“I wanted him to feel my rage.”
These aren’t the words of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, who testified in front of a U.S. senate committee last week, calmly describing her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Blasey-Ford could not afford to be angry. To be a credible witness, she had to be measured, deferential, vulnerable, and as one Republican senator put it, “attractive.” The way she carefully composed herself during those excruciating hours of testimony was symbolic of how gendered anger — the expression of it and the right to it — has become.
Outside the committee chamber, however, the lid had been blown off. Women were erupting in anger — a rage that was both political and personal. They took part in coordinated protests across the country by the thousands. They flooded broadcasters and social media with stories of their own harassment and assault, reliving trauma that they, in some cases, had spent decades burying in shame. And, at the U.S. Capitol, two of them stood blocking an elevator that carried Senator Jeff Flake, who had just announced his intention to confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination. For three powerful minutes, the women demanded he look them in the eye as they described their own trauma and distilled with painful certainty the message he would be sending with his vote — that women don’t matter.
Listen to Christina Vardanis talk about why the anger of women can change the world on The Big Story podcast.
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“I wanted him to feel my rage,” 39-year-old Ana Maria Archila told The New York Times after the encounter, speaking for the millions of women, who, since a sexual predator was elected to the Oval Office in 2016, have declared themselves completely, 100 percent fed the f–k up.
The uprising that started with the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and grew into #MeToo and now #StopKavanaugh is not the first time women’s anger, or the suppression of it, has altered the course of history. Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, gives women’s rage its historical due by examining how it has moved the country toward equality. With blistering clarity, Traister also lays bare how hard the powerful have fought to suppress it — possibly, she writes, because they feel just how powerful it could be. “What becomes clear, when we look at the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger — via silencing, erasure, and repression — stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”
Chatelaine talked to Traister about how catalytic women’s anger can be, the most important thing she wants her daughters to understand about anger, and why the current movement is nothing short of a revolution.
Exactly how many tables did you flip while writing this book?
Even though I wasn’t writing about my own anger, this book became such an outlet for it. I didn’t have to flip any tables, because I could write! So much of the table-flipping impulse we have isn’t just about anger, it’s about the inexplicability of our anger — the things we’re angry about that we can’t do anything about and so we flip the table, or we scream. The book is a way of me screaming. And in having an outlet for my anger, I slept better, I ate better, I exercised more. I was writing this book very quickly, under a lot of stress, and I was incredibly distraught by what was happening politically — yet I felt physically healthy, in part because I had this outlet.
That sounds pretty great, and also rare.
It was an extraordinary circumstance and a very privileged one. I was being paid to write a book and have people take my thoughts on this seriously — that’s a release that’s simply not available to a lot of people. It’s not even always available to me. We need to start asking other women why they’re angry and listening to their response and giving them the respect and curiosity they deserve. When you take someone else’s anger seriously, it alleviates a lot of the table-flipping impulse.
Why do you think it’s so hard for women to be allowed to be angry — for that emotion to be seen as a legitimate response to a situation?
I think there’s a tremendous investment in quieting women’s rage, because if we do express it — not just at gender inequality, but racial inequality, economic inequality — then we find other people who share our frustrations and are more likely to organize. There’s an investment on the part of the powerful to make sure women don’t organize in a way that could alter the political landscape. And so there are all kinds of messages sent — that nobody will like us or take us seriously, that we’re going to sound scary and alienating, that it’s going to make us unattractive — to discourage us from being openly and righteously furious. This discouragement isn’t just some sexist quirk, it’s a mechanism to stifle dissent.
You credit women’s anger with sparking massive moments of social change in America, well before #MeToo. Why was it important to look at women’s rage in a historical context?
Remember those 3D posters they used to have in malls, where once you’ve stared at it long enough, you can see a dinosaur, or whatever? That’s kind of how I came to view the history of this topic. I had been frustrated at how un-seriously I felt women’s rage was being treated. For example, the 2017 Women’s March was an international event, the biggest single-day political protest in American history, and yet the Beltway press didn’t really take it seriously. They marvelled at the spectacle, but made it all about the pussy hats. They didn’t see it as a political act or a statement of rebellion and resistance — it wasn’t seen as politically consequential.
So I began to think about some parts of American history I’d learned about while writing my last book, All the Single Ladies — about the catalytic role unmarried women played in lots of social movements. And I was like, wait a minute, those women were mad! So I started to look at the transformative social and political movements that have shaped and reshaped the United States, and I started to see that there was anger there from the start. We’re just not trained to recognize it. It gets written over.
For example, Rosa Parks — we were always taught she was demure, exhausted, stoic. We have been discouraged, until just the past couple of years, from understanding that she was a furious life-long organizer, motivated by her anger at racial injustice. Looking at history, you first have to excavate to find the women at the beginning of these movements. Then, when you find them, say, okay, where is the anger I haven’t been trained to look for?
After connecting those dots, it’s impossible to think of anger as a futile emotion — even though that’s what we’re so often taught.
Absolutely. It is absolutely a catalyst for change.
Prior to the 2016 election, many women were lulled into thinking the fight for equality had been won. Donald Trump’s election exposed just how untrue that was. Why were so many women — white women in particular — blind to it?
The women’s movement in the 1970s was one of those instances in which women’s anger, particularly against gender inequity, bubbled over and produced a social movement that would make long term legal and political changes in the economic, political, public and personal landscape for women. But there was a backlash to that disruption, and power structures were predominantly left in the hands of a white male patriarchy. Supporters of those systems fought to keep it that way.
There are always going to be people who enjoy patriarchy, and who have an investment in protecting it — in many cases, it’s white women and men across races. Rewards and incentives are often offered to those who are willing to defend the people who have power, and there are moments when those rewards get pretty high. So, it can often feel like it’s easy to quell anger — if the powerful have the ability to really punish and chastise the disruptively angry, and the power to reward those who are not angry, you can create an incentive structure that will quiet anger. And that’s part of what happened in the 1980s and into the 1990s.
I grew up in the backlash era. In my world, which was a middle class, white world, that was the period where everyone said, “I’m not a feminist, but —” and then made some patently feminist statement. The radicalism of the 1970s was being recast as heretical, ugly and man-hating, and a lot of people were trying to distance themselves from the women’s movement.
But the roots of objection that had been put in the ground in the 1970s were still running underground. For instance, two women of colour, Carmita Wood and Mechelle Vinson, took the principles from civil-rights discrimination and applied them to sexual harassment in the workplace, and launched lawsuits in the middle of the backlash years. It was 1986, which is pretty solidly in the backlash era, when the Supreme Court actually decided that sexual harassment was illegal. Those same roots of objection are feeding the blossoming of anger now.
After the women’s march, the big question was whether white women were going to actually show up at a Black Lives Matter march or a Dreamers march. Has there been progress there?
Well, here’s the thing: I’m very conscious of the fact that I am a white woman, so to be optimistic about the strides being made is like being optimistic on behalf of my demographic. And there’s not a lot of historical reasons to be optimistic about that demographic. I am extremely aware of that. In the book, I cite a lot of long-time, non-white activists who have grave and grounded concern about white women’s investment in struggles in equality that go beyond their own circumstances, wrestling with this question. And they have lots of different answers about it.
What I will say is that there are signs of a civic education that includes white women learning a lot about the struggles of people who are not white women. Those signs include white women showing up for marches or protests that are not directly about white women — the immigration demonstration that took place in the senate office building this summer, for instance, or a protest to counter a neo-Nazi march. Just recently, [Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi publicly rebuked [Congresswoman] Maxine Waters for encouraging civil disobedience this summer, and women were so incensed, they wrote a lengthy letter pointing to the history of white women enforcing white supremacist ideas by vilifying challenges being made by black women. Six thousand white women signed that letter within a couple of weeks. It was an examination of the power structures that have afforded white women degrees of privilege, and 6,000 white women signed it. At the Women’s Conference in Detroit last year, there was a panel about understanding the roles that white supremacy has played within the women’s movement, and it was so oversubscribed that they had to hold it again the next day and get a bigger space.
So there are these little signs, and the conversation is certainly happening, because we are hearing reports on how there’s racial discord within the women’s movement. Well, of course there is, and there should be. As [political activist] Linda Sarsour says about the discord that preceded the women’s march, contentious dialogue is by design. You can’t have a functional women’s movement if you’re not addressing, often angrily addressing, the inequities within that movement. It is better if we’re disagreeing and being angry with each other about racial inequity within the women’s movement than if we’re not, because if we’re not, that means it’s dead.
The #MeToo movement has opened itself up to criticism by lumping the Aziz Ansari’s of the world in with the Harvey Weinsteins. Why is it so hard for people to place shitty behaviour on a spectrum, from lousy to criminal?
I think most advocates of #MeToo understand there are differences between the monstrosity of a Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves and the alleged groping of an Al Franken. It’s often a cudgel used against the battle to say nobody is making distinctions, because in fact, we are. Remember, it’s not the women telling the stories who are meting out the punishments. So much of the media immediately focuses on what befalls the men, and it perverts the conversation to make it be about, “Well, this guy lost his job, and this guy lost his job, but they did very different things. You’re all lumping them together!” The people who are telling the stories aren’t responsible for firing the men.
Why these cases get connected, even though there are, in many cases, grave distinctions between them, is that the underlying thing being addressed is sexism. That’s what unites them. I understand why some people have been anxious about this lack of distinction. Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker about how this risks becoming a sex panic — if we’re panicked about somebody touching our butt, we risk casting women as passive victims. I very much respect this anxiety because I think the possibility she points to is real, but I don’t read this moment as being rooted just around sexual harm. I see the connection of these cases being an acknowledgement of gendered inequality and power abuse. The people telling the stories aren’t talking about them without distinction. They’re saying, here’s a story that also illustrates the way I was structurally disadvantaged and in some way harmed by a privileging of male professional power, often combined with sexual power.
So, as you say in the book, it’s becoming less about retribution and more about replacement.
Yes. I am profoundly uninterested in retribution. But that’s me. You can talk to any number of other people who are very gratified at the idea of somebody like Harvey Weinstein going to jail. What happens to the men is not the thing that interests me. It’s the women who are the fascinating part of the equation for me.
You dedicated Good And Mad to your daughters, saying that you want them to know it’s both okay and important to be mad. Has the way you’re parenting them changed since you started to write this book?
I think about this all the time. It’s still very easy for me to say to them, “Stop yelling.” But this is a real question: Are there moments when it is, in fact, appropriate to say, “You know what, this is not worth yelling about”? What it’s made me do, though, is hear myself as I’m giving those commands.
But I do regret something in the dedication. If I had it to write over again, I would write, “Your anger is important, but so is the anger of those around you. Listen to it, think about it, take is seriously. Whether or not you agree with it, or whether or not it resonates for you, just acknowledge that other people’s anger, especially the anger of other women and girls, has political value, has social value, has rational value.” To alter the system, we have to change not just how we express our own anger, but how we receive the anger of others.
People talk a lot about the possibility of the movement burning up out of sheer exhaustion. Do you worry about that?
I worry about it less than I did last summer. After the women’s march, there was the healthcare fight, the protests, the travel ban, women starting to run for office in huge numbers — there had been this months-long surge of women’s anger, and there was this sense of, “Oh my God, we can’t keep this up.” And then we entered the fall, and #MeToo hit. And when that started, based on previous iterations of this, like the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tapes, I assumed it would be a week or two of outrage. When it went on for three weeks, with more stories being told, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how long this is lasting.” And it was still going at four months, and it’s still going.
It’s a year later and now we’re talking about Les Moonves and Brett Kavanaugh. So I am far less worried. There is enough rage to power a movement for a very long time. I know from the past that movements often take decades — and there are going to be walls, and backlash, and circular moments of regress and times when things go wrong. But I am far less worried than I was, even a year and a half ago, about women’s anger dying out. I think it is alive and insistently moving us forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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