The first piece of writing students do for the course I teach on second wave feminism is a short response to the material they’ve read in the first two weeks–mostly personal essays and group manifestos dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their responses are always varied, but there’s one thing that gets at least a passing mention from almost everyone: how angry these women were.
For Teresa Green, who turned her response into this 2016 guest post, what was most striking wasn’t just the anger itself, it was “the fact that they boldly express it with no qualms about the male egos or female delusions they tread on”. Other students have been equally struck by this lack of inhibition. Even if today’s feminists feel the same rage, they seem wary of expressing it in the same unapologetic way.
But as I write this (in autumn 2018), women’s rage seems to be having a moment, with two new feminist books on the subject appearing in the space of a few weeks. Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her was published this month; Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger will be out in early October. As yet I haven’t read either, but to judge from the publicity and the excerpts the authors have published, they are both calling for women to embrace their anger as a source of power. Chemaly is particularly critical of the way patriarchal cultures deny women the right to be angry, telling them that anger is ‘unfeminine’ and therefore shameful; Traister emphasizes the political as well as personal significance of women’s anger, which she regards as one of the driving forces behind ‘every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation [i.e., the USA]’.
Yet as she also says–proving Chemaly’s central point–the anger that has driven women to take radical political action during the last 200 years, whether as abolitionists, feminists, civil rights activists or labour union organizers, has often been airbrushed out of the picture, either conveniently forgotten or else transformed into something we find more palatable. As an illustration she quotes Angela Davis’s point about Rosa Parks (recorded in Pratibha Parmar’s aptly-titled 1991 documentary A Place of Rage): now often remembered as that nice, respectable Black lady who refused to go to the back of the bus because she was tired, Parks was actually an experienced, canny and courageous political activist. She channelled her anger about racism (and sexual violence) into a lifetime of organized resistance.
Here in Britain, where we’re currently commemorating the centenary of (some) women’s right to vote, it’s clear that a lot of people either don’t know or would rather not acknowledge the anger of the militant suffragettes and their willingness to commit acts of violence that would now be regarded as terrorism. They didn’t just vandalise property, they also carried out attacks in which people were injured and could have been killed. Many other feminists and supporters of women’s rights (including some within the suffragettes’ own organisation, the WSPU) were strongly opposed to these tactics: as they saw it, such extreme displays of anger and violence did the cause more harm than good.
These divisions re-emerged in the new feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s. In Britain as in the US, overt expressions of anger had been a feature of second wave rhetoric right from the start: one of the earliest high-profile actions, the disruption of the Miss World beauty contest in London in 1970, featured leaflets and placards proclaiming ‘we’re not beautiful we’re not ugly we’re angry’. But more ‘extreme’ and non-rhetorical expressions of anger prompted disagreement and sometimes conflict.
I remember this kind of conflict vividly from my own experiences of British feminist politics in the late 1970s and early 80s. These were the years when women across the north of England (where I grew up and was still located at the time) lived in fear of a serial murderer of women known as ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ (he would eventually be identified as Peter Sutcliffe). Many of us were enraged, not only by the acts of the killer himself, but also by the way he was treated as a folk-hero in popular culture (‘Ripper 11, police 0’, chanted football crowds), and by the response of the police–their failure to apprehend Sutcliffe (though it would later transpire they had interviewed him on numerous occasions), their undisguised contempt for the prostitutes who were his first known victims, and their advice to women to stay safe by staying off the streets unless accompanied by men.
Anger about this was undoubtedly one driving force behind a new wave of activism against male violence: the first UK Reclaim the Night march took place in 1977, and the campaigning organization WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) was set up in 1980. On demonstrations and other protests, we often carried placards bearing the slogan ‘women are angry’.
The same slogan sometimes appeared in large, spray-painted letters on buildings and billboards in British cities. The activists thought to be responsible were a shadowy group whose collective nom de guerre was ‘Angry Women’. They specialised in clandestine and illegal actions which ranged from defacing public buildings to firebombing sex shops. (Some of them discuss their involvement in these activities in Angry Wimmin, an informative if occasionally patronising BBC documentary about British feminism which was first broadcast in 2006.) These tactics were not universally applauded: as the documentary makes clear, mainstream liberal, socialist and even some radical feminists considered the anger of the Angry Women, and the revolutionary feminist current they were associated with, to be excessive and politically divisive.
Looking back on this history, I find it difficult to see women’s anger as unequivocally A Good Thing (though that may not be what Chemaly and Traister are suggesting–as I said earlier, I haven’t yet read their books, only the publicity for them and a couple of selected extracts). I remember it more as a double-edged sword, both a positive force–something that made us more determined and less fearful than we would have been otherwise–and at the same time a negative one–something we couldn’t always control and too often turned against one another. One problem with being trained from childhood to deny your anger is that once you allow yourself to feel it, it can be hard to switch it off. That didn’t always feel good, let alone (as we didn’t say in those days) ’empowering’.
So, what’s put women’s anger back in the spotlight? I’m guessing that these new books were commissioned at a time when feminist rage was suddenly more overt and more publicly visible than it had been for many years–the moment of #metoo, when women were indeed ‘good and mad’, and when their mass outpourings of anger seemed to be achieving real results. But the books are being published at a different stage in the process: the anger hasn’t dissipated, but we are discovering the limitations of this recent wave of protest. Some of the high-profile harassers who were forced to quit their positions in disgrace are now being welcomed back; President Pussy-Grabber still has the support of his party, and his nomination of an alleged rapist to the Supreme Court has led to the same kind of situation we saw nearly 30 years ago when Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite Anita Hill’s testimony that he had sexually harassed her. It’s like a feminist version of Groundhog Day: in your darker moments you might well wonder if getting angry really changes anything.
But I think Rebecca Traister is right: to answer that question we have to take the long view. Change doesn’t come quickly, and the same or very similar battles often have to be fought more than once. Without anger, women wouldn’t go on fighting year after year and wave after wave. But its political value will ultimately depend on what we’re able to do with our rage. It’s no good getting mad if you don’t also have a plan to get even.