Critic

The Hysterical, Unhinged, Righteous, Necessary Force of Female Rage

Rebecca Traister’s latest book, Good and Mad, makes the case for honoring the anger of women everywhere.

The Hysterical, Unhinged, Righteous, Necessary Force of Female Rage

Rebecca Traister’s latest book, Good and Mad, makes the case for honoring the anger of women everywhere.

Illustration: Tara Booth

Illustration: Tara Booth

I am an Angry Woman and proud of it.

By outing myself, I’m jeopardizing my career—when women express anger at work, they lose status, wages, and are viewed as less competent, research has found. I also risk coming off as unlikable, a scold, hysterical, and unhinged. And I can expect even more men, unsolicited, to tell me to smile.

But after reading Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Simon & Schuster, $27), I’m convinced that the benefits of publicly owning my feelings outweigh it all. And, no matter your gender, you should feel that way, too.

The book is largely an aggregation of rage over the past two years, from the 2016 election through #MeToo up to the midterm races that are happening right now. History has a habit of erasing female anger, Traister argues. Fuming hot ire is the necessary and righteous fuel for igniting radical social change: It drove the suffragists, labor rights organizers, second wave feminists, and civil rights activists to push for the right to vote, humane working conditions, reproductive rights, and racial equality under the law.

But when we think of Rosa Parks or Susan B. Anthony, we think of gentle, smiling folk heroes in soft focus. Their anger and others’ is diminished, negated, or, even worse, demonized, despite its often necessary role in positive change. That dampening keeps the power of female anger in check, because we’ve seen what happens when it gets out of control—massive, disruptive social revolutions. “It had become clear that I needed to work swiftly to capture this rebellion before its sharp, spiky contours got retroactively smoothed and flattened by time,” Traister writes.

And she was right. That softening had already started to happen. Traister reminded me of so many moments of disgust I’ve had over the past two years that had receded into the depths of my brain to make room for more pressing infuriating things. She reminded me about powerful men in my own industry who harassed women out of their jobs and careers. She reminded me about the avalanche of sexist remarks male pundits made about female politicians during the election and after. And she reminded me that some of those same men also, allegedly, harassed women at work.

Demonstrators march to Grand Park during the second annual Women’s March in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2018.
Photographer: Dania Maxwell

Reading about those moments was physically enraging—and that’s the point. Traister wants women to hold on to the feelings of the past two years and not feel shame. Because our anger has already led to positive change. #MeToo has forced companies to oust harassers and take a look at their policies and cultures. Record numbers of women ran for office and are winning their primaries. Our anger has been a force for good. “The task,” she writes, “is to keep going.”

Women are often told the contrary. Study after study has found that men are admired for their anger, while women, especially women of color, are seen as “out of control.” We saw this play out on a national stage just last month when Serena Williams got chastised and fined for expressing herself during the U.S. Open. For many women, this double standard is a regular occurrence.

But Traister knows that not all women have the privilege of openly expressing their anger. Just look at Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee was a case study in female composure. At times she was even apologetic, even as she described her alleged sexual assault. Contrast that with Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, who yelled and got physically upset in his nearly hourlong opening remarks. Traister spends a lot of the book analyzing incidents like that—the ways women contort themselves to avoid showing their true feelings. Or more often, the times women get angry.

Ultimately there isn’t a satisfying answer for what women should do when we’re put in impossible situations. For some, their anger will hurt them. Black women, studies have found, are particularly penalized and at risk of gross stereotyping. Some women have already lost their jobs for protesting the president.

Traister doesn’t encourage her readers to get openly angry. But she does optimistically think that if more people take female rage seriously, things can change. For men, that means honoring female anger just as much as we honor the anger of disaffected men. For women, it means honoring other women’s anger and, most important, your own. So, join me and scream.