I was having lunch at a local cafe a couple of weeks ago when I ran into the mom of one my son’s friends. She was with a friend, and since they grabbed the table next to mine, we exchanged chit chat about our kids’ ages and the fun/hell of travel sports. It could have been any conversation from any year and anywhere in the suburbs.
But somehow, five minutes in, this mom I know to always be smiling, this woman I just met, and I were fuming over the Trump impeachment hearings, reliving the horror of the Senate vote to ban witnesses, and the shock that so many elected officials had chosen to ignore the rule of law and the will of the people.
We wound up half-picking at our salads and no longer laughing about getting kids off of Fortnite, but stewing instead.
It struck me in a big way that the world has fundamentally changed. Women are fed the eff up. This anger is connecting women—women from different backgrounds who you wouldn’t expect to be so shaken to the core by the injustices of the system.
Ire Is All Around Us
We know the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are here and are supposed to help us feel vindicated. You’d think we’d feel better that Harvey Weinstein was convicted of at least two charges. But the women who’ve worked for lecherous men are often still steaming mad—at the powerful men and at those in charge—male or female—who ignored or squelched their complaints. When the #MeToo narrative gets binary (women good/men bad), I think about how there are women who protect powerful men by squashing women who try to speak up. Many women get access to a more powerful world by doing just that.
All of this is the subject of a trio of excellent books: Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger; Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her; and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. They focus on different aspects of female rage, but they all point out that women’s anger has played a crucial role in shaping history. It is female anger as superpower, a catalyst—the exact thing that the world needs—to spark positive change, a change that happens without women getting any credit for it.
“Whenever there are times of political crisis and tumult, there is a little more social acceptance for women being obviously angry,” says Chemaly, who is director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. “We see this in periods of revolution or crisis cyclically, over and over again in history.”
Traister points to many examples, including women in 1789 France taking to the streets over high bread prices and kickstarting the French Revolution and enraged women of different faiths in Liberia in 2005 coming together to protest and call for the end of the war, which came two years later with the election of Liberia’s first female president.
It’s little surprise that women haven’t gotten credit for our seminal role, that, in fact, we’re taught that anger on a woman is unbecoming. While some of these gender differences are due to nature, the rest is nurture. And Chemaly says this schooling starts young: “By the time kids go into elementary school, they associate angry facial expressions with men and masculinity. And by the time we’re adults, anger itself is the moral property of men because it’s so closely associated with men and so divorced from femininity and good womanhood.”
Anger and the Gender Gap
So when guys act in ways that confirm this gender expectation, they are rewarded. For example, Brent Kavanaugh’s approval ratings went up with conservatives after his injudicious outbursts But women are penalized. Just look at how Hillary Clinton gets vilified for owning her resting bitch face.
And you don’t have to be on a public stage to pay a steep price for getting pissed off: “When a woman claims anger, she is transgressing. She’s not confirming her gender role,” Chemaly explains. “If she does that as a lawyer, she’s penalized. If she does it as a boss, she’s penalized. Studies over and over again show that people find her less trustworthy, less competent, less likable, less hirable.” For men, the research shows, it’s the exact opposite.
The Anger-Stress Equation
But even beyond the political world, we aren’t sure what to do with our swelling fury. There is so much to be angry about. Friends in many industries complain to me that they are the ones (not their male bosses) who get let go or hastily transferred to another division or outer office when business is bad. We feel disposable and invisible, especially as we age, and the pressure builds.
“We’re so stressed!” Or are we actually so angry? Stress can in fact be unexpressed anger, Chemaly points out. But when it’s called stress, it’s our problem, with worthless solutions. “If we say we’re stressed, we’re supposed to like light candles and take a bath. How silly is that?”
In reaction to a news story showing that women’s stress is epidemic, Chemaly recently tweeted. “What difference would it make if we stopped saying we’re stressed and we actually said we’re angry?” Because, she explains, when you say you’re stressed, it is your problem. “But if you say you’re angry you’re holding people accountable, and that makes them uncomfortable and responsible.”
I have my own story of career stress/anger. A year before I was downsized from a job, I was told by a person in power that though my work was excellent, anyone making the good amount I was making (which was media-good, not banker-good, mind you) had a target on their back.
I was being hunted. That’s a weird concept to think about as you blow-dry your hair and head to the office to do 18 jobs and try to keep everyone else happy because as soon as someone leaves, you know you’ll have a 19th job, too. It’s hunting season, rabbit, and you’re the prey.
At work, I kept it all together. I needed the job and was, frankly, exhausted. Being a working mom with a long commute didn’t leave me time to shave my legs (thank God for the leggings trend), let alone prep for what a job search entails today. All I could do was hate-click on posts like “5 Stupid Resume Mistakes Only People Over 40 Make” and die a little inside.
But at night, at home, I would hear those words (“there’s a target on your back”) and burn with anger. They were hoping to scare me into quitting so they didn’t owe me severance, I would think as I seethed. I developed a near-constant migraine and threw my back out twice. I erupted into mysterious hives that had me on steroids that tamped down my body’s defense system.
What Anger Does to Our Health
As it turns out, unexpressed anger is very bad for our health. Getting overwhelmed with anger on a regular basis can cause an inflammatory response in the body, and stewing in it is a particularly toxic way to handle this emotion. “Anger affects all of our systems—our cardiovascular system, endocrine systems, immune system,” Chemaly notes. While it’s not simple cause and effect, there’s a correlation. “Suppressed anger and self-silenced anger are predictive of illnesses like eating disorders, cutting behaviors, anxiety, and depression,” she says.
Worse yet, bottled-up anger can be a death sentence. In an 18-year-long study at the University of Michigan, women with repressed anger were three times as likely to die from any cause during the study as women who didn’t have this trait.
Women are far more likely than men to suffer from physical pain and autoimmune disorders that cause the body to attack itself, with anger playing a role. “What research shows is that people who can write down how they’re feeling about anger, they feel less pain,” says Chemaly. “Acknowledging the anger and making meaning of it means that it’s less likely to become negatively material in your body.”
Exploding in anger, on the other hand, isn’t great for your health. The risk of having a heart attack is about five times as high in the two hours after you blow up than it is normally, according to a study published in European Heart Journal.
So how can we make something positive come out of this emotion? Chemaly says that simply being aware of our annoyance is a good first step. Many women grow up so divorced from what we are feeling in our bodies that we can’t recognize this powerful emotion—which is actually a vital step to defusing it.
Female Anger and the Upside of Rage
This potent emotion can be used to problem solve. One way to constructively tap anger is to talk to someone who is implicated in what you need, Chemaly says. In other words: Hold them accountable.
One example springs to mind. Our longtime babysitter’s house burned down in a fire two Christmases ago. She hired a contractor who has taken their money and under-delivered. Her husband told her to not make waves, but she was rightfully furious. This contractor had her money and wasn’t showing up to do work. She just wanted her home back. So what did she do? She told the contractor off, and he replied, “I don’t want to deal with you. Have your husband call me.” She said, “No, you’re going to be dealing with me now.” Then she went to City Hall and got herself an ally with power who read the contractor the riot act, amplifying her voice. Fingers crossed, they may be back in their house soon.
Anger also has the power to help us build communities. It’s exactly what I experienced at the local cafe, and the side benefit so many of us have found attending marches and becoming active against gun violence or other social issues that enrage us. “Find people who share the way you feel, because you can find companionship and compassion in those communities,” Chemaly says.
What’s more, it’s a powerful way to bring about real change. Chemaly cites the recent example of the walkout of Google employees over the company’s handling of sexual harassment. An eruption had to happen en masse to make a difference, she points out, versus a few individuals sounding off. “If you’re angry at work, chances are other people are angry. If you’re angry alone, frankly people are going to call you a bitch. But if you’re angry collectively, then you’re a movement.”