Getting Angry at the Right Targets in the Right Way

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A marcher holds up a sign for the crowd during the 2017 Women's March on Washington. 

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger
By Rebecca Traister
Simon & Schuster

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger
By Soraya Chemaly
Simon & Schuster

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Secret Superpower
By Brittney Cooper
St. Martin's Press

Women’s rage is all the rage nowadays. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad came out a month after Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. And the last two years have seen scores of articles with titles like “Does This Year Make Me Look Angry?”, “Women! Reclaim Your Rage,” and “Don’t Call Me ‘Dear,’ F**kface!”

Some 2,400 years ago, Aristotle began a meditation on anger by saying, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy.” But he was addressing men in a patriarchal society where, as Homer put it in The Odyssey, political speech, especially angry speech, was “the business of men.” Back then, it was neither easy nor safe for women to get angry, and in many ways, it still isn’t.

From an early age, girls are pressured to suppress anger for fear of being labeled “disagreeable,” and are punished when they do not. The resulting internalization of anger is one reason women have far higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and phobias than men.

Boys, by contrast, are socialized to suppress sadness or fear, often expelling it as anger. That’s one reason men have more antisocial personality disorders than women. Yet men’s anger is usually seen as forceful, while women’s is dismissed as bitter, hysterical, or even “unhinged.” Even simple self-assertion by women is often labeled anger and penalized as such.

There are racial variations to these stereotypes. White middle-class and Asian females are generally assumed to be naturally “agreeable”—until they begin acting “unnaturally”—while black females are assumed to be inherently angry. This becomes the rationale for all sorts of discriminatory mistreatment, starting with kindergarten teachers and often ending—quite literally—with police. The “angry black woman” stereotype was relentlessly employed against even the poised Michelle Obama, whom conservative columnists described as “Barack’s Bitter Half” and “another angry black harridan.”

Occasionally, the “double jeopardy” of race and gender has interesting trade-offs. In middle school, reports Chemaly, “African American students are the only subgroup in which girls have higher self-esteem than boys,” possibly because they are less often socialized to be passive. In adulthood, black women are more likely than white women to report high self-esteem. Although they are judged by harsher performance standards in professional settings than whites, the few black women who clear that higher bar incur less backlash for acting assertively than their white counterparts. As Columbia Business School Professor Katherine Phillips notes, in some situations racist stereotypes “may actually free black women to display the kind of dominance and agentic traits that white women are proscribed from doing,” leaving them more space to exercise leadership.

These complex interactions among race, gender, and class are central both to the content of Traister’s book, which pays eloquent tribute to the leading role of black women in the resistance movements she describes, and to the audience Traister addresses. Good and Mad is largely aimed at—and has been most enthusiastically welcomed by—newly angry white women, especially liberal professionals.

I do not say this disparagingly. Women of color will find much of interest in Traister’s book, but most of it will be validation, not revelation. As Traister shows, black women have been in touch with their anger for centuries, using it to fuel struggles against social injustice. The original #MeToo movement was founded in 2006 to combat sexual assault in communities of color; women have also been the central leaders of Black Lives Matter.

Right-wing white women have been in touch with their anger for some time as well, whipped up first by opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion and then by the Tea Party. As late as 2015, surveys showed that conservative white women were the single angriest group in America.

More recently, white female liberals have begun feeling the burn. By 2018, according to a poll by Elle and SurveyMonkey, 76 percent of Democratic women, compared with 57 percent of all women, said they were angrier this year than last. Almost 70 percent of African American women reported that the news made them angry every day, but so did almost 80 percent of white women.

As Traister explains, many of these women had spent years working hard, following the rules, and patiently explaining how the rules needed changing, while trying to ride out the routine slights, insults, and harassments they hoped would end as women continued to make gains. By 2016, it seemed inevitable that one such gain would be the election of a female president.

The misogyny of the 2016 election campaign, the revelations of the second #MeToo movement, and Trump’s unexpected victory triggered the first bouts of fury many of these women had ever allowed themselves to feel, much less display. Traister does a wonderful job of simultaneously validating their rage and educating them about the struggles of women “who have never notbeen angry.” She urges white women who came late to “the resistance” not only to find role models among the activist women of color who preceded them but also to respect the additional anger many such women feel at the historical complicity of white women in racial oppression.

Traister assures women who may be taken aback by the intensity of their sudden rage that it can be a powerful tool for personal and political liberation. Her examples include the 18th-century slave Bet, later Elizabeth Freeman, whose suit for freedom in the Massachusetts courts led to the abolition of slavery there; feminist activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; temperance crusader Carrie Nation; labor organizers Clara Lemlich and Ella Reeve Bloor; and the drag queens and transwomen whose leading role in the Stonewall riots has largely been ignored. She draws especially rich portraits of black activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Florynce Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Lee, and Alicia Garza, a central founder of Black Lives Matter.

These are important lessons, and judging from the number of “you go, girl” reviews her book has garnered, they mean a lot to Traister’s readers. But once women have fully embraced our anger, it might behoove us to examine the rest of Aristotle’s thoughts on the subject. The challenge, Aristotle said, is “to be angry with the right person” (or I would add, the right things), “to the right degree … at the right time … for the right purpose, and in the right way.” As Audre Lorde later put it, anger is a powerful impetus for social change when “focused with precision,” and we need precision to distinguish between potential “allies with whom we have grave differences, and … genuine enemies.”

But as black feminist Brittney Cooper wryly admits of her own anger, even the most justified rage is not always “focused with precision.” Traister sometimes implies that every expression of anti-sexist fury is equally positive. She approvingly describes Women’s March placards showing effigies of Donald Trump’s testicles, representing him as a pile of excrement, and—one of her “favorites”—proclaiming, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.” But her most powerful examples of anger successfully furthering social justice are those where women have been focused and precise in their targets, demands, and words, sometimes to the point of containing their rage to expose the irrational fury of an opponent.

Traister rightly lauds Rosa Parks as “a lifelong furious fighter,” not just an ordinary woman too tired to move to the back of the bus that historic day in Montgomery, Alabama. At age 10, Rosa grabbed a brick to threaten a white boy who attacked her, explaining, “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’” Traister takes this as evidence that “women’s impulse to sometimes just let their fury out without a care to how it would be evaluated” is extremely “old and deep and urgent.” But the grownup Parks cared deeply how her fury would be evaluated. A disciplined activist who studied organizing strategy at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice leadership institute in Tennessee, she spent years working with the NAACP to engineer a situation where an effective legal and public-relations challenge could be mounted against segregation.

Traister says that fury is cathartic, and I agree. Swearing actually relieves physical pain, and the stronger the profanity, the better people tolerate the pain. But in medical settings, women who curse while in pain receive less attentive care than those who do not. That is sexist, for sure, but it’s something to consider if we want to recruit people to help relieve our pain. Catharsis is good, but effectiveness matters more. And as that dead white male philosopher pointed out, anger is most effective when we identify the right targets and mobilize our anger in the right way.

So at whom or what is feminist anger aimed? Traister deftly counters the claim that feminists hate men or sex. She contextualizes what have been called the excesses of the #MeToo movement, where unwanted advances, bad dates, and sexist comments have sometimes inspired as much rage as actual assaults. There are different gradations and severity of sexist behaviors, she acknowledges, and not all should incur the same repercussions. But the common thread inspiring rage is that despite all their efforts, women are still not fully respected by their colleagues, do not have the “stature, authority, and economic security” to insist upon equal treatment, and must expend all too much energy heading off or “maneuvering around” patronization and harassment.

Traister’s analysis of what has kept women from acquiring political authority and economic security is less precise, however. She identifies the source of women’s oppression as “the white patriarchy,” or elsewhere, “the capitalist patriarchal power structure.”

But America today is very different from a classical patriarchal or caste regime. Racist and patriarchal domination was once a legal entitlement. Now it is largely exercised through extralegal means, and when exposed it is often punished, even if inadequately and unevenly. Racial and gender handicaps that were once enforced by courts and police are now produced by the seemingly neutral mechanisms of cost-saving workforce decisions, profit-generating stock manipulations, “normal” supply-and-demand calculations, and regional, educational, and occupational inequalities that are no longer explicitly organized by race or gender but remain deeply deformed by their historical origins in segregation and exclusion. Think of the work rules designed for male workers who never got pregnant. Or the minority neighborhoods where for generations home values were artificially depressed; schools, infrastructures, and other public services were neglected;  and landfills or chemical plants were frequently placed nearby.

In today’s supposedly gender- and race-neutral system, some exceptionally talented or fortunate women and minorities can make it into the higher strata of economic and political life, though many barriers still confine a majority to the lower strata. Meanwhile, even as the pay gap between high- and low-wage occupations has grown, gender and racial pay gaps are now greatest in the highest-paid professions, while the lowest-paid occupations have the smallest wage gaps, according to economist John Schmitt.

It used to be that the highest-paid women and minorities typically earned less than the average-paid white man. Now they make much morethan the average white man, and much, much morethan the average female or person of color. But they make less, on average, than their equally credentialed professional counterparts. Meanwhile, factory workers (historically mostly unionized white men), who used to earn higher-than-average wages, now receive lower-than-average pay.

All this makes the social hierarchy less tidy than it used to be, producing contradictory interests and identifications that are not reducible to simplistic formulae. It also makes organizing across—and even along—class, race, and gender lines a challenge, raising hard questions about who we should be angry with at any given time, and where we might make alliances despite, in Lorde’s words, “grave differences.”

Traister argues that “the white patriarchy” pursues a conscious divide-and-rule strategy by doling out economic handouts to white women through heterosexual marriage and patriarchal privileges for men, even non-white men. But there is no central executive committee of “the white capitalist patriarchy,” however much the Federalist Society aspires to fill that role. And if such a body existed, Trump would not have been its first choice for president.

Super-wealthy individuals and corporations are not ideologically unified beyond the issue of preserving their wealth. In fact, on issues such as sexual morality, LGBTrights, gender equity, and immigration, some of the richest institutions and individuals are more liberal than most lower-income Americans. Despite lingering prejudices and a strong sense of personal entitlement, many elite white men are willing to offer equal—or near-equal—opportunities to women and people of color who are able to move into the professional class. But that’s not to say that they—orthe women and minorities who have been admitted to their ranks—are willing to tamper with the institutions from which they derive their wealth and power, even when those institutions perpetuate racial and gender inequities.

Traister’s explanation of why more married white heterosexual women vote Republican than do their single counterparts underestimates women’s own class agency and interests. Married women, she says, have been granted “proximal power: greater access, via their relation to powerful white men,” to wealth, jobs, education, and housing. The advantages their men “dole out” give these wives an incentive to protect “white male power.” Perhaps this is true for many among the top 10 percent of the population. According to a new analysis by University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, among the richest 10 percent of couples, 32 percent of wives are wholly dependent on their husbands’ incomes.

But in the two-earner families on which most Americans now rely, many women are protecting class interests of their own. The very act of getting married is increasingly an indication of a woman’s own class identity, since poorly educated, low-income women have poor marriage prospects; and once entered, marriage is important insurance against class slippage for both men and women. Among couples whose household income is $80,000 to $129,000, Cohen finds, 45 percent of wives earn 40 percent or more of the family income. Among households earning $47,000 to $79,999, 41 percent of wives earn 40 percent or more. This mutual dependence cuts two ways. It gives high-earning women, even feminists, a direct stake in protecting institutions and policies, such as lower taxes, that favor the interests of the wealthy. And it gives many men a stake in policies and reforms that protect the earnings and working conditions of their wives and daughters.

Traister concedes that angry blue-collar and rural whites have legitimate grievances, such as shrinking wages and declining social status. Unfortunately, these grievances all too often exacerbate racist and misogynist attitudes. Still, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, the phrase “white privilege” does not accurately reflect the insecurity that plagues so many working-class and rural whites, even if, on average, they remain better off than African Americans. And heightened racism is not the inescapable reaction to such insecurity. In Washington state, where I live, our almost all-white logging counties went for Obama in 2008, and again in 2012, although less enthusiastically. But in 2016, like many Obama supporters in the Rust Belt, they abandoned “hope and change” for rage and blame.

Their blame was misplaced, but their rage was understandable, because most liberal elites, including candidate Hillary Clinton, had ignored their deteriorating situation for far too long. A study of the differences among America’s ZIPcodes in the run-up to the 2016 election revealed that almost 90 percent of the country’s prosperous ZIPcodes added new jobs and businesses as the recovery from the 2008 recession accelerated between 2011 and 2015. But starting well before the recession and continuing throughout the recovery, distressed communities were losing ground. Two-thirds of the most distressed ZIPcodes saw significant decreases in jobs from 2000 to 2015, and more than 70 percent had more businesses close than open. While ZIPcodes inhabited mostly by minorities were twice as likely as predominantly white ones to be economically stressed, whites accounted for 44 percent of the more than 52 million Americans in the most distressed communities.

That’s a lot of people who also have reason to be “good and mad.” We need to think strategically about how to find common ground with such potential allies without pandering to their prejudices, how to confront opponents without alienating individuals who might eventually be won over, and how to neutralize people who don’t support all the social justice demands we embrace but might be dissuaded from endorsing the repression that others will try to mobilize against us.

Traister is right to argue that anger about injustice can be “contagious, transferrable to other contexts.” But such anger can only be caught by people not previously exposed to it when we get close enough to work or interact with them. As Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza told Traister: “I understand that the coalition that is going to save us has to be much bigger than what it is. … I’m mad as hell about a whole bunch of things, every single day. … But I want to be free more than I want to be mad. And I want to work with people who also want to be free more than they want to be mad, because maybe we will actually get to something that makes sense.”

People have ambivalent and conflicting impulses, and those can be shifted. Here’s where our female gender socialization, for all its burdens, is an advantage. Women have more experience than men at fine-tuning our emotions and managing them strategically. When we channel our anger into the strategic, focused, and collaborative activism that Traister describes in her final chapters, we can indeed be a powerful force for change. And as the 2018 midterms demonstrated, we can infect new groups of people with righteous anger.

November’s “blue wave” did not and will not wash away racial, gender, or economic injustice. But it reflected one dramatic turnaround, according to a study by Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner. In 2016, people who disapproved of sexist statements were just as likely to vote for a Republican House candidate as not. Many were evidently willing to overlook misogyny they disliked in order to gain things such as lower taxes, higher military spending, or deregulation. But this November, Schaffner notes, “less-sexist voters punished Republican House candidates in a way they did not in 2016.” The temper tantrums of Trump, Lindsey Graham, and Brett Kavanaugh may have stiffened the spine of the right-wing base, but they did not win enough new converts to offset those losses. And much of that is thanks to the aroused women who have mobilized their own anger to discredit rather than match the fury of sexists and racists.

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