Rebecca Traister’s ‘Good and Mad’ reminds us that women’s anger can be a catalyst for revolution
“Sometimes it feels like being a woman is a long slow process of swallowing your anger until it poisons you and you die,” Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong recently tweeted. Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, shows us what happens when women unswallow that anger.
Traister’s book, which is available Tuesday, traces the lineage of women’s anger in the United States and how that rage has made political impact in the nation. We saw that anger in action in the late 1960s when the Jane Collective helped roughly 11,000 women have safe abortions in a pre-Roe v. Wade world. And there it was again in 2015 when Bree Newsome climbed South Carolina Statehouse’s flagpole and ripped down the Confederate flag. In 2018, we saw it bubble on Twitter, when Sarah Chadwick, a 16-year-old survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, angrily pressed President Donald Trump for gun control. As Traister notes in her book, shortly after tweeting Trump, Chadwick issued a carefully worded apology that said, “I am apologizing for my comment but not for my anger.”
“Nobody treats women’s anger as politically meaningful,” Traister said in an interview with Mic. “Part of my privilege was having publishers who wanted to publish 300 pages about anger — not just mine, but other women.”
In Good and Mad, Traister uses historical analysis and interviews with feminist thought leaders, activists and high-ranking female politicians like Gloria Steinem, #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza and California Rep. Barbara Lee to demonstrate that anger is and has always been a necessary catalyst for change for America’s marginalized communities.
“What becomes clear, when we look to the past with an eye to the future,” Traister writes in the book, “is that the discouragement of women’s anger — via silencing, erasure and repression — stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”
Mic recently spoke to Traister about how women have been mad as hell for a very long time, and why it’s in our best interest to stop ignoring that. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mic: Would you characterize the book as a response to the election of President Donald Trump?
Rebecca Traister: I had already felt during the campaign this sort of backlash of anger coming from Trump voters, anger in the United States, anger about cultural stuff — it wasn’t all about Hillary Clinton or Trump or anything — but the fury of the men’s rights activists, the fury about Ghostbusters, the anger at identity politics coming from the right and within the left. I felt we were in the midst of backlash to an Obama presidency and an era in which you were seeing more cultural and pop cultural inclusion. Some of those themes are certainly things that wind up in this book about women’s anger, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that the book as a whole is purely in response to the election of Donald Trump. The shape that it’s taken is certainly a story that winds around the election of Donald Trump, which is an explosive narrative turning point.
But without having thought about it as a book of anger, I was definitely thinking about backlash, which of course is a form of anger and resentment.
With this book you make the case, via historical and personal anecdotes, that the interplay between women and anger and politics isn’t a post-2016 phenomenon like so many election post-mortems would have us believe. You reclaim and resituate female fury into America’s historical timeline. Why was that so important to you?
RT: Because I think there are so many systemic ways in which the expression of women’s anger is suppressed. In some cases, it’s deeply unconsciously and, in some cases, it’s politically useful to have it suppressed because it’s disruptive and it has the potential to mess up the power structure. One of the reasons that we’re recognizing it as a post-2016 thing is because we kind of can’t deny it. There were millions of women marching; there were women running to airports; there are women screaming in the back of the Kavanaugh hearings; there was #MeToo. It’s sort of impossible to behave as if this anger isn’t here, so it’s sort of forced into acknowledgment right now. Part of the reason that I so badly wanted to situate it historically is to point out that it’s always been there and it has frequently been politically and socially catalytic, but that we have been urged to look away from it or not consider it as serious. That seems really important to me because even now as we acknowledge women’s anger is important we’re still not necessarily understanding it as politically viable and valid.
I knew that women’s anger was not just crucial to the way social movements had changed the country, [but] in many cases it was the catalytic seeds in them. I mean those Lowell Mill Girls walking out of their jobs in the 1830s? That is really important to the labor movement, but we don’t think of the labor movement as a movement of angry women. They are using the language borrowed from revolutionary rhetoric that we always credit as politically transformative — that’s our founding narrative — the Lowell Mill Girls are using that same language about the working conditions and their rights and their freedoms. The same is true of course of the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement — Mamie Till and Rosa Parks, and the women of color who were so catalytic to the Stonewall riots. Often we think of the gay rights movement which, by many measures, originated in this eruptive moment at Stonewall, as being a white man’s movement. We erased women’s anger as the fuel that in many cases ignited these social movements. Or, if we haven’t erased it, we haven’t looked at it as anger and that’s the story with Rosa Parks. We don’t think of her as an organizer, as an enraged activist, which is what she was.
Even back to Abigail Adams, if you have ever heard a quote by Abigail Adams it is probably “Remember the Ladies,” right? Which is like a low bar. Could you just, remember the ladies? But in fact in that same letter she’s promising revolution and calling men tyrants, but that is not the thing that gets played in the PBS documentary.
How did you go about the research for this? Are there any books you found particularly helpful in shaping this one?
RT: I found so many books particularly helpful. I actually have to get myself together and put a giant bibliography online because I draw so much on the work of others. One Woman, One Vote, a terrific collection of essays about the suffrage movement edited by Marjorie Spruill. Certainly, Jennifer Scanlon’s biography of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the Pauli Murray book, Flo Kennedy’s autobiography, The Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire which has so much of the Rosa Parks history and really helped the Rosa Parks story get reframed in a really useful way within the past couple of years. Mary Beard’s Women and Power. Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, a contemporary book that was so useful to me. Brittney Cooper’s scholarship and speaking in general has been so useful to me especially around issues of women, race and power, white patriarchy, the way that it distributes its advantages. Vivian Gornick’s writing on the second wave was terrific and wildly helpful to me. I feel like there are a hundred other books I could mention but those are the ones off the top of my head.
In your analysis of mass protests in recent years, you note that they are important because “women began to rage publicly in ways that made them audible to one another.” When did you first come to realize that anger could serve as a tool of communication?
RT: It’s one of those things that as soon as I thought about it I was like, “Oh my god of course it all makes sense.” I did first think about it in June 2017 at the Jon Ossoff election. I went to Georgia to cover the suburban women who had been organizing around Ossoff, and there were women who had been living in pretty red suburbs and many of them had been Democratic voters for all their lives but had never been active, had never put out lawn signs or talked to other people about it because it was socially not acceptable.
Then after the 2016 election, they had been so mad that they sort of lost control and they cursed or yelled or said something at a party and then somebody else had heard that they were mad and they were like, “Oh my god, I’m mad too,” and they began talking to each other and then they began organizing. I could see how that worked strategically. They all talked about how they found other people, about the power of connection and communion and working together and that was feeding actual activism that was trying to get tangible results. Seeing the organization of some of those women and the way they put it was the sort of key that unlocked it for me.
But then of course you think about it with regard to other movements. You think about the night that the #BlackLivesMatter message gets sent out on Facebook and that’s the virality of protest. It’s about being angry and gathering others to come be angry alongside of you. The expression of anger is one of the communicative first steps in finding coalition and in coalition you find power. I knew that from my second book about single women, because one of the big points of industrialization in the 19th century is those women who’d been kept in domestic spaces were meeting each other in schools or in factories, in mills or at religious revivals. They started to speak to one another and when they started to speak to one another they began to plot social movements including abolition, suffrage, temperance [and] the settlement house movement. That came from women being connected to each other.
Rage is one of the things you say loud and someone else hears you and then responds to you. It also began to occur to me that this is one of the reasons you suppress rage: you tell women not to be angry and crazy because you’re trying to keep them from plotting a revolution.
Something that I found very valuable in this book was your acknowledgement that while women are mostly angry at our continued political disenfranchisement and subjugation at the hands of men, we are also angry at each other. Am I right in saying that rather than viewing the fractiousness of the women’s movement as counterproductive you see it as instructive?
RT: 100%. I think that not only every social movement, [but] every gathering of humans whether you’re talking about your nuclear family at Thanksgiving, the Democratic Caucus in the House, the women’s movement or the civil rights movement or the labor movement, you’re talking about movements that are made up of people with righteous resentments that have internal inequalities and frustrations. The women’s movement, because it’s a majority movement, of course is by its nature going to be made up of people who are angry at a lot of things, including at each other, often for exceedingly good reasons that speak to the very inequality that they’re trying to address when it comes, for example, to gender. Though the fractiousness and dissent within a women’s movement has often been used to discredit it, I think that it is the thing that has permitted it to succeed, the internal fighting and the airing of those fights.
Audre Lorde is writing about this in the 1980s when she writes The Uses of Anger about the generative power of women’s anger at each other, in that case especially over racism. The thing that gives you strength and moves you forward is being angry; having it in the open, addressing it, acknowledging it, talking about it, not pretending that it’s not there or pretending that it doesn’t matter or treating it like it invalidates the coalition which it does not. The ability for women to fight as they always have within the women’s movement about priorities, perspectives, is one of the things that has kept it alive, that has permitted it to have as many iterations as it has had. It is a cacophonous movement but it has to be. It shows that it’s alive and made of people who are continuing to fight to make it a better, more just, more inclusive, more reflective movement.
You point out that a lot of the same conversations white women and women of color had to have during the Women’s March, about how feminism needs to be inclusive of both sexual and racial equality were similar to those had by Alice Paul and Ida B.Wells in the early 20th century fight for women’s suffrage. Was it surprising or frustrating or both to come up against historical parallels like this in your research?
RT: It’s completely both. I think there’s something to be said for understanding that this is part of a long conversation. I want to think that the quality and the results of the conversation improve too slowly but improve slightly with every iteration. So for example, the Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells conflict, in part is about the march in 1913 in which black women suffragists are told that they have to march at the back of the parade instead of with their state delegations. Ida B. Wells refuses and marches with the Illinois state delegation. But I think it’s crucial to point out that at the Women’s March in 2018, it was women of color who were the leaders of the march. They were at the front of the parade — literally. So, yes we are having the same conversations, the inequalities have not gone away. But it’s also true that there has been progress made by having the conversations. They’re not fruitless. They’re not fruitful enough; they don’t change what they need to change, but, they have changed something. We have gotten somewhere even if it’s not where we should be.
At one point in the book you write, “I value my own rage.” How does it feel to get to a point in your own life when you can confidently — and without fear of consequence — reject that sexist emotional policing and say that you value your rage?
RT: It feels good, but I’m crucially aware of the fact that it is built on all kinds of advantages that are very specific to me. I get paid to write what I write and I have the freedom and encouragement for some of that writing to be angry. That is an extraordinarily unique circumstance. I am in no way trying to push some self-help thing on anybody saying, “You should all go out and be angry: it’s great! I love it,” because there are such costs to be paid in the world. I’m more interested in exposing the system and the structures that discourage women’s anger more broadly and hoping that we can fix them in part by counteracting them with our own interests not necessarily our own individual anger and expression of it but with our ability to listen differently and to be aware of the way that anger is censured. When you watch the Kavanaugh hearing and you hear protesters written off as loud mouths and hysterics and disruptive and performative, you can hear it’s the same system that aims to oppress women by appointing a justice to the Supreme Court who’s gonna overturn their ability to control their reproductive lives and their ability to vote, who’s gonna enact voter suppression and give them fewer freedoms than corporations.
Part of what this book is aiming to do is not encourage women to run to the streets being angry though, if they have the freedom to do so, great. It’s more about getting them to pay attention to a system that is trying to suppress that anger, that’s either trying to keep them from doing it or punishing them when they do.
You dedicated this book to your daughters, Bella and Rosie. When they’re old enough to read your book, what do you hope they and other young readers take away from it?
RT: I want them to listen for anger in the world from women and to take it really seriously. I want them to take their own anger seriously, and I want them to take the anger of other women seriously, even if it’s aimed at them.