Women deserve to be more angry more often, says writer Soraya Chemaly

Women are often told not to be angry but award-winning writer and activist Soraya Chemaly wants to change that.
Women we are often told not to be angry— that it's unbecoming, but award-winning writer and activist Soraya Chemaly wants to change that. (Submitted by Soraya Chemaly)
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Soraya Chemaly rarely saw the women in her life expressing anger, so the memory of her mother smashing plates struck her, even as a child.

"She went out on a balcony and threw them like Frisbees and she did it all in silence," said Chemaly. 

"It conveyed the idea that [anger] was a very powerful and strong emotion, that it should be handled in silence and isolation and that it could have immense destructive qualities."

Anger and gender

Chemaly says that not being able to express anger is a common experience for women all over the world, and that men and women differ in how they handle it.

In her upcoming book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger, Chemaly advocates that women become more comfortable with their anger.

"It has some real virtues. It's our first response to danger or injustice or threat," said Chemaly.  "It enables us to defend ourselves. It enables us to have empathy for other people."

One cause of gendered experiences of anger, said Chemaly, is how we talk about emotions with young children.

"We talk to girls about a wide range of emotions but parents don't really talk to girls ever about anger. Whereas they talk to boys almost not at all about the full range of human emotion, but specifically about anger," said Chemaly.

"So the idea that many girls grow up with is that if they feel this emotion there's something wrong with them, and at the very best, they really shouldn't be talking about these negative emotions."

Expressing anger

Another source of gendered experiences of anger, says Chemaly, is how women are often taught to prioritize the needs of others over their own, which can lead to suppressing anger.

When we see other women sharing these experiences and creating a language around them… we see a loosening of the restrictions that might exist in our lives.- Soraya Chemaly

"There are so many ways that girls and women are taught to de-escalate situations, to sooth the people around them, to reduce the likelihood of social disruption," said Chemaly.   

Chemaly said that gendered experiences of anger have physiological components as well. In response to stressful situations, men often experience the fight or flight response.

"Women on the other hand have a response including neurotransmitter changes that leads them to 'tend-and-befriend,'" said Chemaly. "A lot of women will become silent, they'll smile."

Women's Media Center Board of Directors member, Soraya Chemaly and critic Anita Sarkeesian attend the Women's Media Center 2016 awards. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Women's Media Center)

The power of women's anger

Chemaly sees women's anger as a powerful force for social change and justice, and she urges women to get in touch with their anger.

"We see these cyclical movements in history where when there is rapid social change and political tumult, women are actually more free to experience anger," said Chemaly.

And Chemaly said that the freedom for women to experience and express anger can lead to even greater social and political changes.

"When we see other women sharing these experiences and creating a language around them… we see a loosening of the restrictions that might exist in our lives," said Chemaly.

"Think about anger in these new ways and really think about what your anger represents."