Maybe you’ve been paying attention but you didn’t see all of these moments as being connected. Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, brings together these and numerous other public expressions of women’s rage into a constellation that suggests a collective unleashing of emotion not seen in American culture for decades. According to Traister, the last time the United States witnessed anything similar was in the 1970s, when feminist activists, led by such figures as Flo Kennedy, unapologetically claimed their space in the political sphere and threatened those who got in their way with a kick in the balls. After that radical and tumultuous era, feminism retreated, cloistered away in universities or repackaged into glossy neoliberal manifestos by Silicon Valley execs or female pop stars. But this all changed with the ascension of Trump, which unleashed an undeniable and cacophonous chorus of female fury.
Good and Mad uses several prisms for revealing the nuances of women’s anger in the second decade of the 21st century: the 2016 election, the women’s marches, and the #MeToo movement. Traister makes her readers revisit the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s invitation of Bill Clinton’s accusers to a presidential debate. American women naïvely assumed that there would be consequences for such actions, only to watch the offender get rewarded with the ultimate prize. Traister’s treatment of the election is less a detailed autopsy than a focused study of the percolation of women’s indignation, a building toward revolt. Not all the anger was between women and powerful men. Resentment between white women and women of color simmered, particularly African-American women, as they brought up well-founded grievances with Hillary Clinton’s past policies and statements only to be met with a lack of sympathy and accusations of divisiveness. As Traister demonstrates, unresolved racial, ethnic, and class tensions transferred to the first women’s march, the largest single-day protest in American history. Led by a diverse group of women, organization for the event was not without passionate disagreements about representation, inclusion, and solidarity. Yet rather than seeing these expressions of anger as a discredit to the march, Traister embraces them as inevitable and necessary for the hashing out of political goals, the bridging of communities.
A similar attentiveness to internal tensions characterizes Traister’s treatment of #MeToo. Like others, Traister notes the irony that a movement begun in the late ’90s by African-American activist Tarana Burke provided a banner for “exposing abusers of predominantly white women, men in white-dominated industries” in 2017. Women who weren't white, worked in low-wage jobs and were statistically more likely to experience harassment, seemed to be getting left behind, yet again. In addition to such race- and class-based power imbalances, disagreements surrounding #MeToo also revealed deep ideological rifts between feminists about sexual agency and activism tactics. In this part of the book, readers see Traister genuinely wrestle with the idea that anger is a revolutionary force because it is destructive. Speaking from her position as an established journalist, Traister admits to being afraid in the face of the “Shitty Media Men” list, uncertain about the potential destruction of her profession’s norms while knowing that these norms helped entrench gender-based discrimination and violence.
It’s hard to avoid ambivalence when it comes to reclaiming women’s fury. This is something that Hillary Clinton consciously faced in her long political career. Not surprisingly, Clinton is a key figure in Traister’s book, not only because of her role in the election but also as a case study for the double bind faced by women when they publicly express emotions. Long criticized for being too shrill, too cold, or too strategic (who can forget the debate over whether or not she cried real tears during a campaign stop in 2008), Clinton was not in a good position to win the emotional competition of the 2016 election. As Traister observes, Trump and Sanders successfully harnessed anger in their campaigns. Sanders’s expressions of ire energized his base, helping to cement his image as an honest man running a campaign not because he wanted power but because he was fed up. His yelling and finger-wagging were signs of passion and ideological commitment. Trump’s anger helped him gain an authenticity he otherwise lacked. He was able to tap into a collective anger on the right that was long cultivated by Fox News, talk radio, and the operatives behind the Tea Party. But what worked for Trump wouldn’t have worked for Clinton, Traister suggests. For women, being angry means looking fearsome while being warm means looking “unserious” and “incompetent.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Traister is not alone in writing against the stigma surrounding women’s anger. There is a veritable rage syllabus taking form, and it also includes Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger and Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. These books examine how women internalize feelings of shame about their rage and actively resist the public expression of negative emotions. For a woman, to be angry is to be irrational, hysterical, unattractive, too much. An angry woman is not a successful woman. She’s also not partner material. To be legitimate, a woman’s anger has to be translated into something else. This is a theme that Cooper opens her book with, recalling being taken aback by a student who praised her for her anger. Cooper admits to intentionally working to embrace and develop her “eloquent rage” in the face of criticism and self-consciousness. Through her conversations with Representative Barbara Lee, Traister explores the internal struggle of many professional women, especially Black women, who are motivated by outrage about social injustice, an outrage they cannot express in its raw form. As Lee explains, anger management is an exhausting lifelong project for Black women in the United States; to unleash that anger is to potentially sabotage one’s political project. However, it is precisely the objective of books like Traister’s, Cooper’s, and Chemaly’s to shift this paradigm by showing the political value of being indignant in the face of injustice. As a key text for rethinking our view of anger, all three authors cite Audre Lorde's seminal essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” In the spirit of Lorde’s essay, these contemporary books suggest that anger is not something that needs to be blunted or transformed. When the anger is righteous, in other words, not predicated on a false sense of oppression, or directed toward the marginalization of others, it can be transformative.
Traister’s book has a special message for women who are new to transformative anger, particularly white heterosexual women who have been trained to content themselves with proxy political power. Many of these women are publicly raging for the first time. They may be writing long Facebook posts or putting on their pussy hats and taking to the streets. Traister reminds these women about the danger of centering their emotions, of elbowing their way to the front of the protest march. Women who have not enjoyed indirect access to white heteropatriarchal privilege have been angry their whole lives and “white women newly awakened to rage […] have something learn [from them].” Traister reminds those who are recently woke to also learn from mistakes in the past. Good and Mad gives numerous historical examples of missed opportunities to either form or maintain bonds between white women and racial minorities in America. She brings up Susan B. Anthony’s and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist political turns after years of working with abolitionists. Another of many failures of solidarity occurred when white suffragists told abolitionist and suffragist Ida B. Wells to march with the rest of the Black women, in the back. And of course, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Feminists have much work to do in building a broad coalition and there’s no time for calls for civility, respectability politics, and, most of all, white tears.
Reading Traister’s book, one cannot help but imagine her secondhand frustration at not being able to include even more recent expressions of women’s anger, such as Serena Williams’s demand for an apology from her umpire during 2018’s U.S. Open, which yet again reopened the conversation about the extra tax Black women pay for showing emotion in public ($17,000 and a shot at another title in Williams’s case). On an even larger scale, the accusations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have reopened an old, Anita Hill–shaped wound, bringing women’s rage to a new decibel level.
The night before Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, women on social media complained of not being able to sleep because of their anger, and then reeled from a rage hangover the day after. Perhaps the most powerful image of women’s fury at this political horror show is that of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher holding open Jeff Flake’s elevator and demanding that he look them in the eye while they speak about being sexually violated. The contrast between these women’s voices — so loud and clear in their demands — and Kavanaugh’s tantrum-cum-testimony, his belligerent lament at the prospect of not getting one of the highest appointments in the land, couldn’t be sharper. This time, white male rage won. Kavanaugh got the job and with it the power to make decisions about women’s bodies. But now, more than ever, women’s anger shows no sign of abating. Still, for it to be more than a zeitgeist, but a sustainable force against white male supremacy, more work needs to be done.
As Traister reminds readers, women are not a minority but a “subjugated majority.” Countless possibilities for mutual misunderstanding and conflict come with that. But the potential for sustaining a collective, productive, righteous rage that helps bring about systemic change is there. As the title of Traister’s book suggests, being good or being mad is a false dilemma. If we want to usher in a post-Trump era, we have to be both.
Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer, editor and lecturer at Santa Clara University.