‘Anger is language of justice’ says author of new book on women’s rage

What have women got to be angry about? A lot, according to writer and critic Soraya Chemaly who talks about her new book Rage Becomes Her.

Sian Norris
1 October 2018

Soraya Chemaly.

Soraya Chemaly. Photo: Karen Sayre. All rights reserved.

“What was striking for me was that people kept suggesting anger is irrational,” the US-based writer and critic Soraya Chemaly tells me down the phone during her recent trip to the UK. “That makes no sense. Anger is deeply rational response. It’s a warning. Anger is the language of justice and fairness.”

Chemaly’s new book, Rage Becomes Her, is a rousing battle cry in defence of women’s anger. In the forensic and well-evidenced study, Chemaly explores the inequalities that women face from birth to death, and how they make us furious.

The book covers issues from body image and pornography, reductive gender stereotypes, unpaid domestic labour, childbirth, workplace discrimination, and male violence. Chemaly reveals how women’s unequal status in the world is making us angry, how repressed anger is making us sick – and how it’s time for women’s justifiable anger to be taken seriously.

“I’ve written about the issues in the book for many years,” Chemaly explains, referring to a long career writing about feminism for TIME, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New Statesman and elsewhere, as well as her role as director of the Women’s Media Center in Washington DC. “But then the 2016 US election happened."

Women had warned about the coming of a sexist, racist and authoritarian leader like Donald Trump, she said, but their warnings had been dismissed and ignored. "I’d watched for a long time as women, feminist activists, women acting in social justice kept warning about what was happening," she says, referring to the veer to the right.

Chemaly believes that Trump’s election in 2016 came as a surprise to some because "there was an ignorance about this in the mainstream media that stemmed from a denial of the legitimacy of what women were saying." She includes the anger of women who voted for Trump in this.

This denial came from the fact that women warning against mainstream misogyny were seen as "emotional" and "irrational" – and, she adds, "ironically of course we end up with this clown car of people in the White House, being driven by a person who seems to have almost no rationality."

"That’s why I wrote the book," she continues. "I wanted to ask: what is the problem we have in society about legitimising what women are saying. Because if we had listened to those women’s warnings in the first place, we would not be in this current situation."

“If we had listened to women, we would not be in this current situation."

“What’s interesting to me is how gendered the word “emotional” is,” Chemaly tells me. “It’s a dismissive term for women. Emotional, hormonal… it’s just wrong.”

"Like so much sexism,” she continues, “it’s literally just stupid."

Her books opens by looking at how girls’ emotions are policed from childhood, with a focus on Western women. Chemaly writes that "anger remains the emotion that is least acceptable for girls and women because it is the first defense against injustice."

"What’s important to understand is by so thoroughly separating and detaching this powerful emotion from the notion of femininity," she tells me, "we take away from girls and women the ability to defend themselves and to assert their rights."

Chemaly looks at the anger women feel about pornography and how the ubiquitous presence of the sex industry in society leads to women exhibiting what she describes as "higher rates of self-objectification, as well as body and sexual dissatisfaction. Women and girls are not supposed to be angry about pornography and its impacts, but women, when asked, report feeling anger about porn."

I ask Chemaly to expand on this point. "I’m all for good, ethical porn," she says. "But pretending that [pornography] doesn’t exist in the context of profound racism and misogyny is really unhelpful. The research shows that women get angry about pornography because it has an impact on their intimate lives. And yet we are not supposed to talk about any of that, and instead let men have their kicks."

"In order to express anger, you have to trust that the person you are in a relationship with is going to respect you enough not to mock or dismiss you," she continues. "Women don’t have that level of trust in a lot of their relationships and they worry they will be rejected if they express what is important to them."

This is something I have encountered when speaking to women survivors of violent relationships – where expressing any kind of negative emotion, let alone anger, is punished by violence. That’s the extreme end, but Chemaly is right that for too many women, "your intimacy precludes your honesty."

Chemaly believes that the silencing of women’s anger, be it about porn, unequal distribution of domestic labour, or male violence, is making us sick.

Chemaly believes that the silencing of women’s anger, be it about porn, unequal distribution of domestic labour, or male violence, is making us sick.

She writes that "an inability to articulate anger is recognised as a significant component of both depression and anxiety", which women and girls suffer at higher rates than boys and men.

But it’s not just a question of mental health. Being prevented from expressing our anger is making women physically unwell, too.

"Repressed anger affects our cardiovascular system, it affects our mental state, our hormonal endocrine systems," Chemaly insists over the phone. "Understanding how our emotional and physical lives relate to one another is really important."

The data Chemaly presents in defence of this argument is persuasive, writing how "repressed anger… now considered a risk factor for a panoply of other ailments" including "disabling and painful autoimmune illnesses" such as chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, which women are three times more likely to experience than men.

She writes that "certain cancers, particularly breast cancer… have been linked to what researchers describe as ‘extreme suppression of anger’."

Her book is quick to point out that "anger does not cause these illnesses, but studies repeatedly suggest, and in some cases confirm, that its mismanagement is implicated in their incidence and prevalence among women."

Chemaly also looks at racial stereotypes to reveal how our attitudes to women’s rage change depending who is expressing that anger.

"It’s very important to acknowledge that there’s no “one size fits all” when you talk about the category of women," she tells me, explaining how our anger is received in ways that are “completely contextual and socially constructed.”

“There’s an angry black woman stereotype, the crazy white woman stereotype, and the sad or passive Asian woman stereotype," she continues, adding as an example: "a black woman doesn’t have to be angry to be called an angry black woman… She just needs to get up in the morning."

“A black woman doesn’t have to be angry to be called an angry black woman… She just needs to get up in the morning."

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot to be angry about in a book about women’s anger.

It’s impossible to read about the statistics on women’s mental and physical health, the gender imbalance in everything from domestic labour to medical research, and the horrors of endemic male violence, without feeling that very burning rage at injustice which women are punished for expressing.

But knowing why we are angry can be an effective catalyst for change.

"In the anger there is knowledge, and in the knowledge there is anger," Chemaly tells me. "They construct each other and you need respect for one to have respect for the other. So long as women are not respected as authorities in their culture, their anger will not be respected."

Chemaly is determined to "find the good things" in our current political situation, such as record numbers of women running for office in the upcoming midterm elections. But "the real core problem is how sustainable" this new burst of activism is.

"The conclusion I personally have come to," she tells me, "is that the immense creativity of women is something we need to focus on. How can that creativity include politics, religion and the spaces that are currently thought of as men’s spaces?"

"It’s possible to consciously think about transformative uses of anger," she concludes. "Instead of letting anger control you, you can transform it."

* Rage Becomes Her, by Soraya Chemaly, was published 20 September 2018 by Simon Schuster.

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