Rebecca Traister Is Mad. And That’s Okay.
Rebecca Traister is angry. She is angry, and every day strangers criticize her rage, or tell her she sounds like a fool, or that attractive women should not get angry. She is angry, and she is a woman, and she knows that our culture dismisses female rage; that it’s seen as hysterical, irrational, laughable. She is angry, and her anger has consequences, and that makes her even angrier.
Now a writer at New York magazine, Traister, 43, has covered the intersection of feminism and politics for more than a decade. She started shaping her beat at Salon, where she reported on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, eventually turning her coverage into her first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, which explored the election through a feminist lens. After a stint at The New Republic in 2014, she joined New York, where her reporting on the #MeToo movement has won sweeping acclaim.
Traister decided to write her latest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, in late 2016, in the wake of Trump’s victory. At the time, her own rage felt “fiery and electric in my brain,” she recalls. “I felt cloudy, like I couldn’t express myself.” She thought the book would take a long time to report and write. But in the months that followed, she sensed there was something urgent about the way women’s rage so quickly surfaced and spread, evolved and ravaged. She wrote the book in four months.
Good and Mad explores the history of female anger in America, how an emotion that has been criticized and dismissed and mocked—and that generations of women have attempted to suppress—has nevertheless proven itself a powerful political force. It is also about how rage works differently for men and women: While female anger is ridiculed, male anger is celebrated. “We are primed,” she writes, “to hear the anger of men as stirring, downright American, as our national lullaby.”
Traister is intimately familiar with this fact. In 2000, when she was a 25-year-old reporter at The New York Observer, she was assigned to cover a book party in Manhattan hosted by movie producer Harvey Weinstein. When she asked him a question, he started yelling, pushed her with his finger, called her a “cunt” and a “bitch” and said he was glad he was the “fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” When Traister’s colleague tried to intervene, Weinstein pushed him down a set of steps; his tape recorder flew from his hands, hitting a woman in the head. In news reports of the incident in the following days, Weinstein was described as the victim of “pushy” reporters, and Traister cast as the aggressor.
These kinds of consequences—and the biases at their root—are what Traister ultimately hopes to expose. She is adamant that women’s anger is not only valid or acceptable, but correct. On the last pages of her book, she offers a directive to women who are angry now, in 2018: “Don’t forget how this feels,” she writes. “Don’t let anyone persuade you it wasn’t right, or it was weird, or it was some quirky stage in your life when you went all political—remember that, honey, that year you went crazy? No. No. Don’t let it ever become that.” Even if the future starts to look less immediately dire, injustice will still exist, and its victims will still be angry; Traister hopes that women who are angry now will stay mad for them.
Moment managing editor Ellen Wexler spoke with Traister about her new book, why we dismiss women’s rage and how female anger shapes political upheaval.
You write about how women often say, “I was angry, but I’m not angry anymore.” Why do women feel it necessary to frame their anger in the past tense?
It still feels very perilous for women to say, “I am angry,” because you can hear a response being, “Well, that means you’re not thinking clearly.” When women feel an emotion like anger, which might be—especially when we’re talking politically—fact-based, rational, righteous, patriotic and entirely thoughtful, all of that gets wiped out because of the aspersion that she’s being emotional. But if a man is angry, there is the probability that he’s angry about something we should figure out. Women are reasonably reluctant to describe themselves as angry because as soon as they say, “I’m angry,” then somebody’s going to be like, “I can’t listen to her. She’s just angry. When she calms down, I’ll listen to her.” As if the anger can’t be rational when, of course, we know that it is.
What happens when women’s anger is finally affirmed?
We are living in a moment in which women’s rage is out in the open, and it’s having a profound impact on everything. It doesn’t mean it’s fixing anything yet, but it’s changing the world. In another moment—I would venture to say just a year ago—Brett Kavanaugh probably would have sailed through his Supreme Court confirmation. The impact that women’s protests had on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is an indication, as is how women’s anger at low wages and underfunded schools led many teachers, predominantly women, to go on strike. The number of women up for election in the midterms is another result of women being angry and then taking action. Of course, it’s not universally being affirmed. Every day I get notes from people about how my anger’s going to eat me up alive, how I’m ugly, how I sound like a baby who’s having a temper tantrum, how women are spoiled brats. And certainly black women’s activism is still written off and treated as a threat. The women leaders of Black Lives Matter, for example, are regularly vilified by the mainstream press. There’s no warm embrace of dissenting anger from non-white non-men in this country.
When women hide their anger, how does this isolate them? And when they start getting angry publicly, why do those connections—with other angry women—feel like such a revelation?
If you quiet women’s voices and they don’t have the chance to compare notes, then there’s less of a chance that they’re going to organize to overthrow you. In the book, I report on white women in suburban Georgia who have lived in largely conservative communities. They had Democratic-leaning tendencies and voted for Democrats, but they did not feel it necessary to be a dissenting political voice in their communities. They were people who had never put lawn signs out before. They had just also assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to win in 2016. And then when she didn’t, they were shocked.
They were mad enough to say something out loud, and then they realized that somebody down the street felt the same way. They had thought they were the only one, but they actually had a compatriot who was their neighbor. Then they could go to meetings with that neighbor and become part of a local group or start organizing their own campaigns—and they have. You see that happening all across the country, and it’s a really clear example of how voicing anger makes women audible to each other.
We don’t have a model for taking women’s anger seriously and crediting them with expressing it well.
You write about “the women who are suddenly angry, newly angry.” What do the women who have been angry for a long time think of the women who are newly angry?
For very good reasons, there are anxieties about women who are recent to the struggle and new to anger co-opting movements that have been led by women who’ve always been angry—and whose anger has been catalytic in terms of the intellectual and logistical work of making change in this country. Very often these are women of color who have done the groundbreaking work in so many of these movements: the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBT movement, the fight over gun control. There have always been women of color on the front lines of these fights, and very often they’re relegated to the margins. And then when middle-class white women get angry, it’s like, “Oh my God, suddenly women are angry.” The anger becomes discernible if it’s being voiced by middle-class white women.
How are black women’s anger and poor women’s anger treated differently?
Women’s anger that is not voiced on behalf of, or in defense of, white capitalist patriarchy is marginalized or discouraged in some ways. How it’s discouraged and marginalized often depends on the race and class of the angry women. For example, there are incentives offered to white women in exchange for not being angry, or for defending the white patriarchy. They are more easily accepted, thought of as more valuable, taken more seriously if they’re not angry. Now, those same kinds of incentives are not often on the table for women of color. Black women have less proximity to white male power than white women do. And their anger is often treated as some variation of comical, theatrical—like a cartoon character stereotype of angry black women—or as threatening, militaristic. You can see that around the treatment of Michelle Obama, who was literally caricatured on the cover of The New Yorker as a kind of black militant.
Why do women’s public displays of anger so often prompt calls for civility, while men’s do not?
We normalize men’s anger, white men’s anger, so we value it. Everything in this country was built by white men around the idea of white men as the normative citizen. White men’s anger is reflexively understood as important, even if there are moments where we recognize it as violent or dangerous. We can see this in the way that we value the expressions of anger made by two totally different politicians: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They are white men who were able to give voice to anger that was especially coming from white populations—and in Donald Trump’s case especially, white male populations.
I want to make clear that it’s correct to take that kind of anger seriously. It points us to real issues that need to be addressed, whether it’s opioid addiction, job loss, unemployment, the way that technology is changing careers and rendering entire professions obsolete. These issues are real. We should take people’s anger and understand it as diagnostic and pointing us toward where policy needs to come in and fix things. But we don’t treat other populations’ expressions of fury and injustice with the same kind of diagnostic seriousness that we take white men’s anger.
After Trump’s election, we heard a lot about white economic anxiety and the anger of Trump supporters in middle America. What does that say about the types of anger we pay attention to?
That’s the thing everybody comes back to: The problem was we hadn’t taken that kind of white male anger seriously enough. And the candidates who did, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, were correctly acknowledged as having done that well. It is true that Hillary Clinton was not good at communicating anger in a way that was persuasive. But you’re also talking about someone who is the first woman in that position. You’re talking about someone who, as a woman, has been discouraged her entire life from raising her voice or expressing anger because she’s made to understand correctly that it will redound negatively to her. That she will sound shrill, hysterical. That it will be off-putting. And in fact, even in being not great at expressing anger or channeling anger on the stump, whenever she raised her voice on the campaign trail, she was told that she was yelling and it was shrill and it was hurting people’s ears.
We don’t have a model for taking women’s anger seriously and crediting them with expressing it well. There are very few female politicians of whom we can say, “Oh, we love them because of the righteous way that they express their anger.” There are a few—Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Ann Richards—who were terrific at communicating passion and fury on the stump. But none of them were major party candidates for the presidency.
White men’s anger is reflexively understood as important, even if there are moments where we recognize it as dangerous.
What does your encounter with Harvey Weinstein say about how men’s anger is normalized?
He had an explosive and wholly inappropriate, profane temper tantrum at two young reporters who had vastly less power than he. Because he had so much more power than we did, he also had the ability to spin the coverage. I hadn’t realized this until I went back this fall and looked at how it was covered in both The New York Times and The New York Post. Weinstein’s people were permitted to spin it, and how they spun it was that my colleague and I had been “pushy.” The use of that word in particular is so striking to me, because he physically pushed us. Yet we were the discomfiting force, and why is that? The powerful’s abuses are almost invisible, because that’s just how power works. But when people who have less power resist or fight back or challenge, and it disrupts the normal course of power, it’s suddenly discernible as discomfiting and eruptive and problematic.
Why, even in the #MeToo movement, is women’s anger over men’s abuse policed more than men’s abuse itself?
Men—particularly white men, and especially powerful white men—live so large in our imagination. #MeToo, as it took its form in 2017, was an interesting example of this because so much of it took place in the media and among celebrities that it makes it sort of literally true that these were men we recognized. They were the guys who were the radio announcers and the TV hosts—Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin—who came into our homes every day and whom we recognized as human because they had been presented to us as our explainers. And so we are trained to empathize with them.
The person who really writes about this compellingly is a philosopher named Kate Manne. She has coined this term, “himpathy,” about how everything in society directs us to see things from a man’s point of view. If a man is losing his job, in part because he is alleged to have abused women, we automatically consider the loss incurred by the man. He’s been made so much more visible to us, in part because he has so much more power that we feel his absence. We miss him.
People miss Charlie Rose, who’s alleged to have vilely harassed and assaulted more than 35 young women who worked for him. We can miss the centrality of a man who’s been made known to us. But the women who have been exiled from these professions, either self-exiled or driven out after harassment, they’re not known to us to begin with. They never got a chance to accrue the power that would lead us to sympathize with them—or even recognize them.
When powerful men are outed as harassers, they say they were “ambushed,” “beaten to death,” “obliterated.” Why do men use such exaggerated language to describe women’s anger?
I don’t question the fact that they really feel that way. We have so firmly identified white masculinity with certain kinds of power and certain kinds of rights. You heard it in the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh: the idea that he was being put on trial, that he was being found guilty, that he was being offered no presumption of innocence. That his life was being ruined. There were all these sets of words around the idea that he might, maybe, be barred from getting one of the biggest promotions available in this country. He was not facing a criminal verdict. Presumption of innocence is not owed to people who are being considered for a new job, and a very powerful lifelong tenure on the Supreme Court of the United States.
The implication that if a powerful white man’s reputation is dinged, that it is tantamount to his injury or death, is so common. It’s amazing in a world in which, for example, people of color are killed all the time, and their deaths are written off as comprehensible because, say, they had marijuana in their apartment. Actual people lose their lives every day in ways that we’re told make sense because of some small technicality that has zero rational bearing on the violence that was done to them. And yet, when a totally nonviolent, non-legal repercussion is on the horizon for a powerful white man trying to ascend, the potential of having that ascension halted reads as incarceration, violence, the ruination of a life.
What should we make of the women who defend abusive men or argue that #MeToo has gone too far?
It’s very complicated. #MeToo is anger about sexism and misogyny, and that strain of women’s anger is particularly complicated by the nature of the oppression of women. Women are an oppressed majority in this country, which means that every man has a woman in his life and every woman has a man in her life. To become angry in response to sexism is, on some powerful level, to identify as your oppressor a member of a gender of a group with whom you share emotional ties. Husbands, brothers, fathers, friends, colleagues whom we love, whom we need, on whom we depend for paychecks, promotions or raises. It’s a tough ask of women to challenge those men. There are always going to be incentives on offer for the women who are willing to defend them.
I’m a huge proponent of the #MeToo movement. It’s a necessary course correction. I wrote thousands and thousands of words about it. I believe it is an ongoing, crucial, righteous address of sexual power and equity. I also have written about how hard it is, how nuanced it is, how conflicted many of us feel, even as we want to see the stories of women taken seriously about the repercussions incurred by men, including men we love, men we care about.
We’re still dealing with the attitudes left over from suffrage, abolition, civil rights, the women’s movement, all of it.
You have said that in writing this book, you discovered there was “something about spending my days and nights immersed in anger—mine and the anger of others—that had been undeniably good for me.” Why?
I believe that anger is potent, personally and politically. I do think, of course, it can be damaging. Anger can be destructive within coalitions. Not all anger is progressive. If you, like me, are on the side of progressive politics, backlash anger can be incredibly destructive to those politics.
Speaking specifically about the health effect of anger: I had internalized the notion that feeling anger is bad for us physically. That it cramps us up and makes us unhealthy. But when I was writing this book and getting to be angry every day—and getting to take the anger of other women seriously every day—I enjoyed a period of immense good health. I slept very soundly. I mentioned this in the book because it was critical in rebutting the idea that anger is bad for our health. What’s bad for us is the fact that we’re so often forced to stop it up.
But I need to be really careful. I don’t want this to be read as a self-help instructive. I’m acutely aware of the fact that my position was unique. I was actually being remunerated for writing a book about anger. That is a privilege that most women do not have. Other women pay steep, steep prices. If you express anger at your workplace, you can risk getting fired, losing your job, not getting the promotion and earning a reputation as a difficult or hysterical person, even if the anger that you’re expressing is entirely valid and rational. If you are a woman of color and you are angry because you’re pulled over for no good reason, your anger can put you at risk of imprisonment or death.
How do we unlearn biases about women’s anger?
Change in these realms takes a really long time and generations to undo attitudes. We’re still dealing with the attitudes left over from suffrage, abolition, civil rights, the women’s movement, all of it. The kind of change that we can ask ourselves to begin to enact is in how we listen to other people’s anger. This is an individual change that’s not just about expressing your own anger but about taking the anger of other people seriously—even if some of that anger is refracted toward you. It begins with training ourselves.