Rage Becomes Her
INTRODUCTION NICE TO MEET YOU, RAGE
My parents’ 1965 wedding was a lavish affair that went on for more than twenty hours, with over five hundred guests in attendance. Photos show glamorous women in long evening gowns and smiling men in carefully tailored black tie standing, in glittering groups, around a cake that covered the expanse of a five-foot square table.
Among the most prized gifts my parents received that day was their wedding china. These white-and-gold plates were more than an expensive gesture: they were an important symbol of adulthood and their community’s and family’s approval of marriage in general and of this marriage in particular. For my mother, they represented a core aspect of her identity: that of being a woman, soon to be mother, the nurturer of her family. Growing up, these look-but-don’t-touch dishes were at the top of a hierarchy of plates that my mother established. When my siblings and I were small,
we used them only on the rarest and most special occasions and always with great care.
That’s why, one day when I was fifteen, I was dumbfounded to see my mother standing on the long veranda outside our kitchen, chucking one china plate after another as far and as hard as she could into the hot, humid air. Our kitchen was on the second floor of a house that sat perched at the top of a long, rolling hill. I watched each dish soar through the atmosphere, its weight generating a sharp, steady trajectory before shattering into pieces on the terrace far below.
While the image is vivid in my mind, I have no memory of any sound. What I remember most was that there was no noise at all as my mother methodically threw one, then another, then another, over and over until her hands were finally free. She didn’t utter a sound the entire time. I have no idea if she even knew anyone was watching. When she was done, she walked back into the kitchen and asked me how my school day had gone, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I desperately wanted to know what I had witnessed, but it didn’t feel like a good time to ask questions, so I sat and worked on my homework as my mother prepared dinner and the day morphed into night. We never talked about anger.
Why do we so rarely learn how to be angry?
Like most of us, I learned about anger in a vacuum of information, by watching the people around me: what they did with their anger, how they responded to other people when they were mad. I don’t remember my parents or other adults ever talking to me about anger directly. Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger. It turns out that, for girls, this is par for the course. While parents talk to girls about emotions more than they do to boys, anger is excluded. Reflect with me for a moment: How did you first learn to think about emotions, and anger in particular? Can you remember having any conversations with authority figures
or role models about how to think about your anger or what to do with it? If you are a woman, chances are the answer is no.
As far as my own early understanding of anger, the plate-throwing incident said it all. My mother may have been livid, but she gave every appearance of being cheerful and happy. By staying silent and choosing this particular outlet for her feelings, she communicated a trove of information: for example, that anger was experienced in isolation and was not worth sharing verbally with others. That furious feelings are best kept to oneself. That when they do inevitably come out, the results can be scary, shocking, and destructive.
My mother was acting in a way that remains typical for many women: she was getting her anger “out,” but in a way that explicitly separated it from her relationships. Most women report feeling the angriest in private and interpersonal settings. They also prioritize their relationships—at home, work, and even in political contexts—in determining, consciously or not, if and
how to express negative emotions.
Throwing plates is an example of a coping mechanism, but it is not an effective or healthy way to express anger. Coping often involves self-silencing and feelings of powerlessness. Getting anger out in this way is not the same as envisioning anger as a transitional tool that helps you to change the world around you. Plate throwing did, however, allow my mother to be angry without seeming angry. In this way, it allowed her to be a “good” woman, which, significantly, meant not being demanding, loud, or expressing her own needs. Even though this episode happened more than thirty-five years ago, it remains true that social norms continue to dictate how we think and feel about emotions, especially when it comes to women and anger.
But first, what happens when we experience anger? Feeling anger involves a constellation of factors, including physiology, genetics, and cognitive processing. These make up the character of anger. For example, you might be a person who tends to get angry quickly, known as “trait anger”; or you might be slower to anger and experience
it mainly when provoked. That is called “state anger.” Context is equally critical, however. Our responses to provocation, our assessments, and our judgments always involve a back-and-forth between character and context. Where you are and who you may be angry with, as well as the broader social construction of anger (part of what’s called an “emotional culture”) matter.
While we experience anger internally, it is mediated culturally and externally by other people’s expectations and social prohibitions. Roles and responsibilities, power and privilege are the framers of our anger. Relationships, culture, social status, exposure to discrimination, poverty, and access to power all factor into how we think about, experience, and utilize anger. Different countries, regions—even neighboring communities in the same state—have been shown to have anger profiles, exhibiting different patterns of behavior and social dynamics. So, for example, in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it
is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men, as criminality; and in black women, as threat. In the Western world, which this book focuses on, anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”
Anger is also not unidirectional but part of endless mental, physical, and intellectual feedback loops that operate below our conscious understanding. It is sometimes called a “secondary” emotion—resulting from other, often hidden, feelings of shame or fear. You might not always identify anger as part of what may be causing you discomfort, pain, or distress, but chances are that if you look closely, unexpressed or inadequately expressed anger plays a part in what you are experiencing. For some of us, being angry causes anxiety, which, in turn, makes us angrier. For others, anger becomes part of our bodies, causing physical discomfort, which then makes us short tempered, unhappy, and impairs our health. These anger feedback loops often directly implicate unacknowledged social injustice. One of the most common feedback loops that women live
with involves anger caused by discrimination that, if denied, intensifies, increasing stress and its effects.
Of course, everyone feels anger. Studies show that differences between men’s and women’s experiences of feeling angry are virtually nonexistent. Where there is a difference, they defy stereotypes about men being the so-called angry sex. For a variety of reasons, which we will explore, women report feeling anger more frequently, more intensely, and for
longer periods of time than men do. Most episodes involving anger do not involve physical interactions but verbal ones, and women are more likely than men to use angry and aggressive language. Additionally, men more frequently associate feeling powerful with experiencing anger, but women, notably, associate powerlessness with their anger.
If everyone feels anger, why focus on women? Why does gender matter?
Because while women and men feel anger similarly, there are stark differences in how we respond to those feelings and how they are received by the people around us. Men and women also tend to have different physiological responses to anger-stimulating provocation. Gender-role expectations, often overlapping with racial-role expectations, dictate the degree to which we can use anger effectively in personal contexts and to participate in civic and political life. Despite differences, women’s responses are routinely ignored in public discussion, in analyses of anger dynamics, and in many
proposed “anger management” solutions.
Binary gender schemas are being challenged and dismantled every day, but they still profoundly govern our lives. Gender schemas—organizing generalizations that we learn early in life—simplify the world around us, but they also reproduce problematic discrimination. Male and female categories assigned at birth immediately form the basis, in our families, for how we assign roles, attributes, responsibilities, and status. They determine just as powerfully how we experience our feelings, as well as how they are perceived and responded to by others.
At home, children still learn quickly that for boys and men, anger reinforces traditional gender expectations, but that for girls and women, anger confounds them. It’s as children that most of us learn to regard anger as unfeminine, unattractive, and selfish. Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others, making us irksome and unlikeable. That it will alienate our loved ones or put off people we want to attract. That it will twist our faces, make us ugly. This is true even for those of us who have to use anger to defend ourselves in charged and dangerous situations. As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.
On the other hand, anger and masculinity are powerfully enmeshed and reinforce one another. In boys and men, anger has to be controlled, but it is often seen as a virtue, especially when it is used to protect, defend, or lead. Anger is thought of in terms of disruption, loudness, authority, vulgarity, and physical aggression and domination, and couched in terms of violence and clichés of masculinity. Boys learn early on about anger, but far less about other feelings, which handicaps them—and society—in different ways. Socially discouraged from seeming feminine (in other words, being empathetic, vulnerable, and compassionate), their emotional alternatives often come down to withdrawal or aggressive expressions of anger.
As we move from our families to our communities, we become engaged in systems that distribute not only resources and cultural capital but also emotional expression. Gender combines with race, class, age, and other aspects of our identities and social status to alter how we behave and are treated.
There is not a woman alive who does not understand that women’s anger is openly reviled. We don’t need books, studies, theories, or specialists to tell us this. During the past several years, I’ve spoken to thousands of girls and women at schools, conferences, and corporations.
Without fail, afterward they come up to me to say the same two things: they want to know how to stand up for themselves “without sounding angry or bitter,” and they want to share stories about how, when they do express anger about issues specifically relevant to their lives as women, people respond with doubt and often aggression.
Women experience discrimination differently, but we share the experience—in anger or merely when simply speaking assertively—of being told we are “crazy,” “irrational,” even “demonic.” If we are worried, and, as studies show, compelled to repackage, ignore, divert, or trivialize our anger, it is because we well understand the costs of displaying it. Our society is infinitely creative in finding ways to dismiss and pathologize women’s rage. I have always understood that being seen as an “angry woman”—sometimes simply for sharing my thoughts out loud—would cast me as overemotional, irrational, “passionate,” maybe hysterical, and certainly a “not-objective” and fuzzy thinker.
When a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikeable—the kiss of death for a class of people expected to maintain social connections. The same people who might opt to work for an angry-sounding, aggressive man are likely to be less tolerant of the same behavior if the boss were a woman. When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their own positions and defer to his. But when a woman acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the opposite response. For some of us, considered angry by nature and default, the risks of asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, or speaking out in support of issues that are important to us can be significant. Black girls and women, for example, routinely silenced by “Angry Black Woman” stereotypes have to contend with abiding dangers of institutionalized violence that might result from their expressing justifiable rage. The fact that men, as studies find, consider anger power enhancing
in a way that women don’t, makes sense because for men, anger is far more likely to be power enhancing.
The lessons are subtle and consistent. We go from being “cute princesses,” to “drama queens,” to “high-maintenance bitches.” Girls who object to unfairness or injustice are often teased and taunted. Adult women are described as oversensitive or exaggerating. Representations and responses like these, whether in families or in popular culture, teach us that our anger is not something we or anyone else should take seriously. Women come to expect and dread mockery and ridicule as likely responses to their anger. This persistent denial of subjectivity, knowledge, and reasonable concerns—commonly known as gaslighting—is deeply harmful and often abusive. Women’s anticipation of negative responses is why so many women remain silent about what they need, want, and feel, and why so many men can easily choose ignorance and dominance over intimacy.
Women’s anger is usually disparaged in virtually all arenas, except those in which anger confirms gender-role stereotypes about women as nurturers and reproductive agents. This means we are allowed to be angry but not on our own behalves. If a woman is angry in her “place,” as a mother or a teacher, for example, she is respected, and her anger is generally understood and acceptable. If, however, she transgresses and is angry in what is thought of as a men’s arena—such as traditional politics or the workplace—she is almost always penalized in some way.
Women aren’t somehow magically protected from these ideas and social norms. We frequently internalize them, seeing our anger as incompatible with our primary designated roles as caretakers. Even the incipient suggestion of anger—in themselves or in other women—makes some women profoundly uncomfortable. In an effort not to seem angry, we ruminate. We go out of our way to look “rational” and “calm.” We minimize our anger, calling it frustration, impatience, exasperation, or irritation, words that don’t convey the intrinsic social and public demand that anger does. We learn to
contain our selves: our voices, hair, clothes, and, most importantly, speech. Anger is usually about saying “no” in a world where women are conditioned to say almost anything but “no.” Even our technology incorporates these ideas, in deferential female-voiced virtual assistants (Siri, Alexa, and Cortana come to mind) for whom the responses “yes” and “what can I do for you?” are prime directives and raisons d’être.
A cultivated feminine habit of prioritizing the needs of others and putting people at ease frequently puts us at a disadvantage. In particular, girls and women learn to put aside anger in order to de-escalate tension or conflict, lowering the temperature of encounters or situations that put us or others at risk. We understand that abandoning our anger is a necessary adaptation to a perpetual undercurrent of possible male violence. In a society where male violence toward women is a reality for many of us, we simply cannot know how a man—whether someone familiar or a stranger—will respond and if he will be violent. We can only trust, hope, and minimize risk.
Layered on top of these habits is pervasive silence around the fact that we are constantly making these assessments. And so, as we will see, the men around us at home, school, and work often actively deny our experiences or can be ignorant of the constant calculus we make when it comes to expressing ourselves. If men knew how truly angry the women around them often are—and understood the structures enforcing women’s silence—they would be staggered.
It’s important to note, up front, how much these behaviors are learned and tied to gender specifically. There are plenty of men who exhibit stereotypically “female” anger behaviors, just as many women display “male” habits. People who score higher for masculine traits are more likely to express their anger openly and to feel comfortable doing so, whereas those who are more feminine exhibit more control over their anger, often masking it in other expressions. Androgynous, nonbinary/gender-fluid people, freer from
gender-based displays and roles, tend to be able to express anger more productively and, in general, to develop a robust ability to control
and use their emotions more effectively.
Anger is like water. No matter how hard a person tries to dam, divert, or deny it, it will find a way, usually along the path of least resistance. As I will discuss in this book, women often “feel” their anger in their bodies. Unprocessed, anger threads itself through our appearances, bodies, eating habits, and relationships, fueling low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and actual physical illness. The harms are more than physical, however. Gendered ideas about anger make us question ourselves, doubt our feelings, set aside our needs, and renounce our own capacity for moral conviction. Ignoring anger makes us careless with ourselves and allows society to be careless with us. It is notable, however, that treating women’s anger and pain in these ways makes it easier to exploit us—for reproduction, labor, sex, and ideology.
Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all 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. It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult.
Like many women, I am still constantly being reminded that it’s “better” if women didn’t “seem so angry.” What does “better” mean, exactly? And why does it fall so disproportionately on the shoulders of women to be “better” by putting aside anger in order to “understand” and to forgive and forget? Does it make us “good” people? Is
it healthy? Does it enable us to protect our interests, bring change to struggling communities, or upend failing systems?
An unqualified no.
Mainly, it props up a profoundly corrupt status quo.
When we are angry and expect a reasonable response, we are walking, talking refutations of this status quo. In expressing anger and demanding to be heard, we reveal the deeper belief that we can engage with and shape the world around us—a right that, until now, has almost always been reserved for men. Saying “I am angry” is a necessary first step to “Listen.” “Believe me.” “Trust me.” “I know.” “Time to do something.” When a girl or woman is angry, she is saying “What I am feeling, thinking, and saying matters.” As the treatment of our anger and the state of our politics vividly confirm, this is not an assurance that we can take for granted.
This is the real danger of our anger: it makes it clear
that we take ourselves seriously. This is true in our homes and in our public lives. By effectively severing anger from “good womanhood,” we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.
That anger metaphors are filled with kitchen imagery—anger simmers and smolders before reaching a boiling point; a person has to “mull things over” and “cool off”; we are supposed to “contain” or “put a lid” on our anger, or it will leave a bad “taste in the mouth”—strikes me as more than an interesting coincidence. As women, we often have to bite our tongues, eat our words, and swallow our pride. It’s almost, as one of my daughters put it, as if we are supposed to keep our anger in the kitchen. Where we might, for example, throw plates.
I don’t throw plates, but I do throw words. It took me years to acknowledge my own anger, and when I did, I didn’t know what to do with it. I had the distinct sensation of being alien to myself—which was ironic, since the real inauthenticity was in my denying
anger, not my recognizing it. Now I write and write and write. I write my rage onto paper and into bits and bytes. I write anger out of my head and my body and put it out in the world where, frankly, it belongs. This can cause deep discomfort in the people around me, and, at times, it has brought personal or professional costs. But it also leads to richer and more productive experiences, relationships, and life outcomes. It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say “You sound angry” are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask “Why?” They’re interested in silence, not dialogue. This response to women expressing anger happens on larger and larger scales: in schools, places of worship, the workplace, and politics. A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women—not as human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens.
Women around the world are clearly angry and acting on that emotion. That means, inevitably, a backlash often among “moderates” who are fond of disparaging angry women as dangerous and unhinged. It is easier to criticize the angry women than to ask the questions “What is making you so angry?” and “What can we do about it?”—the answers to which have disruptive and revolutionary implications.
There is real urgency behind these questions. We are living in what feels like an age of pronounced rage and near-constant outrage. There is a lot to be angry about, and everywhere you turn, people seem furious, indignant, and impatient. Every time I see a bold, outspoken, and unapologetically angry woman, I applaud her because of what her expression represents culturally.
This book is about shifting our public understanding of anger. It is about why girls and women saying the words “I am angry” matters to us as individuals and to our society. It is not an endorsement of unbridled rage, or permission to deliver a swift roundhouse kick to the face of anyone who upsets you, or to regularly fill the spaces you live and work in with hostility and discomfort. It’s also distinctly not
a self-help or anger management book. Self-help, different from self-efficacy, is frequently what you do when you aren’t getting the help you need from your society. We cannot “self-help” our way to being heard, taken seriously, paid fairly, cared for adequately, or treated with dignity. We cannot “self-help” our way to peace or to justice.
This book is, rather, an interrogation of questions that demand our attention, such as: What would it mean to ungender our emotions? What would the world look like if all of us were allowed to experience and productively express the full range of our emotions without penalty? What if girls and women were not so often and effectively cut off from this particular emotion as a function of being feminine? What do we lose, personally and as a society, by not listening to women’s anger or respecting it when it does have a voice? And, importantly, how does our treatment of women’s “anger-free emotionality” relate to democracy and put us at risk of authoritarianism?
My hope is that Rage Becomes Her will change our thinking about anger, gender, emotional life, and their political impacts. I hope that it will arm you with tools to see yourself and your environment more clearly, ultimately improving both your life and the lives of those in your orbit. Because the truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way—it is our way. All we have to do is own it.