The anger of women frightens people and makes them distrust us. Nice women (aka ladies) are not supposed to get angry or, if we do, we are at least supposed to have the decency to keep it quietly hidden from the rest of the world.
Rebecca Solnit recently explored the issue of fury in Harper’s Magazine. While the overall tone of the piece is to urge us all to have less fury, she makes note of the gendered difference in attitudes to anger:
Who has the right to be angry? When women are angry, it’s seen as a character flaw. For decades, people have stereotyped feminists as angry and in so doing have denied aspects of women’s experience that it is reasonable to be angry about.
The right to be angry is a male prerogative.
This was certainly my experience growing up with three sisters and two brothers. Our parents’ attitudes and expectations about who was allowed to demonstrate anger were highly gendered. While none of us was permitted to be mean or physically violent, my brothers were not sanctioned for outbursts of anger. Indeed, the impression my sisters and I had was that, while we were not supposed to express anger, it was natural and normal, perhaps even necessary, for boys to do so. “Blowing off steam” or “just being a boy” were not uncommon descriptions of this kind of behaviour, whereas we were told we were “unladylike” when we behaved in similar ways.
Of course, at the time, I did not understand the broader political underpinnings of what was happening in my family. I did, however, learn to be polite and to suppress my anger lest I be seen as unladylike.
Fifty years later, I still struggle to express my anger, as I suspect is the case for many women of my generation.
More importantly, perhaps, I struggle with how to talk about anger with the women I support in my work. What woman would not be angry – furious, enraged – when her abusive former partner convinces the court he is an appropriate co-parent for their children? Why on earth would a woman not want to scream and yell and throw things after being told her sexual assault allegation is “unfounded.”
And yet, we know that when women demonstrate the righteous fury we feel at living in a world of misogyny, it is held against us.
This is especially true when we are what the system likes to call “victims” of male violence. No one likes an angry victim. It is, somehow, unseemly. But worse, it is too often interpreted as proof the woman is not a “real” victim, because “real” victims shake, tremble and cry.
More often than I want to think about, I sit with a client and explain to her that she has every right to be angry and that I understand and support her in that. Then I tell her, apologetically and as gently as I can, that any demonstration of that anger when she is talking to a police officer, her lawyer, the Crown Attorney, the clinician doing a custody and access assessment, the mediator or the judge, could have a negative impact on her case. I tell her that she needs to bottle up that fury and rage so she looks like a “reasonable” woman.
And I try not to let her see the depth of my anger at having to give her this message because, after all, no one likes an angry woman.