Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger was published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster.
The Beauty of Rage in the Time of Trump
Feminism and the Intersectional Politics of Anger
The Sound of Feminist Fury
All the Rage: The Importance—and the Limitations—of Harnessing a Rising Force
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
The Beauty of Rage in the Time of Trump
By chance, I happened to begin reading Soroya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her on the day the nation was treated to a full-frontal display of white male anger in response to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she had been sexually assaulted by Judge (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh. Read against this backdrop, Chemaly’s introductory discussion regarding the gendering of rage felt prophetic. As she writes, while anger in women is “openly reviled” and commonly associated with madness (at least in a Western context), where white men are concerned, “anger is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic.” And thus, while sharply at odds with acceptable female behavior, “anger and masculinity are powerfully entwined and reinforce one another.”
That Chemaly is onto something crucial here was driven home by an article in the New York Times titled “The ‘Tight Rope’ of Testifying While Female,” in which author Jessica Bennett notes how closely Blasey Ford hewed to the gender script demanded of women who “speak up (or speak at all).” Thus, while she sought to persuade the world of her truth by “maintaining ultimate composure,” Kavanaugh sought to persuade the world of his through a display of anger. Underscoring Chemaly’s point, Bennett notes that the hearing “was like years of academic research on display in real time in which women who express anger will be dismissed as hysterical but men who express anger are perceived as ‘passionate’ about the job.”
Centered around this core visceral truth about the gendered nature of anger, Rage Becomes Her is a timely and important book. Its immediacy is evident when it points to the #MeToo movement as “a turning point in how willing women are to admit their anger”; to the outpouring of “collective anger” in response to Donald Trump’s “carnival of misogyny,” as punctuated by his pussy-grabbing boast and his “blood coming out of her whatever” ridiculing of Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly; and to the catalytic female anger behind Black Lives Matter.
Chemaly goes well beyond the revelations of the #MeToo movement and Trump’s expressions of disgust over women’s leaky bodies to drive home the message that we are not living in anything remotely resembling a postfeminist world despite, as she notes, the fact that 56 percent of American men believe sexism has been eliminated. Drawing on a wide range of studies (on issues such as self-objectification and surveillance, the medical disregard of women’s pain, wage and caretaking inequalities, gendered violence, and the stubborn persistence of the separate-spheres ideology), she carefully documents the “drip, drip, drip” of gendered injustices that women regularly experience, injustices that are commonly compounded for women of color by linked acts of racial discrimination. Chemaly thus rhetorically asks, “Hands up if you think women aren’t storing up their anger at being told, in millions of small ways, that we should follow the rules, shut up and be grateful for what they are given.”
Rage Becomes Her certainly succeeds in exposing the litany of sexist practices that remain deeply embedded in our everyday landscapes and in linking this “drip, drip, drip” to a simmering rage that women have been conditioned to deny or shape-shift into sadness. It is thus a powerful and important book—whose impact is likely to be magnified by a prescient timeliness.
Nonetheless, I found myself troubled by certain aspects of the book. First, at times the pace was somewhat maddening—it’s almost as if Chemaly has held in so much rage that once she decided to “throw words” (rather than the plates her mother threw in silent anger), example after example came tumbling out without pause or explanation. Although one might contend that there is a sheer raw power in this pacing, I found that some of the critical injustices she writes about, such as the dire underrepresentation of women in peace negotiations, were lost in the forest of gendered wrongs.
My primary concerns, however, are with the book’s ahistorical and sometimes essentializing tendencies. After discussing the deeply corrosive nature of the “drip, drip, drip” of sexist practices and misogynistic views, Chemaly asks, seemingly if it were a novel idea, “but what if we turned off the faucet?” Although perhaps her intent is simply to shake folks out of a kind of postfeminist miasma, taking aim at gender equality is hardly a novel idea, and the book fails to acknowledge the battles that feminists have boldly and angrily waged across time and place. Further, and somewhat related, although Chemaly frequently deploys an intersectional lens, she does not escape essentialist trap of, at times, assuming a unitary and fixed notion of womanhood. I thus found myself recoiling at phrases such as “women live their lives trying to create bodies of deference” or “young ladies are taught to be ‘reserved’” or “as women, we are continuously told to live in a world shaped by or for men, without complaining or demanding,” which serve to flatten the reality of women’s complex, richly varied, and often highly rebellious lives to a singular truth.
Ultimately, however, Chemaly succeeds in driving home the message that we are not well served by remaining precariously perched on the tightrope of a normative femininity. Faced with staring down a president who has openly broadcast his views of women’s bodies as both disgusting and rightful objects of his desire, she hits the nail on the head—our rage does indeed become us.
Shoshanna Ehrlich is a professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her interdisciplinary scholarship addresses the legal regulation of sexuality and reproduction, with a particular focus on access to abortion and the reproductive rights of young women. Her books include Who Decides? The Abortion Rights of Minors and Regulating Desire: From the Virtuous Maiden to the Purity Princess, and a coauthored book titled “Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom” is forthcoming. She speaks widely on these topics both nationally and internationally and collaborates with a number of organizations working on reproductive rights issues.
Feminism and the Intersectional Politics of Anger
I began reading Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger the week of Brett Kavanaugh’s second appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like so many other feminists, I found Kavanaugh’s bellicose and evasive performance utterly infuriating, and I was incensed by Republicans’ sputtering indignation that he had to address the accusations at all (here’s looking at you, Lindsey Graham). It was equally enraging to watch how cool and careful Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar had to be when questioning a red-faced, livid Kavanaugh, while Republicans simultaneously belittled the fury of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher (the women who relentlessly confronted Senator Jeff Flake in that elevator) and the other angry activists who jammed Senate offices and galleries. And then there was Donald Trump’s vicious mockery of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during a campaign rally. Don’t even get me started.
Chemaly’s book promises to make sense of these dynamic moments of public anger and is written as a manifesto for women who want to develop their “anger competence.” As part of the avalanche of calls for women to embrace their anger in the Trump/#MeToo era, this book builds on psychological studies to convince its readers that women’s anger is normal, natural, and necessary. Chemaly in fact spends much of each chapter exploring familiar feminist reasons why women should be angry: sexual harassment, gender-based violence, the “caring mandate,” “benevolent sexism,” and the thousand other ways that masculine entitlement imposes profound costs on women and girls. The kicker, Chemaly notes early in the book, is that when women express entirely rational anger about these forms of mistreatment, they are subjected to powerful gender policing, beginning at dishearteningly young ages. A publicly angry woman is viewed as a “gender violation,” and angry girls and women are dismissed, gaslighted, threatened, and/or harmed. (See especially her fascinating if depressing chapter on gender discrimination deniers.) The added salt in the wound is that if women suppress their anger, according to Chemaly, studies show they suffer increased physical and mental health problems. Voilà, a classic feminist dilemma: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Given the complex and high stakes of public anger for women, what should angry women in this political moment do? Chemaly’s answer in her final chapter is undoubtedly enticing: “Be brave,” she counsels her readers; “liberate” your anger and cultivate “a rage of your own.” “Refuse to play by the rules” that label angry men as rational and powerful and angry women as bitches; instead, “stand up for yourself and hold the communities and institutions you are part of accountable,” but do make sure you keep your anger “controlled.” Along the way, “trust other women” and quit unduly policing their anger. Finally, understand that, “reenvisioned, anger can be the most feminine of virtues: compassionate, fierce, wise, and powerful.” “All we have to do is to ‘own it.’”
I appreciate how appealing it is to think that if millions of women could simply get angry, serious feminist change would finally happen. But I find the be-a-shero and just-do-it character of Chemaly’s closing advice jarring, especially given her keen insights into the high costs of doing so. Elsewhere she acknowledges that the policing of women’s anger has never been uniform and that Black, Latina, and Asian women have faced racist assumptions about their anger, as well as harsher penalties than white women. She also mentions elsewhere that poor women often cannot risk public anger if it means the loss of a much-needed job or other source of support. Chemaly’s call to action at the end, however, sometimes reads as if women just need to show more personal grit (“be brave,” “own it”). Her proposals also seductively frame women as ideally autonomous and in control, as capable of individually cultivating, managing, and communicating their personal anger.
Holloway Sparks is a political theorist and a scholar of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies who writes about the racialized and gendered politics of political dissent. She teaches at Georgia State University and Agnes Scott College, and is a Visiting Research Scholar for the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Project at Emory University’s School of Law in Atlanta
As alluring as Chemaly’s vision might sound to some feminists, I worry that it helps cast anger as an individual feeling to be harnessed and managed instead of the fundamentally collective, public, and power-laden practice that it is. Successful performances of anger are never private, never under anyone’s control, and definitely not available to everyone on an equal opportunity basis. Talking as if women today can single-handedly “refuse to play by the rules” avoids the hard collective work necessary to mitigate the costs and dangers to marginalized people when they do exhibit public rage. Advising women to work individually on their own anger competence can discount the long history of struggles over public anger that activist women and especially women of color have waged. (On this point, see the recent books by Rebecca Traister and Brittney Cooper.) The expression of public political anger by feminists and others is not a new phenomenon, and there is much we can learn from history and especially political movements to add to the psychological perspective that Chemaly takes up.
Like Chemaly, I am all in favor of cultivating more public anger on behalf of feminist causes.
I worry, however, that the perspective she adopts does not focus enough attention on what I have elsewhere called the “intersectional politics of public anger.” This framework centers not women’s anger but the collective, intertwined, and historically specific processes of gendering, racialization, and other forms of differentiation that make some public performances of anger far more powerful than others. This intersectional perspective avoids essentialist assumptions that women’s anger will be deployed for progressive causes, which the surge of conservative women’s activism today belies, or that men’s anger will always be in service of heterosexist projects. It also reveals ways that feminists and their allies can navigate and hopefully leverage the politics of anger while simultaneously being attentive to complex dynamics of racialization, empire, class, ability, sexual privilege, and more. This perspective, finally, constantly reminds us that anger as a political practice or strategy can never “belong” solely to the Left, however righteous we feel our causes are.
The Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Trump’s campaign rallies, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter activism, pro-immigrant protests, and any number of other recent political struggles have confirmed the essential role that public anger plays in the political world we currently occupy. On this, Chemaly and I agree: we cannot and should not disavow public anger, particularly not in favor of some sedate notion of civility. Instead, our struggles to define, inhabit, and “do” anger are a vital and necessary part of democratic politics that feminists absolutely must take up, together.
Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage
The Sound of Feminist Fury
Soraya Chemaly’s timely tome extinguishes the gaslight that Donald Trump’s administration and its accomplices have weaponized in an attempt to manipulate and immobilize the American public. Although her ode to righteous feminist rage gives voice to the significance of women’s anger as a general principle, it also emboldens readers with affirmation in a time of alienation. Coincidentally, it was released in close proximity to the “most dangerous country to be a woman in the world” list on which the US garnered the depressingly high rank of tenth, making the book both an archive of one of the most pivotal moments of our lifetime and an urgent call to action.
From discussing how to combat toxic silencing and victim blaming within our “gaslight nation” to exploring women’s roles in being “systems-justifying,” Chemaly’s treatise on the power and possibility of anger tells us that misogyny is even more nonsensical and hysterical than the lies it tells us about ourselves. Moreover, she explores the causes of the alienation and shame sexism deploys to cast doubt on our personal and collective truths. She highlights how “unfairness and facts aren’t what provoke anger, people like me who point them out do.” These people are reviled and alienated not only by men but also by women who “fear that discrimination is real and that violence is not something they can control by following the rules.”
Chemaly’s striking recollection of witnessing her mother wordlessly tossing dishes out of the kitchen window when Chemaly was a girl, positioned in contrast to Chemaly’s expression of her own anger through “throw[ing] words,” moved me. She enlivened an adage I had heard Gloria Steinem say at the Women’s Media Center, where Chemaly and I have both worked: “You have to name it to change it.”
By assigning validity and value to women’s right to access the full spectrum of human emotions and providing tools for wielding our anger in the service of transformation, Chemaly delivers a field guide for how to govern ourselves with the compass of our own moral fury in a posttruth landscape.
In a climate where women who dare to assert themselves in the face of abuse are often chastised for our lack of “civility” or for representing “#MeToo gone too far” (by both malevolent and benevolent patriarchs on all sides of the aisle), she offers a textual consciousness-raising group with a nonjudgmental but no-nonsense voice of accountability.
Through deliberate research, poignant observations, and clear calls to action, Chemaly’s manifesto inspires readers to believe in our righteous indignation, embrace our feminist fury, and rise above the din of denial and delusion. Despite the tumultuous times we’re living in, watching Chemaly band together with Brittney Cooper (Eloquent Rage) and Rebecca Traister (Good and Mad) to champion the potential of women’s outrage gives me hope that intersectional feminists lifting our voices together can result in a reverberating roar of change.
Jamia Wilson is the director and publisher of the Feminist Press. Wilson is the author of the children's book Young, Gifted, and Black and the oral history presented in the book Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard around the World, and she is the coauthor of Roadmap for Revolutionaries: Advocacy for All. She is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and will be releasing her next title for young readers, “Step into Your Power: 21 Lessons on How to Live Your Best Life,” in March 2019.
All the Rage: The Importance—and the Limitations—of Harnessing a Rising Force
“I wish I’d been able to read this when I was younger” has long been a wistful refrain of contemporary feminist writing. I’ve voiced it when writing blurbs for recent books about sex and media literacy and youth activism. I’ve been on the other end of it as well; over the last twenty-plus years, in phone calls and e-mails and in person, women have told me how much the magazine I cofounded could have helped inoculate them against media culture’s vectors of dissatisfaction, body dysmorphia, slut shaming, and more. And as someone who has an unkillable, Pollyannaish belief in reading as the most foundational way to know who you are and who you want to become, when I walk around bookstores and see the breadth of fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, and poetry readily available to young people of all genders, I instantly transform into a Jewish grandmother kvelling with pride at the wise generations to come.
And yet, had someone handed me a book that could have changed my own unhappy, self-loathing, tongue-tied teen-girl life—a book like Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger—I don’t know that I would have looked twice at it. I didn’t see myself as angry, didn’t identify anger as the wild-running weed at the root of my fractured self-esteem, withdrawal from my family, impulsive drug taking, and lengthy escapist naps. I didn’t have what Chemaly names “anger competence”—the ability to identify and understand one’s anger, claim it as valid, and engage it as a useful tool.
Like Chemaly, a writer and women’s media advocate whose work I’ve followed for more than a decade, I understand how weird it is to be an avowed feminist who didn’t embrace anger until the age of thirty or so. Or maybe it isn’t weird at all: when you align yourself with a social movement historically associated with unhinged, irrational, bloody-minded fury, fear of confirmation bias often leads to overcorrection. I remember, early on in my career, a family member praising an essay I’d written for its lack of “stridency” (a word whose indelible genderedness is second only to “luncheon”) and comparing it to an “angrier” piece by one of my colleagues. I cringe now at the flicker of pride I felt at the compliment, not simply because I recognize it as a classic example of tone policing but because I should have had the words to point out that anyone writing toward justice while not being a white man has to do so with the knowledge that even one sentence glazed with bitterness or distress will brand them as too mad to be taken seriously.
Rage Becomes Her is, above all, an acknowledgment of exactly that phenomenon: the reality that women, particularly women of color, not only pay steep prices for showing anger but also find myriad behaviors and emotions—assertiveness, ambition, and advocacy, among others—interpreted by others as anger even when it isn’t. The book’s explorations of rage in the contexts of motherhood, of work, of education, of harassment and rape brim with data and statistics, ticking off a list of the many things women cannot be angry about without facing consequences and measuring the toll this takes on their lives. Each chapter could be titled “Holy Crap, Can You Fucking Believe This Shit?” and be completely accurate.
Chemaly gives voice to two realities that effectively colonize women’s minds from a young age: 1) that proactivity and self-advocacy—for our bodies and minds, our competence and potential, our autonomy and opinions—will be read as anger; and 2) that any outward expression of justifiable anger will be used to invalidate them. “By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’” Chemaly writes, “we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.” Nowhere is this clearer than inside the panopticon of #MeToo, where women who show indignation about their treatment at the hands of powerful media moguls are dismissed as unstable and doxed on Twitter while the media-approved silence of “good” victims allows perpetrators to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves. Chemaly notes the layers of self-surveillance, for instance, in Uma Thurman’s 2017 statement about Harvey Weinstein (“I have learned that when I’ve spoken in anger, I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry. And when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say”) as a neon-lit example of “the awareness we all have of how easily and quickly our fury, if expressed, can be twisted against us.”
During the run-up to the 2016 election, I rolled my eyes at the number of mostly white women who giddily cheered the reframing of Donald Trump’s ridiculous “nasty woman” comment as a battle cry not just for Hillary Clinton but for all women. It seemed like a kind of epigrammatic bra burning, and just as much of a myth: How many of the women rushing to buy “Nasty Woman” T-shirts on Etsy or getting the phrase tattooed on them were pushing back on the quotidian expectations and strictures of their workplaces and families, much less addressing the broader landscape of injustice? But examining my inclination toward snark helped me realize that accepting and embracing anger is often a later point on a trajectory that includes earlier proxies for rage found within media and popular culture—a fascination with true-crime stories of women killing their abusive husbands or families, an inclination toward horror movies about vengeful female ghosts, a passion for reading historical accounts of witchcraft. Nasty women and, later, women who “nevertheless persisted” embraced those slogans because both held out a sense of permission, whether or not actual nastiness and persistence proved transformative to them personally.
Though Chemaly is an advocacy journalist more than she is a polemicist, Rage Becomes Her is infused with a kind of wholesome rage evangelicalism, ending with a ten-point plan for developing anger competence and deploying it constructively. But in a time when women’s anger is on the ascent both in politics and in the marketplace—Rage Becomes Her is one of four new books specifically about women and anger, including Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, and Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up—its assumption of women’s anger as a net positive on the side of autonomy and progress might be a bit naive. What of the anger we regularly see expressed by women who aren’t on “our” team—the Ann Coulters, the Dana Loesches, the anti-abortion faction pissed that feminism won’t “let” them into Women’s Marches? Ascribing their ire to angry white husbands (often standard operating procedure) divests such women of their own autonomy, especially when we assume they are redirecting anger stemming from the sexism, discrimination, and abuse they themselves have faced. It’s alluring to see Rage Becomes Her, and the larger cultural cheerleading for women’s fury, as a glorious beacon of much-needed progress. But entwined with the history of righteous, justice-minded female anger is an equal volume that intentionally aligns with sexism, with racism, with entrenched beliefs about who deserves power and freedom. It seems like an especially dangerous time to assume that a regressive female anger, equal in its force, will not reach its own boiling point.
Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of the books Feminism and Pop Culture and We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
There is nothing easy about anger, and particularly women’s anger. The topic, like the emotion, generates profound discomfort. One of my objectives in writing Rage Becomes Her was to help women move from a predominantly debilitating understanding of the emotion to one that is liberating. Basically, I am sick and tired of the women I know, many of whom do what Robin Morgan calls “trauma work”—activists, antiviolence advocates, antiracist leaders, feminist academics—being sick and tired. I set out to try to provide a language and framework for rethinking how our socialization around this specific emotion contributed to unhealthy patterns of behavior—personally, professionally, and politically. The call to develop “anger competence,” as I put it, was meant to encourage this shift in thinking.
I agree with Holloway Sparks that it is appealing to think that if millions of women could get righteously angry, feminist change would magically take place, but I also agree with her that it is unrealistic to imagine that this will happen. If Sparks found the final chapter of the book, a conclusion providing advice to women about how to develop anger competence, “jarring” as a reader, it also felt somewhat jarring to me to write! I am adamantly in agreement with Sparks, and hoped that this would be clear in the book, that urging women as individuals to change their behavior is not the answer. In fact, this neoliberal “self-help” mantra is one I openly condemn, self-help being something we do when our society is not sufficiently caring for us. However, I do believe that in order for women to act collectively, to find or build joyful productive communities and engage in political change, many have to come to name the anger in themselves.
I was heartened by Jamia Wilson’s assessment, therefore, of the book as a useful counterbalance to the personal and political alienation we increasingly see in our culture. In times of political tumult, women’s public anger is often given more leeway only to again be set aside or disdained in a time of restabilization. I am hopeful that the consciousness raising performed by this book, as well as by Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, will have the long-term effect of stemming the tide of such a backlash—a reversion to “normal” again meaning less respect for women’s justifiable rage and the information it contains.
Writing this book, as Shoshanna Ehrlich accurately points out, meant having to address the broadest spectrum of readers, many of whom may not have a grounding in feminist intellectual traditions. The effect, as she says, is at times essentializing and begs the question, foremost in feminist thought, of what being a woman means. My intent was not to suggest that there is a unitary or fixed notion of womanhood but rather to indicate areas of women’s lives in which there is almost certainly experiential overlap, as in, for example, having to navigate masculinity and male violence. Women’s experiences of life, and oppression, are infinitely complex and diverse, but I believe it is fair to say that being identified as non-men or nonmasculine is a meaningful similarity in our lives.
That being said, there are also many differences in regards to women’s responses to injustice and their anger in particular. Like Andi Zeisler, I would not, when I was a much younger woman, have thought of myself as angry or even have been able to say the words, “I am full of rage.” Her description of the colonization of girls’ and women’s minds and imaginations captures how I felt writing the book. It takes many of us our whole lives to admit to how we feel. Like Zeisler, I also have deep skepticism both about the efflorescence of messages that anger is all good—a kind of superficial expression of rage, or pop rage—and about the even more dangerous rage of the Right. If I have one regret about the book, it is not having sufficiently delved into what I think of as the anger of aggrieved entitlement. I touch on this in two chapters—one on denial and one on silencing—primarily in terms of exploring why anyone would justify their own inequality. I didn’t, however, use clear enough examples of what women’s angry authoritarianism means. Zeisler is spot on in identifying the thin treatment I gave this anger—the anger of resentment. It is a powerful and global force that was deserving of more detailed discussion and thought.
Lastly, what an honor to be included in this series. I am so grateful for the time these writers took to read Rage Becomes Her and to think about what it means.
Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She is the director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project. She writes and speaks regularly about gender, media, tech, education, women's rights, sexual violence, and free speech. Her work appears in a variety of media including Time, the Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic.