Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.
“Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder.”
Women are frequently characterized as the more emotional gender, but there is one emotion that is stereotyped more male than female, and which is taboo for women—anger. Anger is considered ugly, selfish, and unfeminine, and from an early age, women are discouraged from expressing it, or even talking about it. Angry women are characterized as hysterical, or downright insane. In Rage Becomes Her, writer and activist Soraya Chemaly argues that this denial of women’s anger is one more way in which women are kept under control by a patriarchal society. Anger can be destructive, but never more so than when it is turned inward and subsumed. Turned outward in constructive ways, it can be a response to injustice that lights a fire for change, and it is this acceptance and expression of women’s anger that Chemaly is arguing for
One of the first things that Chemaly carefully articulates is that anger is not violence, and that when she is talking about rage, she is not advocating acting out in destructive ways. Rather, Rage Becomes Her is about unearthing the ways in which subsuming our rage is eating women alive from the inside, a form of self-destruction. While anger makes men feel powerful, one of the emotions most commonly felt with anger in women is powerlessness, because we are so often forbidden by society to act on, or even speak about, what is making us mad. Chemaly is arguing for the healthy expression of a valid emotion, not violence, revenge, or retribution.
Although Chemaly’s concept is dependent on the gender binary, she is thorough about considering intersectionality wherever possible. Chemaly also notes that while the gender binary is simplistic, it is a societal force that is still actively shaping our lives, and our expectations about anger and its expression, and needs to be considered as such. Most of the studies she cites do not include more than two genders, but she is always thinking about how the conjunctions of race, class, and sexuality complicate the available data, or add depth to an otherwise two-dimensional narrative. White women’s anger is not regarded in the same way as black women’s anger, for example, because “race stereotypes combine with gendered expectations.” Injustice is often layered, as when disabled women have their lack of mobility taken advantage of to sexually harass them, only to be told that this sexual attention is supposedly a validation of their humanity, rather than a violation of it. I appreciated Chemaly’s attention to these complex dynamics throughout the book.
Chemaly’s chapters combine forays into the various reasons women have to be so angry with studies and observations about the expression of emotion, as well as how those expressions are perceived by the people around us. In “The Caring Mandate” and “Mother Rage,” Chemaly touches on a complex aspect of how women’s anger is perceived by society, Specifically, women’s anger receives limited sanction when it is expressed in a “feminine” field, and on behalf of another person, such as a child, or someone else the woman has been charged with caring for (often for free). Women who express anger on their own behalf are selfish. If they express anger in a public forum, in a traditionally “masculine” field, they are likely to trigger a violent pushback against their intrusion, and their disruption of the “proper hierarchy.” The final chapter is dedicated to exploring the healthy expression of anger—not anger management, but “anger competence” as Chemaly puts it.
As you might expect, reading Rages Becomes Her was an enraging experience. Statistics like “56 percent of American men think sexism has been eradicated from American life” or “a woman killed by a man she knows has, on average, been strangled seven times prior to her murder” are bound to boil the blood. Chemaly also assures that reader that writing it was equally enraging, which is unsurprising given that she includes many personal stories from her own experiences or those of her female relatives. It is a book that affirms that women have a lot to be angry about, and offers validation and comradery to those who have been feeling that rage in a society that repeatedly denies its existence. And finally, it offers encouragement to not just accept that anger, but to turn it towards building a community that will use it as fuel for working to make the world a better place. Women have managed their anger for long enough; now it is time to wield it.