From anger to collective action

As we often say around our house: “If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention.” That said, anger can be complicated for women. As I have written about before, many of us have been raised and socialized to suppress our anger; to mask it as sadness or frustration; to deny it altogether.

In her book, “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger,” Soroya Chemaly notes:

“Gender-role expectations dictate the degree to which we can use anger effectively in personal contexts and to participate in civic and political life. When a woman shows anger, she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent and unlikeable.”

And, yet, there it is, like a hot and burning flame within us: anger, fury, rage. As Rebecca Traister writes in her new book: “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger:”

“I had no idea how old and deep and urgent was women’s impulse to sometimes just let their fury out without a care to how it would be evaluated, even if that expression of rage put them at risk. . .” 

When someone asked me how I was the other day, no doubt expecting me to say that I was fine, perhaps even good, out of my mouth came: “I am a fucking angry woman.” I’m not sure who was more astonished by my words: the other person or me.  But my words were true. I am angry and, while in the past, anger has driven me out of bed in the mornings, now it just exhausts me and makes me want to pull the covers over my head. I cannot distinguish my anger from my despair.

I suspect there are a lot of very angry women these days, wondering what to do with our rage.

On the ground with women’s anger

I recently had the opportunity to talk with a group of women doing anti-violence work about anger: theirs and that of the women they serve. There was a lot of commonality in what women were angry about: violence against women, governments that pay only lip service to women’s equality, not earning enough money, having caseloads that are too heavy, and the like. There were no surprises in that part of the conversation.

Then, we talked about what women do with their anger, and the discussion got a lot more interesting. The most common response: “When I am angry, I smoke.” (And I don’t think they meant marijuana.)  Others said they swear. A lot said they didn’t know, which led us into a discussion about the ways in which we don’t admit, even to ourselves, when we are angry.

One woman described herself as working through a process in which she initially denies her anger but eventually acknowledges it, works with it, then turns it into compost to be returned to the earth. We all envied her approach: it was calm and took her somewhere while denying the anger. She gave it voice and then was able to let it go.

Turning anger into action

A speaker at Kingston’s recent FordNation Elimination event admitted that, in the present political climate, she often did not know whether to settle down for a good sob or go up in a wall of flames, which led me to think about whether there is a way for us to use our anger to move towards collective action.

If isolation provides the perfect environment for despair, does that mean collectivity is the means to achieving hope? Can we hold both anger and hope at the same time? How can we use our anger to change those things that cause it?

Brittney Cooper, in “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower,” writes:

“The clarity that comes from rage should also tell us what kind of world we want to see, not just what kinds of things we want to get rid of.”

Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter asks:

“Are we prepared to try and be the first movement in history that learns how to work through that anger? To not get rid of it, not suppress it, but learn how to get through it to together for the sake of what is on the other side?”

I want to answer yes to Garza’s question. I want to think that we can, collectively, make a positive difference, that, in the words of Kingston’s progressive candidate for mayor, Vicki Schmolka, “together, we can do better.”

What about you?

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