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Rebecca Traister on the revolutionary power of female rage

“Political fury is baked into this country’s founding.”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

One of the most striking things about Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing last Thursday was how quickly the male Republican senators dismissed everything they heard from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Ford sat before the entire country and calmly laid out the details of her alleged assault in excruciating detail. It was as convincing as it was painful, and the all-male Republican panel sat silently through most of it.

And then came Kavanaugh.

His testimony was the polar opposite of Ford’s. He was angry, loud, and openly defiant. “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” he fumed. “This is a circus!”

The strategy paid off. Inspired by Kavanaugh’s rage, the Republicans spent most of their time apologizing to him. He became the victim, and the hearing was suddenly about his pain and his struggle.

Here’s a question worth asking: if the tables were reversed, would Ford — or any woman — be rewarded in this way for expressing her rage? Probably not. Anger works for men in ways it doesn’t for women, and the Kavanaugh hearing was an unusually clear example of this.

A new book by Rebecca Traister, written long before the hearing last week, has a lot to say about why male and female anger plays so differently in our culture. Titled Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Traister details the long history of female rage in this country, showing how it’s often mocked or caricatured but also how it has ignited many movements for social progress, including the early suffragist struggle and the more recent #MeToo movement.

I spoke to Traister last week, just before Ford and Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate. We discussed the roots of female fury in America and what happens when it’s finally unleashed in the political sphere. I also asked her what the #MeToo movement and Kavanaugh’s nomination reveal about this cultural moment.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You speak of women’s anger as both catalytic and problematic. What does it catalyze, and for whom is it problematic?

Rebecca Traister

It could be catalytic and problematic for the very same people. It is catalytic because of its ability to communicate shared frustration over injustice or a need to resist some injustice, and then once you have the communicative part, you can get to the mobilizing and action part.

At the same time, all that rage can be problematic because it’s hard to contain, hard to direct. This is true of the women’s movement, but also of every social movement. There are always internal frustrations within a movement that can split it into factions and undercut solidarity. So rage is powerful in terms of setting things in motion, but if it boils over, it can destroy a movement from the inside.

Sean Illing

Anger works for men in ways it doesn’t for women, and we — as a culture — cater to male rage and often punish women for expressing their rage. How do you make sense of this in the book?

Rebecca Traister

Look at the 2016 presidential election. On the one hand, we had two very different candidates, with two very different ideologies, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and they were understood to be successful in part because they were able to channel rage so effectively. It may have been rage over different things, but it was rage all the same. And they were applauded for this, for tapping into the frustrations and passions of their supporters. It was seen as a political skill, something almost noble.

This wasn’t true or possible for Hillary Clinton. To be honest, Clinton is not rhetorically gifted and not great at conveying anger, but almost every time she appeared to get angry or upset, she was criticized for it. It’s harder for women to traffic in anger without being punished, because we’re conditioned to avoid being publicly angry, and we’re told from birth that anger makes us unlikable and unserious. So we avoid it. And every time Clinton was called “shrill,” we were reminded of this.

Sean Illing

And yet here we are, in this moment, where women are getting more vocal and more comfortable expressing their rage, and who knows what might become of that. Do you think there’s something almost perversely beautiful about this moment, about the urgency of the struggle and the threat?

Rebecca Traister

There are different kinds of incentives in place to keep women from taking seriously the anger of other women, and one of the things about the past couple of years has been the insistence on staying angry, and this has come as a surprise to me. Even as I was writing this book, I kept thinking there would be this surge and that it would fade in a few weeks or so. But it hasn’t gone away, and it’s incredible.

And we’re watching a Supreme Court nomination being actively and crucially disrupted by the allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. I’m not sure that would have happened without the #MeToo movement preceding it. So all of this is producing political results, and I’m thankful for that.

I’m also encouraged by teachers strikes across the country and the activists who protested the health care repeal and all the women we’re seeing running for Congress. So it’s beautiful to see this anger translate into real political outcomes and not just fade away into nothingness. Women are refusing to just let their rage go, and that’s remarkable to watch.

Sean Illing

I think a lot about how we describe different kinds of oppression, how some forms of oppression are easier to diagnose, easier to criticize than others. I wonder if you think it’s more difficult to talk about the oppression of women because they’re a majority and not a minority, which seems counterintuitive to the way we usually think of oppression.

Rebecca Traister

Absolutely, and it’s such an interesting question. You can think about this on a number of levels, but I’ll just focus on the personal. Every woman, across racial and class lines, has men in her personal and professional life, and her resistance to gender inequities is a kind of challenge to the dynamics of all of these relationships. If she stands her ground, there are consequences. It can alter these relationships.

One of the costs women incur when they push for these changes is that they get blamed, not incorrectly, for disturbing these bonds. During the second wave of feminism, you saw a huge spike in divorce rates, for example. That was a direct consequence of the political struggle.

I hear stories all the time from women today who have become politicized in the last two years and their romantic relationships are changing as a result. We’re trying to change the rules in the middle of a game we’re all a part of, because we’ve all been raised in an unequal society, and there’s no way to change that without paying a price.

But yeah, the fact that women are a majority, and the inequities we’re contesting are so pervasive and internalized, makes this fight both more difficult and disruptive.

Sean Illing

Speaking of disruptions, we’re having this conversation against the backdrop of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which has been derailed by allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. How does this ongoing saga align with the story you’re telling in this book?

Rebecca Traister

This feels like a catalytic moment to me. People in power have assumed that they can behave in certain ways and get away with it. We have active examples of that. For example, our sitting president, despite being accused by multiple people of sexual assault in the days before the election, won anyway. We have certain assumptions in this country that you can participate in acceptable forms of abuse and it will not interfere with your life, will not undercut your political power.

And we’re told all the time that our stories don’t count — the kind of stories Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez told about Brett Kavanaugh, for example. And we don’t tell them because we know that we’ll be attacked as unreliable. But I was deeply moved by the fact that Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were freshmen at Yale, admitted to being drunk when it happened. That’s not the story we’re encouraged to tell, but it’s true and it happened and she said it.

Sean Illing

In the book, you also talk about some of the anger that women feel toward other women, especially white women, who sometimes shut off or dial down their anger at the expense of other women. I mention this because I think it touches a core problem every social justice movement encounters: the apathy of the privileged.

Rebecca Traister

The people who can afford to be apathetic are invested in the continuation of a power structure. For example, we shouldn’t be surprised that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. White women have voted for Republican candidates for a long time, even though those candidates represented the continuation of a capitalist patriarchal power structure. Fifty-six percent voted for Romney over Obama in 2012, so 53 percent is actually an improvement.

So white women support the system because they believe they derive benefits from it. Even though many of them are oppressed in various ways, their proximity to power — and their attachment to those who benefit directly from it — makes them less likely to challenge the system. I think that’s always been the case.

Sean Illing

So what does victory, right now in this moment, look like?

Rebecca Traister

Obviously, elections matter. But it’s not just about the midterms or the next presidential election. This is a long-term movement, and like every long-term movement, it will take decades of work.

For example, there are a lot of women running for Congress right now, and that’s great, but it’s not just about women candidates. How many of them are actually going to win? I don’t know the answer to that, but it matters. And it’s also about what it will mean to bring women into the electoral system as activated citizens.

We’re seeing women run and canvass and fundraise and volunteer in ways we haven’t seen before, and many of them were activated by the Women’s March — that was the first time they ever protested. When you bring new people into the process like that, things can happen.

What are the long-term effects of all this? I’m not sure, but I know some of the things I’d like to see. I’d like to see Brett Kavanaugh denied a seat on the Supreme Court. I would like to not confirm someone who will overturn Roe v. Wade or gut voting rights or further diminish collective bargaining rights. I would like to see Democrats take back the House, the Senate, and, as soon as possible, the White House. I would like to see a $15 minimum wage and a federal jobs program and much stronger social safety nets.

These changes would fundamentally alter the power structure when it comes to gender, race, and economic inequality. But all of this won’t happen on November 6, no matter how the elections go. Again, this is a long-term struggle and we’re just at the beginning of the latest cycle of change.

This project will take the rest of our lives.