By Rebecca Traister
Ms. Traister is the author of “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.”
Sept. 29, 2018
Inside the room, in the morning, she spoke carefully, precisely, in a high voice; she made jokes about caffeine, asked deferentially about whether it would be O.K. to take a break. She acknowledged her terror, but remained calm, and cited her scientific expertise in how the brain responds to trauma.
Her voice trembled in moments of intense recollection; it sounded as though she might be crying, though no tears appeared to fall. She described a past sexual assault and the more recent media assault on her in excruciating and vulnerable detail, but did not yell, did not betray a hint of the fury she had every reason to feel as she was forced to put her pain on display for the nation.
That is how women have been told to behave when they are angry: to not let anyone know, and to joke and to be sweet and rational and vulnerable.
Outside the room where Christine Blasey Ford was testifying on Thursday morning, women were incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror. They were getting angry in a new way, a public way, an unapologetic way — a way that is typically reserved for men, and that would again serve men well, when afternoon came.
Brett Kavanaugh bellowed; he snarled; he pouted and wept furiously at the injustice of having his ascendance to power interrupted by accusations of sexual assault. He challenged his questioners, turned their queries back on them. He was backed up by Lindsey Graham, who appeared to be having some sort of fit of rage over people having the audacity to listen to a woman speak about her life and consider that she might be telling an ugly truth about a powerful man. And, as soon as he was finished, it certainly felt as if the white men’s anger had been rhetorically effective, that we had reflexively understood it as righteous and correct.
Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims.
What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.
And outside the room was a hint of how it might be changing.
Most of the time, female anger is discouraged, repressed, ignored, swallowed. Or transformed into something more palatable, and less recognizable as fury — something like tears. When women are truly livid, they often weep.
Maybe we cry when we’re furious in part because we feel a kind of grief at all the things we want to say or yell that we know we can’t. Maybe we’re just sad about the very same things that we’re angry about. I wept as soon as Dr. Blasey began to speak. On social media, I saw hundreds of messages from women who reported the same experience, of finding themselves awash in tears, simply in response to this woman’s voice, raised in polite dissent. The power of the moment, the anxiety that it would be futile, the grief that we even had to put her — and ourselves — through this spectacle, was intens
But it’s not just sorrow mingled with our wrath; our impulse toward tears in moments of fury stems also from an instinct that things will go better for us tactically — especially if we are white, our perceived feminine fragility more easily discernible and likely to elicit sympathy within a white patriarchy — if we emote through tears, which are associated with women’s vulnerability, rather than through rage. Crying affirms many of us as female, and if you’re a woman, comporting yourself in traditionally female ways is rewarded, while lashing out is punished.
Whatever the connection, there’s been a lot of crying in politics, and very little of it has stemmed just from women’s feeling sad.
Barbara Lee, the liberal Democratic representative from Northern California, knows well how to titrate rage in a palatable way; as a black woman in the House, she has had to learn. When I spoke to her last year about anger and tears, she recalled to me how the nation’s first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, whose presidential campaign brought a young Ms. Lee into politics, used to cry “behind closed doors when she was hurt,” adding, “You know how pain leads to anger.” The tears, Ms. Lee recalled, were a product of Ms. Chisolm’s being “very sensitive, very hurt and very angry.”
And she was never the only one crying. In 1972, at the Democratic National Convention to which Ms. Chisholm brought her delegates, George McGovern persuaded many feminists to support him (over Ms. Chisholm and others). But Mr. McGovern then double-crossed them, instructing his delegates not to support a plank that would legalize abortion and violating an explicit promise to the women by permitting an abortion opponent to speak from the floor. The journalist (and later screenwriter) Nora Ephron covered the messy convention for Esquire: At four o’clock in the morning, Ms. Ephron wrote, Gloria Steinem “in tears, was confronting McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart: ‘You promised us you would not take the low road, you bastards.’”
The next day, Ms. Ephron trailed Ms. Steinem out of a hotel where Ms. Steinem had gone to confront Mr. McGovern directly but hadn’t succeeded. “If you’re a woman, all they can think about your relationship with a politician is that you’re either sleeping with him or advising him about clothes,” Ms. Steinem seethed, and started to cry again.
“It’s just that they won’t take us seriously,” Ms. Steinem told Ms. Ephron through tears. “And I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends.” Later, she said: “They won’t take us seriously. We’re just walking wombs.”
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It is a righteous diatribe, months and years of fury spilling over, and she can’t get it out without weeping.
“We cry when we get angry,” Ms. Steinem said to me 45 years later. “I don’t think that’s uncommon, do you?” She continued, “I was greatly helped by a woman who was an executive someplace, who said she also cried when she got angry, but developed a technique which meant that when she got angry and started to cry, she’d say to the person she was talking to, ‘You may think I am sad because I am crying. No. I am angry.’ And then she just kept going. And I thought that was brilliant.”
Tears are permitted as an outlet for wrath in part because they are fundamentally misunderstood. One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was my being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman — a chilly manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified — who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”
Patricia Schroeder, then a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, had worked with Gary Hart on his presidential runs. In 1987, when Mr. Hart was caught in an extramarital affair aboard a boat called Monkey Business and bowed out of the race, Ms. Schroeder, deeply frustrated, figured there was no reason she shouldn’t explore the idea of running for president herself.
“It was not a well-thought-out decision,” she said to me with a laugh 30 years later. “There were already seven other candidates in the race, and the last thing they needed was another one. Somebody called it ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’” Because it was late in the campaign, she was behind on fund-raising, and so she vowed that she wouldn’t enter the race unless she raised $2 million. It was a losing battle. She discovered that some of her supporters who gave $1,000 to men would give her only $250. “Do they think I get a discount?” she wondered.
When she made her speech announcing that she would not launch a formal campaign, she was so overcome by emotions — gratitude for the people who’d supported her, frustration with the system that made it so difficult to raise money and to target voters rather than delegates, and anger at the sexism — that she got choked up.
“You would have thought I’d had a nervous breakdown,” recalled Ms. Schroeder about how the press reacted to her. “You’d have thought Kleenex was my corporate sponsor. I remember thinking, what are they going to put on my tombstone? ‘She cried’?”
For a while Ms. Schroeder kept what she called “a crying file,” a list of all the male politicians who’d wept publicly that year. “Reagan would tear up every time he saw a flag,” she remembered. Her file included John Sununu, who cried as he was stepping down as governor of New Hampshire, and George H.W. Bush, who was a steady weeper.
But the reaction to tears from those men was wholly different from what Ms. Schroeder got. “Saturday Night Live” ran a skit in which the actress playing Ms. Schroeder repeatedly burst into tears while moderating a debate.
“Women across the country reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust,” wrote The Chicago Tribune. One Washington Post writer argued that older women like Ms. Schroeder were setting the cause of young women back a century, calling it “crazy, reckless, for one of Congress’s few women” to be the one to “give ammunition to those who saw women as sugary little girls rather than serious people to be taken seriously.”
Ms. Schroeder found this last argument the most galling. Recalling a man who had suffered politically after he wept in public, Edmund Muskie, whose tears effectively ended his bid for the presidency back in 1972, she still wondered, so many years later, “Why don’t I remember anyone saying that he set men back?”
No one would say it set men back, because most men are allowed to cry and yell the way Judge Kavanaugh did on Thursday. They are allowed to rant the way Lindsey Graham did. Their expressions of ire serve as a signal of their strength and power. This is how men get to behave, to emote, to communicate.
Slowly, women are beginning to behave that way too.
This political moment has provoked a period in which more and more women have been in no mood to dress their fury up as anything other than raw and burning rage. Many women are yelling, shouting, using Sharpies to etch sharply worded slogans onto protest signs, making furious phone calls to representatives.
On Friday morning, two sexual assault survivors, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, confronted Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona as he got into an elevator after announcing that he would vote to send Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor. “You have children in your family!” Ms. Archila shouted at him, pointing her finger in his face in vivid wrath. “I have two children. I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl. What are you doing, sir?”
Ms. Gallagher, weeping but also shouting, told him, “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them!”
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she added. “Don’t look away from me!”
Later, Ms. Archila told a reporter: “I wanted him to feel my rage.” Shortly afterward, Mr. Flake demanded that the F.B.I. investigate the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh before a floor vote.
Many of the women shouting now are women who have not previously yelled publicly before, many of them white middle-class women newly awakened to political fury and protest. Part of the process of becoming mad must be recognizing that they are not the first to be furious, and that there is much to learn from the stories and histories of the livid women — many of them not white or middle class — who have never had reason not to be mad.
If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled.
If you’ve been feeling a new rage at the flaws of this country, and if your anger is making you want to change your life in order to change the world, then I have something incredibly important to say: Don’t forget how this feels.
Tell a friend, write it down, explain it to your children now, so they will remember. And don’t let anyone persuade you it wasn’t right, or it was weird, or it was some quirky stage in your life when you went all political — remember that, honey, that year you went crazy? No. No. Don’t let it ever become that. Because people will try.
The future will come, we hope. If we survive this, if we make it better — even just a little bit better — the urgency will fade, perhaps the ire will subside, the relief may take you, briefly. And that’s good, that’s O.K.
But then the world will come and tell you that you shouldn’t get mad again, because you were kind of nuts and you never cooked dinner and you yelled at the TV and weren’t so pretty and life will be easier when you get fun again. And it will be awfully tempting to put away the pictures of yourself in your pussy hat, to stuff your protest signs in the attic, and to slink back, away from the raw bite of fury, to ease back into whatever new reality is made, and maybe you’ll still cry angry tears at your desk and laugh with sharp satisfaction in front of late-night television, but you won’t yell anymore.
What you’re angry about now — injustice — will still exist, even if you yourself are not experiencing it, or are tempted to stop thinking about how you experience it, and how you contribute to it. Others are still experiencing it, still mad; some of them are mad at you. Don’t forget them; don’t write off their anger. Stay mad for them, alongside them, let them lead you in anger.
Rebecca Traister is a writer at large for New York magazine and the author, most recently, of “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” from which this essay is adapted.