Good and Mad

Was it uncannily “lucky”—sarcasm intended—that journalist Rebecca Traister’s social history of women’s anger came out within days of what turned out to be one of the most electrifying spectacles in the history of American gender controversy? The hearings over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when both were in high school exemplified almost every aspect of Traister’s complex analysis. It also made the author ubiquitous during publication week on a multitude of media channels seeking comment on what just happened and why. It was, as they say, the sort of publicity you can’t buy. And wouldn’t want to. Yet the fortuitous timing was not a fluke. As Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger makes clear, it was practically inevitable. The regression of civil rights that is the program of the radical right that ascended to power in 2016 marks new assaults on fairness just about every day, exhaustingly sometimes more than one.

It’s a carousel book, one whose subject keeps coming around, although in the current moment it seems the operator has left his post and it’s spinning faster than usual. This year has already seen two other works on the topic: Rage Becomes Her, by Soraya Chemaly, and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. We are now on the eve of what has been dubbed the “anger election” in the midterms; a mood of vengefulness pervades the right’s attitude to social policy. Immediately after a blatant misogynist was elected president of the United States, some angry women launched what would become the largest single-day protest in the nation’s history, with participation worldwide and a reprise the following January. The #metoo movement pulled the cork from generations of suppressed pain and silence, with some powerful men finally taking the hit for their actions—and others deciding to hit back.

Traister posits the idea that this is not just the ongoing brawl it may appear, but the chartable progress of any unjust system’s dismantling, which necessarily eschews a linear course. The spiral will eventually end in a different spot from where it started, although her capsule history of key events in the women’s rights movement makes one only intermittently hopeful any one of us will live to see discernable results. Nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment, a group that represents more than half the population holds only one-fifth of the seats in Congress. But that may be about to change, Traister reckons, while we might note that advances into legislative halls rarely retreat. This spring a record number of female candidates announced their candidacy for U.S. House of Representatives—“twice the number that had run just two years before”—and the number of black women seeking election to federal office has likewise surged. Too, black women are, as they always have, charging the ramparts of social injustice, with these initiatives lately growing in number and, if their fiery determination and strategic creativity is any prediction, success. Traister chronicles other examples of what certainly seems to constitute a fresh and grand upswell of feminist fury, from the “angry art” of novelists, comedians, essayists, and television writers to the tenacious activism of young women like Emma González.

The response has been predictable: retributory smackbacks, an escalation of the same strategies of denigration, silencing, and shaming that caused women to have felt such anger in the first place. (It’s infuriating, not to mention demeaning, to be scolded about why you shouldn’t be furious.) One of Traister’s aims is to show how “anger works for men in ways that it does not for women,” — and with the Senate Judiciary committee hearings the perfect illustration arrived right on schedule. There were Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham pitching red-faced tirades that yielded them respectively a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court and a bump in approval ratings, followed by the president’s mockery and absurd suggestion that this is now a “scary time” for young men. Well, that one may have backfired a little when it inspired musician Lynzy Lab to write a ditty on the notion. Shortly after she uploaded a video of herself singing the sharp-edged parody accompanied by ukulele it got tens of millions of views and her an invitation to perform it on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sometimes the best revenge is humor. And talent. And intelligence.

And don’t forget hope. Traister ends her book—which in the middle (and the beginning, come to think of it) is naturally a bit demoralizing, what with the recitation of two hundred years of women’s debasement, subjugation, and belittlement—with a paean to the positive value of righteous anger. Women reading this book will likely feel a renewal of it while she narrates the almost endless swipes and attacks we’ve been forced to witness play out on the public stage since Hillary Clinton was unceremoniously hooked off it. But, as she writes, “Our job is to stay angry . . . perhaps for a very long time.” While we experience it, we can put it to good use. It can unite a sisterhood, galvanize a movement, ignite action. It is cleansing and it is the right emotion at the right time, an emblem of strength. Even if, at times, women cannot sustain the “discomfort and the exhaustion and sorrow of all their rage,” it is both our curse and our good fortune we will not have to wait long: here it comes again.