Culture & Conversation Media

The Power of Women’s Anger: A Conversation With Soraya Chemaly

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The author of Rage Becomes Her says that women's anger can be a catalyst for change or shore up the existing social order.

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly takes a critical eye to the cultural and political power of women’s anger. The new book argues that properly channeled anger can catalyze cultural and personal change.

Chemaly talked to Rewire.News about her book and its release when it seems like women’s anger is reaching an apex.

Rewire.News: So obviously, women are angry. We are really pissed off. But what is it in this historical and political moment that is making this anger so palpable?

Soraya Chemaly: I think it’s a few things. I think it’s undeniable that the network effects of the internet are shifting feminism and public awareness of feminism. It used to be that you could isolate a woman or several angry women through mainstream media or through oppressive theocratic social norms, pick your way of silencing women, right? That’s very difficult now. We have the horror of the internet, which all of us are very familiar with. If you’re like you or me and you deal with issues related to abortion or women’s reproductive rights, it’s bad. There are threats. There’s harassment. But, by the same token, I think it’s undeniable what the power of that ability for women to communicate across borders means. 

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If we think about #MeToo, which I guess for some people was surprising still, #MeToo builds on #NotOkay, #YesAllWomen, and #FastTailedGirls. It has a long legacy of what people like to dismiss as hashtag feminism or hashtag activism. But the way I put it in the book is that these hashtags are really illustrative of these changes in public knowledge, where you’re literally creating knowledge when we do these things. And I do think that’s important. 

The second thing is in times of economic, social, and political turmoil, historically women are given more leeway to act as political citizens and to act in anger. So we see that happen throughout our history, but then what we also see happen is the reining in of women after the fact, and the re-consolidation of male power and structures that reward male power. So I do think we have this massive movement of women, and I’m hopeful that maybe we’ll go through an unprecedented phase transition. But I’m not convinced of that.

Rewire.News: What is leaving you skeptical? 

SC:  The pattern of “two steps forward, one step back” is pretty clear in history. We also are really living through a profound backlash. The fact that the badness is as obvious as it is, I think some people like to think of it as death throes [of U.S. society].  

But if you put American culture squarely in the context of global culture, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Authoritarianism is on the rise everywhere, and indeed in many countries they’ve gone through processes that we are going through now. American exceptionalism operates with this pretense that we’re better or different, and I’m not exactly sure why we should believe that. Country after country has gone down a very similar path; we have a strong man pseudo-authoritarian leader whose embrace of anti-democratic norms is clear. 

Rewire.News: Your book examines the power of women’s anger to create political change, and I want to talk about a little bit about how race, class, and sexuality play into that because you could say that not all anger is created equal, in at least how much political traction or response it gets. So culturally, what do we do with that? 

SC: We didn’t qualify the word “power” in the subtitle of the book. And my editor and agent and I talked about that a lot. I ended up leaving it because power is not good necessarily, and also the way we define power right now tends to align with badness, brute physical force, and with domination and with these hierarchies.

In the book, I talk about how in American society certainly anger is used as a lever of oppression and as a way to prop up profoundly unequal status quo hierarchies. So it’s not only that there’s this potential power for women to overturn unfair systems and structures, but also this power to use it to exacerbate them. I spend a lot of time writing about white women’s anger, and the way that it has been used against Black people in the country, and explaining the nuances of the stereotypes about anger that we have related to race and ethnicity.

Some of us are quite familiar with how the angry white woman stereotype is used to silence Black women. There are other stereotypes, like for Asian girls. Asian women are supposed to be passive and docile and servile, and when they’re not they’re penalized for it socially if they try and claim anger. If you happen to be maybe Hispanic, it’s very difficult to get around the stereotype of the hot sexy Hispanic girl or woman. All of those stereotypes are deliberately silencing to women. They trivialize or minimize what women are trying to say, or they silence them from the get go.

Rewire.NewsI have found it very interesting that we are talking about Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s “judicial temperament”. When we look at Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation experience before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009, her temperament was front and center. And it was her anger, or her perceived anger, that conservative men focused on, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on that. 

SC: This goes back to the idea that white men don’t play with identity politics because their way of being is our cultural norm for objectivity. So the idea that a Hispanic woman could claim neutrality, that she could claim to be fair and balanced and judicious, seemed just impossible for [some people] to process. Her dissents have been described over and over again as emotional. When she is defending in favor of marginalized voices that, God forbid, actually include Hispanic people as a disadvantaged racial minority, she’s automatically seen as unfit and she’s mocked for it. I think that’s a very good example of the way ethnicity and gender combine. 

Rewire.News: Let’s talk a quick minute about the mirror opposite of that, which has been the conservative reaction to Brett Kavanaugh’s performance in front of the Judiciary Committee.

SC: Honestly, there were so many things going on. On the one hand, he and Graham were very clearly doing that nifty little duet where they confirmed each other’s rage. That signaled this very kind of muscular, masculine citizen rage. That’s very resonant in our history because in fact only elite white men have enjoyed the full benefits of citizenship. And their anger is often just directly, unconsciously linked with the notion of citizenship in a way a woman’s just isn’t or the way a Black person’s just isn’t. So they could leverage all of that I think for a great theater for their base, and I think that’s what they did.

What I thought was kind of interesting, was the moment at which Kavanaugh started to cry, when he whipped out the infamous calendar and started talking about his father. And I really burst out laughing because I’m like ‘Wow, I don’t ever think I could have imagined that.’ This had to be a first, that a man could use a calendar while crying to signal filial patriarchal legacy. 

Here he is crying, this very feminine response, and it’s almost as though, I’m going to offset that by making sure all these men understand my place in the history of father-son relationships. It was such a subtle thing, and it was not conscious.

Rewire.News: While working on this book, did you find any generational differences in how women either do or do not feel comfortable expressing anger?

SC: One thing that is really important and notable is the impact of Title IX because Title IX is, for many people if they even know about it, only about sports.

But it’s really about leadership. What we have now, that we can see manifested in society around us, is an entire generation of women who not only have gotten Title IX benefits and they’ve played sports, but they can make the distinction between assertiveness and aggression and anger. They can deal with conflict, they can be in your face and then step back. Those were all skills reserved for boys. Boys learned how to do that. 

Women themselves have gone through it, but they also have an entire generation of role models that also did, and I don’t think we can overstate what that legacy means in our political lives. There are just more younger women willing to assert their rage publicly than maybe existed before.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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