As I recently shared, increasingly taking a posture of solidarity has left me more angry. It seemed like maybe my anger was being used against me last fall to shut down conversations that needed to be had, so I was reconsidering the strategic pros and cons of that anger. This topic resonated with a lot of you.
So this is a deep dive/rant about the role of women’s rage in disrupting for good, mainly with insights from two books: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly, and Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister. Both came out in 2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement.
(They are both good, but if you are only going to read one for your own deep dive into using anger strategically, read Rage Becomes Her. Unless stated otherwise, that’s where the quotes in this post are from.)
Let’s dig in.
What Do We Mean By Anger?
Let’s start with what we don’t mean. We don’t mean yelling at our partner or kids when we get home about stuff that happened at work, or vice versa. We don’t mean stress - our own, or causing it in others. We don’t mean venting on people who rank lower than us socially or professionally. We don’t mean creating a toxic environment.
The anger we need is that anger at injustice. It provides courage and motivation to demand better for ourselves and others. But it has been deemed an unseemly emotion for women…
Anger & Gender
The suppression of women’s anger is one more form of gender inequality.
While both men and women feel anger, there are differences in how we respond to that anger ourselves and how it is responded to by others. Both authors point out that we learn from a young age that anger is unfeminine, unattractive, and selfish. Women’s anger violates gender norms, and a woman showing anger is often perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikeable.
Meanwhile, anger and masculinity reinforce each other. Anger in boys and men is seen as a virtue, especially when used to protect, defend, and lead. Angry, assertive, persistent men are considered noble and can engage in “theatrical posturing” that women are censored for.
Chemaly writes, “When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their own positions and defer to his. But when a woman acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the opposite response.”
Notably, women tend to internalize these norms as well. Anger in ourselves or other women often makes us uncomfortable, and we go out of our way to minimalize it. Studies show that women who express anger in deliberative groups are taken less seriously than the men around them.
So, we minimalize. Call it frustration instead of anger. Or bury it deep.
Chemaly notes, “the men around us at home, school, and work often actively deny our experiences or can be ignorant of the constant calculus we make when it comes to expressing ourselves. If men truly knew how angry the women around them often are--and understood the structures enforcing women’s silence--they would be staggered.”
Gender further combines with race, class, age, and other aspects of our identities to determine how we behave and how we are treated in our anger.
The caveat, and we can use this to our advantage, is when we use our anger to confirm gender-role stereotypes: women are “allowed” to be angry on behalf of other people. For me, this underlines the importance of our role as allies for marginalized communities. We can be angry on their behalf in a way that is safe for us and in a way that they cannot be angry for themselves without repercussion. (Tuck that away for later.)
Why Deny Women Their Anger?
Again, from Chemaly: “Why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward-thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation. … It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be.”
Denying us our anger props up a status quo.
“When we are angry and expect a reasonable response, we are walking, talking refutations of this status quo. In expressing anger and demanding to be heard, we reveal the deeper belief that we can engage with and shape the world around us—a right that, until now, has almost always been reserved for men.”
Our anger signals that we take ourselves and our opinions and ideas seriously.
“It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say ‘You sound angry’ are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask ‘Why?’ They’re interested in silence, not dialogue.”
A wise friend told me pretty much this ↑ exact thing when I mentioned I was worried my anger was being used to shut down essential conversations about winter planning for unhoused people in my city. If it hadn’t been my word choice, it would have been something else. That councillor had no intention of engaging.
Alison Bailey is a philosopher who writes about gaslighting. She has some words about this type of “tone policing.” She explains, “The connections between anger and tone management are so predictable that I have come to understand them as anger/knowledge management tactics. …There is power in the hush. The hush reasserts dominance.”
Similarly, ‘I think you could convince more people if you said things in a nicer way’ is a common rerouting from discussing the cause of our anger, which men may well feel implicated in, to condemning our expression as counterproductive.
The Importance of Women’s Anger
“The importance and visibility of women’s collective anger can’t be overstated. This anger takes determination, thoughtfulness, and work. It means respecting our own anger and being willing to respect the anger of other women.”
Chemaly asked Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, about what spurred her to action. Garza replied, “Anger at injustice is one part of what motivates me. But it is not a sustainable emotion in and of itself. It has to be transformed into a deep love for the possibility of who we can be. Anger can be a catalyst, but we cannot function on anger alone. When it’s not used properly, it can quickly become destructive. That’s why love is important: love connects us to what we most care about; what we yearn for.”
I feel like now we are getting close to my struggle - I don’t want to be angry all the time, but anger also has an important role in this disruptive social justice work.
I had the importance of our anger validated recently, when I gave a deputation to my city council on the need for an adequately funded warming centre for next year. I started to cry part way through. But because I had been reading up on this topic, I paused and said "I want to clarify that I'm not crying because I'm sad. I'm crying because I'm furious." I make deputations regularly, and no one even notices. But the media latched on to that statement, and it grabbed the attention of people on social media. My kid actually saw it shared on Instagram, and my local barista recognized me and came and thanked me the next time I was in. I received numerous messages from other women thanking me as well. Letting my anger show through gave my message more strength.
Anger Competence > Anger Management
Anger management advice abounds, but focuses on a narrow, destructive view of anger. Chemaly describes her desire to develop an anger competence: a way to own her anger and its useful expression. She notes that most of the issues with the expression of women’s anger are about being “appropriate,” a social construct mostly, rooted in gender norms. It is a policing word used to regulate women’s language and appearance. A control word that, if retired from use, would benefit women’s health, well-being, and equality.
We’ve been told that anger is unhealthy, but it seems that what is unhealthy is suppressing our anger. Diverting our anger sideways can cause not just irritability and unhappiness, but physical symptoms. The authors of a book called Anger Advantage: The Surprising Benefits of Anger and How it Can Change a Woman’s Life note that many of the diseases and physical discomforts common to women are transformations of anger into “socially acceptable forms of distress.”
Here are some skills for developing anger competence (there are several more listed in Rage Becomes Her):
1. Be Brave
“Be brave enough to stop pleasing people, to be disliked, to rub people the wrong way.” (aka, my favourite part of being in my 40s)
“In many environments, all you have to do to be castigated as an angry woman is to say something out loud, so you might as well say exactly what’s bothering you and get on with it.” (Yes queen.)
2. Cultivate Communities and Accountability
“Anger can feel very isolating, but, in fact, it is an emotion that demands communication and conversation. It also finds strength in community.” (Agreed.)
“Finding communities that validate and share your anger creates powerful opportunities for effective collective social action. Anger, awareness, listening, and strategizing are all key components to social movement.”
3. Challenge Binaries
Private/public. Personal/professional. Emotional/rational. Instinct/reason. These binaries are often used to police how we act or invalidate women’s anger and concerns. You can refuse to play by these rules that make it easy for you to be dismissed.
So, to recap: we need your anger. It can be used to fuel change, and when you use it productively instead of repressing it, it’s good for your health. You don’t have to be angry alone. Find your people and come up with a plan.
As Chemaly writes:
Rage becomes you.
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I'm Jennifer. I am an advocacy and communications strategist working with multiple charities and nonprofits. And I want to disrupt our sector for good.