June 27, 2019

When Anger Becomes a Political Force

Al Franken, accused of sexual harassment, felt compelled to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate. Republican Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault and misconduct, fought for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

What is wrong with his picture?

The wildly uneven results of the women’s movement in American governance are likely to be on the mind of every reader who picks up a copy of “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger” by Rebecca Traister (Simon & Schuster), a deeply well-informed study of women in politics that is also lively, rousing and timely.

She’s an award-winning journalist for New York and Elle magazines whose beat is the role of women in politics, entertainment and the media, and the author of “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women.” The theme of her latest books, she declares, is “the specific nexus of women’s anger and American politics, about how the particular dissatisfactions and resentments of American women have often ignited movements for social change and progress.”

Traister looks candidly and unapologetically at the anger of women — “deep, rich, curdled fury — as a political phenomenon. She reaches back in history — all the way back to ancient Greece, in fact — to make the point that anger has boiled up among oppressed women again and again over the centuries and millennia, and she argues that it has served as “the sparking impetus for long-lasting, legal, or institutional reform in the United States.” She shows how “the rages of women” have been focused on slavery and lynching, the denial of the right to vote, and the exclusion of women from many jobs and the exploitation of women in the jobs they were permitted to take.

Above all, Traister upholds the open expression of anger by women as a political weapon, and she repudiates the argument that it is counterproductive. “There will be, already is, a desire to treat this iteration of women’s uprising as hysteria, a mob, a witch hunt, a passing phase, a childish tantrum, something irrational, something niche, something that can be averted or neutralized as soon as everyone just calms down,” she writes. “But these are all strategies that have long been used to get people, including women themselves, to look away from, disregard, and suppress one of the great drivers of social upheaval and political change in this country: their own fury.”

“Rebecca Traister upholds the open expression of anger by women as a political weapon, and she repudiates the argument that it is counterproductive.”

Of course, she is not surprised that the activism of women does not always result in positive change in American politics. Indeed, she points out that anger itself is perceived differently in men and women, which is why “both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can wage yelling campaigns and be credited with understanding … the rage felt by their supporters while their female opponents can be jeered and mocked as shrill for speaking too loudly or too forcefully into a microphone.”

And Traister is compelled to confront the fact that the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election did not win. Hillary Clinton was characterized by Sean Hannity as “angry, bitter, screaming,” and yet a Washington Post reporter insisted that she “turned soft and thoughtful.” Ironically, she was forced to run against the angriest man in living memory of American presidential politics. “To fight her … the Republican party had chosen a figure who embodied every one of the strains of denigration and disrespect that had historically worked to bar women and nonwhite men from the presidency and to deny them equal access to political power,” Traister writes. “It worked.”

The separate and different fates of Franken and Kavanaugh are illuminated, although her book went to press before the Kavanaugh hearings. Franken was forced out because the Democratic women who serve in the Senate “chose to do what women had been unable to do, or had chosen not to do, during the [Bill] Clinton mess — they openly rebuked a powerful and widely beloved man.” By contrast, she points out, “Fox News chief Roger Ailes had protected Bill O’Reilly, keeping him in a multi-million-dollar berth for years after public claims of harassment had surfaced; O’Reilly in turn had defended Ailes when Ailes was accused of serial harassment at his network. And their network had defended Donald Trump.”

Traister ponders “the most incandescently furious” figure of the women’s movement in recent American politics, a Cuban-American teenager named Emma González. She’s the young woman with a shaved head who spoke up for her fellow survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., by repeatedly and forcefully “calling B.S.” on the pieties and verities of conventional politics. González reminds Traister of Rose Schneiderman, a 28-year-old labor organizer who spoke up for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 women in 1911. “Public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable,” declared Schneiderman. “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled.”

Exactly here is the proof text of Traister’s doctrine of rage as a tool of politics. Compare González and Schneiderman to Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser of Brett Kavanaugh. Surely, it was her decision to suppress her own anger and to present herself as temperate, measured and mild — to remain “intensely peaceable.” It was Kavanaugh who erupted in volcanic anger, and it is Kavanaugh who now sits on the Supreme Court.   

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.