Good and Mad
CHAPTER ONE SLEEPING GIANT
The contemporary reemergence of women’s rage as a mass impulse comes after decades of feminist deep freeze. The years following the great social movements of the twentieth century—the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement—were shaped by deeply reactionary politics. When Phyllis Schlafly led an antifeminist crusade to stop the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment—the twenty-four-word constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed equal rights regardless of gender—finally succeeding in 1982, it was a sign that the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, and the righteous fury that had ignited it, had been sidelined.
More broadly, the Reagan era, in which increasingly hard-right reactionary politics had joined with a religious “moral majority,” gave rise to a cultural backlash to all sorts of social progress. Under sharp attack were the benefits, rights, and protections that afforded poor women any stability, as well as the parts of the women’s movement that had produced legal, professional, and educational gains for middle-class women, better enabling them to live independently, outside of marriage, the patriarchal institution that had historically contained them and on which they had long depended.
The right wing of the 1980s was driven to restrict abortion access and deregulate Wall Street while simultaneously destroying the social safety net, which Ronald Reagan had made sure was embodied by the specter of the black welfare queen. A 1986 Newsweek cover story, meanwhile, blared the news that a single woman at forty was more likely to get killed by a terrorist than get married. That later-debunked study was a key point of Susan Faludi’s chronicle of the era, Backlash, in which she tracked the varied, suffocating ways in which women’s anger was muffled throughout the Reagan years: how feminist activism was blamed for the purported “man shortage”; the day-care that enabled women to work outside the home vilified as dangerous for children.
Popular culture showed liberated white career women as oversexed monsters, as in Fatal Attraction, or as cold, shoulder-padded harpies who had to be saved via hetero-union or punished via romantic rejection (see Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl). There was far too little space afforded to black heroines, and even some of the most nuanced were often crafted to serve male creators’ investments in how women’s liberation might serve their messages: Spike Lee’s view of the sexually voracious Nola Darling in the 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It and Bill Cosby’s Clair Huxtable, the successful matriarch who, given the context of Cosby’s own racial politics, served as a repudiation of black women who were not wealthy hetero-married mothers with law degrees.
Who wanted to be a feminist? No one. And the anxiety about the term wasn’t about any of the good reasons to be skeptical of feminism—like the movement’s racial exclusions and elisions—but because the term itself, the idea of public and politicized challenge to male dominance, had been successfully coded as unattractively old, as crazy, as ugly. Susan Sarandon, the rare celebrity who actually maintained her publicly left politics through the 1980s and 90s, once explained why even she of the unrelenting commitment to disruptive political speech preferred the misnomer “humanist” to calling herself a “feminist”: “it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.”1
To be sure, there were eruptions of fury, coming from people—often from women—who were waging battles against inequities. In 1991, the law professor Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate
Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then a nominee for the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. Many women were taken aback by the way the committee insulted, dismissed, and ultimately disbelieved Hill, confirming Thomas to the court, where he sits today.
“It was so stark, watching these men grill this woman in these big chairs and looking down at her,” Patty Murray, senator from Washington state, has recalled. Murray and a lot of other women were so outraged by the treatment of Hill that an unprecedented number of them ran for office in 1992. Four, including Murray, won Senate seats; one of them, Carol Moseley Braun, became the first-ever African-American woman elected to the Senate. Twenty-four women were elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, more than had been elected in any other previous decade.
These years sometimes included violent rage in response to racism: in 1992, after four white cops were acquitted by a mostly white jury in the brutal beating of African-American taxi driver Rodney King in Los Angeles, the city erupted in fury. Angry protesters looted stores and set fires; sixty-three people died. At the time, the news media and local politicians were quick to describe the events as riots, throwing around the term “thugs.”
But one Los Angeles Democratic representative saw something else in the riots: “There are those who would like for me . . . to tell people to go inside, to be peaceful, that they have to accept the verdict. I accept the responsibility of asking people not to endanger their lives. I am not asking people not to be angry,” said first-term congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represented a big part of the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where much of the unrest was unfolding. “I am angry and I have a right to that anger and the people out there have a right to that anger.”2
Waters spent days tending to her constituents, bringing food, water, and diapers to Angelenos living without gas or electricity; she also pushed to charge the police officers civilly, and objected to Mayor Tom Bradley’s use of the word “riot” to describe events. Instead, she saw the politically rational frame for the resentments being expressed, calling it “an insurrection.”3
Eventually, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was fired, and two of
the police officers were convicted for violating Rodney King’s civil rights.4
There were other moments of political protest: those against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and marches against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example. But much of the spirit of mass, brash, sustained political fury that had animated the 1960s and 1970s was muffled in the 1980s and stayed that way for decades.
The journalist Mychal Denzel Smith has written of how this suppression worked itself out around expressions of black rage in the years in which he’d grown up, noting that during most of the 1990s, “there was no longer a Reagan or a Bush to serve as an identifiable enemy,” and that a pop commitment to “multiculturalism” permitted the illusion that racial progress had been achieved, so rage as a mass impulse had subsided.5
There had been a brief revival during the second Bush administration, Smith argued, recalling how, in the wake of the derelict response to Hurricane Katrina, rapper Kanye West had yelled that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” But that surge of fury had been quieted by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Obama’s historic drive had relied in part on his ability to reassure white voters that he was not an angry black man, that he was cut from a different cloth than some of his more bellicose black predecessors, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and did not in his demeanor threaten white supremacy. But Obama’s reputation for cordiality was gravely imperiled by the appearance of old-style black rage, when Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the man who had married the Obamas, became a campaign story, along with his much-played sermon, during which he’d exhorted, “God damn America!” The specter of Wright’s version of confrontational blackness was enough to remind America of Obama’s outsider status, and thus Obama was forced to quash it, becoming, in Smith’s words, “the first viable black presidential candidate to throw water on the flames of black rage.” The anger expressed by Wright, Obama would say in his famous speech on race, “is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems.”
But partway through the Obama administration, some political fury had begun to bubble over and break through this veneer of calm, in part driven by, or in ways that meaningfully sidelined, the angry voices of women.
ANGER RIGHT AND LEFT
Perhaps the most politically effective strike came from the right, with the Tea Party protests that began in 2009, soon after President Barack Obama took office. In response to Obama’s plan to bail out some homeowners who’d been caught in the housing crisis, cable news reporter Rick Santelli angrily called on television for the “Tea Party” to object. The reference, of course, was to the 1773 revolutionary protest of colonists who threw tea in Boston Harbor to register their objection to being taxed by Britain, which was using tariffs not to support the colonies but to stabilize its own floundering economy, and had imposed them on colonists who had no representation in British Parliament.6
The contemporary version was portrayed as a leaderless grassroots movement, though almost from its start, right-wing mega donors the Koch brothers had been funding its protests and its candidates. In theory, the agitation was in response to the far right’s view that Barack Obama’s administration was misusing taxpayer money, but the Tea Party was also driven by a wave of revanchist rage and racial resentment toward Barack Obama; no amount of nonconfrontational rhetoric could convince overwhelmingly white Tea Partiers he wasn’t a threat to their status and supremacy.
Though the public face of the Tea Party protesters was that of furious white men—often dressed in colonial-era tricorn hats in their early gatherings—some polls indicated that the majority of the faction’s supporters were women. Its most audible early female voice belonged to former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who in one address to activists called the movement “another revolution.” In 2010, a number of Tea Party–affiliated female candidates ran; Palin, who’d cast herself as a pit-bullish hockey mom, dubbed them “Mama Grizzlies.” And while the movement’s theatrics—funny hats and grizzly bears—were reminiscent of some of the performative exertions of the Second Wave, its mission was the precise opposite, more of a callback to the Schlafly-led antifeminist crusades of the 1970s and 80s.
Somehow, as with Schlafly, these women voicing their anger and
throwing around their political weight weren’t caricatured as ugly hysterics; instead they were permitted to cast themselves as patriotic moms on steroids, some bizarro-world embodiment of female empowerment, despite the fact (or, more precisely, because of the fact) that what they were advocating was a return to traditionalist roles for women and reduced government investment in nonwhite people. Once they landed in the United States Congress, their obsessive mission was to vote to take away the federal funding received by family planning programs, to outlaw abortion, to punish Planned Parenthood, and to reduce government safety net programs such as food stamps and what remained of welfare.
“Conservative women have found their voices and are using them, actively and loudly,” Tea Partier Rebecca Wales told Politico in 2010. Another Tea Partier, Darla Dawald, put it this way: “You know the old saying ‘If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy’? When legislation messes with Mama’s kids and it affects her family, then Mama comes out fighting—and I don’t mean in a violent way, of course.”7
As more moderate Republicans got knocked out of their seats by Tea Party candidates, and those who remained moved further right, an angry protest in New York was drawing crowds of agitators from the other side. In the fall of 2011, in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, young people gathered to voice their fury at economic inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor, the rampant deregulation of and tax breaks for corporate America and Wall Street, and the steady gutting of social welfare programs.
Occupy Wall Street’s impact on the American left was crucial and long-lasting; the movement helped to popularize the view of economic inequality that set the 99 percent against the nation’s richest 1 percent. It was both a symptom and a fomenter of increased interest in socialist economic policy. That interest would help push the Democratic Party—which had for decades run screaming from the notion of even “liberalism”—further left, boosting the profiles and fortunes of politicians including Elizabeth Warren, who was elected Senator for Massachusetts in 2012, and Bernie Sanders, an independent who’d served in Congress for twenty-six years and would mount an electrifying campaign for the presidency in 2016.
Many different types of people participated in Occupy—estimates varied, but reportedly around 40 percent of the protesters were women, and 37 percent identified as nonwhite, making it far closer to representative of the United States than, say, Congress.8
Yet despite the fact that its structure was consciously collaborative and nonhierarchical, it was nevertheless a movement dominated publicly by the voices and ideas of white men. There were enough allegations of rape, groping, and sexual assault at Zuccotti Park that after several weeks, women-only tents were set up. Kanene Holder, an artist, activist, and black woman who served as one of Occupy’s spokespeople, told the Guardian that even within this progressive space, “white males are used to speaking and running things. . . . You can’t expect them to abdicate the power they have just because they are in this movement.” Eventually, Occupy had to adopt special sessions in which women were encouraged to speak uninterrupted.11
More than that, some of the righteously radical men who dominated Occupy were reportedly inhospitable to internal feminist critique. As one activist, Ren Jender, wrote after a proposal to better address sexual assault allegations was met with defensive anger from some of these radically progressive men, “I wasn’t angry with only the people who . . . said stupid, misogynistic shit . . . I was angry with the greater number of people who hadn’t confronted the misogyny.”12
Occupy was a reminder to many who agreed with its principles that the left was no more free of gender hierarchies and power abuses than the rest of the country.
Then, in 2013, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, the longtime progressive activist Alicia Garza wrote a note on Facebook, which concluded with the sentences, “Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.” The artist and activist Patrisse Khan-Cullors appended a hashtag to it, #BlackLivesMatter; the writer and community organizer Opal Tometi helped to push the message out over social media.
A movement—born of grief, horror, and unleashed fury at the persistent killing of African Americans by the state, by the police—was born. And while it, like Occupy and the Tea Party, was purposefully nonhierarchical in its internal structure, it had been founded by women, and many of the most prominent voices of the movement belonged to women, including
Brittany Packnett, Johnetta Elzie, Nekima Levy-Pounds, and Elle Hearns. Khan-Cullors later wrote of how black liberation movements of the past had been led largely by straight men, “leaving women, who are often queer or transgender, either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition. As younger organizers, we recognized a need to center the leadership of women.”13
Black Lives Matter increased national awareness of common racist policing practices that had remained largely invisible, especially to white eyes, but which millions of Americans now understand to be a systemic reality. The movement, which spread across the country and the world, staged days of protest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown; activists pioneered a new age of public demonstration, staging “die-ins,” in which protesters laid on the ground in recognition of African Americans gunned down in the streets. In 2015, in the wake of the mass killing of black churchgoers by a white man in Charleston, activist Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina State House, removing the Confederate flag that had long hung there, an act that provoked a wave of removal of statues of Confederate leaders throughout the South.
So in the years leading up to the 2016 election, there was a building, public rage—rage that had an impact on politics, on civic structures, on public spaces. More than that, there were women finding contemporary ways to broadcast their powerful, desperately felt anger to the nation. And, at least on the left, they were doing it in a way that specifically challenged patriarchal, male-dominated histories of movement-building.
But in mainstream feminism, there was a different spirit. Hot fury—expressed through public acts of protest, mass movements to the streets, or defiant profanity bellowed loudly at the powerful—was simply not the main mode of feminist expression. And it’s not that feminism itself was in remission.
What used to be called “the women’s movement” had found energetic new life in the media in the first decades of the twenty-first century. After years
of backlash, feminist journalists and bloggers had revived a conversation about gender, and many of us who participated in that conversation were angry—angry about sexism, and racism, and economic inequality, and how all of these injustices were woven together. But, perhaps anxious to differentiate ourselves from our spitting-mad forebears, many contemporary feminists (including me) had worked to make the expression of our frustrations sound agreeable, relatable, and inviting to others, including to the very men who might have a hand in oppressing us.
The popular feminist site Feministing used the ironic image of a sexy mudflap girl flipping the bird as its mascot; young feminists traded in jokey signifiers of man-hating: mugs and T-shirts reading “I bathe in male tears” and “misandry.” The hashtag #banmen conveyed frustration with bad men in a way that strenuously mocked the absurd notion that feminists hated all men. And while plenty of men’s rights activists did not see these sentiments as funny or ironic, the exaggerations radiated reassurance: that a truly abrasive challenge to patriarchy wasn’t a real political threat, rather the stuff of screen-printed punch lines.
There was a heated movement to combat sexual assault on campus, and, in 2011 and 2012, a string of vibrant street protests, dubbed Slutwalks, in which women furiously objected to the victim-blaming to which they were so often subjected. The Slutwalks were, perhaps, the first sign that a more raw grade of feminist fury was about to erupt. But they too trafficked in a kind of winking, eroticized irony: the re-embrace of a degrading but sexualized word, the “I [heart] sluts” buttons, the marchers dressed in short skirts and garters; it was all in line with another aspect of revived feminism: its exuberant positivity about sex.
“Sex positivity” was a theory that had sprung up in response to antiporn activists during ideological wars waged by another generation; it endorsed the idea that any kind of sexual behavior, from celibacy to kink, might bring women pleasure, and not on terms laid out by a misogynistic culture. In the hands of a new generation, however, it had become a kind of shorthand for boosterism, as opposed to a censor, of sex: all sex, as long as it was consensual. And it could sometimes feel as though the eagerness to express a feminist sexual appetite was a strategic attempt to obscure or distract from more unpleasant challenges to male power. So while plenty
of writers weighed in powerfully on gendered and racial injustice, many were also penning essays defending a feminist prerogative to wear makeup and sky-high heels and scanty outfits. And that was fine; it just also sent a direct message: that when it came to clashing with male sexual expectation, this wave of feminism wasn’t so spiky, wasn’t so aggressively rigid and confrontational. New, mainstream feminism was funny, hip, enthusiastic about sex . . . and kind of cool.
And, not for nothing, it worked! In the years leading up to 2016 feminism was becoming a bit trendy. There were all-women reboots of Ghostbusters and female Jedis and powerful female leads all over television—tough and complicated women created by Shonda Rhimes, feminist heroines like The Good Wife’s Alicia, and the stoned, raunchy heroines of Broad City—whose stories exposed the limitations still put on women by the patriarchy. But a lot of the critique was at a remove—analytical and observed, not vulgar, not animal. Not angry.
In 2013 Facebook mogul Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, a book looking at the disadvantages still faced by women in the workplace; it focused largely on individual behavioral strategies to get around inequities, earning sharp, fair criticism for not focusing more on systemic overhaul. This incomplete but unapologetic expression of feminist complaint, from someone who had risen within the system, became a massive bestseller.
The next year, Beyoncé performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, backed up by a recording of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’” Then up came a giant bright sign, “FEMINIST,” and Beyoncé, glittering like a disco ball, stood in front of it.
It was pop culture, packaged and polished to a high gloss. But it was also a feminist assertion—all too prescient, as it would turn out—delivered by a woman of color, citing another woman of color, a crucial but powerful correction to the ways in which media had historically (and falsely) presented the project of women’s liberation as having been led by white women. Here was a woman who had amassed enough power—had become, arguably, the most powerful person in pop music—to create her own narrative: she
was not left at the margins to yell at media about what they were getting wrong or ignoring. Beyoncé had certainly made compromises with power structures; bell hooks had described her as “this super rich, very powerful black female” who had worked “in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”14
But she also seemed to have delivered on the promise of what a new, less furious, less confrontational approach to feminism could achieve: broad, attractive appeal.
And that was it, wasn’t it? The loud angry battles waged by earlier generations of women had produced some dramatic results. An admittedly small number of women who had gained unprecedented power—within colleges and graduate schools, in business, in entertainment, in media, in politics—had begun to enjoy opportunity and power that had historically been denied. And if those women wanted to move forward, they couldn’t afford to behave in the confrontational, angry ways that had marked a past approach to a fight for something closer to actual equality. Because that challenge, that fury, would designate them as outsiders, as marginal. To have climbed within the system was to agree not to tear it down, not to remind America too aggressively of its gender and racial inequities or distract from the cheery view of progress and empowerment.
Anyone who wants power within a white male power structure has been asked to quell anything that sounds like wrath, to reassure that they come in cooperative peace and are not looking to mete out repercussion against those who have oppressed or subjugated them. Women signaling fury—by cursing, organizing, marching, yelling, threatening retribution—would have been marked as unstable forces, exactly what couldn’t happen going into a 2016 election in which there seemed for the first time in American history to be a chance that the country would elect a woman and protect the legacy of the nation’s first black president.
As Hillary Clinton geared up to run for the presidency, the stakes were far too high for the kind of anger that had been so openly and defiantly expressed by the activists—in suffrage, abolition, civil rights, feminism—whose achievements had, ironically, made her candidacy possible. Female power was visible at the Video Music Awards, it was the COO of Facebook. It was in the Ghostbusters reboot and a slick, funny feminist media, and the inevitable presidential candidate. What was there to complain about?
Any hint of truly angry, truly challenging feminist resentment behind a political movement would get written off as performed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already called it playing “the gender card,” like it was a move in a game, a put-on. Authentic expressions of resistance—marches, hunger strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins—had been useful for getting attention, banging down doors, forcing women’s way in. But the public antics and outpourings of vivid fury at an unequal system that had been useful in eras when women were so far from the inside would work against those who’d gotten inside, making them look and sound like outsiders once more.