Women have always been angry. Recently, there have been a number of books and think pieces about women’s anger. It’s not a new thing — it’s just become more recognized. Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, women’s anger has been on display as a response to the travesties of his presidency: separating migrants from their children, appointing a man accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court, imposing a Muslim travel ban, and more. Women are tired of being told that anger is bad for them; while unexpressed anger is poisonous, channeling it into the right venue becomes the best way to get a movement going by increasing grassroots activism. Here I discuss four books that provide a range of perspectives on women’s anger.
Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly
This is the most academic of the four books reviewed. Chemaly dives into literature to make clear what women have to be angry about. She notes, however, that “anger does not, in and of itself, make you ‘right.’” Audre Lorde explained that anger is “loaded with information and energy.” Indeed, “anger is a forward-looking emotion, rooted in the idea that there should be change.”
Chemaly outlines how sexual harassment is interpersonal, while misogyny is systemic and affects the world around us. She notes that women are twice as likely as men to think that harassment will escalate into something more dangerous. She also introduces the term “tone policing,” an instance when women are told that they sound angry or dissatisfied and should “follow the rules, shut up, and be grateful for what they are given.” Chemaly, a woman of color, is also sensitive to the plight of black, Asian, and Latina women, as well as the LGBTQ communities.
Chemaly covers the idea of childhood socialization. Girls should be nice and accommodating, while boys can be rowdy and get more attention. She then shows the differences in how women and men are treated through the gender pay gap; women in female-dominated careers see median wages drop, because the work isn’t done by men anymore. Chemaly cites studies about the disparity between women’s and men’s lives, particularly one in which scientists of all genders hired male lab managers at a higher wage over equally qualified females. She cites another study in which women who write papers in economics are judged more harshly when they co-author with a man, as it’s assumed that they just “helped” the man without coming up with any independent ideas. Chemaly brings up the troubling fact that women and people of color receive worse care than white men in hospital settings — something that’s true even for babies in the NICU.
The second to last chapter is about how to channel anger and rage — mostly in terms of getting politically involved and challenging social and environmental justice issues, which is a perfect segue into the next book.
Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
Unlike Chemaly’s book, Traister’s addresses what angry women have already accomplished, starting with the prohibitionists, abolitionists, and suffragettes at the turn of the twentieth century. Traister moves on to the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s when women joined consciousness-raising groups and divorced from husbands to whom they no longer felt connected. The Third Wave of the 1990s, which was driven by riot grrrl punk-ness and the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, focused on intersectionality. Traister then narrows on the present Fourth Wave, in which the #metoo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, exposed the seedy underbelly of Harvey Weinstein’s media empire: effectively ousting a number of prominent men from their positions. Women are not a minority in society — they’re a repressed majority. As Traister quotes from Judith Levine, “A powerful unspoken theme of post-World War II feminism — and women’s lives since feminism — is the struggle with…the fury of recognized oppression.”
Written in just four months, Traister’s book is an excellent primer on the history of feminism, as well as the history of women’s anger being mobilized for a cause. She writes about Rosa Parks, whom everyone said was so calm and collected as she refused to give up her seat on the bus. Yet Traister notes that Parks’ history of being a “lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racist violence” shows that she was angry and tired of the status quo. Traister also identifies the problems between black and white women, which originated when the suffragettes protested for equal wages and the right to vote, but asked black women to march at the back. This has come back to haunt the women’s movement of the 2010s, as black women were reluctant to march in the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches because they felt overlooked by organizers.
As Traister writes, “…in order for a new white wokeness to be integrated effectively into a contemporary movement, it must not take it over; there must be acknowledgment that white women are late to the party.”
Traister does strike a hopeful note, however, by identifying the many ways women have become activists since 2016: phoning or emailing their congressperson, marching in the streets, providing legal aid to illegal immigrants, and running for office at all levels, from school-boards to Congress. In many cases, women won.
Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper
Brittney Cooper’s book is the most incendiary of the three thus far. Cooper takes her title from a conversation she had with a former student who said Cooper spoke so eloquently, despite her rage: a rage that Cooper hadn’t realized she felt. As Cooper writes, “I’m a Black Feminist, capital B, capital F.” She also calls herself “smart-ugly,” a phrase taken from the Combahee River Collective’s black feminist manifesto from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
She delves into the racism black women experience, as well as the sexism they experience from both black men and white men and women. Cooper underlines the glaring inequalities that keep single black mothers in poverty, while also presenting the respectability politics that keep black people from using their rage and anger in constructive forums. Her book clearly shows the struggles of black women and the ways she has felt alienated from her own people because she followed an academic career path.
Cooper notes that the patriarchy is a structural entity that has nothing to do with how we comport ourselves; calls for women to love themselves are neoliberal in nature and will not dismantle that structure. “Empowerment…is a decidedly neoliberal word that places the responsibility for combating systems on individuals,” she writes. “Individual solutions to collective problems cannot work, no matter how personally empowering they may feel.”
Cooper talks about pop culture and how she understood white girls’ lives by reading The Babysitters Club books. She feels that strong feminism is built on friendships between women, but it’s difficult to befriend white women because there is always the sense of difference between them. Indeed, she avoided the Women’s March of 2017 altogether and went for lunch with her black women friends instead.
She writes about #BlackLivesMatter, suggesting that much of the animosity against black men (and some women) is driven by white people’s fear. The Trump election campaign, as she rightfully notes, was designed to make people nostalgic for the 1950s and 1960s — when white people were in charge and minorities “knew their place.” The fact that so many white women voted for Trump, even though he’s a misogynist, is because “for white women, their race comes before their gender…White rage is deeply connected to a fear of losing privilege and status in a browning American empire,” Cooper writes.
Cooper’s is a story of growing up black and becoming successful, which she finds is a rare combination. Her success makes it hard for her to build a relationship with a black partner, because — in Cooper’s experience — black men often prefer to date white women and are also highly sensitive to their partners having a higher income. According to the acknowledgements, though, she did find someone in the end. Hurrah for that.
Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger
Dancyger’s essay anthology presents a range of experiences with racism, sexism, classism, trans-discrimination, and homophobia. It opens up a huge can of worms about how women, minorities, and the disabled are treated in America. It follows from Dancyger’s note in the introduction that “Our anger doesn’t have to be useful to deserve a voice.”
This is a powerful book. It shares the details of how individual women are treated and how often they don’t feel they can express their anger at such treatment. It includes essays from black, disabled, Latina, white, trans, Muslim, LGBTQ, and Asian women. Their experiences are remarkably similar: they all feel anger that they have to suppress. There is post-hoc analysis of particularly angering events to figure out if they actually should have been angry, or whether they overreacted. The writers wonder if it was their fault the angering event happened. There is a questioning of how to treat the person (or event) that triggered their anger in future. The constant internalizing of anger that arises due to too many episodes of sexual harassment, racism, or classism is explored.
Many of us have had the experience of crying when angry — as Marissa Korbel writes, “Not all rage is yelling…Sometimes it looks like tears and tastes like fury.” And as Monet Patrice Thomas writes on black women and anger, “My anger has always been dismissed or overlooked, because it was superseded by the fear of what I’d lose by expressing it…Fear, I finally understand, is the one emotion that Black women are allowed to freely explore.” Trans woman Samantha Reidel recalls being angry at having to hold her true identity secret, but she found that “My anger may have been an effective communication tool, but wielded recklessly it was hurting and repelling those I cared about.”
I was glad Dancyger included an essay from a woman with cystic fibrosis, because readers rarely hear from women with disabilities. Also of interest: only one woman mentioned mass shootings as something that made her angry. While hiding under her desk at Northwestern University, while a shooter was on the loose, she got a text that her son’s school was also on lockdown. She could hardly wait for the all-clear to go and get her son and make sure he was safe.
Taken all together, these four books are a good primer on why women are angry; they examine what that anger looks like; they explore the history of women in society and their fight for equality; they demonstrate how anger arises from different sources for different women. These books show how we can use our anger for positive purposes, particularly by getting involved in local, regional, and federal politics.
They open a window into the lives of girls and women who are tired of tone-policing and respectability politics and intersectional issues like racism, sexism, and classism. These authors understand that the way we are treated in modern society has everything to do with the structure of society, and there’s no way we can find our own way out — as neoliberalism would have us believe. We need women of all types to work together to overcome the patriarchy and help us put our collective anger to constructive use.
Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations.