Like many women who identify as feminists, I once thought “angry” was the worst thing anyone could call me. To be labeled angry was to be disqualified from being taken seriously or participating in conversations about politics. Angry women were crazy, hysterical, no one wanted to listen to them.
My understanding of female anger changed after I watched Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. I felt saddened and afraid in the days after November 8, 2016, but most of all, I felt furious. Furious that I had been lulled into complacency, into believing that America had solved one of the worst of its historical inequalities, that what little problems remained would iron themselves out with the assured victory of our first female president.
I am angry, and why shouldn’t I be? Do the centuries of continued oppression perpetrated against women and minority groups, the staggering wealth inequality in one of the richest countries in the world, the destruction of our environment, not merit it? Outrage is a natural, logical reaction to inequality and injustice. As a young woman named Heather Heyer said in her last Facebook post before she was killed while counter-protesting at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
America is a fundamentally angry nation. Our country began with the rage of white men who had tired of colonial rule. We laud those white men’s righteous fury to the point of fetishization, but write off the anger of women, racial minorities, queer people, and other marginalized groups as disruptive and destabilizing.
“Being mad is correct; being mad is American; being mad can be joyful and productive and connective,” writes feminist journalist Rebecca Traister. In her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” Traister argues that women’s anger is not only natural and necessary, but a powerful catalyst for social change.
Female fury was a driving factor in all the social movements which have produced lasting change in America — abolition, suffrage, labor, civil rights, women’s and queer liberation. And yet, as Traister writes, “we are never forced to consider that rage — and not just stoicism, sadness, or strength — were behind the actions of the few women’s heroes we’re ever taught about in school, from Harriet Tubman to Susan B. Anthony.”
Another component of Traister’s central thesis is the idea that women are told not to be angry precisely because their anger is powerful, because it has the capacity to evoke social change which threaten America’s patriarchal, elitist, white supremacist power structures. “As an oppressed majority in the United States, women have long had within them the power to rise up in fury, to take over a country in which they’ve never really been offered their fair or representative stake,” Traister said. “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.”
Writer and feminist activist Audre Lorde articulated a similar message in her 1981 speech, “The Uses of Anger.”
“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions which brought that anger into being,” Lorde said. “Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
Lorde and Traister both argue for women to embrace their collective anger as a source of energy and purpose, to channel their rage towards effecting positive social change and building equitable public power. However, individual women, particularly women of color, who publicly express anger have historically suffered for it. This is why, as Traister says, “men like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can wage yelling campaigns and be credited with understanding — and compellingly channeling — the rage felt by their supporters while their female opponents can be jeered and mocked as shrill for speaking too loudly or forcefully into a microphone.”
The power of our current cultural moment is in large part derived from the fact that women are not alone in their anger. From the Women’s March, to #MeToo, to the Kavanaugh confirmation protests, women throughout America are coming together in their shared fury to challenge the patriarchal order. In doing so, they erode the stigma around female anger and create opportunities for female politicians, activists and leaders to express themselves and channel their anger towards effecting change in ways that would have been unthinkable in 2016.
Even as we watch the Black Lives Matter movement across the country, a movement primarily focused on the murdering of Black men by police, we see Black women leading on the front lines. They march for their sons, their brothers, their husbands, while uplifting the names of victims such as Breonna Taylor. As we saw in Tallahassee our own Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau was a passionate advocate who fought for Black lives and frequently stood up for the men in her community who had been shot, mistreated, or brutalized by Tallahassee PD. Salau’s life was taken earlier this year and would have been twenty years old this past Thursday.
“Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet… I am angry and I own it,” wrote Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senator and former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, in a campaign email. Warren’s admission of anger, her embrace of it, is in itself a challenge to the patriarchal culture which permeates every facet of American politics and public discourse — right and left.
I understand why many of my fellow feminists are reluctant to express or name their anger. We have been taught that our rage can only ever hurt us, that it will make us appear ugly and unbalanced, but Rebecca Traister speaks the truth when she writes that “women’s anger spurs creativity and drives innovation in politics and social change, and it always has.” We can be angry and joyful, feel fury and love, outrage and optimism.
We can rage at the injustice of the world we live in while hoping to create a better one.
The patriarchy has a vested interest in getting women to stifle our anger, to sit down and shut up and play nice.
Don’t. Stay mad.