2018 is the year women tried to reclaim anger but failed

Women have many reasons to be angry.
Women have many reasons to be angry.
Image: Reuters/ Jeenah Moon
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No fewer than three books on female anger came out in 2018: Good and Mad, Rage Becomes Her, and Eloquent Rage, all of which emphasize the value of anger as a political emotion. Articles on the subject published in the past few months have made similar arguments, telling of women’s personal reckoning with their own anger, the ways in which women have been taught to express their anger, and why female rage is justified.

These books and articles all celebrate female anger as a political tool. There’s no doubt that women should have the right to feel and express the same anger as men, and that there is emotional value and personal freedoms that accrue with that right, but whether or not public displays of anger truly sparks change is questionable. As of yet, we do not know if female displays of anger in public will advance the feminist revolution, because we’ve seen all too little of such rage.

Women may be talking more openly about the things that make them angry, like perpetual sexual harassment and assault, the gender pay gap, domestic violence, and restrictions on abortion access, but even during the #metoo movement, women spoke about their suffering with fear and sorrow, and in moderate, reasonable tones. There’s been little to none of the screaming fury that, when is unleashed, is often derided by misogynists as a women being “hysterical.” In one rare instance of a woman snapping in public, Serena Williams spoke curtly to an umpire, and was penalized far more harshly than the countless male tennis players who’ve said and done far worse without retribution. And, of course, in the Kavanaugh hearing, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was the picture of uncooperative, unbridled fury, while Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault, was mild-mannered, respectful, and even apologetic at points.

“This year, for sure, the most memorable expression of rage which will be forever seared into global memory, will be justice Kavanaugh,” says Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. “That’s just more of the same. We’re not even remotely in a place where the female anger that’s there is being manifest.”

Though there hasn’t been much female anger in the public sphere, I have certainly seen anger in private, among friends and acquaintances. Women are angry for many reasons: Because there are men who’ve been multiply accused of assaulting women in the White House, and in the Supreme Court, and in nearly every seat of power. Women are angry at the growing lack of access to abortion and the gender pay gap and at being told not to be so damn angry.

“I’ve found anger most productive in private life,” says Moira Weigel, a scholar at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, whose research focuses on gender, media, and social theory. “Really private, as an individual processing emotions. And in activist settings with feminist friends.”

Further, though women may not be expressing anger in public, the rage women feel in private may well have driven political change. Women’s anger about widespread injustice likely at least partially motivated the unprecedentedly high number of women to run for office, drove dozens of women to walk out of Google to protest sexual harassment at the company, and encouraged thousands of women to speak out about their experiences of sexual assault.

But, though anger can motivate a political movement, it can also derail it. Anger tends to emphasize personal affronts and injustices, and so can exacerbate the fractures that already exist in the feminist movement, by creating a self-centered, emotional approach that encourages individuals to focus on their own plight, rather than others.

“We live in a moment when people’s sense of self is expanding to colonize their entire perception of the social order,” says Williams. “It’s very telling about our times that political interventions are being framed around individual responses to difficult situations, rather than that we need to think institutionally, structurally.”

In private settings with groups of friends over the past year, I’ve seen many women (including myself) openly express anger in response to personal slights, like patronizing men, missed work opportunities, or sexist partners. This anger is entirely justified. But such frustration at personal microaggressions cannot serve as a bedrock for a political movement. A woman who feels anger is not inherently political, Williams argues: “Your feelings are not your barometer of truth.”

Someone might angrily feel that they’ve been disrespected, and that this is an example of sexism, but it’s worth considering: How does this affect other women? What structural issues are at play that could be addressed, and how? For example, while high-powered women are entirely justified to be angry in their lack of access to the C-suite, demanding personal access is not enough to create a political movement. Feminist workplace conversations must also consider and engage with women facing entirely different working conditions, such as those who take on the domestic labor for those who spend their days at high powered offices. This requires empathy and thoughtfulness, rather than blind rage.

Given that white men comprise the most powerful demographic in contemporary US society, and have the most freedom to assert their anger, it’s tempting to assume that anger helped them achieve this status. But, anger could be, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, nothing more than a distracting need for personal retaliation, which serves little purpose in advancing political goals.

Further, Williams points to poet and essayist Audre Lorde’s 1979 speech, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” as an indication of why the tools of the patriarchy cannot be used to undo the patriarchy. Lorde gave her talk at an academic conference on feminism, and critiqued the conference’s failure to include women who “stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” such as those who are black, queer, or poor. “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” said Lorde. “[The master’s tools] may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

The same sentiment applies to the role of anger. The double standard that gives men license to be angry in public, but does not accord women the same emotional freedom, is certainly unjust. In a more equal world, women would have the same freedom to publicly express anger as men. The day that women can bellow as much as men, or else men suppress their fury as women do, will be a day to celebrate. But, in the fight to achieve such equality, anger will never be women’s most powerful weapon.