Nasty Woman, Angry Bitch or Confident, Competent Female?

Conflicting standards make it hard to put these opposites together.

Posted Nov 05, 2016

“I’m tired of getting home from work and immediately starting to clean up the kids’ toys,” Elena*, a young working mother told me recently.  “But if I don’t, my husband starts complaining about the babysitter and making noises about my not spending enough time with the children. As if I don’t already feel bad enough about that. It pisses me off, but I just keep quiet. I don’t want to get into an argument with him.”

“At work I hear that I’m not being aggressive enough in meetings,” said Sunita, a forty-five year old lawyer. “But then my assistant complains that I’m mean, and I’m told I have to be nicer and more supportive with her. I just want her to do her job, which she doesn’t do. Why are there two different standards here?”

These days we are constantly confronted by conflicting standards – for sexes, ages, religions, racial and ethnic groups, nationalities, and socio-economic groups, to name only a few of the most obvious. 

There are, of course, many different reasons for these double standards. But the Clinton/Trump competition has highlighted the problem of expressing aggression for women. Despite the currently popular, ironically phrased use of “nasty woman” to turn a criticism into praise for women’s strength, there is still a tendency in many areas to see strong, aggressive or emotionally expressive women as dangerous, unfeminine, or just plain bad.

Ann Jones recently wrote in the Huffington Post, discussing reactions to Clinton’s comments about Trump’s behavior:

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Here was something new under the sun: a woman on a presidential debate stage calling out an insufferable man ― a serial predator, at that ― on behavior so common among men for so long that the vast majority of women in this country have experienced it and learned to call it “life.”

Some women still see it that way.  The New York Times, for instance, interviewed a 62-year-old woman voting for Trump who said that other women offended by his “banter” should “grow up.”

In a series of fascinating studies, Jessica Salerno, an assistant professor of social psychology at Arizona State University, and C. Liana Peter-Hagane, an assistant professor of applied psychology at Southern Illinois University, found that anger improves a man’s social influence and decreases a woman’s. Using situations that mimic the kinds of deliberations that would be involved in a jury’s decision about a defendant’s guilt, they found that when a man expresses anger, it increases his influence on the group’s decision, but if a woman expresses anger, it decreases her impact on the group.  

So, are you a woman who expresses her angry feelings? If so, do you end up feeling more bitchy or competent? And if you don’t, do you feel caring or inadequate?

Is there a better way to manage these contradictions?

In her classic, highly popular book The Dance of Anger, psychologist Harriet Lerner tells us that anger is a signal. It exists for a reason and we need to learn to listen to it. Yet, she says, women try to silence that signal because it often has such a negative effect on the people around us. When we express it, says Lerner, we often end up feeling even more helpless and more powerless.

I would suggest that even those in power, even apparently strong men and women, are often operating from a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness, often buried deeply in their psyches, when they use anger and abuse to overpower and control others.

This is why, I think, Trump has suddenly declared himself a victim – even in the face of a race in which he is closer to winning than seemed possible a few weeks ago.

More than a decade ago novelist and essayist Cathi Hanauer offered young women an anthology of their peers writing about the anger and resentment they felt about trying to manage their own, their families’ and society’s expectations of them. The book, called The Bitch in the House, gave voice to feelings that many of these young women felt they could not express. The title captured the problem – to be angry, frustrated, and aggressively conflicted for a woman means to be a bitch.

This past September Hanauer brought out a new collection of essays by many of these same women writers. This one, called The Bitch is Back, offers some sweet, some bittersweet and some downright disturbing descriptions of the evolution of these women’s lives in the interceding years between the two books. But what it does not do is address the idea that angry, unhappy women are still too often categorized simply as bitches, even when their anger is completely appropriate.

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I much prefer a different approach to this issue. Yes, there are destructive and hurtful angry women. There are also, of course, destructive and hurtful men of all sorts. But women and men who acknowledge anger directly, who recognize that frustration is part of being a human being, and who are able to talk directly about what bothers them and why, are also often men and women who take responsibility for their own failings and mistakes. And recognizing their own imperfections, they are often the people who make good things happen when and where it’s possible.

What can you do when you feel that you are the victim of a double standard about women and aggression?

First, says Lerner, recognize that you have a right to your feelings, including your anger and frustration.

It can be useful to put the feelings into words, since verbalizing an experience often gives us more of a handle on it. This doesn’t necessarily meant saying anything to the person or people you are angry at, at least not yet. Sometimes it means writing down your feelings, or talking to a friend or a mentor, so that you can own and process all of the complexity of the emotions without triggering a reaction from a person who may be hostile to – or possibly hurt by – your words.

Then it’s important to understand where it comes from. Are you frustrated and angry because you feel hurt, for instance, or is it because you feel powerless? Sometimes, of course, the two go together.

Once you know what your feelings are, and where they are coming from, you can decide on an action. Do you want to confront someone angrily or talk to them calmly? Or will talking just get you deeper into conflict. Do you want to allow your “nasty woman” self to come to the surface? Or will you get what you want more easily by actually ignoring the situation and moving forward as if it doesn’t even exist?

Elena and Sunita chose different solutions to their problems. Elena spoke with a friend whose children were grown and out of the house, who suggested that she find a time when she and her husband were both relaxed, and discuss it with him. “I came home from work one night, when the house was fairly neat and the kids were calmly playing, and I got a beer for my husband and one for myself. I took his hand and asked him to come sit in the kitchen with me. And then I told him that I felt like he didn’t want me to be working, and we needed to figure out how we were going to deal with it.”

To her surprise, her husband said that he was happy for her to work. He worried about their children not getting enough time from both of them, but he thought they were doing a good job parenting. “It turned out that he was just frustrated about the messiness in the house in general, and was taking it out on me. Once I knew that was what was wrong, I had a totally different response. We actually turned it into a private joke between us. Now anytime we’re frustrated about anything, we say something about how messy the house is and what a lousy job the babysitter is doing!”

Sunita, on the other hand, sought advice from a senior woman colleague. “I presented the problem to her, and she started to laugh. She said that I had run into one of the hardest things for women and even more for women of color in our profession – to be a good and fair boss, a strong and tough advocate for our clients, and a respected colleague. But she said I absolutely should not put up with an incompetent assistant. None of the men in the firm would do it. She encouraged me to go to the office administrator and to lay out my complaints very clearly and very directly, and to let her know that I expected her to take care of the problem.” Sunita smiled. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

* Names and Identifying information changed to protect privacy

Further reading:

Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law And Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147

Ann Jones, 11/01/2016, “Donald Trump, the Greatest Victim in the History of the World”

Harriet Lerner (2014) Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

Cathi Hanauer (2016) The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier

Cathi Hanauer (2003) The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage


Follow me on Twitter@fdbarthlcsw

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