“Stay angry, little Meg,” Mrs. Whatsit whispered. “You will need all your anger now.”
Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an article in Parents called “How to Quit Yelling.” A few sentences stuck out to me:
“Parents who don’t yell at their kids use the following strategies to avoid getting angry in the first place.”
“When a person believes that anger is a useful emotion, they tend to use that emotion more frequently…but if you have experienced that anger is unproductive, you’ll be more inclined to find another way to handle the situation.”
“If you feel anger building, be silent for a second and remind yourself: “Getting angry won’t help” or “Being angry at a child is unproductive.”
While perhaps being angry at a child is unproductive, the messaging in this article seemed to imply that anger is an emotion you want to avoid. It is “unproductive” and “negative.” The author insinuates that it is an immature emotion, something a good parent should be able to overcome. The penultimate paragraph says: “When you start to feel anger rising, you’ll be better able to swap out that negative, unproductive feeling for a more productive, positive one.”
To give you a bit of context about why those phrases troubled me, I read this article just as I was finishing Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. The juxtaposition of this article’s clear perception that anger is to be avoided and Traister’s argument that it can actually be helpful, left me reeling.
So which is it? Is anger immature and unproductive, or can it actually improve our lives?
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Traister wrote Good and Mad in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent #MeToo movement. The book is a reflection on the reaction women had to Trump being elected, namely the rage that erupted leading to the Women’s March, and ultimately #MeToo. (Like the first episode of season 4 of “The Good Fight” which reimagines what life would have been like if Hillary Clinton had been elected, I have no doubt that #MeToo was a direct consequence of Trump being placed in power. Though I hate that he was ever our president, I can’t help but feel grateful for the revolution he inspired.) It also investigated why anger has rarely been allowed in women, even as it is celebrated in men.
Good and Mad was published in October of 2018, and as I was reading it, I kept on thinking: Oh, but just wait! Just wait! Because of course I knew that the same month Traister’s book was published, Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, and yet another woman’s account of sexual abuse was swept under the rug as collateral damage.
That in 2020, women would be royally screwed by the pandemic, and rage would become so ubiquitous that none other than The New York Times would create a call line for mothers at wit’s end with their children stuck at home all day to scream into. (To be clear, some women are still screaming). (Also to be clear, women who could not be safely sequestered at home due to their role as essential workers were also dealt a bum deal).
That a year later the NYT would publish an article reporting on “What Women Lost,” outlining just how devastating the pandemic was on working mothers.
That the pandemic would go on and on and on, with no end in sight.
That in 2021, in addition to new variants and a lack of vaccines for those under five, the very rights to determine what women do with our bodies would be under attack, now with a Supreme Court much less likely to uphold Roe.
Our countries deep failure to value maternal health would be spotlighted in an opinion piece titled “America’s Mothers Are Dying.”
Finally, the cherry on top came in the fall of 2021 when, despite our new president’s attempts to provide some sort of scaffolding for families in his Build Back Better program, men in power decided that it was not worth the expense, scrapping the measly but better than nothing paid family leave which would have finally pulled our country from the bottom of this list.
(Also please note this is in addition to thousands of people dying every day from COVID, a racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and RBG’s death in September 2020).
After much fighting, four weeks of leave were put back on the table (which every person who has gone through childbirth knows is not enough). But to be clear, we had to beg and plead and march and strike just to be granted the opportunity to heal after keeping our species from extinction.
Each time something like this happened, women felt increasingly disregarded, unsupported, and ignored. Leading to more and more rage.
So the question is: What do we do with our anger?
“Progress in America takes a punishingly long time; but it also happens in fits and bursts, sometimes in reaction to terrible, deadening, deeply damaging setbacks. We are in one of those moments now, and we need to pay attention, to be aware of what is possible if we think hard about what we’re angry about, and what needs to change. Because change can happen quickly.”
Traister could have written the above paragraph about this very moment in time. We saw change happen in an instant in the early days of shelter in place when something that once would have been called impossible (the entire world working from home) became the status quo for two years. We have an opportunity now, as we tiptoe toward employees beginning to return to the office, to re-evaluate what life in an office looks like. As mothers begin to rejoin the workforce to create new norms and ask for once impossible terms that would support us in our roles as both caregiver and worker. To reimagine a corporate world where parents don’t have to pretend they are not parents in the office, where we can bring more of our selves to work. None other than Shonda Rhimes said: “The idea of pretending that we have no other life is some sort of fantasy out of the 1950s, where the little lady stayed at home. I don’t have a little lady at home. So if I am excelling at one thing, something else is falling off. And that is completely okay.”
I want us to consider that our anger is not immature or unproductive, but here to remind us that something is amiss, and to not be angry would require going dead inside. What would it take to move beyond rage and the desire to smash things, and use anger to create instead of destroy?
Perhaps we could envision anger having stages, like the grief process.
The first stage of anger is a denial of discontent, a squashing of feelings, a trying to pretend everything is okay. Anger unacknowledged. (Megan Abbott called these “reservoirs of anger and frustration I had always denied were there.”)
Then a low-grade resentment emerges, when you recognize you are unhappy but don’t feel entitled to do something about it. Anger unexpressed.
When resentment boils over, you get rage, the next stage, which manifests as a fiery burst of unhappiness that sometimes feels destructive. Active anger.
But once that rage is given an outlet, once it is given air, anger transforms. Anger becomes a catalyst. Because anger is fuel. Anger is energy. Anger is acknowledgement of a wanting of something else, something more.
People often describe anger as a secondary emotion, that underneath anger you might discover something more vulnerable, something harder to express. Sadness or fear or hurt. But I think underneath anger, at least for women, you often discover wanting. A desire unrealized. A desire unsatisfied. A desire unquenched. Because women have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with their desires, we have learned to ignore them. And then we wonder why we are angry.
Think about it.
Our anger at Trump being elected had to do with wanting his abuse of women to matter. Wanting to be heard. Wanting to be valued.
Our anger in the abortion rights debate stems from wanting to be seen as a person with autonomy over her own body.
Our anger during the pandemic came from wanting to have support.
When we come together in anger, acknowledging our desires, we can not only call for change but feel less alone in our antipathy. It was our collective anger that brought more than 3 million women across the globe together five years ago. It was our collective anger that started the momentum of #MeToo. It is our collective anger that might make this very moment in time a revolutionary moment for workplace culture, for working women, for parents in dire need of societal support.
“This is one of anger’s most important roles: it is a mode of connection, a way for women to find each other and realize that their struggles and their frustrations are shared, that they are not alone, not crazy. If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.” - Good and Mad
For those who have read Nightbitch, the concept of howling resonates, doesn’t it?
Going back to that article in Parents, if we teach our children that anger is an “unproductive emotion,” aren’t we cutting them off from a power source? Aren’t we denying them a chance to access an emotion that holds the capacity to change the world? And aren’t we driving everyone crazy trying to convince ourselves we have nothing to be angry about?
“I confess that I am now suspicious of nearly every attempt to code anger as unhealthy, no matter how well meaning or persuasive the source,” Traister writes in the conclusion to the book. “I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick.”
I’m still figuring out how to work creatively with my anger (this newsletter is a start). I’m not sure what will come from the communal rage that has come to encapsulate this unique moment in time, after two years of pandemic living. All I know is that I don’t want my daughters believing, like so many women do, that only certain emotions are acceptable. I don’t want them to stifle feelings, but to give them air so that they can breathe and then hopefully dissipate. I don’t want them to feel shame for feeling strongly about something, to feel like they are ever “too much” with their intensity, with their desires, with their wanting.
I want to model healthy anger, anger that creates rather than destroys, anger that invites questions rather than arguments, anger that reveals injustice and unfairness and believes we all deserve more.
I think this kind of anger can be good, even holy in its discontent. May we all grant ourselves permission to access it.
“Fury can upend institutions, cut through our bedrock assumptions, and remake the geography of possibility.” - Good and Mad
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister.
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Soraya Chemely.
All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, Darcy Lockman. (quoted in my post on Ambition)
The Pandemic Has Given Women a New Kind of Rage, Helen Lewis, The Atlantic.
Amanda Montei’s Substack newsletter, Mad Moms.
Women’s Day off the Internet, an episode of “Under the Influence” with Jo Piazza.