By Kathryn McKenzie
Women are told from an early age that it’s not ladylike to be angry, and yet, says feminist writer Rebecca Traister, anger can be a powerful weapon when yielded in the right way — and it does make people sit up and listen.
Just witness what’s been on display lately: the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings … and the outcome of the recent midterm elections.
Traister, a columnist for New York magazine, frequent CNN commentator, and author of the recent book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Female Anger,” will be in Monterey this Friday to speak at the sold-out Roe v. Wade Luncheon hosted by Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. Her book weaves together past and present, looking at American women, propelled by righteous rage, who have made a difference.
Traister took a few moments from her busy book tour schedule to answer emailed questions on the subject.
Kathryn McKenzie: As you point out in your recent book, “Good and Mad,” there have been breakouts of feminine power and energy throughout American history. Does what is going on right now feel different, though, like women are finally being taken seriously?
Rebecca Traister: I think previous generations of women have also been taken seriously, or rather had a serious impact on our laws, structures and institutions, so I don’t think it’s the seriousness of this moment that sets it apart from other points in history. Consider that angry women’s activism and organizing was key to the abolition of slavery, the winning of the vote, for some women in 1920 via the 19th Amendment and for others in 1965 via the Voting Rights Act, the development of the labor movement and implementation of workplace safety regulations and humane workweeks.
I think what’s different about this iteration of women’s anger is the internal, conscious struggle to make the movement more inclusive and expansive, to ensure that it does not become dominated only by white middle-class women, which is something that has happened in the past.
That kind of struggle within a progressive movement is extremely difficult, but necessary if we’re to ensure that this iteration of the women’s movement is stronger and more durable, built on a realer (often very hard-won) kind of solidarity and communication that past iterations haven’t been. I think that it is where we have the opportunity to make this moment different from the past.
KM: What exactly sparked the idea for this book? And what do you hope it accomplishes for those who read it?
RT: I decided to write it in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when I felt that I was so angry that I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t figure out what my responsibilities were as a feminist journalist, as a white feminist, moving into a Trump administration. I said to my husband in passing that I couldn’t think clearly because I was so furious and he suggested, casually, that I try writing about the anger itself. It was such a revelatory suggestion: the idea that I could look directly at my rage, not try to move away from it, and as soon as I considered it, I realized that it wasn’t an obstructive or clouding force, rather that anger — at injustice — could be a clarifying lens.
I mostly hope that those who read the book will look and listen to those around them differently, will gain a sense of the patterns all around us every day: the ones that depict angry women as unstable or hysterical or unserious, that suggest that women of color who are angry are threatening or monstrous, that instead we begin to listen to the angry voices around us and think about what’s making people angry — to begin to treat the anger of vulnerable and marginalized people as instructive, diagnostic.
KM: For you personally, was there any one incident or “aha moment” that made you realize what the power of female anger could accomplish?
RT: There was a column that I wrote several years ago, in 2014, while I was pregnant and furious about a professional situation, in which I didn’t bother to cover up how angry I was in my writing, as I typically might have, with jokes or calm prose. I was just livid on the page, about some Supreme Court decisions, about news stories that had broken that week. I wrote this blazingly angry column.
I couldn’t believe my editor let me publish it as it was. But it went viral. And it was a very instructive moment for me, the realization that anger didn’t have to simply be divisive or destructive or alienating: the expression of anger could reach people and be connective. It’s not like after that I started being angry all the time in public, but it was a real shock to see a very angry piece of writing so warmly embraced, to see for the first time my own anger being treated as legitimate and clarifying.
KM: You told another interviewer in 2017 that the #MeToo movement was fragile and in danger of collapse. Do you still see signs of that happening at this point? Is it continuing to grow or has the backlash stifled it?
RT: I don’t remember calling it fragile and in danger of collapse, but maybe I did! I think any mass movement of women, especially in response to the misogynistic power of men, is delicate — and this is really crucial to why we don’t have women’s movements all the time, and what’s really hard about them: because they ask us to identify as our oppressors some people to whom we have intimate personal ties.
An uprising against the abuse of sexual power, often but not exclusively by men, is so rare because it means turning a critical eye on our partners, our husbands, our fathers, our sons, our friends and colleagues and brothers and that is extremely hard to do; these are often people on whom women are emotionally and economically dependent, whom we love very much. And so it is always combustible, always hard.
But given the difficulty of these kinds of conversations and revelations, I have been surprised from the start by #MeToo’s durability. I couldn’t believe it when the conversation post-Weinstein kept rolling, for days and then weeks and then months. And more than a year later, we’re seeing explosive reporting about Les Moonves, Bryan Singer, and the absolutely horrifying and important documentary about R. Kelly. Backlash, I have learned, doesn’t always come in these big cresting waves. We swim in it — remember, the election of Donald Trump was itself a part of a backlash to the election of a black president and presumed election of a woman president.
So I guess I’ve stopped worrying so much about there being a hard stop to what’s happening now, and getting better at seeing this as a constant process of progress and regress, leaps forward and the hard and punishing forces of resistance and punishment.
KM: Controlling women’s reproductive rights has obviously been high on the Trump administration’s to-do list. It’s hard to imagine going back to the days before Roe v. Wade, but do you think there’s a real possibility that it could be overturned?
RT: Yes, there is a possibility that it will be overturned, but remember that for many years, even as Roe has held, abortion has become all but inaccessible in vast portions of this country, and since 1976 has been all but inaccessible to millions of poor Americans. The right wing’s desire to curtail women’s ability to make choices about their lives, bodies, families and economic futures has taken a toll in state after state after state.
So for me the crucial question isn’t even just about Roe, though of course its overturn would be catastrophic: but so many people are already living with catastrophe, unable to exert reproductive autonomy — and also, of course, to make the kinds of fair wages, have access to housing, medical care, education and social services that make real choice about whether and when to have families a reality.
KM: I know from Wikipedia that you have two daughters, but don’t know how old they are. Are they of an age that you can talk to them about these issues, and what do you tell them? Are you raising them with the idea that they don’t have to repress their anger?
RT: I am raising them with the idea that they should listen carefully to the anger of those around them, to take it seriously, and be curious about what it is that people are angry about, and what it might show them about the work ahead of all of us to make the world more just for more people.
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