The time couldn’t be more perfect for Rebecca Traister’s book, “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.” In it, the New York magazine journalist explores the history and continuing power that women’s anger can have to cause change — which is why men are so afraid of it.
For those feeling helpless in the wake of another instance of misogynists using their power to slap women back into their place, Traister’s book is the boost needed for those who are afraid of being consumed by their anger. Instead, she reminds readers, anger can move us forward, if we’re not afraid to harness it. Traister joined me in Salon’s studio last week to talk about how feminism evolved and worked through the backlashes of the 1980s and ’90s and the transformative power of women’s anger.
So I like this book a lot because it is very much very personal, it felt very raw and real, and it was very much of our generation — Generation X — I felt like, in a lot of ways. And you wrote in the book about how I think our generation of feminists felt a lot of pressure to be fun and ironic and kind of wry. That’s being stripped away. Why do you think there was so much pressure on women to be chill about our feminism?
Well it’s really hard to describe. Are you younger than me? I’m 43.
Not by much.
I would imagine you have some of the same memories that I have. And you also come from Texas. I do not come from Texas, but I would suspect that it was even more of a deep freeze, anti-feminist, backlash era growing up [there]. It’s hard sometimes to explain to younger people, and there is no reason they should know, right? It’s like when you’re trying to describe your perspective and what you came out of — how intense the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s and ’90s was. To anybody who’s come of age in the feminist blogosphere, or really over the past 15 years, there is no way to describe it was a desert, right?
There was a ‘zine culture. There was feminism certainly at the margins. There were riot girls and ‘zines and there were journalists. There were certainly feminist scholarship in the academy. But in terms of any popular mainstream media, and certainly in pop culture, on television, any form of the news that you were getting, feminism was simply frozen. It was a tundra. I have very distinct memories, as a young journalist, it never would have occurred to me: there was no category of Feminist Journalist. The job I have now was not one I could have imagined, not only when I was a child, but as a teenager.
I got to be part of a generation, along with you, and dozens of our peers and colleagues, who started to populate the internet with feminist media and we were making it up out of a frozen tundra, we were popping heads out and being like, “Feminism, I think we should talk about it again!” There was an acute awareness for anyone who was raised with this sense of impossibility of having a robust feminist conversation. I think there was, and I can only speak for myself here, there was a desire to distance ourselves, myself, from the sort of negative caricatures of feminism past. A lot of those had adhered dishonestly were man-hating, sexless, humorless, all that stuff that had been attached dishonestly to feminism of the second wave, of the 1970s. I think there was a lot of self-conscious work to make a new feminist conversation palatable, and inviting to lots of people, and sexy and fun. I participated in this to different degrees, and by the way, I don’t think it was an error. I actually don’t think it was an error.
The stripping away of some of that veneer of palpability, I think is incredibly important and crucial to the growth of a feminist conversation and having it drilled down to realer places. But I think there was a profound use in bringing it back in a way that probably did make certain compromises with a general ascetic set of expectations in order to engage in a broad, popular conversation about gender that invited a lot of people in to start talking about inequality in ways that they hadn’t for decades.
Then we start talking about it and people get awakened more fully, the conversation becomes more nuanced, angrier to some extent. Its perfectly reasonable to go back and critique those earlier iterations, those sort of prettied up versions that were made slick and digestible. That’s fine too. I wouldn’t defend against it exactly, except to say that I participated then and I participate now in the critique in some of the ways we prettied up our anger.
Maybe one thing that’s changed it seems to me is that it seemed back then you had to be funny to be disarming and now people, women, are using their humor to be even angrier and even scarier.
Yes, I think that’s right. I think that’s really smart.
What do you think changed? What do you think changed that made women just so angry in the past couple years?
Well, I think it was one of the challenges of being angry. About misogyny, about racism, about economic inequality is that there is a constant message in the United States that we don’t really have anything to be angry about. It’s always easier to pat ourselves on the back and be like, “No we fixed those problems,” because it’s really hard, it’s hard to be engaged in these fights. I think, that especially during an Obama administration, I mean coming out of backlash years, you saw the bubbling of all kinds of anger. There was Occupy, Black Lives Matter, on the right there’s the Tea Party. There’s anger coming from several directions, grassroots anger. Especially for those of us on the left and really engaged in a feminist conversation, a conversation about racism, there was a lot of messaging during the two Obama terms that, “Look, we have an Obama administration, Hillary Clinton is inevitably going to be our next president.” In fact you can’t be mad on these grounds, really, because in fact the woman is the one who has the most power. She is the one who is the abuser of the power, right? She is the system and those who are challenging her are the outliers. Any feminist anger on her behalf is illegitimate on its face.
There are complicated reasons that argument was made. Hillary Clinton had accrued a lot of power, she had ascended within a white patriarchal party system, political system to be able to be the first woman ever nominated by a major party to the presidency. Those arguments weren’t totally invalid, but they did work to quell any sense of there’s a real reason for feminist complaint. There was sort of similar stuff happening around race during the Obama administration. Black Lives Matter comes up in the midst of that and that is really the thing that begins to crack that open as far as mass rage goes. That of course is a movement that is founded by and led by many black women. Very consciously so.
The thing that happened during the 2016 election and then with the election of Donald Trump is that all of the messages about, “No, no, no. You really have all the power, there’s nothing to angry about. Your feminist argument is fundamentally illegitimate because it’s a woman who is the system, the power. Whose rigging it against the rest of us.” The win of Donald Trump, the victory of Donald Trump, I think made that argument impossible to make all of a sudden. It stripped off the veneer of, your feminism has become illegitimate because now women have accrued so much power within this flawed system. Even within the system in which they’d accrued power, they still actually couldn’t win. No, it’s not just because she was a woman, not just because of sexism, but it is also impossible to take gender out of how Hillary Clinton had gotten there and how Donald Trump had worked to beat her. You can’t tell that story without talking about sexism and racism.
Well, and you can’t bullshit women anymore about that.
I think that’s a huge part of it. You’re like, “well it’s about something other than this, and then you’re like, well, look at him and look at her.” C’mon.
Right! Right! The setup was so classic. It was truly like, and I had written this but its true, it was like a 1980s boardroom comedy. Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, here was this wildly prepared, competent, extremely smart woman, better qualified for this job than any previous applicant for it and she’s leap-leapfrogged by the incompetent fucking toddler who’d already been reported by HR and he gets the promotion. That was a story that resonated for millions of women, whether they liked Hillary Clinton or not, or whether they were passionately drawn to her campaign. Because it was like, “Oh. No, that shit is what happens at my office.” Right?
That’s really crucial, and by the way those politics of race and even the most powerful, the women who basically have won white patriarchy, those have also come in to play several other times over the past couple years. I’ve talked and written quite a bit. About how #MeToo comes in to being in its hashtag form, its hashtag movement form, in the fall of 2017, exactly a year ago, in part because the women who are lodging the initial big complaints are extremely wealthy, white, cisgender actresses. Women who had been held up as a kind of a feminine ideal in this country within the industry in which they worked.
These were women who also had accrued power and risen up within a system that some of us would argue is simultaneously oppressing them, but then you could say “How are they being oppressed? They’re bajillion-dollar earning actresses.” But then the revelation, that they too had been assaulted, had violence done to them that had had a detrimental and systemic impact on their careers. That was like, “Oh my god, if even the ones that are the most powerful can have experienced this kind of misogyny, then misogyny must be real.” Now there are really complicated realities about the fact that that’s how we are able to finally discern misogyny and that we are not hearing it in the same way.
McDonald’s workers just went on strike last week. You know there wasn’t the same kind of attention paid to the stories in the Times about the Ford factory workers. The Huffington posted great reporting on sexual harassment in the airline industry to flight attendants, hotel workers. The farm workers, the Latina farm workers, who came out in solidarity with the actresses. There wasn’t that same kind of attention to those women who have so much less economic and racial power. We need to talk about that. It is also true that it was the fact that they had so much power that I think contributed to the breath of the message getting spread.
All this sort of, I think, brings us to of course the topic du jour, which is Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The fact that Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who spoke out against him, is one of those powerful, white privileged, women, what are you thoughts about how this is all playing out?
I think that is another point along that same continuum. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, back to Christine Blasey Ford, in contrast to Anita Hill. Who has always said, she has written about, how she was incomprehensible to the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary, both Democrats and Republicans at that time were all white and all male in 1991, in part because her credentials didn’t quite match up with how they understood black femininity, that she was separate from both the patronage system and the institution of marriage as an unmarried woman, and therefore was kind of inscrutable. They didn’t know what to make of her. That contributed to her treatment as crazy, the writing her off as an erotomaniac, and that she was a fantasist, desperate, single, lonely. All the horrible ways in which she was treated.
I kept thinking about Anita Hill and that what she perceived that as her incomprehensibility; versus Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who is, by every measure married, white, middle aged, suburban woman. Comprehensible as female within a white capitalist patriarchy. Right? And yet, she is actually, she is treated with I would say like a degree more respect. Sort of conversant respect. Like, they know better, in part because they hire a woman to do the talking to her so that the Republican men don’t have to actually talk to her. There is a more respectful and diverse bench on the Democratic side, so there is not that dual treatment. In terms of how the Senate judiciary handled the case, from an institutional perspective, it is perhaps been handled worse, if that is even possible. I have grown up, Anita Hill’s testimony was like a fulcrum turning point for me, I have grown up thinking that that was the floor of institutional handling.
It turned out, no, from an institutional perspective this could be handled worse by a Senate Judiciary because that is what has happened with Christine Blasey Ford.
Obviously the elephant in the room on the differences that the Democrats controlled the Senate Judiciary committee in 1991, and did a terrible job.
And did a crap job! Right?
I think if they controlled it now, they would do a significantly better job because the party has changed, even since then. Part of it is just that Republicans have doubled down. What do you think that’s about?
It’s about retaining this desperate grip on power, right? So much of what we are seeing, the election of Donald Trump, the enthusiasm for him, the sort of fever for like “Make America Great Again,” this is all code. We know what it’s code for. It’s not even a secret. Donald Trump has stripped it of its window dressing, and in fact the treatment of Dr. Blasey Ford is also stripped of its window dressing. Like nobody is even pretending to really care.
They pay a couple of sentences of lip service: We’ve heard her, sorry for what you’ve been through, but they also talk about the women that are making accusations about Brett Kavanaugh as smear jobs, con jobs. Donald Trump talked about them as being paid off. There’s not even, they’re not even trying.
It actually stands in for the bigger thing that they’re angry about. The anger expressed by Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh, which is the anger of, “You’re trying to interfere with our further accrual of federal institutional power.” That’s what’s happening here. That’s the far broader story about those in political power in the United States.
They shouldn’t be that panicked, right? That it is sort of a population unlike the population that has historically had in your exclusive grip on economical, sexual, social, professional, political power in this country. The fear that that power, they’re going to be forced to share it and lose status, and have their grip on power diminished in some way, has prompted this kind of fevered anger like, “You can do this to me! This is an outrage!This is an outrage!” It’s basically the whole Donald Trump campaign. It’s the roots of how he began his life as a politician, by questioning Barack Obama’s legitimacy: This is impossible that this black man can be the president. Right? He’s fundamentally illegitimate in this job. That is how Donald Trump became president. That’s how he launched himself here.
Something that Orrin Hatch said, in two instances during these hearings. First he said, before the assault allegations has been made, just responding to the protestors. I loved the protestors who came to the first round of Kavanaugh hearings because it was like anger was this renewable resource. Women would get up, they would yell, they’d scream, they’d be taken out, arrested and then more women would get up and yell. I was like, “Oh my God. These women are heroes,” and they are.
One thing, Orrin Hatch had this locution, he responded to a woman in that first week who was yelling about how if health care were reformed or appealed, she would die. That is what she was yelling about from the back. He said, “Can’t we have this loud mouth removed?” I write about in my book about how the great threat of angry women is always represented by a woman with her mouth open saying something and to the degrees in which we have worked to close women’s mouths. So he calls her a loud mouth and then he says, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this.” Now, he said the exact same thing three weeks later talking to reporters in the senate building about these accusations being made against his Supreme Court candidate and he said, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this.”
That sums it up for me. That’s it. That’s stripped of its window dressing. We, the men in power. Me, Orrin Hatch — who has had the same goddamn seat on the Senate Judiciary committee since 1991 when I treated Anita Hill like shit — we shouldn’t have to put up with challenges to our power. We should have to put up with repercussions. We shouldn’t have to put up with consequences or with anybody interfering with our ability to exert authority over this nation.
It really is fascinating because I think that explains so much of the gap that you perceive between their viewpoint and I would say our viewpoint, right? Which we’re like, you guys are still going to have 75 percent of the power. Even 25 percent lost has created things like repercussions for sexual harassment, has created things like having this hearing in the first place.
Right. Here’s the thing. Every tiny loss, it really gives you an idea of the level, I don’t know whether its pettiness or greed or the degree to which they’re use to sort of an all-encompassing power, because we really are talking about losses that are by degree. So even if Kavanaugh had withdrawn, they have a line-up of people who are going to do the same job that he is going to do. They’re going to over turn Roe v. Wade, they’re going to gut collect bargaining rights, they’re gonna reverse affirmative action, they’re actually gonna work the mechanisms to be able to suppress dissent and the power that it might have through social change and through transformative political movements.
I can read you the names of 20 of these people who the Federalist Society has already approved. They’re going to get their Supreme Court justice. It’s truly they can’t stand the loss. They can’t stand that this would set a precedent where just because you assaulted some woman when you were an able-bodied, young, drunken man at an elite prep school, well goddammit if you can’t do that — I mean, the rhetoric coming from Republicans are like, “Well if we’re gonna start coming after every man that’s done this . . . “
Right! There it is. You’ve stripped the window dressing, right?
We assume that actually the abusive power is tied so closely to having power that you’re talking about their entire view of what power means. Which is connected to being able to do things to bodies that have less power, that are in some way vulnerable to you, without ever having to pay for it or answer for it. That’s been the history of powerful white men in American politics, in American business, in lots of American homes for a long time. They can’t stand even a small chink in that power. I think you could say the same thing about the degree to which the Obama presidency — we’re talking about 1 percent, 2 percent of American presidents, right? One person who wasn’t a white man.
Yeah. And still a man.
And he’s still a man. It was so intolerable that the fury that built — I still think all the time of Jan Brewer sticking her finger in Obama’s face and “You lie!” The kind of open disrespect that they felt able to show this person. I thought of it the other day when Brett Kavanaugh said to Amy Klobuchar, “Have you ever blacked out?” I was like, “Oh my God.” It’s that same thing. It’s like Jan Brewer pointing her finger at Barack Obama like, “You’re not suppose to have power over me!”
It’s also one of the reasons I was so moved by the two women confronting Jeff Flake and one of them, I think it was Maria Gallagher, pointed her finger at Jeff Flake. I was like, atta girl.
Because of all these women’s anger, the women’s march, the #MeToo movement, we’re starting to get those concerned voices back: “The women’s anger is dangerous for us.”
We will be hearing it until the end of time.
But you write that, “Writing this book was one of the physically healthiest periods of my adulthood.” Is anger actually good for us?
I had a perfect test tube experience with getting to voice my anger. I don’t make any bones about that in the book. I can’t recommend it as a health routine to anybody else because I had this unique [experience]. I was like an anger bio-dome, right? I had to write the book very quickly. I was four months. I was being paid for it, right? I was profiting from getting to be angry. I had editors and readers, the people who are sort of my support system, who were anxious to take what I was saying on the subject seriously. There weren’t even reviews yet, do you know what I mean?
I had this perfect experience of getting to take other women’s rage seriously and put my rage to unapologetic use, put it on the page, and yes, it was truly, of my adulthood, probably in some ways the healthiest time I’ve ever had. It did make me thing everything I’ve been told about how it’s the anger that’s corrosive, it’s the anger that raises your blood pressure, the anger that makes you sick and hunched. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s the suppression of the anger that causes so many of those problems.
However, having said that, I don’t want anybody to think that I in any good faith could recommend like you should go out and do this. There are penalties that women pay, that people of color pay, for expressing angry dissent that are very real and most people don’t get to have that anger bio-dome that I got for four months. I included that in the book largely because I wanted to say, “Oh my God, I’ve been to this crazy place where anger is taken seriously, and I’m free to express it without any repercussions, in fact with encouragement, and be met with respect. And it feels great!” But it’s truly like I visited another universe. It’s not like I’m saying, “Everybody go do this,” because you’re not going to be met with that same respect and that’s the thing we have to change. That’s why we have to start affording other women that kind of respect, encouragement, and money for their anger, right? To take them politically seriously and acknowledge the political consequence and seriousness of their fury. That’s the system we have to change.