I began reading Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger the week of Brett Kavanaugh’s second appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like so many other feminists, I found Kavanaugh’s bellicose and evasive performance utterly infuriating, and I was incensed by Republicans’ sputtering indignation that he had to address the accusations at all (here’s looking at you, Lindsey Graham). It was equally enraging to watch how cool and careful Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar had to be when questioning a red-faced, livid Kavanaugh, while Republicans simultaneously belittled the fury of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher (the women who relentlessly confronted Senator Jeff Flake in that elevator) and the other angry activists who jammed Senate offices and galleries. And then there was Donald Trump’s vicious mockery of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during a campaign rally. Don’t even get me started.
Chemaly’s book promises to make sense of these dynamic moments of public anger and is written as a manifesto for women who want to develop their “anger competence.” As part of the avalanche of calls for women to embrace their anger in the Trump/#MeToo era, this book builds on psychological studies to convince its readers that women’s anger is normal, natural, and necessary. Chemaly in fact spends much of each chapter exploring familiar feminist reasons why women should be angry: sexual harassment, gender-based violence, the “caring mandate,” “benevolent sexism,” and the thousand other ways that masculine entitlement imposes profound costs on women and girls. The kicker, Chemaly notes early in the book, is that when women express entirely rational anger about these forms of mistreatment, they are subjected to powerful gender policing, beginning at dishearteningly young ages. A publicly angry woman is viewed as a “gender violation,” and angry girls and women are dismissed, gaslighted, threatened, and/or harmed. (See especially her fascinating if depressing chapter on gender discrimination deniers.) The added salt in the wound is that if women suppress their anger, according to Chemaly, studies show they suffer increased physical and mental health problems. Voilà, a classic feminist dilemma: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Given the complex and high stakes of public anger for women, what should angry women in this political moment do? Chemaly’s answer in her final chapter is undoubtedly enticing: “Be brave,” she counsels her readers; “liberate” your anger and cultivate “a rage of your own.” “Refuse to play by the rules” that label angry men as rational and powerful and angry women as bitches; instead, “stand up for yourself and hold the communities and institutions you are part of accountable,” but do make sure you keep your anger “controlled.” Along the way, “trust other women” and quit unduly policing their anger. Finally, understand that, “reenvisioned, anger can be the most feminine of virtues: compassionate, fierce, wise, and powerful.” “All we have to do is to ‘own it.’”
I appreciate how appealing it is to think that if millions of women could simply get angry, serious feminist change would finally happen. But I find the be-a-shero and just-do-it character of Chemaly’s closing advice jarring, especially given her keen insights into the high costs of doing so. Elsewhere she acknowledges that the policing of women’s anger has never been uniform and that Black, Latina, and Asian women have faced racist assumptions about their anger, as well as harsher penalties than white women. She also mentions elsewhere that poor women often cannot risk public anger if it means the loss of a much-needed job or other source of support. Chemaly’s call to action at the end, however, sometimes reads as if women just need to show more personal grit (“be brave,” “own it”). Her proposals also seductively frame women as ideally autonomous and in control, as capable of individually cultivating, managing, and communicating their personal anger.
As alluring as Chemaly’s vision might sound to some feminists, I worry that it helps cast anger as an individual feeling to be harnessed and managed instead of the fundamentally collective, public, and power-laden practice that it is. Successful performances of anger are never private, never under anyone’s control, and definitely not available to everyone on an equal opportunity basis. Talking as if women today can single-handedly “refuse to play by the rules” avoids the hard collective work necessary to mitigate the costs and dangers to marginalized people when they do exhibit public rage. Advising women to work individually on their own anger competence can discount the long history of struggles over public anger that activist women and especially women of color have waged. (On this point, see the recent books by Rebecca Traister and Brittney Cooper.) The expression of public political anger by feminists and others is not a new phenomenon, and there is much we can learn from history and especially political movements to add to the psychological perspective that Chemaly takes up.
Like Chemaly, I am all in favor of cultivating more public anger on behalf of feminist causes.
I worry, however, that the perspective she adopts does not focus enough attention on what I have elsewhere called the “intersectional politics of public anger.” This framework centers not women’s anger but the collective, intertwined, and historically specific processes of gendering, racialization, and other forms of differentiation that make some public performances of anger far more powerful than others. This intersectional perspective avoids essentialist assumptions that women’s anger will be deployed for progressive causes, which the surge of conservative women’s activism today belies, or that men’s anger will always be in service of heterosexist projects. It also reveals ways that feminists and their allies can navigate and hopefully leverage the politics of anger while simultaneously being attentive to complex dynamics of racialization, empire, class, ability, sexual privilege, and more. This perspective, finally, constantly reminds us that anger as a political practice or strategy can never “belong” solely to the Left, however righteous we feel our causes are.
The Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Trump’s campaign rallies, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter activism, pro-immigrant protests, and any number of other recent political struggles have confirmed the essential role that public anger plays in the political world we currently occupy. On this, Chemaly and I agree: we cannot and should not disavow public anger, particularly not in favor of some sedate notion of civility. Instead, our struggles to define, inhabit, and “do” anger are a vital and necessary part of democratic politics that feminists absolutely must take up, together.
Holloway Sparks is a political theorist and a scholar of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies who writes about the racialized and gendered politics of political dissent. She teaches at Georgia State University and Agnes Scott College, and is a Visiting Research Scholar for the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Project at Emory University’s School of Law in Atlanta. This essay was originally published by Signs, as part of a Short Takes forum on Rage Becomes Her, which also includes essays by Shoshanna Ehrlich, Jamia Wilson, and Andi Zeisler. The full forum is available on the Signs website