The Power and Shame of Women’s Anger
When women stop apologizing for and start owning their rage, change happens.
Posted February 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
What happens when you are taught from an early age that you must not express anger? That to be angry is to be ugly, and to be ugly is to be worthless? In other words, what happens when you are conditioned to internalize rage? To stuff it down, to put on a smile and “just be nice?”
These are some of the messages that reverberate within the psyches of most women. When you are born with a voice but consistently discouraged from using it, it is not uncommon for this voice to turn on its owner and, in a paradoxical effort to protect, become an internalized critic and source of much psychic angst. Regardless of whether those messages were transmitted by the family or not, they were certainly reinforced by society.
"Society shuns angry women, convincing them that their rage is impolite, unattractive, or even unhealthy." —Rebecca Traister
In a recent interview with C-SPAN, author Rebecca Traister (Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger) points out that while anger has been a driving force for male politicians, for women, expression of that very same emotion could be what drives some voters away. “Not only are men ‘allowed’ to be angry, they are applauded for it.”
Study after study has shown that anger among men is perceived as strong, decisive, credible, and, of course, powerful, while women who express that same emotion are perceived as “difficult” or “shrill.” Anger and rage clash with our feminine ideal and as such must be suppressed, the cultural narrative tells us. The persistent double standard infiltrates not only our psyches, but also our politics.
"In the United States, we have never been taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism and our art. We should be." — Rebecca Traister
According to one recent study, “How Outdated Notions About Gender and Leadership Are Shaping the 2020 Presidential Race,” approximately 53 percent of Americans describe themselves as “very” or “extremely ready” for a woman president. The August 2019 survey was conducted to examine if and how gender dynamics are playing out in the 2020 presidential election.
The “Likeability” Effect
Not surprisingly, the authors of the study found “likeability” to be the strongest predictor of whether a candidate is viewed as “presidential” or “electable.” According to the authors, these findings track closely to social science research that shows dislike toward women leaders.
“Because we expect women to be kind and communal, we sometimes like them less when they’re assertive or forceful. In contrast, we expect men to act like this, so they don’t face the same pushback.” The authors of the study go on to say, “This ‘likeability penalty’ may be particularly damaging to the women running for president, who need to be bold and ambitious to campaign effectively—but risk seeming unlikeable when they do.”
"I am angry and I own it." — Elizabeth Warren
In a recent fundraising email for her presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee Elizabeth Warren wrote, “Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.” Rather than apologize for her anger, she chooses to own it.
The narrative tells us that It is not “feminine” to be angry. A narrative that is so deeply ingrained within our collective subconscious, that it even exists among women. Studies have shown internalized misogyny, or women’s internalization of sexist beliefs, to also be a significant factor in the electability question.
"In the fury of women comes the power to change the world." — Rebecca Traister
Perhaps all women should take a cue from Warren. Maybe her campaign slogan should be “Permission to Get Angry" — because that is when change happens. When channeled in a constructive way, anger has the potential not only to heal but to empower. Through fierce activism, it is a force for change.
Consider movements such as suffrage, civil rights, and the 2016 Women’s March on Washington, possibly the largest protest in U.S. history. “The ability to feel the anger and convey it to others is itself the transformative experience for many women," says Traister. “Women’s anger spurs creativity and drives innovation in politics and social change, and it always has.”
When outrage is not suppressed or turned inward but, rather, sublimated, we all fare better. Sublimation is an adaptive defense mechanism where the energy of a biological impulse — in this case, anger — is diverted from its immediate goal to one of a more acceptable social or moral use. This would be better not only for our psychological health but for the health of society as a whole.