Women’s Anger—Derided, Feared and Threatening

Recently, at a gathering populated mostly by women, I made the mistake of telling someone I had just met that I wouldn’t describe myself as angry about the state of things. “I’m scared,” I told her, “and confused, and hypervigilant, but I don’t think angry is the right word.”

I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to keep talking to me after that, because if you’re a feminist to say you’re not angry with how the world is right now is kind of a deranged statement.

I recognize my own anger, or at least I thought I did. It’s churning, relentless, repetitive, powered by the memory of whatever emboldened it in the first place. Yet what I’ve been feeling most often these days is a dullness, like I’m dragging myself around, uselessly. The word that comes to mind to describe this feeling, and its associated behavior, is “lazy,” but since finishing Rage Becomes Her (Simon & Schuster, $27) by Soraya Chemaly—one of a spate of new books that address women’s anger and frustration—I’m doing some reconsidering.

Rage Becomes Her is more than an invitation to interrogate our own anger— it’s an imperative to do so. In chapters that examine the reality of what it’s like to be female, readers are delivered a litany of sexism and injustice to be angry about and offered the chance to decide how they feel about it. Does it provoke anger? If so, what does that anger look like?

“We make our rage small,” writes Chemaly. Women’s anger is so derided, so feared, so threatening, that women have learned to trim and squash and manicure it until it’s all but imperceptible. She recalls, when she was a child, watching her mother, a seemingly perfect maternal figure and wife, hurl her wedding china off the veranda. This was how anger was illustrated in Chemaly’s childhood—by this singular incident. There was never an explicit discussion about her mother’s anger, or what Chemaly’s own relationship to anger should or could be.

Women’s anger takes forms that are molded by how we’ve been punished for expressing it. Because our anger is so often dismissed, as when we’re “gaslit” and told we’re being hysterical, it can turn into anxiety and depression, shame, and physical pain.

“Rumination,” Chemaly reveals, “is how many women and girls learn to deal with their anger.” For me (a ruminator—ask me about all the things I won’t let go of), it’s facts like these that make Rage Becomes Her unique and worthy of mention in the crowded field of recent writing on anger. It’s not just a book about why we should be angry, but about the shape of anger, its texture. It wants us to understand rage and what it can be, so we can better connect with our own.

Towards the end of the book, in a chapter entitled “A Rage of Your Own,” Chemaly writes that, “As women, we are even more judgmental about other women’s violation of rules about anger than men are.” When I worked in Jewish organizations (populated mostly by women), I was often the only person in the room bringing up certain issues—heteronormativity in Jewish spaces, for example. It wasn’t just the frustration of having to remind people constantly that not everyone was or should be the same, but the concern that I was being judged for my outspokenness, that the clock on being tolerated, let alone heard, was running out. Carrying all of this at once was exhausting, and I became angry at myself for daring to feel exhausted, instead of being eternally patient (not a healthy expectation).

Women do evaluate one another on our anger. Are we too angry? Are we rocking the proverbial boat for no reason? (No.) Are we putting whatever we’ve already gained in jeopardy with our anger? How should anger look so that we don’t do this? Are we angry enough? Is that even possible? (No.)

After finishing Rage Becomes Her, I thought again about that awkward encounter at the party. The conclusion I’ve come to, of course, is that I am angry. It feels sludgy and plodding, but it’s more familiar than I realized. I fell into this very well-designed, strategic trap of thinking too much about what something should look like, instead of letting myself come around to what I know is true. Chemaly’s book reminds us of the importance of excavation and reimagination of our anger, and that with its power, change is inevitable.

Chanel Dubofsky writes fiction and nonfiction in Brooklyn, NY.