as a journalist — what to report, what not to report, how to follow up, who to follow up with. Being able to talk fast, and to make sure that people knew that I was hearing them.
And also just the brutal view of how pervasive this was. And then the anger that I felt that all the other women who were reporting on and living through it were feeling, the questions about what was happening. To say it was stomach-churning doesn’t capture it. I have a memory of the day before Thanksgiving, [when] I shut everything off and I cooked for my family dinner, as being the first time I felt like my feet had touched the ground. Like the first time my body had been normal — my body! — in months. So I’m probably not even doing it justice, what it was like.
I felt compelled to get as much of it down while it was still there in my brain and I could see the connections. Because if we survive this, my hope is that if we get long-term change out of this, this period is going to have been crucial.
But the intensity — if you talked about it on a panel, or went to a party and everybody was talking about it, or went to lunch, or with your colleagues, you would see people crying. There was crying every day. I mean, furious intensity. It was so feral and crazy. And now, everybody’s like, “Yeah, it’s the one year anniversary of #MeToo.” And it’s as if there was a Weinstein story and then Charlie Rose. You surely only remember four of them, and mostly the ones that we’re still arguing about like Al Franken and Louis C.K., right?
We’ve sort of forgotten the scope of it and the ubiquity of it and the intensity of it and the worst of it. Brett Ratner and the rape allegations and the violence of it. And also just the visceral nature of what it felt like and how complicated it was, so that now it’s cast as “Oh, there was no nuance.”
It was all nuance! Everybody was asking questions. Everybody was confused. Everybody was turned around. It’s very easily now written off like, “Well it was just this mob.”
That’s one example of how, just even in a year, not only in the way it’s written off by its detractors who just want to encapsulate it as if it was like sort of a group of people with torches who briefly ran through town, but even in the mind of someone who was extremely immersed in it — some of its details have faded.
That happened for the Women’s March too, right?
Yes — both days were shocking. Again, the “massness” of it, the size. The shock of seeing pictures come from all around the world. And the pictures of bridges being filled, roads being filled, people spilling everywhere. And not just across the United States — in Antarctica, in Europe, in Asia and others. It was like, “Is this really happening?” And there was so much rage. And then the next morning, George Stephanopoulos didn’t ask about it. Kellyanne Conway brought it up on his morning show the next day and then Chuck Schumer brought it up. So, that’s an example that’s not even history. It’s the next day.
The intensity can be drained. It can be put in a neat little box, where what we understand was that Madonna said “Fuck you” or something, right?
So we can tie it up with a sound bite. And that is true with so much that has happened. The airport protests, we don’t remember them all. The teacher strikes. I don’t hear people talking about the teachers’ strikes. The immigration protests that have happened.
Part of it is the speed of the news cycle right now. I can’t remember the thing I was angry about two hours ago. I’ve been angry 17 times since. So, that’s part of it. It’s not a malevolent intent. [And] I’m not asserting to everybody that we’re living in an indescribable time; however, that’s why I felt compelled to get as much of it down while it was still there in my brain and I could see the connections. Because if we survive this, my hope is that if we get long-term change out of this, this period is going to have been crucial — and I didn’t want to lose the details of it.
You write about anger as a useful tool to fuel political movements, but can’t it also backfire? How has that happened?
There are enormous numbers of ways in which anger can backfire. I don’t know if “backfire” is the word I would choose. Anger can power social movements, or at least their initial propellant burst is very often anger. And so I think anger is crucial to have the kinds of social and political movements that alter and improve the world. However, a lot of the book is about the anger that happened within those movements, right? Anger between women over racism and of course, this is something that Audre Lorde wrote in The Uses of Anger — that anger between allies can be generative, but of course it can also slow things, it can do damage, and it can be used against you. So there are penalties. I try to track the ways that women are punished for expressing their anger, that their anger is discouraged, and part of this punishment is that your having expressed anger can be turned against you to discredit you.
I don’t have to go to #MeToo [to see this] — I can go to the Kavanaugh hearings. Now, you have angry protesters, and they’re being written off by some of the Republican Judiciary Committee as loudmouths.
Ben Sasse [the Republican United States Senator for Nebraska] spoke about the “performed hysteria,” and there’s always been a hysteria. It was like he was writing another chapter of my book. The hysteria over women’s lives. If you subscribe to that idea that women being angry in public, protesting, yelling about healthcare, yelling about reproductive autonomy, yelling about women’s lives — which is actually the thing that Sasse was talking about — if you subscribe to the notion that that is fundamentally irrational and that yelling about it disqualifies you from serious discourse or serious political thought, then that’s a way in which the anger that you’ve expressed can be used against you, right?
That’s part of what I’m chronicling. And yes, it’s incredibly combustible. Anger is very much like fuel. You need it to get going, but it can also explode on you.
Science has shown that stress is bad for your health, and we often hear that being angry “isn’t good for you” — that it can be kind of corrosive. But you’re critical of this idea.
One of the things I want to know is what men’s doctors tell them about anger. I want to go through men’s magazines and see if they have articles about “your anger is killing you.” I don’t know the answer, but I sense from my husband, my brother, that men are not regularly told [that].
First of all, they’re not regularly defined by the possibility that they feel anger. Like if a man feels anger, it’s so normalized, it’s not even necessarily discernible. We understand it in different ways. Of course, violence is often punished — but when a man feels righteous anger or political anger, I don’t think it marks him as unstable in a way that would be medically concerning.
But for example, when I went to my dentist, he mournfully told me that all his angry women patients were grinding their teeth and that it was terrible for them. I regularly have been told that anger is causing high blood pressure. I’ve had high blood pressure for my entire adult life, but I’m told that I need to be less angry.
We’re told the anger hurts us in these ways that are physically damaging. Now, I am not a doctor, and I would guess that where the truth of this probably is, is in the way that many of us, and many women, are forced to keep our anger inside on some level. Or if we express it, we’re told that we’re being angry, and therefore we are unhealthy, and then that makes us angrier, right?
So I give the example of the period during which I was writing this book, and I noticed it, I really did notice it. I want to say before and after, this is not meant as prescriptive or some kind of self-help thing like, “You go, girl. Go, be angry!” It’s very specific to my situation.
It was my job, I was being paid, to not only express my anger through my work, but to take seriously the anger of other women, and for a period of months, I was under an enormous deadline and I was, of course, stressed. It was in the middle of a terrible chapter in American history where I was feeling fear and anxiety and anger all the time about what was happening around me — but I had an outlet for it.
Not only was it an outlet for which I was getting paid, but in which the anger that I was thinking about, feeling, and recognizing in other people was being taken seriously by my bosses, my editor. They were imagining readers who were going to take it seriously, who were going to be curious about the topic.
The thing that is real is that I felt better than I had in a couple of years, years in which I’d been very angry, but I had [finally] been able to give it full voice and full thought and full rational appreciation. I felt physically really great.
Women are punished for expressing their anger… their anger is discouraged, and part of this punishment is that your having expressed anger can be turned against you to discredit you.
This is not meant to be “anger’s great for you, ladies!” I say it because it led me to be very suspect of every claim that it’s the anger that’s bad for us. I don’t question the fact that lots of women who are angry have high blood pressure and high levels of stress and inflammation and grinding teeth and whatever else you tell me you have because of your anger.
But my very unique and privileged experience leads me to question whether that’s the anger or the ways in which we have to grind up and process our anger every day inside of us, and the stress of not actually being able to let it out, or have it taken seriously.
And there’s probably a physical toll for suppressing anger, right?
Yes, and being made to feel that this strain of what’s inside you doesn’t have sort of a public or a political outlet that people are going to take seriously. I talked to so many women over the past couple years — and I’m not a doctor. I don’t know shit about this — this being said, I’m purely talking as a reporter and as a person who then has this extremely unusual experience.
I’ve talked to so many women who tell me that they feel sick because they’re so angry all the time. Like I have this crazy job that permits me to take my anger and get it out of me and express it, and that somebody’s going to take it seriously. They may like it or hate it, but they’re going to take it seriously as thought, as journalism, as work, as political commentary.
Most people don’t have that, and women’s anger is not taken seriously. That doesn’t mean it has to be liked or not liked, right? It’s not taken seriously as politically valid expression. More than that, when it’s not taken seriously, a lot of women keep it inside. And I hear from so many women [that] over the past couple of years so much of the reaction from their friends or their family have been like, “Oh, you’re just talking about this again. Are you ever going to drop it?”
You write about how we frame women’s anger as “irrational or dangerous or laughable.” What’s the history? Has this been happening forever?
Well, there’s a great book that was published last winter by Mary Beard, the British historian, called Women & Power. She’s doing ancient stuff. So she’s writing about the image of Medusa. It’s not necessarily about anger. It’s Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who dismisses Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, from the great hall of the palace. “Go and do your work. Stick to the loom and distaff. It is for men to talk.” Beard calls it the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to shut up.
That’s probably the most ancient example I came across but I did find it throughout American history. It’s so discernible in, what is the line you know from Abigail Adams? The line that gets attached to her, and it’s always the feminist section of whatever PBS documentary you’re watching, is: “Remember the ladies.” Like, seriously, that is the line that was like etched in my brain. “Remember the ladies” — it’s such a low bar.
In fact, in that letter, she says, “All men would be tyrants if they could.” She said, “If you don’t give us a say, we are determined to foment a rebellion.” That part just gets written out, and that’s at the Founding.
So, yeah, I think this has been going on for a long time, that when women are angry or express political anger, it gets marginalized or laughed at, or the angry part gets kind of subsumed under a more palatable version of what they did.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Margaret Atwood once said “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.” Does this mean that angry women are even more terrifying to men?
A lot of angry women in the book are angry about racism and economic inequality and capitalism and capitalist excess and poor working conditions and violent homophobia. This is not just anger about gender inequality. However, when it comes to the patriarchal power dynamic, there’s some really important things to note about women’s anger at patriarchal subjugation.
Because when it comes up, women are an oppressed majority, and they are subjugated by a minority. And that means a whole lot of things. One of the things that is true about the nature of a movement like that is that women and men are in each other’s lives in intimate ways.
Every male identifying person, every female identifying person has a male identifying and female identifying person in their lives, who in one way or another is close to them. Whether it’s through familial bonds, social bonds, sexual bonds, professional bonds. And the way that the power structure has worked always, has been that men have enjoyed economic, social, sexual, professional, public, political power over women. And that extends from homes and bedrooms to businesses, factory floors, and government laws.
So if women get angry at men, it is a disruption of intimate bonds. This is the women’s movement slogan: the personal is political. It’s deeper than its banner would suggest.
A lot of the arguments about women’s suffrage came down to domestic upheaval. A lot of the propaganda put out about suffragists were that they were perversions of nature, in which these women were going off in their suffrage craze, were throwing their babies at their incapable husbands. It was like nature was being offended.
The immediate implication of women being angry about having less power is that it will mean that domestic roles change. So the fear that men have, if women challenge men’s power, it means changes theoretically not just in who the president’s going to be, or who represents us in government, or who might have economic stability. It means changes in who makes dinner, or what your marriage is like, or what your sex life is like. You can feel this around #MeToo. The number one thing I heard over and over again was, “How will we flirt?”
And that’s a confusion of terms, because this wasn’t about flirtation, it was about professional power abuse. And it’s not about Eros, it’s about professional inequalities. But the immediate reaction to a movement that was trying to make clear something that has theoretically been clear for a long time, which is that it is a form of discrimination for women to be sexually harassed professionally, immediately got translated into, “How is this going to affect my sex life?”
So you say anger is the “fuel” to mobilize change. But before the 2016 election, the tape came out with Trump saying he would “grab them by their pussy.” Didn’t that fuel anger? Was it not enough anger, or not directed the right way, in order to block Trump from being elected?
It’s hard to say what was enough or not enough. There was all kinds of anger before 2016. There was tremendous, righteous anger expressed by many women on the left, for example, on behalf of Bernie Sanders. Sanders himself was a man who was expressing anger in a certain way that Hillary Clinton couldn’t. But lots of Bernie’s female supporters were very angry in ways that were important. Lots of Clinton’s supporters were angry, and wanted to talk about the sexism. It is true that before the election, coming out of the Obama administration, there was this sense that any anger about racism or sexism was hysterical, performed, borrowed from another era where there was real inequality. We make this mistake in this country of always wanting to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come, and the Obama presidency was obviously a huge example of this.
As soon as he was elected, there was this sense that, “Well, we did it! We shook racism!” Which we know couldn’t be further from the truth, but there was this sense coming out of the Obama era with the assumption that Hillary Clinton was so powerful that she was obviously going to be president. And in fact, the first responsibility was to point out all the ways she was using her power badly. Because there was just this assumption that she was going to win. The word “inevitable” was thrown around, as it happened in 2008, and yet nobody seemed to learn. But there was this sense that we had a black president for two terms, we were going to have a woman president. What the fuck did we have to be angry about?
And I’m not saying there’s not a truth in this. These issues are really complicated. But where we went immediately, [regarding] the kind of anger on behalf of Clinton, or Obama — the kind of anger about the racism that was being expressed in the Trump campaign — was that [they were] profiting from [it]. Not succeeding in spite of [it]. The idea [was] that to be really angry about that was to be silly, [which] was based on this false narrative that we had gotten further than we actually had — that racism and that sexism was going to be disqualifying. I mean, the night that the pussy tape came out, or the next night, Saturday Night Live had a skit that was about Hillary Clinton partying because she had won the election! Because the pussy thing, that was the key to winning. And behind that skit is the conviction that [it] would be disqualifying. Even though there’s been no evidence — literally no evidence! — that grabbing women would be disqualifying for public office. Seriously, just a few years before Arnold Schwarzenegger had won the governorship of California despite women coming on the record and saying that he’d groped them. So we had no track record that suggested that [it] was disqualifying, and indeed it would not be.
But we had filled ourselves with the myth that these issues — like sexism and racism — were a thing of the past; that to be angry about it was to be to be play-acting, to be theatrical, to be borrowing from earlier eras to try to lend your contemporary era a whiff of serious peril, where there obviously was none. So I don’t even know how to measure what the anger was. And the people who insisted on being angry about that were kind of punchlines.
Everybody said after the Women’s March, “Where was all this beforehand?” And I’m like, “If these people had come out on behalf of Clinton in October, they would have been laughed at as Hil-bot cheerleader airheads.”
* * *
Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, Vox, and other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky