“Having had the rare and privileged experience of having had my anger taken seriously, valued on its merits, I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick; that’s what’s making us feel crazy, alone; that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.”
2018 may feel like a unique moment for the public expression of women’s anger, but in Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister seeks to situate it within a broader history of angry women in American politics, from the suffragist movement, to Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, to the current Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Traister examines how anger, both felt and displayed, has operated for women in American politics, using historical examples and recent events to demonstrate how an emotion that is depicted as the opposite of feminine has fueled the feminist revolution, and continues to be an important source of power and energy for women’s movements.
Traister notes that while she had had the idea for this topic for some time, when it became clear to her that the moment to write it was now, she produced the draft in relatively short order. Thus, Good and Mad is definitely of the current political moment, heavily involved in the ethos of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. It is extremely relevant, though this focus may be detrimental to its staying power, and become dated quickly. In that case, however, it will be a time capsule testifying to all the reasons American women have to be good and mad right now, as well as a reminder that this anger has its roots in a long history of injustice, not just current events.
Traister examines major female political figures such as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Maxine Waters, to show how they have used or concealed their anger, and at what political cost, being portrayed as aggressive, mad, or crazy for behaviour that was a mere shadow of the antics of many men on the political stage. Women’s anger must be couched and justified in ways that men’s anger is not. Traister points to comedy and tears as the two covers under which female anger most commonly operates; necessary disguises, useful, but not without their own costs. It would have been interesting to also look at how the anger of women on the political right—where traditional gender roles are more openly applauded—is perceived and portrayed. Do they get a pass on their anger when it aligns with the party’s views? Are they punished more or less harshly for deviation? Traister makes some brief mention of more conservative women, but does not delve into this line of inquiry.
Good and Mad includes an examination of the ways in which women police one another and themselves in accordance with patriarchal standards. Traister is particularly insightful in her discussion of the successful women who spoke out against the #MeToo movement, analyzing how their success within a patriarchal system led to their defense of the men who supported their advancement, at the expense of those men’s victims. The fall of these men threatened the legitimacy of their successes within a corrupt system. However, Traister also notes that media portrayals of internal conflicts within feminist movements tend towards supporting stereotypes about how women behave in groups, rather than parsing women’s differences in meaningful ways that support understanding and cooperation. Just as abolition and suffrage were historically pitted against one another, to the detriment of both causes, so too do opponents seek to divide and conquer modern feminist movements. Traister engages in a more nuanced discussion of how women sometimes work against themselves.
Good and Mad is a work that pays decent attention to intersectionality, particularly on the issue race, though somewhat narrowly focused on Black women to the exclusion of other women of colour. Traister opens on the 1972 Presidential nominee bid of Shirley Chisholm, discusses how Rosa Parks’ anger has been whitewashed, and considers how Black women, frequently stereotyped as angry, have been asked to bear the burden of performing the emotions white women also feel, as well as the punishment for displaying them publicly. She makes some brief nods to trans inclusivity, does not specifically discuss how these issues might operate uniquely in trans women’s lives or political movements. The very breadth of women’s identities and experiences both demands intersectionality, and makes it very difficult for any single work to be encompassing.
Traister closes with a call for women to do for one another what the culture at large will not; witness and validate the anger of other women, while being mindful of the other power dynamics that intersect with women’s issues. Having shown how anger has been an effective, if double-edged, tool for women’s movements of the past, her cri de coeur is that we not let this energy go to waste by bottling it up and allowing it to eat us alive at a moment that is ripe for action.
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