Gender diversity

Rebecca Traister Knows Why Women Are Angry

In her latest book, Good and Mad, one of the most notable feminist writers of our time explores women's rage as a political force and unpacks the lineage of patriarchal privilege.

By Angela Ledgerwood

Gender diversity

In her latest book, Good and Mad, one of the most notable feminist writers of our time explores women's rage as a political force and unpacks the lineage of patriarchal privilege.

By Angela Ledgerwood

It’s been a gutting few years for progressive-leaning women in the United States. Women are angry. Women are seething. Yet women’s rage isn’t contained to one issue. We’re are mad about racism, gun violence, inequality, the pay gap, you name it. In her latest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister, arguably one of the most important feminist voices of our time, acknowledges this anger and examines it as a political tool. One that, when channelled into activism, has the power to change political systems and institutions.

As she does in explosive writing for New York Magazine, The Cut, and best-selling non-fiction book All the Single Ladies, Traister exposes the patriarchal structures that have sought, and still seek, to curb and marginalize women’s voices. Her research brings to light the stories of women who have changed the course of history, fuelled by the anger of injustice. “I wanted to offer that context as a tool to help women think more about the anger that they feel, that they may swallow, that they may stuff down, that they feel ashamed about or feel that it makes them irrational in some way,” said Traister in New York, speaking to Future Women a few days before her book launch. “It’s also to help certain kinds of women who have not previously expressed that anger or thought about it in those ways, to understand they’re not the first to be there.” Here is an edited version of our conversation ranging from the necessity of giving credit to the women who have come before us, what proximity to patriarchal privilege means, and more.

From Single Ladies to Good and Mad

When I was writing All the Single Ladies about how fewer women were marrying, and marrying at later ages, I wanted to write about adulthoods that were no longer defined by the institution that used to organize gender power, which is marriage. I soon discovered that many of the women in history who lived outside the institution of marriage, or were not confined by it, had been instrumental to some of the biggest social and political movements in the United States, such as the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights, the Abolition, and the Suffrage Movement. There was a deep connection between women who were unmarried for some or all of their adulthood and the women who had done so much of the work of organizing and participating in revolutionary politics when it came to gender and race and class.

Understanding Your Anger

In the winter of 2016 and early 2017 I was trying to make sense of the fury that I was feeling. Anger was not new to me. I’m a feminist writer. I’ve been angry for a long time in a lot of ways, but even that anger had felt disguised or prettied up as something else. I was trying to make sense of the way it was bubbling in me, and many people I knew, at a rate and a heat that I have never seen before. I saw a pattern around American history and the women who had changed it. But it made me think about women’s anger and how it had been obscured in our history.

One of the things I’d learned, though I had not thought of it in that way when I wrote All the Single Ladies, was that so many of them were furious and that was the spark underneath their activism. There were all kinds of women path breakers who’d said from the start, “I don’t want to be confined by this institution.” There was fury about that, but I was also looking specifically at their political fury which is connected to a fury about marriage and gender inequalities of marriage as it has been historically defined. I began to think about all these angry women and how I’d never been taught about them as angry.

We have workplace safety regulations in part because there were women who were f***ing furious about the conditions in which they were being asked to work. They were furious about the danger they endured every day, the wages, the physical costs. That rage is part of what powered a Labor Movement. It has been structurally weakened by the powerful over time but it’s still a crucial part of the American story. I’ve never been told that there were angry women at the beginning of that story. I began to think about that with regard to all of the movements we think of as transformative; abolition, suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks. Part of my project with Good and Mad was going back and trying to unearth where the rage had been and why it had been made invisible to us.

Change Can Come Fast

My mum and her sister grew up in a republican household, on a working potato farm in Northern Maine. My mum went to a one-room schoolhouse. Both my mum and her sister, my aunt, went on to get PhDs from the same institution in the same field, five years apart. My mother, who is older, said when she went on the job market in ‘68 and ’69 she was told in interviews, “We’re not hiring a woman. We already have a woman in our department. We have one of you.” In one academic interview, the guy said, “Well, we’re not hiring a woman but we thought we’d have you come in, so you could get some practice interviewing.” My aunt is five years her junior. By the time she went on the job market five years later, all of those practices were illegal. That five-year window happened to be a window when women’s anger at hiring discrimination and inequity had bubbled up. People brought cases to court and laws were changed. So that was a reminder of how fast the rules can change.

Discomfort Is Inevitable

What we are seeing now is a lot like the discomfort that happened in the second wave [of feminism] when there was a real questioning of the dynamics of traditional hetero marriage. People had entered marriages, hetero marriages, often very young, as teenagers or in their 20s, especially in the 1960s when the marriage rate was very high with these expectations that the man was going to be the breadwinner and have the economic power and the woman was going to do the domestic work. Then the feminist movement came along and changed the expectations for what women might reasonably want from their lives.

Suddenly, in the middle of those marriages, you had a lot of women saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t actually think it’s right that I’m cooking your dinner every night and taking care of the kids and you don’t do anything.” They realized they had no leverage, no economic power, and they wanted something different. You’ve got a very high divorce rate and a lot of people – a lot of men – saying, “The rules changed. You came into this willingly.” That’s true. They’re not wrong. When we have these moments, we change the rules. For those who have been playing by an old set of rules, it is discomforting. We see that a lot around the discussion of #MeToo from men. They say, “How am I going to flirt?” Hey, it’s not actually about flirtation, it’s about harassment and discrimination.

 

“The proximity you have to white patriarchal privilege means that you are, of course, less likely to want to crush that system. When you derive benefits from a system, you’re rewarded for protecting it.”

 

Reminding The Privileged Of Everyday Injustices

A lot of the people who are talking about self-care are some of the people who have been able to be numb to this anger and the horrifying realities until recently. There is a long history of people engaging in social movements that went on for decades, punishing decades. Look at the Civil Rights Movement; tear gas, beatings and lynchings in the Jim Crow South and then during the years of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, Emmett Till is killed and Rosa Parks sits on the white-only bench and refuses to get up. There is nearly a decade until the Civil Rights Act is passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Between those two moments is a decade of death and beatings. You can say the same about the Labor Movement where strikers were beaten. The Labor Movement obviously was a project that has lasted centuries. The Suffrage Movement, the Abolition Movement too.

We are coming out of a period that I think was a post-civil rights, post-feminist, and post-gay rights era. After the major social events in the second half of the 20th century where, especially among middle and upper class (relatively privileged white people) there was this false sense that we had fixed these things. But the mass reaction, which is something that is happening sort of post-2016, is one that has to acknowledge those activists have always been out there. People who are fighting for $15, who are fighting for domestic workers rights, who have been talking about paid leave, who have been talking about prison reform, and criminal justice reform. The United States is filled with people who have never not been angry and have never had the ability to pretend they could just relax and pat themselves on the back and feel like things were fixed. Because every day they are confronted with the grotesque injustices. Part of this project is reminding people that this level of struggle is the norm for people who have derived fewer benefits from a white capitalist patriarchy up until now.

Understanding Proximal Power

The proximity you have to white patriarchal privilege means that you are, of course, less likely to want to crush that system. When you derive benefits from a system, you’re rewarded for protecting it. Now, that happens in a lot of different directions. White women are perhaps the best example because they derive the most benefits as wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters, friends, and employees; the people who have the most proximity to a powerful, white masculinity. They’re the beneficiaries of the proximal power. They have had social, and then professional, benefits that have come from whiteness and their closeness to, and affiliation with, powerful white men. That doesn’t mean they have not simultaneously been subjugated and oppressed by those white men. The power that they derive from white patriarchy also leaves them dependent on white patriarchy. That can be for paychecks, for family stability, for political power. Entire political parties depend on them to be the advocates because white men have been given a disproportionate share of political power. Not only are they the bad guys. They’re the good guys. In other words, white women have been both dependent on powerful white men and incentivized to protect those white men’s power because with that power comes adjacent benefits for those white women.

Those dynamics have also served to separate white women from non-white women in any sense of coalition or sisterhood. There have been all kinds of studies performed that say the benefits of white patriarchy according to those white women have made them more identified with white men than with non-white women with whom they might form a powerful coalition. White men were the founders, white men built the courts, the businesses, the laws, the institutions, the banks, the money, everything. All these systems on which the nation is built were built by and for white men. Whatever metric you want to take, white men still have a disproportionate share of power.

On Intersectionality       

One of the things that has happened in the past two years since the election of Donald Trump, is you’ve seen a real awakening of rage among white women. That’s been taken as problematic in many quarters because, of course, the majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections. They then started the idea of having a women’s march, in which they immediately appropriated the name of a demonstration, the Million Women’s March, which was actually the name of a demonstration that was staged by black women many years before. There has been an interrogation that has been long overdue about the ways in which white women have voted for not just Donald Trump but Republicans in all but two elections going back since 1952.

Part of what this book is attempting to do is to both consider why all women are angry, affirm my belief that anger is correct and also let some of those women know where that anger falls historically. We have to acknowledge who has been expressing anger not only about the same things that some of these newly angry women are expressing, but also anger at them for some of the ways they’ve participated in, and benefited from, the same kind of white patriarchal capitalist systems that they are now feeling anger about. I’m not trying to chase off white women who are newly angry. I’m glad and I think it’s important and I think it’s coming from good places but I also hope to help elucidate some of the historical, racial and economic realities where white women have been until very recently.

Main image credit: Victoria Stevens