Many women you know are angrier than you can possibly imagine. Most are pretty good at hiding it, having been taught to do so since childhood.
One of the questions I am asked most often, when I give talks about my books on gender and politics, is about anger. Young women ask me how I get away with expressing anger with such apparent ease, and they worry about men’s reactions if they do the same. These questions are usually a veiled request for permission. Female anger is taboo, and with good reason — if we ever spoke about it directly, in numbers too big to dismiss, one or two things might have to change.
Young women who come to my events often tell me that they want to be more forthright, but they’re extremely worried about 'coming across as too angry.' I usually reply that there are worse things to be. If you stand up for yourself, if you assert your right to self-respect and bodily autonomy, if you raise your voice above a whisper, if you leave the house without a sweet smile slathered across your face, some people will inevitably call you shrill, a scold, a nag, bitter, a bitch. And that’s all right. Bitches, in the fragrant words of Tina Fey, get stuff done.
You’ll never guess quite how furious the women around you are, until you ask them. Some of the angriest women I know are also the sweetest, the kindest, the most personable and generous. Inside, they might be seething with rage they have been taught never to express, anger they can barely acknowledge even to themselves. They’d probably be surprised to find out how common that feeling is. They have learned that showing their anger is an invitation to mockery, shame, or shunning, so they displace their anger, try to smother it into silence, because they’ve learned that nice girls don’t get cross. Nice girls don’t speak out or stand up for themselves. It’s unladylike. It’s unbecoming. Worst of all, it’s threatening to men. Case in point: period jokes. How many times have you heard people dismiss and belittle a woman who dares to express emotion by telling her she’s probably menstruating? How many times have men in power — including Donald Trump — tried to push back and put down women who criticise them by implying that our opinions are nothing more than a mess of dirty, bloody hormones, none of it rational, none of it real? These jokes are never just jokes. They’re a control strategy.
The patriarchy is so scared of women’s anger that eventually we learn to fear it, too. We walk around as if we were bombs about to go off, worried about admitting how livid we really are, even to ourselves. There are real social consequences for coming across as an 'angry woman' — especially if you’re not also white, straight and cisgender. In my work as a political writer and speaker, I’ve learned that the privileges I was born with mean I can 'get away with' being angrier in public than other women I know. As a tiny white lady who passes as cis, I come across as 'fiery' or 'feisty,' but someone else saying the same things might face more damaging stereotyping. "Race," writes Roxane Gay in the New York Times, "complicates anger."
If angry women manage to successfully hide their inconvenient feelings, they are praised for being 'strong.' So often, 'strong woman' is used to mean 'a woman who doesn’t complain.' At most, we are allowed to speak about fear, about upset. Society can cope with girls who are 'broken' — but girls who burn with fury are a problem, and they need to be controlled. Whenever my friends and I have to deal with harassment, abuse and threats from people who would rather we not talk about women’s rights, we can expect some sympathy as long as we talk only about how frightened we are. But we’re not just frightened. We’re furious. We’re livid, because what is happening to us is unfair and unjust.
Boys learn to disguise their hurt and vulnerability as anger — girls, all too often, learn the opposite. Unfortunately, denying your anger does not make it disappear. It grows in the dark, away from daylight, into something twisted and unhealthy, eating away at you from inside. When I was a teenager and going through a difficult time, I didn’t know what to do with my rage, so I treated it like a stained shirt and turned it inside out, keeping the rancour close to my skin where nobody could see. I directed my frustration inward and took it out on my own body, hurting and starving myself. In the slow, painful years of recovery, I learned that there were better ways of dealing with my anger, and I didn’t have to be afraid of it. Part of me was always afraid that if I stopped hurting myself, I would start hurting other people — but anger does not have to lead to violence.
Anger is not the same as hatred, although it’s easy to confuse the two, especially in a political climate where hatred of others comes easy and rational rage is met with mockery. Anger is a feeling. Hatred is an action. Hatred is anger applied indiscriminately, anger attached to cruel — rage reworked into an excuse to lash out at another person because of who or what they are. Anger itself is no more or less than the human heart rebelling against injustice, real or imagined, and often it has damn good reason.
It’s all right to feel angry. It’s all right to feel anything, in fact — as a society, we still fail to distinguish between emotions and actions, but it’s what we do, not what we feel, that delineates the difference between right and wrong. What matters is not how angry you feel, but what you do with it. Choosing to control your rage, to use it for good, is better by far than squashing it down or letting it eat you away from inside. Anger can be useful. It can keep you moving and working when you want to give up. It can give you courage when you need it. It can focus your attention on what has to change, in your life, in your community. Anger can be a tool as well as a weapon, and it’s a tool we shouldn’t let rust away and never learn to use.
We worry too much about how men and boys will respond to our anger. One of the things I hear most often when I speak about female anger is that angry women are unattractive. This is supposed to end the discussion, because more than anything else, women and girls are supposed to want to be attractive. If we let on that we’re cross, boys won’t want to date us, especially not if it’s them we’re cross with. If we show our teeth, nobody will love us. I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. Being honest about my anger has made me surer in myself, and my life is now gloriously full of friends and partners who don’t require me to take up less space. The responsibility of making men feel safe and unthreatened was interfering with my plan of taking down the patriarchy and helping to build a world where the common human experience of being a woman doesn’t have to hurt so much. As far as I’m concerned, boys who want to be with only 'cool, chill girls' should try dating in the morgue.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve stayed angry — but my anger has grown up, too. It has boiled down and condensed into something strong and subtle, something that I can control. Writing out my rage is cathartic — and useful, too. I’m lucky that my coping mechanism is also my career. Plenty of women are angry, and why wouldn’t they be? It’s bad enough that women and girls are still being attacked and undermined, as individuals and as a group — when our basic rights to health care are stripped away, when we are blamed for the violence that is done to us and shamed for our sexuality, when we have to get up every day and deal with racism and homophobia and class prejudice. It’s bad enough that we still have to fight to be treated as full, equal human beings without also being shamed and silenced if the whole situation makes us furious. Yes, we’re angry. Why shouldn’t we be? Why aren’t you?
Taken from Laurie Penny's new book Bitch Doctrine: Essays For Dissenting Adults, available now, published by Bloomsbury.