The Sunday Magazine

Rebecca Traister on the revolutionary power of women's anger

Feminist writer Rebecca Traister argues that women have been taught to hide their anger. But, she says, to create political change, they must bring it out in the open and use it as fuel for action.
Feminist writer Rebecca Traister argues that women have been taught to hide their anger. But, she says, to create political change, they must bring it out in the open and use it as fuel for action. In a recent rally and march to inspire voter turnout in Chicago, women held signs and dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale." (AFP/Getty Images)

This piece was originally pushed on October 28, 2018, as part of The Swamp — a special series on The Sunday Edition leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.

Rebecca Traister says women have been told a lie about anger — that's it's "fundamentally perverted, or poisonous, or corrosive to us."

"I actually just don't believe that at this point," she told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. 

"I believe that anger is a perfectly rational, reasonable and understandable reaction to all kinds of things in this world, including inequity, which so many of us are angry about."

Traister spoke with Enright about the upcoming midterm elections and her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger.

Here is part of their conversation.     

You say in your book that "In the United States we have never been taught how non-compliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present." Why not?

The only kind of political anger we've been taught to revere here is the anger of white men. That begins with the narrative of the founders, the revolutionary colonists who poured tea in Boston Harbour, who were angry at being not represented within a government that taxed and policed them. This is the kind of lullaby that we're taught in schools in America. Their rage is the righteous stuff of the nation's founding.

In her new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, Rebecca Traister unpacks hidden herstories to graph the impact that angry women have had in shaping the country. (Simon and Schuster/Victoria Stevens)

Even in the way the 2016 election played out, you can still see those same patterns. We can understand and value the anger of white men, whether that's Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Both were credited for skillfully being able to channel the anger of their supporters on the stump. Yet Hillary Clinton, if she spoke to too closely into a microphone, was heard as yelling at people — while simultaneously criticized for not being angry and passionate enough. We have a really hard time even discerning when women are angry.

Your book is about the importance of women's anger. But there was a time when you persuaded yourself that the kind of anger in Second Wave feminism was unnecessary, or even passé. Why was that?

In addition to not valuing it in the stories we tell about United States history, women's anger is also discouraged. We're told that expressions of anger make us unattractive, unappealing, sound hysterical, and that, ultimately, if we raise our voices, we undermine our own authority.

Anger isn't about punishing or acting in a vindictive manner toward those who have oppressed them. Rather it's about getting free.- Rebecca Traister

The 80s and 90s anti-feminist backlash was predicated on a view of a feminist movement that had been so unfun and so unpleasant and angry. In fact, in many ways, it was raucous and joyful and funny and passionate — and it was angry. But we were taught that that anger made it unappealing. That to give any voice that anger ourselves was going to undermine any feminist argument we wanted to build.

Is there a danger though of fetishizing anger? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that anger is an inherently punitive and vengeful emotion...

I hate to disagree with Martha Nussbaum, because she's so smart, but I don't see political anger as necessarily being punitive.

Often, I think with people who've had less power, anger isn't about punishing or acting in a vindictive manner toward those who have oppressed them. Rather it's about getting free.

Rosa Parks's resistance often gets re-framed as a stoic protest that happened because she was tired of being relegated to the back of the bus. Traister says that's not the real story. "[Parks] was a lifelong furious fighter against racial violence and racial injustice and an investigator for the NAACP," she told Enright. (Getty Images)

It can be divisive, it can be punitive, I'm not denying any of that. But anger can also be connective. We're encouraged to stop up our anger and not give it voice. It can often lead to feelings of isolation. We feel like we're crazy, like we're the only ones who feel this way. But then something happened to a lot of women in the wake of the 2016 election — women who have never particularly been politically active.

They were so angry and shocked by Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton that they shouted. And then in doing so, they became audible to women who might have been living on the same block as them for all these years, but they'd never understood that they shared political sensibilities, because they'd taken such pains to keep quiet about their dissatisfactions.

But once they gave voice to them they met each other, and then they formed networks. They began to organize. I don't think that that process, which has been described to me in joyful and liberating terms by dozens of women around the country, is punitive or vengeful. I think that's about building something new.

Not all women are angry about Donald John Trump. 53 per cent of white women voted for him. In Alabama's special election, 63 per cent of white women voted for an alleged child molester. How do you explain that that divide?

They might not have been angry at Donald John Trump, but they were at Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Women's anger operates in defence of white patriarchy as well, and especially white women's anger. In a country that is ruled according to a white patriarchal power system, as the United States is, there are incentives for white women willing to support that that power structure. Lots of white women who derive a kind of proximal power from their associations with white men, and who derive benefits from white supremacy in the United States, are very angry when that power structure is challenged.

I talked to Anita Hill on the anniversary of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and we talked about how it led the 'Year of the Woman,' where a record number of women were elected to the U.S. Congress. What are the chances of that being repeated in a couple of weeks?

You've already seen part of it repeat, not in response to the Kavanaugh hearings, but in response to the election of Donald Trump. There is this record number of women who've run for office, many of them for the first time, and record numbers of them won their primaries. So even before we get to the midterm elections, you have seen it reshape the roster of the Democratic Party, which is where most of those women were running and winning their races. That is analogous, in certain ways, to what happened in 1991.

It's really important to remember that Anita Hill was October of 1991, and that Year of the Woman election was a year later. I think that the stunned horror and shock, for many who were angriest about Kavanaugh, can be kind of chilling.

Republicans say it has energized the base, probably increased GOP turnout at the polls.

That is the Republican message, and they're working very hard to gin up a version of the story in which it was Kavanaugh who was the victim. But it's happening at the same time that there's a traditional return home. We're getting closer to the actual elections, which means that partisanship kicks in, and lots of Republicans go back to feeling loyal to the Republican Party and the president.

You're also seeing the Koch brothers pour zillions of dollars into these elections starting October 1st. And voter suppression. There's no way we can talk about what's going to happen in November without acknowledging that this is a project the Republicans have been invested in, on a state to state level, for years at this point. So those all these factors are playing in, which makes it incredibly difficult, and and I believe impossible, to predict what's going to happen.


In the last line of the book, you say 'Don't ever let them talk you out of being bad again.' Why is it so important — not just now, but forever more — for women to hold on to their anger?

I think that in the United States there's a deep, common and pernicious lie — that we have addressed and fixed the inequities of our past.

There's always going to be something to be angry about, something to fight for, for the rest of our lives and far beyond that- Rebecca Traister

It has been a long, arduous, violent, slow process of trying to fix all of [those] injustices. It's ugly, and it's not fun, because it's hard. And so we congratulate ourselves when we've done something big. It's very tempting to buy into those lies. It makes us feel better about ourselves. It makes us feel proud of our country.

But it's also an anesthetic. It keeps us from being angry and pushing further to do better. What we have to do is face a much harder truth: there's always going to be something to be angry about, something to fight for, for the rest of our lives and far beyond that.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Click 'listen' above to listen to the full interview. 


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