Like any emotion, anger is easy to recognize but difficult to define. We know it when we see it, and certainly when we feel it, yet most definitions struggle to wholly capture it. Philosophers sometimes describe anger as a response to the feeling that something one values has been wronged or harmed. Biologists might explain it as a feeling of pain or discomfort or anxiety, accompanied by the release of hormones, like adrenaline, that increase blood pressure. Psychologists often classify it as a secondary emotion—one that follows from a primary reaction, such as fear or shame, and can take many affective forms, from tears to screaming to silence.
This definitional slipperiness inevitably haunts any effort to make anger into a political tool—what, exactly, is being valorized, an ethical objection or a rush of adrenaline? But one thing is clear: responses to anger depend, to a remarkable degree, on whether the person expressing it is a man or a woman. In “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger” (Atria), the writer and activist Soraya Chemaly notes early on that women “don’t need books, studies, theories, or specialists” to prove how reviled our anger is. We are all familiar with the stereotypes whereby femininity demands the suppression of anger while masculinity rewards its expression, and whereby angry women are hysterical harpies but angry men—white men, at any rate—are heroes. Rather than dwell on how female rage is received, Chemaly presents a thoroughgoing assessment of its causes: an account, organized thematically, of the private and public abuse, bias, and discrimination faced by women.
The result is both relentless and revelatory. American women between the ages of eighteen and forty-four are nearly twice as likely as men to report feeling exhausted every day; women, if they have sex with men, have fewer orgasms than their male partners; they make less money than their male colleagues; of the thirty highest-paying job categories, twenty-six are dominated by men, while women dominate twenty-three of the thirty lowest-paying categories; female patients are treated for pain less often than male patients who present with the same symptoms; one in four women lives with domestic violence; one in five women has been sexually assaulted; and two-thirds of women have experienced street harassment, roughly half of them before they turned seventeen. Chemaly deftly balances these statistics with grim stories to illustrate them, so that the cumulative effect of reading her book is not merely to legitimize women’s anger but to render it astonishing that we are not even angrier.
All the facts that Chemaly musters were true before the most recent Presidential election, but in its wake many women are refusing to stay quiet about their experiences. Chemaly says that she is calling for a change in our cultural thinking on anger, gender, and politics, but in truth she is responding to one that has already begun. It was on display on January 21, 2017, the day of the first Women’s March, and since then has grown steadily more prominent, and strikingly more personal, with the #MeToo movement. Chemaly’s book has autobiographical passages—many of her female relatives get vivid cameos—but she chooses not to emphasize her own story. By contrast, the Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper builds a manifesto mostly from memoir. “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower” (St. Martin’s Press) considers African-American feminists from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé, but it is chiefly a chronicle of how Cooper learned to stop disguising and dismissing her own anger.
Cooper writes movingly about coming of age as a black woman in the Baptist Church and on the campus of Howard University—two bastions of black power and, in her experience, black patriarchy. She describes carrying around Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” like a “feminist bible,” and it is mostly from Lorde that she derives her account of how rage can be made useful. Lorde owns anger the way that Monet owns water lilies; no one writing about the emotion today can ignore her address at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 1981. Delivering “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”—a title too often abridged at the colon—Lorde described the bigotry within the feminist movement, and then argued that anger was an appropriate response, because when “focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
It was essential for Cooper to develop that focus, she says, in order to make use of her anger: “The clarity that comes from rage should also tell us what kind of world we want to see, not just what kind of things we want to get rid of.” Focus, of course, is really the ability to adjust our vision, measuring one thing accurately against another, and Cooper’s attention to the complex dynamics of anger is illuminating even for readers who don’t agree with the positions she ultimately takes. She weighs her desire to join the first Women’s March as an act of feminist solidarity against her anger over the long-standing failure of white feminists to make common cause with women of color. (In the end, she skips the march, but feels ambivalent about the decision.) She considers her frustration that President Obama did not send troops to rescue the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram alongside her wariness about “getting in bed at any level with the logics of patriarchy and militarism.” (Despite those qualms, she wishes Obama had done more for the girls, many of whom have still not been found.)
That sort of self-critical reflection is often missing from the journalist Rebecca Traister’s “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger” (Simon Schuster). Traister, who covered both of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaigns, is a kind of feminist first responder who writes often and sometimes instantly about sexism in America. Her columns and profiles for New York magazine are astute accounts of the daily attacks on women’s rights, and the argument she makes in her book is partly one of accretion. Women’s rage, she claims, has long fuelled progressive social change, and the women galvanized by Trump’s election are part of a grand tradition of radicalism. Traister sees parallels between the participants in the Women’s March and the members of the National Women’s Political Caucus who protested when the press failed to cover their presence at the 1972 Democratic National Convention; between the gun-control activist Emma González and the labor activist Rose Schneiderman; between the men who demand smiles from women today and those who, in previous centuries, put women in branks (a metal muzzle, also known as a scold’s bridle, used to silence and publicly humiliate those who were forced to wear it); between the women of #MeToo and those who stormed Versailles during the French Revolution; between herself when she published an angry column and Rosa Parks who, as a girl, picked up a brick and threatened to throw it at a white boy who was bullying her.
Traister writes, “I had no idea how old and deep and urgent was women’s impulse to sometimes just let their fury out without a care to how it would be evaluated, even if that expression of rage put them at risk: in young Rosa Parks’s case, at risk of death; in my case, at risk of being mocked on the internet.” Of course, the Internet these days is very much real life, and abuse there can lead to abuse offline, but the problem with Traister’s comparison is that no semicolon can bridge the gap between those two experiences. That is, in fact, a problem with the book over all: juxtaposition is not a sufficient structure for a political argument. Traister focusses on isolated episodes of anger among progressive women of various races, classes, and eras, while failing to adequately reckon with crucial differences among the circumstances that provoked their anger and the ways in which they chose to respond to it.
But those aren’t superficial differences. They are critical distinctions that lead some angry women to be applauded while others are attacked, and that lead many rebellions to fail while only a few revolutions succeed. Traister writes that she does not wish “simply to cheer” anger, and acknowledges that the rage that fuels insurrections “has the power to burn them up.” But her case for ire is undermined by a rampaging elephant in the room: anger knows no political persuasion. For every Maxine Waters, there’s a Michele Bachmann; for every Gloria Steinem, a Phyllis Schlafly. At the same time that Chemaly, Cooper, and Traister were watching their own angry takes and rage-filled tweets go viral, Ann Coulter, Candace Owens, and Jeanine Pirro were watching theirs do the same.
This failure to parse politically inconvenient anger is, as Ogden Nash once put it, “a notable feat / of one-way thinking on a two-way street.” “Eloquent Rage,” “Good and Mad,” and “Rage Becomes Her” give little space to Sarah Palin, the women of the Tea Party, and the legions of women who—in what they, too, feel is an expression of righteous anger—lend their voices to the anti-abortion movement. All of the books do, however, acknowledge a fact that undercuts their attempts to valorize women’s anger: one of the angriest demographics in America before the 2016 Presidential election was white women, and the majority of them voted for Donald Trump.