'Rage Becomes Her': The Current Conversation Around Women's Anger

Download Audio
Protesters cheer at the Women's March on Washington during the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. Organizers of the Women's March on Washington expect more than 200,000 people to attend the gathering. Other protests are expected in other U.S. cities. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Protesters cheer at the Women's March on Washington during the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. Organizers of the Women's March on Washington expect more than 200,000 people to attend the gathering. Other protests are expected in other U.S. cities. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The Serena Williams firestorm at the U.S. Open started a conversation about women’s anger. We’ll have it with author of the new book "Rage Becomes Her."


Soraya Chemaly, writer, activist and author of "Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger." Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which aims to curb online abuse, increase media and tech diversity, and expand women’s freedom of expression. (@schemaly)

Interview Highlights

On the double standard when it comes to expressing anger and displaying emotion

"We really understand from a very early age what the risks and costs of our displaying full emotions, and particularly this emotion, are. We're not misunderstanding the situation. I mean, study after study after study shows that when men display anger, it reaffirms gender norms, it reaffirms masculinity. And so there are rewards for doing that, they gain power from doing that even if it's ugly and uncomfortable and causes people distress. They are not penalized in the same way as when women do it, it actually transgresses, so we violate gender norms. And we end up being powerless in that situation."

On understanding anger as a force for positivity

"What I really want to focus on is we have a sense of that in our culture, we have an emotional culture that thinks of anger as destructive and as negative when in fact it's the way we perceive and manage anger that yields these bad effects. I want to be able to consider the ways in which this emotion, which we all have as humans, is equally leverage-able for good. And so I provide examples of that in the book and talk both the ways it hurts us and the ways it can so powerfully help us."

"When we shut down somebody's anger we are literally silencing the knowledge they have and saying it's not valuable to us as a social resource."

Soraya Chemaly

On the idea that "anger is filled with information"

"A lot of studies really indicate that men are much more likely to associate anger with power and women to associate it with powerlessness, and I think that's because how we tend to experience this emotion. We can't really control if we feel angry or not. We can control what we do about the feeling, how we behave in the wake of the feeling, but that aspect of saying, 'Let's just not feel angry,' doesn't really work. It doesn't work for men, and it doesn't work for women because the anger will always find a way. When women express anger, regardless of how they're expressing it, they can tip toe around people and can use really nice words. The fact is that they are making an assertion that something should change and that they are demanding people around them do something. And in so doing, they are breaking connections and they are challenging traditional status quo hierarchies. And that matters even in intimacy, it matters in politics. And so that quality of saying 'I'm angry,' I think, is vitally important because what we're saying is I have knowledge, we don't associate anger with knowledge. Audre Lorde said this years ago, anger is filled with information. And so when we shut down somebody's anger we are literally silencing the knowledge they have and saying it's not valuable to us as a social resource."

On managing and channeling anger as an emotion

"There is the presumption that anger is negative. It's just an emotion, it is actually a human emotion. It's neutral on its own grounds. It's a signal that something is wrong. We would not be here, we wouldn't be alive if we didn't have this emotion. Because it's the warning that we are facing a risk or a threat. So in and of itself, I think we just need to respect that about that particular emotion. It can be equally related to contempt, and disgust, and fear, which we see for example the fuel for authoritarian beliefs, or social justice movements. Anger is as compassionate as empathetic as powerfully sympathetic as love can be. And so that's the kind of distinction we need to make — to just shut down the entire fact of the emotion and to say it's bad, we don't want to carry anger — isn't particularly helpful I don't think. We don't want people to be raging, that's also a terrible mismanagement. What we need is people to consider what their anger is telling them. And then to strategize how to utilize that anger."

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Rage Becomes Her" by Soraya Chemaly

My parents’ 1965 wedding was a lavish affair that went on for more than twenty hours, with over five hundred guests in attendance. Photos show glamorous women in long evening gowns and smiling men in carefully tailored black tie standing, in glittering groups, around a cake that covered the expanse of a five-foot square table.

Among the most prized gifts my parents received that day was their wedding china. These white-and-gold plates were more than an expensive gesture: they were an important symbol of adulthood and their community’s and family’s approval of marriage in general and of this marriage in particular. For my mother, they represented a core aspect of her identity: that of being a woman, soon to be mother, the nurturer of her family. Growing up, these look-but-don’t-touch dishes were at the top of a hierarchy of plates that my mother established. When my siblings and I were small, we used them only on the rarest and most special occasions and always with great care.

That’s why, one day when I was fifteen, I was dumbfounded to see my mother standing on the long veranda outside our kitchen, chucking one china plate after another as far and as hard as she could into the hot, humid air. Our kitchen was on the second floor of a house that sat perched at the top of a long, rolling hill. I watched each dish soar through the atmosphere, its weight generating a sharp, steady trajectory before shattering into pieces on the terrace far below.

While the image is vivid in my mind, I have no memory of any sound. What I remember most was that there was no noise at all as my mother methodically threw one, then another, then another, over and over until her hands were finally free. She didn’t utter a sound the entire time. I have no idea if she even knew anyone was watching. When she was done, she walked back into the kitchen and asked me how my school day had gone, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I desperately wanted to know what I had witnessed, but it didn’t feel like a good time to ask questions, so I sat and worked on my homework as my mother prepared dinner and the day morphed into night. We never talked about anger.

Why do we so rarely learn how to be angry?

Like most of us, I learned about anger in a vacuum of information, by watching the people around me: what they did with their anger, how they responded to other people when they were mad. I don’t remember my parents or other adults ever talking to me about anger directly. Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger. It turns out that, for girls, this is par for the course. While parents talk to girls about emotions more than they do to boys, anger is excluded. Reflect with me for a moment: How did you first learn to think about emotions, and anger in particular? Can you remember having any conversations with authority figures or role models about how to think about your anger or what to do with it? If you are a woman, chances are the answer is no.

As far as my own early understanding of anger, the plate-throwing incident said it all. My mother may have been livid, but she gave every appearance of being cheerful and happy. By staying silent and choosing this particular outlet for her feelings, she communicated a trove of information: for example, that anger was experienced in isolation and was not worth sharing verbally with others. That furious feelings are best kept to oneself. That when they do inevitably come out, the results can be scary, shocking, and destructive.

My mother was acting in a way that remains typical for many women: she was getting her anger “out,” but in a way that explicitly separated it from her relationships. Most women report feeling the angriest in private and interpersonal settings. They also prioritize their relationships—at home, work, and even in political contexts—in determining, consciously or not, if and how to express negative emotions.

Throwing plates is an example of a coping mechanism, but it is not an effective or healthy way to express anger. Coping often involves self-silencing and feelings of powerlessness. Getting anger out in this way is not the same as envisioning anger as a transitional tool that helps you to change the world around you. Plate throwing did, however, allow my mother to be angry without seeming angry. In this way, it allowed her to be a “good” woman, which, significantly, meant not being demanding, loud, or expressing her own needs. Even though this episode happened more than thirty-five years ago, it remains true that social norms continue to dictate how we think and feel about emotions, especially when it comes to women and anger.

But first, what happens when we experience anger? Feeling anger involves a constellation of factors, including physiology, genetics, and cognitive processing. These make up the character of anger. For example, you might be a person who tends to get angry quickly, known as “trait anger”; or you might be slower to anger and experience it mainly when provoked. That is called “state anger.” Context is equally critical, however. Our responses to provocation, our assessments, and our judgments always involve a back-and-forth between character and context. Where you are and who you may be angry with, as well as the broader social construction of anger (part of what’s called an “emotional culture”) matter.

While we experience anger internally, it is mediated culturally and externally by other people’s expectations and social prohibitions. Roles and responsibilities, power and privilege are the framers of our anger. Relationships, culture, social status, exposure to discrimination, poverty, and access to power all factor into how we think about, experience, and utilize anger. Different countries, regions—even neighboring communities in the same state—have been shown to have anger profiles, exhibiting different patterns of behavior and social dynamics. So, for example, in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men, as criminality; and in black women, as threat. In the Western world, which this book focuses on, anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”

"Rage Becomes Her," by Soraya Chemaly
"Rage Becomes Her," by Soraya Chemaly

Anger is also not unidirectional but part of endless mental, physical, and intellectual feedback loops that operate below our conscious understanding. It is sometimes called a “secondary” emotion—resulting from other, often hidden, feelings of shame or fear. You might not always identify anger as part of what may be causing you discomfort, pain, or distress, but chances are that if you look closely, unexpressed or inadequately expressed anger plays a part in what you are experiencing. For some of us, being angry causes anxiety, which, in turn, makes us angrier. For others, anger becomes part of our bodies, causing physical discomfort, which then makes us short tempered, unhappy, and impairs our health. These anger feedback loops often directly implicate unacknowledged social injustice. One of the most common feedback loops that women live with involves anger caused by discrimination that, if denied, intensifies, increasing stress and its effects.

Of course, everyone feels anger. Studies show that differences between men’s and women’s experiences of feeling angry are virtually nonexistent. Where there is a difference, they defy stereotypes about men being the so-called angry sex. For a variety of reasons, which we will explore, women report feeling anger more frequently, more intensely, and for longer periods of time than men do. Most episodes involving anger do not involve physical interactions but verbal ones, and women are more likely than men to use angry and aggressive language. Additionally, men more frequently associate feeling powerful with experiencing anger, but women, notably, associate powerlessness with their anger.

If everyone feels anger, why focus on women? Why does gender matter?

Excerpted from RAGE BECOMES HER by Soraya Chemaly. Copyright © 2018 by Soraya Chemaly. Reprinted with permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Elle: "How Women Are Turning Centuries Of Silence Into Rage" — "‘If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.’ Along with the millions of people who joined the 2O17 Women’s March, there were millions of placards. But the signs about anger are the ones I remember most. A man who’d boasted about being able to grab women ‘by the pussy’ had been elected President of the United States and, furious at his sexism, racism and Islamophobia, women were angry – and showing it.

"Today, we stand at an extraordinary moment in history, when women’s rage is finally being unleashed. The #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, alongside a resurgence of fourth-wave feminism, have flooded the internet with thousands of stories detailing abuse. It hasn’t always been this way, though. When a man put his hands between my legs on a London bus in 2O12, I didn’t feel angry. I felt scared. When I said out loud what was happening to me and people on the bus looked the other way, I didn’t feel angry. I felt ashamed. When I got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home, I didn’t feel angry. I felt resigned."

The Guardian: "‘Of course Serena Williams was angry’: writer Soraya Chemaly on why women should unleash their rage" — "'I remember my first feeling of rage very clearly,' says the writer and activist Soraya Chemaly. 'I was, maybe, eight years old and my brother was six. We were sitting with our parents at dinner when my father said to me: "Get up and clear the table with your mother." My brother just looked at me with this big grin on his face.'

"Outrage, indignation, resentment – whatever you call it, these often maligned emotions are essential for our survival. They tell us when a line has been crossed, when we have been violated and when we should say 'no.' Anger is a 'doing' emotion. It demands recognition. It demands change. And it is the subject of Chemaly’s new book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.

"She has focused on female anger because this is an emotion so often suppressed and stymied in women. For men, it is valorised, particularly when applied to protecting or leading others. But girls are taught from birth to prioritise the feelings of others and that being angry is undesirable. They come to learn that they will be better rewarded by society if they curtail it, be polite and stay quiet."

This article was originally published on September 12, 2018.

This program aired on September 12, 2018.


More from On Point

Listen Live