It’s been one year since the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement and a courageous fury over the ways women are mistreated. We look back at the movement that has completely reshaped the way we think of men, women, sex, and power.
Last week, a lot of women were very angry. We watched frustrating, gendered double standards play out in real time, as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And as heartbreaking as it was to watch, it made for eerily perfect timing for the publication of celebrated writer and critic Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
Traister spoke to Refinery29 by phone last week about her new book, and made clear that this collective rage has roiled beneath the surface for generations, showing up at different points in recent history. Women rose up against discrimination in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, again in 1970s, when they fought to make sexual violence criminal and illegal. This same wrath underpinned the 1986 Supreme Court decision barring sexual harassment under the Civil Rights Act and Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991. More recently, this thread of indignation led Tarana Burke to create an initiative combating widespread sexual violence that, in the past year, mushroomed into a movement of previously unimaginable scope. As of last week, this anger has manifested once again in the hearts of the women and survivors watching the Kavanaugh hearings.
This historical thread of women’s fury is the central theme of Traister’s newest book, an incisive title coming at a pivotal time: when the power and potential of women’s outrage have come to dominate contemporary conversations. We spoke with Traister about the book, her thoughts on how racial and gender inequality intersect, the role of women’s anger in both personal and professional realms, and how to stay optimistic, against all odds, about progress.
Refinery29: What’s your earliest angry memory?
Rebecca Traister: I was a kid who was told that she had a bad temper. I have a very early memory of a deep and burning anger about what I thought was an injustice.
It’s kind of a convoluted story from when I was a child, but basically, I got punished for a minor lie. I was probably 5 or 6, and I had told my mother a lie that had to do with Christmas presents. And I was punished for it. I felt deeply embarrassed, and I asked my mother not to tell anybody. And it became clear to me over Christmas that she had told my grandparents and an aunt, and I was so livid that she had gone back on her word.
I remember burning with anger, and thinking that I had been punished for lying but she had given me her word that she wasn’t going to tell my relatives what I had done, and she clearly had. Now that I think about it, that is my first memory of a righteous indignation.
R29: What’s the biggest misconception of women’s anger?
RT: There are a million misconceptions about it. But the one that cuts to the quick of the situation is that it’s based in a kind of unstable, precarious emotion, not in reason. And of course, so much of women’s political anger — which is what I’m writing about in this book — is imminently reasonable, rational, and patriotic. But it’s written off as unstable, combustible, performed, hysterical, or stemming from a place of erratic emotion.
R29: How do you see women’s anger showing up in the case of Brett Kavanaugh? Do you think it’s working?
RT: Well it depends on what you count as ‘working.’ This story goes back so far. There are so many foregrounding steps that get us to the fact that allegations of sexual assault brought by women are both working to delay and complicate the confirmation of a man to the Supreme Court who would create long-lasting legal impediments to all kinds of gendered, racial, and economic equality. That delay, whether or not it results in his withdrawal or loss of the confirmation, is creating its own political result. We’re getting a view of the Republican party’s willingness to defend and overlook the stories of assault of women. Political progress is being made all around, even if part of this story is going to be a long-term serious loss in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, we don’t know what the end of that story’s going to be. I still see us as being in a moment of incredibly powerful political change, precipitated by women who are willing to be angry right now and women who have been angry throughout our history.
R29: Often, women temper their anger towards men with the qualifier “not all men" — blaming the system, not the individual. But you write that the bad guys are “in many cases, also our good guys: the men in our beds, our hearts, our families. They are our brothers and fathers and uncles and friends and lovers and husbands and roommates and sons.” How can we reconcile this?
RT: I don’t think there is reconciliation of it, I think it’s acknowledging it and absorbing it. Our lives are daily reconciliations with these kinds of conflicting realities, and this has always been the incredibly difficult ask of feminism because women are a subjugated majority, it means that every woman has men in her life, and every man has women in his life, and to challenge the way that power is distributed between genders means disrupting intimate relationships between friends, lovers, partners, families, not to mention within your social networks and your professional networks. And that is hard.
Changing the rules is hard, it has cost. People suffer, relationships are altered and damaged, and it is a hard, emotionally difficult, taxing project to embark on. So the question is always: How invested are we in getting closer to equality?
Changing the rules is hard, it has cost. People suffer, relationships are altered and damaged, and it is a hard, emotionally difficult, taxing project to embark on. So the question is always: How invested are we in getting closer to equality? Are we invested enough to do the hard and complicated personal work of making sense of and trying to improve the relationships between the many genders? [To] equalise the power structure that has been built around gender in this country? Even if that means disturbing, and in some ways changing, our relationships with the people who are close to us and on whom we depend?
R29: Women in the workplace often feel they can’t properly express their anger for fear of being labeled difficult with or worse. How can women begin to use their anger productively at work?
RT: I try to be really clear that this is not a book that offers expressive tips. I think it’s important that we understand that women are penalised for showing their anger. There are costs that they incur. And so, the book does not endeavour to give advice about how to show your anger more. It explores the systems that discourage the expression of anger no matter how rational, or valid, or justified, or righteous it may be.
I don’t have many tips for how women can better express themselves. My tip is about how we alter the way we receive women’s anger. The thing I would say within workplaces is: Cultivate a curiosity, and I’m speaking here to women and to men. Cultivate a curiosity about the anger around you. Listen for it, ask questions about it, hear it, think about why the women in your professional sphere are angry. Why do they tell you that they're angry? Take it seriously, don’t dismiss it, don’t call it crazy, don’t laugh it off, don’t marginalise it, and don’t treat it as though it’s toxic and dangerous.
The thing we need to alter is how we hear, and how valuable we consider, expressions of rage in political and professional contexts. [It’s] not so much about expressing anger, but rather about listening for it.
R29: Often, women of colour — especially Black women but also Latinas — are the victims of tropes like “the Angry Black woman” and the “feisty Latina.” How can white women better support women of colour who’ve never been allowed to exhibit their anger in the same way?
RT: There are a lot of different ways. One is, again, seeking out and listening to the anger of non-white women, even when some of that anger is directed at us, at me — I’m a white woman. To listen to the anger and take seriously the anger not only even if, but especially if, some of it is directed at white women.
It’s white women’s responsibility to educate themselves about the history of women’s political engagement and activism. And that’s also often a history in which white women have not been anywhere near the center.
It’s white women’s responsibility to educate themselves about the history of women’s political engagement and activism. And that’s also often a history in which white women have not been anywhere near the centre and, in fact, have often been on the reactionary, right wing side that has been defending a white capitalist patriarchy.
R29: How does anger impacts women’s careers? How has your anger impacted yours?
RT: There are so many prices women are asked to pay for feeling anger. So many reasons why women are asked to swallow anger, while a man’s anger is often credited as a sign of their strength and commitment, their communicative abilities. So often in work situations, women have been asked to swallow or tamp down their anger, to not express it, to suppress it and find ways to channel it in other directions, and I think women are not offered the full range of expressive possibilities that are offered to men, and that can be damaging because it cuts off a whole section of rational thought and participation.
In my case, anger has undergirded a lot of my work, but in the earlier part of my professional life as a feminist writer, I had taken pains to cover that anger and dress it up as many women do, as humour, dark humour, playfulness, cheekiness. That’s there in a lot of my old writing. And I don't disavow that writing, because I think there are ways in which writers who are angry successfully get their message across without always directly expressing and confronting their fury. But that’s been a lot of my history, and it’s been relatively recent in my life that I have given a full voice to anger. But I’m also in a uniquely privileged position that I even get to do that to begin with.
R29: In a time so rife with abuses of power and a systemic gaslighting of women and marginalised people, how can we keep from seeing our outrage as futile?
RT: There are lots of periods of history in which it’s easy to see anger as futile, but we’re living in a moment where we can see it as politically productive. We are living under a Donald Trump presidency, Brett Kavanaugh may be confirmed — those things are true. And if we give into that futility then we give into it.
However, we can also look at a country in which women’s anger has been one of the motivating forces behind one of the great transformative progressive movements of our time, Black Lives Matter. A time in which angry women powered the single largest one-day political demonstration in the country’s history, the Women’s March, and then did it again the next year with almost no organisation; in which women led the charge against a travel ban including putting some of the first legal obstacles in its way; in which women led the activism that helped to prevent the ACA from being repealed in the Spring of 2017; that women’s anger has driven enough of them to run for office this year that we have historic numbers of female candidates for Senate, gubernatorial, and legislative positions; that women’s anger at pervasive sexual harassment and abuse in a variety of industries has led to the exposure of lots of apparently serial predators and the organising of women — not just in the highly-paid echelons where you have Harvey Weinstein, but the McDonald’s workers who are striking in response to pervasive sexual harassment. You’re seeing a conversation happening between industries about what to do about sexual harassment. You’re seeing a Supreme Court nomination delayed by allegations of sexual harassment; you saw women rise up as activists in opposition to the immigration ban. This is a moment [when] women-led teacher strikes in several states last spring resulted in pay raises.
We’re also living in an era where we can see the fruits of women's rage very clearly, even though the powerful still have a stranglehold on a lot of the mechanisms that will continue to impede progress, like the Supreme Court, we’re also living in an era in which we can see the results of women’s political fury very clearly.