Women Beyond the Verge

Two Southern belles on the run get catcalled one too many times by the same schlubby dude; they blow up his truck. A couple of rough-and-ready French chicks talk their way into an architect’s house—his place is “like a drawing by a well-balanced child,” as is his smug, suave, symmetrical mug—and point their Smith & Wessons at him, all the while admiring both his book collection and his calm under pressure. “It’s clear to me,” one of them tells him affectionately, “that you stand out from our past encounters.” Then she shoots him in the face. “Get your fucking hands off me, goddamn it!” yells a leader of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, addressing the member of the white-guy network-news crowd who is trying to restrain her as she rages over their failure to cover her group’s contributions. “The next son of a bitch that touches a woman is gonna get kicked in the balls.” A ten-year-old African American girl, menaced by a white boy, picks up a chunk of brick and aims it at him. When an avowed pussy-grabber tries to win a presidential debate against his female opponent by trotting out a bunch of women who’ve accused her husband of rape and other misconduct, a woman journalist takes to cable news to defend her beloved historic candidate, “shaking and red-faced with rage.”

Furious women make for good montage. It’s true that the examples above are angry for very different reasons and channel their anger in very different ways; it’s also true that the first two scenarios are fictional. Still, together they give you a glimpse of the kinds of pleasures and frustrations on offer for readers of Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister’s reported manifesto on feminism after Trump. Traister’s thesis seems at first a seductively straightforward one. She argues that the rage of “nonwhite non-men” as a political force has so far not been given anywhere near its due in American history and culture, that it has been responsible for a significant portion of progressive change in this country, and thus that the newish angry-woman constituencies fired up by the 2016 election (many of them white and comfortably off) are part of a proud lineage, and should be celebrated and encouraged. It’s an intriguing double move—giving women of color their rightful, pioneering place in feminist and progressive history while also insisting on the automatic right of white liberal feminists to be directly identified with a more radical tradition.

Anger is an inherently unstable compound; that’s part of its power. It’s a feeling—at its best, a place to start from, a raw material to be interpreted, analyzed, and acted on. Feminist anger can be the initially inchoate sense that conditions one has been forced to live with as normal or natural are in fact both deeply wrong and fundamentally unnecessary—a reaction Sara Ahmed has termed “snap.” As Audre Lorde put it in her brilliant 1981 piece “The Uses of Anger,” rage is “loaded with information and energy,” and so can function as both an interpretive tool and a fuel for ongoing action. Lorde also warned, though, of the care and honesty required to use one’s anger for the collective good—solidarity involves hard and delicate work. “What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” she wrote, counseling against hiding in “the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny.” At the heart of Traister’s project, then, lies the question of who is angry and about what, whether anger in itself necessarily points to shared interests and goals, and whether women’s anger always bends toward the righting of injustices.

The book is prone at times to a blithe context collapse that makes Traister’s tone tricky to parse. The film stars, former employees, journalists, and others who brought down producer Harvey Weinstein are compared to the impoverished women who marched on Versailles and dragged the royals out of their palace in October 1789. And Rosa Parks, who was the aforementioned ten-year-old brandishing her brick, is rather incongruously measured against the author herself. Traister recalls the first time she really let loose in her published writing, in a New Republic column in 2014, allowing her feminist anger to show without too much softening humor or performative reasonableness. After quoting Parks’s declaration to her grandmother that “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it,’ ” she muses on “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: in young Rosa Parks’s case, at the risk of death; in my case, at the risk of being mocked on the internet.”

Caravaggio, Medusa, ca. 1597, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 235⁄8 × 21 5⁄8".
Caravaggio, Medusa, ca. 1597, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 235⁄8 × 21 5⁄8″.

This problem of the stark disparity in stakes for different women is one that Traister, to her credit, strives to address head-on throughout the book, though she can’t ever quite resolve it. At one point, she lists a number of substantive reasons why some progressives—including many black women—may not have felt satisfied with Hillary Clinton as a candidate: her close ties to Wall Street, her hawkishness on foreign policy, and her support for damaging and harsh domestic measures, such as her husband’s 1994 crime and 1996 welfare-reform bills. Yet there is an element of lip service in this, as Traister rushes straight on to the virulent misogyny from both left and right that she clearly feels is the only real explanation for Clinton’s defeat. (As if the list had never existed, she later approvingly quotes a @shitHRCcantsay Medium account that hit back at the media’s focus on Clinton’s flaws with “Motherfucker name one!!!”) For Traister, Clinton was never sufficiently “celebrated as the outsider that, as a member of a gender that had been historically denied access to executive power, she was.” She points out the double bind by which Clinton, who managed to become a viable female candidate where the likes of Shirley Chisholm in 1972 had not, was criticized for being, in essence, too viable. For Traister, perhaps, a woman in power is an inherently revolutionary notion, so the substantive differences between Chisholm’s platform and Clinton’s can take a back seat.

Much of what Traister commends as anger could be championed under another name. For instance, she rightly follows Angela Davis and many others who have objected to the common portrayal of Rosa Parks as a “stoic” and almost apolitical little lady who, tired one day, refused to get up and move to the back of the bus. But it’s not only Parks’s anger that has often been left out of the narrative, seen as too threatening to be acknowledged—it’s what she did with it, the long years of dedicated, organized, collective political work that preceded and followed the day for which she is most widely known. Many of the other women whom Traister cites—such as the enslaved Mumbet, who in the eighteenth century mounted a case for her freedom that helped accomplish abolition in Massachusetts, or Flo Kennedy, or Mamie Till, or Sylvia Rivera—are distinguished not so much by their rage as by the determination, consistency, and strategic thinking they applied to tackling the injustices that sparked it. Of course, rage is a lot sexier and more exhilarating as a topic than the more workaday aspects of political organizing. In fact, Traister occasionally seems to be offering a kind of self-help prescription: In embracing her anger, she notes in her conclusion, she finds she is sleeping better, eating healthier, exercising harder, and getting more work done. She’s even having great sex! (Here anger starts sounding so delightfully healthy and nonthreatening as to undermine the point of it altogether.)

Unfortunately, as Traister here and there admits, women can get just as furious when called out on their own racism as they can about structural injustice, and if there isn’t anything necessarily reactionary about rage, by the same token there’s nothing that revolutionary about it either. (Right-wing women such as Phyllis Schlafly, she concedes, have been angry, too.) At various points, Traister encourages those women who have been “waking up,” post-Trump, to some of the nastier and more intractable elements of American life, to embrace and trust their own anger, and to listen carefully to the anger of women whose awakening happened a lot earlier. She can get a little fuzzy, though, on the question of what to do if and when you find that these two instructions conflict with each other.

She seems still vaguer on the question of the crucial differences between liberal and socialist feminism—i.e., on the actual content of what women think, do, and want, regardless of how angrily they may or may not express themselves. (Traister tends to focus on culture here, summing up feminism’s “contemporary rebirth” as a matter of “think pieces or nonprofits or Eve Ensler plays or Beyoncé VMA performances.”) The most successful brand of American feminism of the past few decades, which has been exported globally, has involved a relentless focus on representation and discrimination, on opening up space for certain women within an established order rather than aiming for economic redistribution and material transformation of that order. Traister is of course well aware that the question of solidarity between white women and those of color is closely connected to that of economic and political orientation. She quotes, for instance, Aditi Juneja’s very concise statement of the problem: “Are white women going to use their power to defend their own interests or are they going to use it to transform systems so that we all have more power?” She also sympathetically reports the frustrations of those who note the Democratic Party machine’s unwillingness to throw its money and support behind “new kinds of candidates,” seeming unruffled by the fact that this was the same centrist logic that made Clinton the 2016 candidate. By concentrating on anger and not so much on what exactly it drives people to fight for, Traister manages to take such important but basic goals as “equal pay, women’s health care, defending Obamacare, environmental activism, and [women’s] plans to run for office and get involved in campaigns as volunteers leading to the midterms” and reframe them as, “in the context of American history,” revolution.

Still, while Traister’s focus on anger qua anger risks papering over some important political distinctions, it’s also understandable, when you consider what she’s up against. She offers a forceful if familiar inventory of the ways in which women’s anger in the public sphere is exaggerated, pathologized, and used to discredit them in a manner unimaginable for men. Both perceived weakness and strength count against women candidates for office in seemingly equal measure, and while Trump et al. are rewarded for their rhetorical excesses, the mildest swear word, flash of the eyes, or hint of complaint or critique from a woman can be enough to get the press hyperventilating. Traister’s frustration with this double standard makes sense. What clearer sign of subjugation than the imperative to complain about it politely? But there is also a danger that the extreme narrowness of approved expression can lead you to overestimate the “revolutionary power” involved in flouting it. Each curse word or obscene pun on a protest sign is fondly recalled here, evoking a population in love with its own newfound daring. Even Traister herself, having written a book-length paean to female rage, frequently emphasizes the inner struggle required for her to express dissent in any truly combative terms.

The notion of really punishing men for their transgressions, even in rhetoric or imagination, is for the most part carefully left out of this book. The only example of women’s rage in my opening paragraph that doesn’t appear in Good and Mad is the scene from Virginie Despentes’s rape-revenge adventure Baise-Moi. Celebrating the truck explosion in Thelma & Louise is as far as Traister wants to go—still too far for a lot of men who saw the movie, apparently. Even some of the more aggressive aspects of #MeToo alarm her. Though supportive, she labels the Shitty Media Men list, a Google spreadsheet that anonymously alleged all kinds of abuse and harassment, “dangerous and irresponsible,” and expresses discomfort with Nicole Cliffe’s offer to pay Harper’s Magazine writers if they withdrew their upcoming pieces in protest from the magazine, which contained a screed by Katie Roiphe that was expected to out the list’s creator, Moira Donegan. For Traister, these phenomena felt so disturbing as to be the stuff of apocalyptic sci-fi. “They were,” she writes

destabilizing to my profession, to the norms of professional and ethical behavior I’d been raised to respect, and—I feared—to feminism itself. They seemed too much, too risky, too intense. I felt like I was in some space movie, on a ship getting rocked by fire as it moved forward at a speed I’d never traveled before. Would it hold? Would we survive? I think it was the first time that I had experienced anything like radicalism in my own sphere, and it felt unsafe. Exhilarating. Terrifying. Uncomfortable. Necessary and long overdue and as if it were either going to burn us all up or save us.

The slight hesitance and timidity Traister cops to may stem in part from the complicity of which she and many of the rest of us in similar professions have grown increasingly aware. Your ability and eagerness to compromise with a more powerful group in exchange for access tends to distort your sense of what revolutionary change might entail. It is not enough to suggest, as Traister often does, that white women supposedly radicalized by Trump should understand they are “late to the party” and give due respect and attention to the activists who came before them. Juneja describes noticing that white women new to political activism, as well as seeming ignorant of the work that preceded theirs, were dramatically more reformist in their attitudes: “very hierarchy-oriented, very rules-oriented in a way I have not seen when organizing with people of color.” They want to know what permits they might need, and seem confident that just voicing their concerns to their elected representatives will be enough to change things. They assume, in other words, that they can thrive within the existing order.

This tendency shows itself in Traister’s arguments, too. Her book articulates again and again the need for women’s anger to receive “validation” or to be “allowed.” Women she talks to often speak of this need as their primary motivation—they want to be heard and acknowledged in their outrage. She imagines working women waiting for “permission” to explode in rage once the Hollywood crowd had made it newly acceptable, even as she knows that their existing efforts simply hadn’t been receiving the same attention. Women, she writes, “are not lauded for their fury” as they should be, as Thomas Paine and other American heroes are. What “is hurting us,” she writes in her conclusion, is “the system that penalizes us for expressing [our anger], that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it.” There is a fear of being continually painted as “marginal and unattractive.” Yet although it’s appealingly human, there’s nothing radical about wanting to be appreciated. It seems unlikely that you can do much to alter conditions by persuading the more powerful to approve and congratulate you for your rage at them. The desire to be recognized as both good and mad may sometimes lead you astray. Change, as Traister clearly understands, will involve a material shift in the balance of power. We can’t expect everyone to like it.

Lidija Haas is a contributing editor of Bookforum and the New Books columnist for Harper’s Magazine.