Rebecca Traister Wants You to Stop Suppressing Your Rage

“What we have to change is the way that the world receives women’s anger.”

People gather to protest the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, one of several woman accusing the judge of sexual misconduct, testify at a Senate hearing.Brian Cahn/ZUMA

In reading Rebecca Traister’s new book, simply titled Good and Mad: How Women’s Anger Is Reshaping America, it’s hard not to get emotional, so I gave up trying. While I took (many) moments to simmer in my own rage and reflect on the past two-plus years, it would be a mistake to assume this book is limited to life after the 2016 election: We were angry long before Donald Trump was elected president.

Traister’s Good and Mad reaches far back into the past, weaving together our mothers’ and grandmothers’ and great-to-the-nth-degree grandmothers’ rage across centuries—if reading about the “brank,” a “medieval torture device used to literally muzzle an insubordinate or cranky woman” that was sometimes accessorized with metal tongue depressors or even spikes to pierce untamed tongues, doesn’t make you blind with fury, I don’t know what will. While we are no longer subjected to physical torture devices for our defiance, the intent to quiet and dismiss remains very much the same. Traister writes: “The furious female is, we are told to this day, in innumerable ways, both subtle and stark, a perversion of both nature and our social norms. She is ugly, emotional, out of control, sick, unhappy, unpleasant to be around, unpersuasive, irrational, crazy, infantile. Above all, she must not be heard.” 

Listen to Rebecca Traister discuss the political power of women’s rage, her new book, and the midterms, with MoJo’s Becca Andrews, on this episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:

Traister points out that while the silencing tactics by powerful men tend to be effective, they do typically come with an expiration date, at which point women fight back. Good and Mad focuses not just on women’s rage, but also the ways women’s rage has historically translated into political movements—be it the effort to win the right to vote, the women who rioted in Paris 200-plus years ago at the start of the French Revolution, or those who poured into the streets across the nation for the Women’s March in 2017. As for our current moment, she argues that Trump’s blatant misogyny, paired with a Republican-controlled Congress that seems hell-bent on curbing reproductive rights, has enraged women in such a powerful way that has led to the #MeToo movement and a flood of women running for political office to effect change. 

Good and Mad comes out at just the right time, as women across the country are furious and heartbroken after the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on accusations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Last week, we saw a woman quietly—and politely—stand before senators and relive her trauma amid probing questions and, later, a man who has had every opportunity in life rage against the idea that anyone could challenge his entitlement to a seat on the nation’s highest court.

The hearing and its aftermath just proved the point Traister was making all along.

But what’s most important, she argues, is that this moment and this anger aren’t fleeting—with or without a Justice Kavanaugh. Traister notes that what’s happening now is truly remarkable in the degree to which women are organizing and dismantling long-established power structures and begetting real, lasting change.

Traister recently spoke with Mother Jones about why we shouldn’t talk about #MeToo in the past tense, the moral argument for reconsidering who has power in America, and how embracing her rage actually left her happier, not to mention healthier. 

Mother Jones: First of all, congratulations on the new book.

Rebecca Traister: Thank you very much. I can’t believe it. It’s been very, very fast, so I’m sort of shocked. I feel like I just published a book, and now I’m publishing another book. I’ve never had this experience before.

MJ: I know, I feel like we just talked about All the Single Ladies.

RT: We did just talk about All the Single Ladies.

MJ: I heard you mention you were working on this on Ezra Klein’s podcast back in December.

RT: I think at that point, this book was meant to be written over the course of most of the Trump administration. In fact, I think it was supposed to be published in 2020. Originally, this was going to be a slower book.

MJ: So what sped it up?

RT: After the 2016 election, I had been kind of in a pit of misery—most people were, it’s not an unusual experience—and in a conversation with my husband, I started talking about anger, and not just my own, and he is the person who said to me, “I think this might be your book.” At the time, I had been intending, had Hillary Clinton won, to write a book about backlash. But the idea that women’s rage itself was a point of focus came to me in a flash, and it was amazing. As soon as I realized that this is what I wanted to write about, my mood improved, and I felt happy for the first time in months. 

I sold the book, had a plan with my publishers: I was going to write it over a couple years, and it was going to be about the history of recognizing women’s rage as a catalytic political force. But it was going to take time, because there was going to be a historical element, and I wanted to do the reporting about what happened during the Trump administration. I probably sold it just after the Women’s March and the airport protests fighting the Muslim ban. I wanted to see how that all transformed. I started to work on it at sort of a slow rate as I was keeping my full-time magazine job. And then in the fall, the sort of conflagration that was #MeToo—it was the way that the anger that I knew was so crucial to the period that I was writing about was moving in directions I didn’t expect. Here was that anger that I had been looking at, in a political context. And of course, #MeToo is political but channeled into another aspect of a women’s movement—a revolt, really. But during #MeToo, my publisher came to me and said, “So that book that you were going to publish in a couple of years…”

In writing books, I have always pushed back against rush. In fact, with my last book, I took five years because I was desperate to have the historical dimensions in it, and I knew that took a lot of time and a lot of research. This is the first time where the argument for doing it quickly really resonated for me, so I wound up writing it in four months. 

MJ: As a woman, I found a lot of relief and validation and power in reading a work like this. Was that your intent?

RT: A little bit. One of the things I hear again and again is a sort of hunger from women to hear their feelings of anger and frustration and ire validated, because it is so hard to be angry and have your anger taken seriously. That’s one of the dynamics that this book describes, but I have been made aware of the fact that being a public person willing to talk about my own anger and eager to think about the seriousness and import of other women’s anger actually works as a kind of tool for other people. I’ve never felt that way about my work before, really, that it has some kind of function. This is a particular instance in which I hear again and again, “I need to know I’m not alone,” “I need to know I’m not isolated,” or “I’ve been made to feel unattractive because I’m so angry because my anger is so all-consuming, I’ve been made to feel freakish or like I’m hysterical, overdramatic, or overreacting.” Hearing from other women who are publicly open about how angry they are is affirming and validating.

That is one of the structural arguments of this book—these messages that tell us that our anger makes us unattractive or marginal or not serious or ugly or theatrical-sounding—there is an actual strategy in place to suppress the anger of women. It is a political strategy, because the truth is the history of women who were willing to be angry in public about political and social injustice have often sparked movements.

Look back at the civil rights movement, certainly, the women’s movement and the temperance movement and the labor movement and the abolition movement, the gay rights movement. Often at the beginning, you see women, often women of color, who were willing to be angry in public, and who were angry with other women, and whose anger became a communicative force to bind women together to work in solidarity, right? Often complicated solidarity. That is a disruptive force, if you have angry women who are angry at the way that power structures are working, those women have the power to create disruption that alters those power structures. And so there is an incentive to suppress their anger, to not let them talk to each other about it, to discourage expression. Because if it is expressed, it can be the glue that binds together a national movement or political exertion that changes who has power. And so the messages that we think we’re hearing individually, maybe from our parents, or maybe from the teachers at school, who tell us we’re being overdramatic, or maybe from our boyfriends who tell us we’re not fun anymore because we’re so angry, or whatever it is, whoever it is, and you think, “Oh, this is an individual thing, and I’m being nutty.” That is actually part of a far bigger structural reality, which is that there is an incentive to keep women from opening their mouths and talking about what they’re angry about. 

I do hope that writing a book A) pointing out how this works, and B) offering up my own rage and the stories of women’s rage from previous eras to show how powerful and important and valid it is, is a tool for women out there who are struggling with how to make sense of what they’re feeling, and how people are reacting to it.

MJ: Let’s talk a little bit about how women’s rage is changing power structures now—how do you see the #MeToo movement affecting substantive change?

RT: Well, #MeToo is one of the first examples in my lifetime where I have seen powerful white men actually face repercussions for bad and abusive behavior. Powerful white men lost their jobs. Now, I deal a lot in the book with the question of whether there’ll be opportunity for them to come back and regain their power, and those are separate issues. The very fact that multimillion-dollar TV hosts lost their jobs is a very big deal. Those are investments—Matt Lauer is an NBC investment of tens of millions of dollars over decades; it is very hard to censure people who have that much power. There are dozens of examples: television hosts and restauranteurs, and a senator, sitting politicians who lost jobs as a result of that conversation. That is remarkable.

But the other half of that is that I also have mixed feelings about the repercussions, because too often, it becomes a story about what happened to the guys when, in fact, the power of that is the revelation of how ubiquitous the experience of abuse and harassment is for so many women and some men and the way in which it has structurally had an impact on women’s ability to gain anything like comparable power—economic power, political power, professional power—to men. That conversation was powerful in part because it opened up a way of examining gender inequity, including gender inequity that was not necessarily directly the result of having been sexually harassed or assaulted, but about the kinds of circumstances that lead women to have less power than men in workplaces and industries and how harassment and assault and the pervasiveness of those behaviors are a part of that bigger structural thing.

You also have political movements like the Women’s March. Donald Trump took power on a Friday afternoon with a Republican Senate in a Republican Congress that had been promising to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare for years, and they had taken multiple votes on it. He had the power to do that on the first day. The fact that the single biggest one-day political protest in the history of this country happened the day after he was inaugurated, that contributed to those things not happening on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday of that first week. There was a sign that there was a mass resistance to that, and it stopped it.

I write in the book about how so many of the women who are doing things like calling their senators’ offices, getting involved in local politics, sending postcards, doing the demonstrations, calling for the town halls, that actually wound up slowing up Obamacare reform and stopping it in one iteration when Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and John McCain voted against its repeal—that was powered by an angry mass resistance that was sparked in part by women.

So #MeToo exposed the framework of sexism in a way that is so useful to how we talk about these issues. Having written about them for so long, I know the temptation to talk about it as just individual, right? Well, it’s just her, it’s just this one lady, it’s just Hillary Clinton, and she has this particular baggage. And all those things are true; they’re always true, because there are always individual circumstances you can make go the distance of explaining gendered and racial and class inequity. But what happened during #MeToo is that so many of those broader systemic realities were exposed. That’s incredibly powerful in terms of opening the eyes of millions of people. It’s not that everybody’s convinced by it, but that to be able to understand your individual circumstances as in line with a larger structural reality that is built around fundamentally gendered inequity is a massive step forward, and how we even begin to talk about gender relations and gendered power structures in the United States.

MJ: How do you see women’s rage starting to shape the midterms? Do you actually see more women taking power come November?

RT: I’m very anxious about prediction-making, but here’s what has happened already: Unprecedented numbers of women have run for office. And in the Democratic primaries, unprecedented numbers of women are winning their primaries against men, often in races where there are multiple women running and the multiple women are coming in first and second, ahead of white men. It is impossible to overstate how unusual that is. Now, a lot of those women are winning their primary races in very difficult general election circumstances; they’re up against incumbent Republicans.

The other thing that has happened, that is reason for optimism and also investment, is that not only have women become angry and engaged as candidates, they’ve become engaged as volunteers, as protesters in this country. And men—again, I’m not talking exclusively about women. But so much of what we think of as “the resistance” is powered by women who are recently sort of awoken to political engagement and are gaining a civic education, learning about how their state and local policies and politics work, becoming invested in local candidates, not just presidential campaigns—school board races that their friend is running in or that a candidate they like is running in. They’re learning about the flipabble seats that haven’t been challenged for years by Democrats and getting invested in those—door knocking, canvassing, volunteering, strategizing new ways to work for candidates—and that means that we can’t make a prediction. Because yeah, it’s possible with more women running, you’re going to have more women losing, in addition to hopefully having more women winning, right, and how that story gets spun.

So I think this could very well have an impact on the midterms, but it has to go beyond that. One of the things women themselves said to me as I was reporting this book is that this fight is a long-term one. It is going to last for the rest of all of our lives. I do hope that this rage makes a difference in the midterms, but regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, that’s not the endpoint of what’s happening.

MJ: I feel like there’s a lot of anxiety around talking about the #MeToo movement in past tense or worrying that women’s energy is going to fizzle out as we get more and more accustomed to this administration.

RT: I actually write in the book about a moment that it felt that that might happen. In the summer of 2017, there had been the Women’s March, the airport protests, the health care victory in June when the Obamacare repeal was voted down. It was that kind of reckoning with like, “Oh my God, there’s been so much work done, so much exertion, we’re all so tired and so scared. And God, he’s still president.” I actually cite Patricia Russo, who runs the women’s campaign school at Yale: In that summer, she began to feel an anxiety that it was hard to keep up that level of energy and that level of anger, that it wasn’t sustainable, and that people would get tired and demoralized and the damage was still being done—you could win some of these fights and still see Obamacare eroded, you could still see losses, and there was this fear it was going to go. I understand why you have that fear, and I might have shared it, and then look what happened: There’s #MeToo. And that raged.

I, as somebody who has written about these issues for 15 years now, couldn’t believe that especially in a Trump administration, where all the media tends to want to look at is the shiny object of Donald Trump and his Twitter feed, that the #MeToo conversation extended more than a week. Then it went two weeks, and then it went three weeks, and then it was a month that #MeToo was dominating the headlines. And then it was two months and then it was three months. That is astounding. We do talk about it as if it’s past tense, but it’s not. It is not that sort of unremitting rat-tat-tat, every day there’s something new happening, but #MeToo is not in the past. It’s not in the past even when we talk about the political campaign. So many people are running explicitly on the argument that men have had too much power to abuse. One of the women who accused Donald Trump of harassing her when she worked in one of his buildings won her primary; she’s on a ballot during the midterms.

These conversations, even if they’re not the daily, “Oh, who’s the next powerful person who’s going to be accused” version of it, which is what was happening in the fall, the acknowledgement of the ubiquity of harassment and abuse and the toll that it’s taken on women’s power undergirds so much of the political conversation that we’re having right now. I think it undergirds in part the kind of energy that I’m seeing around thinking about who should lead the Democratic Party. Barbara Lee, the congresswoman from Oakland who is a tremendous advocate and left politician, who is somebody I admire so much, she’s running for House leadership in the fall. She’s been in the House as a voice of moral clarity and left-leaning righteousness for years. And we have never had a black woman in caucus leadership in the Democratic Party. You see Pramila Jayapal coming out on immigration.

These are not moves that are directly related to #MeToo. Nobody’s saying, “I’m running this leadership slot because somebody abused their power.” But what you are seeing is a reevaluation of how little power women have had within the professions in which they have worked so hard, and a lot of them being unapologetic about saying, “Actually, you know what, I am going to be a leader here, I am going to take some of that power, because I think there’s a view of the sort of passive way in which white men have had such a disproportionate share of that power that undergirds an argument for we need better representation, and we need more diverse representation.” Especially on the left, that is often powered by the ideas of women of color. We need to see those women of color better represented and actually leading the fight as they have been intellectually for decades.

So I don’t think #MeToo is in the past tense. I think the ideas and the conversations that it provoked is all coming together, along with a reckoning with the fact that we elected Donald Trump, a man who ran on an openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic platform, who beat a competent woman, no matter what you think of her. I think that all of this acknowledgment, the open reckoning, is undergirding a moral argument for reconsidering who has power in this country. 

MJ: What advice would you give women who are trying to learn to express their rage more freely?

RT: It’s hard. I write in the book a little bit about my own experience with getting to take seriously my own rage and the rage of other women and how it was actually really good for me, because even as somebody who understood the political value of women’s rage and who really values women’s anger as a social force, I also had absorbed so much of the message that it’s bad for you, you don’t want to be rotted out by it, it’s corrosive, it’s poisonous. But I felt happier writing the book for four months. I’ve never been healthier. Now, I was worried and consumed with anxiety about what’s happening nationally, but in terms of my own general health, having had the opportunity to write, think, and take seriously not just my own anger, but other women’s anger, was the most salutary experience I’ve ever had in my life. I slept better, I ate better, I wanted to exercise. I was clear-headed. So I am very much in favor of the expression of rage, and getting to a world in which the expression of rage can just be a regular part of the full human range of emotions and thoughts that women have.

However, I am also aware of the fact that that experience was very much the product of a very particular circumstance. I was being paid to do that. That’s not possible for a lot of women who do get punished, right? They get called hysterical, they get taken less seriously. They pay tolls in their personal relationships. So I don’t want to exhort anybody, like, “Go and be your mad self.” If you’re in a position where you can, please do, because we do need to hear from more women who are angry and able to be angry without fear that being angry is going to result in a materially damaging repercussion for them. However, the thing you can do, if you are not in a position to express your anger yourself, is to take the anger of other women seriously, because that’s the part we have to change, not just individual behavior—what we have to change is the way that the world receives women’s anger. That’s about the broader reality that it’s not taken seriously, it’s not considered valid, it’s considered often disqualifying. And the way we can contribute to that individually is by asking women, “Why are you angry, what makes you angry?” and then listening to their responses. This goes especially, I think, for white women and women of privilege. We need to all practice taking women’s anger and women’s rage more seriously, being curious about it, being interested in it. And considering what it’s telling us about the world, about ourselves, about inequality. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.