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Why Women and Anger Too Often Collide

If women can't get mad, society will suffer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi displayed a cool, deliberate anger when she ripped up a copy of Donald Trump’s speech on camera right after the State of the Union address early this month. And Dr. Fiona Hill, a top National Security Council official for Europe and Russia, refused to hide her anger during congressional hearings on the possible impeachment of the president.

She had watched as a Trump ally, Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, went behind the backs of career officials to subvert U. S. policy goals. Trump conditioned much-needed military aid to Ukraine on an investigation of his chief political rival, Democrat Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Dr. Hill believed that Sondland was following a script right out of the playbook of Russian intelligence. “I was actually, to be honest, angry with him,” she said. But Hill later admitted, “And you know, I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people.”

Dr. Hill is certainly not wrong to have that concern. Extreme discomfort about women’s anger has a long historical pedigree. The Bible, in Proverbs 21:19, decrees “[It is] better to dwell in the wilderness, then with a contentious and an angry woman.” Soraya Chemaly notes in her 2018 book, Rage Becomes Her, “Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others… As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.”

Yet, anger is an emotion that is part of our innate “hard-wiring.” To be fully authentic, women need to express it, just as men do. Very young babies can show aggressive behaviors such as thrashing and howling.

A major study of cultures all over the world identified six basic human emotions—and not surprisingly, anger was one of them. Girl babies may scream until their little faces grow red with rage. But the older they get, the less such behavior is tolerated.

As adults, women get the message that anger is alien to them. We simply have no script for female anger that does not involve such words as “crazy,” “out of control,” or simply “bonkers.”

In the workplace, men have an “anger advantage.” Victoria Brescoll of Yale University and Eric Luis Uhlmann of Insead Business School found that “Public expressions of emotion are governed by strongly gendered social rules. Those rules strongly favor men. Male job applicants who expressed anger were shown to be more likely to be hired than those who expressed sadness, and they were subsequently given more power and autonomy in their jobs.”

When men express anger, they are seen as powerful, competent, and worthy of a high salary. When women do the same, they are seen as less competent, less powerful and less likely to be paid a lucrative salary. When men explode, their anger is viewed as understandable; their competence isn’t questioned and they don’t lose status. Angry women are seen as overreactive and not worthy of being well-paid, while angry men don’t suffer. Both sexes believe that male anger comes from specific external situations, whereas female anger was seen as an internal personality trait. Males were seen as responding rationally to the world around them, while women—especially if they seemed out of control—were viewed as exhibiting a generalized female weakness.

So, the man can behave in an authentically angry manner without paying a high price, but the woman cannot.

Men can convince others that the cause of their anger is appropriate, and can persuade others to accept their arguments. An angry woman rarely gets that opportunity. Psychologists Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University and Liana Peter-Hagene of the University of Chicago-Illinois, created a study in 2015 to examine what happens when women and men become angry during jury deliberations.

They created a simulation that echoed the classic film Twelve Angry Men, in which a lone juror, Henry Fonda, gives an impassioned and angry plea for the innocence of an accused man. In the simulation, one “holdout” refuses to fall in line with other jurors and does not rein in his (or her) anger. The “Henry Fonda” juror did well in influencing his peers. But “Henrietta Fonda” was not nearly as successful. When men expressed anger, the subjects found them credible and changed their own opinions. But the angry women were seen as too emotional, so their arguments did not persuade the other “jurors” to change their minds.

Is there a solution to this dilemma for women? Yes, but it means taking an extra step that men never have to take. Women can mitigate the damage their anger creates by explaining what caused it. Brescoll and Uhlmann suggest that when women do get angry at work, they should offer an explanation for their behavior that is tied not to their personality but to the situation. When women can explain why they are angry, they can avoid the harsh judgments they would otherwise suffer.

For example, one television news producer got so angry when a story about funds being denied to disabled kids did not make the news, that she threw a wadded-up piece of paper at the wall—while using the F word. Her shocked colleagues clearly saw her as behaving inappropriately. But when she explained that her brother had a disabled child, that she was acutely aware of his struggles and believed that her news station was obligated to bring this issue to the public, everyone’s attitude changed.

Women of color, in particular, can be silenced by the phrase "Angry Black Woman." Michelle Obama faced that label during her time as First Lady and said, “That was one of those things that you just sort of think, dang, you don’t even know me, you know? You just sort of feel like, wow, where did that come from?”

Too often, women express their anger as sadness, because our culture does not fear female sadness. Novelist Leslie Jamison writes in the New York Times, “If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant.” A sad woman can be “nice.” The angry woman cannot, because she has stepped out of her caring role.

But female anger can help to remake society. Suffragists went on hunger strikes to finally win the vote. When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955, she became a national symbol of the evils of Jim Crow. In 1970, feminists occupied the offices of the Ladies Home Journal and demanded that the magazine end it’s trivial and demeaning stories about women and cover real issues. Today’s #MeToo movement ripped the cloak of invulnerability from powerful men who abuse women without fear of retribution.

So, for the health of women and the nation, society needs to find a way to legitimize rather than demonize woman’s anger. As critic Rebecca Traister wrote in the New York Times, “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.”

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