Reading the book Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly made me so angry! At the beginning of each chapter as Chemaly introduced an issue that women are angry about, I thought “That’s not me,” but by the end of that same chapter, after reading the descriptions of women’s experiences backed up by facts and statistics, I was engulfed by rage and anger. Chapter after chapter, reading about all the ways women are angry and why they are angry, I became more and more angry.
I have spent a lot of time with my anger, reading and even writing about women’s anger, and still I often find myself avoiding conflict because I don’t want to seem angry, don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to be the one, that one, or even worse risking; ostracization, talking behind my back, and isolation.
It’s a strange catch-22 that women of all races and sexual orientation have trouble expressing their anger productively while at the same time, when they do, their anger is not listened to or taken seriously.
Women are angry, they are enraged and Chemaly lays out all the reasons why, yet they are continuously and effectively silenced by themselves—constantly policing their own feeling and expressions of anger—and the culture they live in.
Ignoring women’s anger means ignoring their feelings, and experiences. This is a terrible situation for everyone. It also creates a dynamic in which women’s anger, because there is no place to safely express it, often becomes thwarted, misdirected and toxic. I think we have all been sliced by that cold sword. As a culture we must strive to address this so that we can move into a more equitable living arrangement.
“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”(xiv).
Women engage in what Chemaly calls “pre-emptive self-condemnation” around their anger(14). She writes: “I have always understood that being seen as an “angry woman”—sometimes simply for sharing my thoughts out loud—would cast me as over emotional, irrational, “passionate,” maybe hysterical, and certainly a “not-objective” and fuzzy thinker”(xvii).
Haven’t all women felt this way? Or worse, haven’t they struggled to even become aware of what they are feeling as they push down their feelings and simmer for weeks, feel irritable, or snap at the people they are not angry with because it is not safe to express their anger to those they are angry with and in the situation about which they feel angry?
Chemaly reveals how women are constantly calculating what they can say to stay true to themselves while not sounding “bitchy,” to stay safe, to keep their job or not risk assault. Women are constantly monitoring and policing themselves and each other because of these constraints on and risks associated with their expressions of anger, indeed these restrictions on even feeling their feelings. She examines the negative impact this has on women’s bodies and mental health. Suppressing anger can lead to depression, isolation, or worse, suicide, and yet it is still seen “unwomanly” to express it.
“It took me so 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 silencing, 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”(xxii).
Why only women? Because as Chemaly reveals in her book, it is specifically the gender based rules around women’s and men’s expression of their anger that contribute to this travesty.
“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 pubic 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”(xv).
And then more importantly she states:
“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?”(xviii)
Ungendering anger. Now that feels like a very good idea.
Rage Becomes Her is exhaustive in its coverage of women’s relationship with their anger, including chapters about anger in girls, women’s relationships to anger with regard to their body image, their size and the constant objectification of their bodies, anger and expressions of physical pain and that expression of pain not being taken seriously by others, being forced into the role and expectation of being a caregiver or nurturer and how anger does not fit into the current image of this role, anger and motherhood and anger around being policed around our choices around reproduction or lack of access to reproductive health care, anger around the constant risk of being assaulted, catcalled and in danger EVERYWHERE, anger at having to teach our daughters about the risks of being assaulted, anger around being underestimated, erased, and misrepresented, written out of history, looked down on, seen as inferior, not believed or listened to, not held in the same regard or esteem as men, anger over harassment and denial of the truth of women’s experiences. Phew! Boy are women angry. It’s enraging.
It is crucial to continue conversation and public discourse with people of all gender identifications about listening to women when they are angry so that it is heard and attended to and people who identify as women can begin to have more ease around these feelings when they arise. It is not only men who silence women’s anger. Women police each other on this too.
Men or people who identify as male tend to be empowered by their anger and the ability to express it more freely. And that makes sense because anger and a feeling of powerlessness go hand in hand. And yet women are not allowed to feel anger as a gateway to power. That is absolutely taboo.
This book is important. It effectively sheds light on this issue and helps the reader get in touch with all the ways they are angry and feel into all the ways they are denying, repressing, and undermining their power and authority by doing so. The final two chapters of the book bring forward tips, ideas and ways for women to more effectively feel and express their anger.
But for me the huge takeaway from this book is this idea of ungendering anger.
The strict and unfair binary difference in the ways those who identify as male or female are allowed to engage with their feelings of anger is taught to children as they are growing up, modeled by the adults around them and reinforced by the culture depending on which binary they identify with as they age. It is an agreement we have made as a culture and one that needs to renegotiating. These rules and prohibitions around anger expression intersect in different ways depending on one’s race as well.
Research has shown that “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”(xx).
I find this to be a ground breaking and a way forward. Finally. There is no female anger or male anger. There is anger and everyone gets to have it and learn to express it productively and be listened to regardless of gender identification, race, religion, sexual orientation. Everyone gets a seat at the table which allows full expression of themselves, their feelings and their anger. Imagine that.
Get this book. Read it. Get angry. Be brave enough to explore your anger and the ways you are angry and how you do or do not express that anger and then take the conversation to your family, community, and the world. Everyone needs it.
Soraya Chemaly is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino
Chemaly, Soraya. Rage becomes her: The Power of Women’s Anger. N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 2018.