Illustration: Esme Mackey


Women’s anger is at boiling point – and when we hold it in the consequences are devastating

Alanis Morissette taught Marisa Bate that to be a woman is to be angry. She explores how rage can start revolutions

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By Marisa Bate on

Right now, women’s anger is hanging heavy in the air. We witnessed it weave through cities as women marched in protest against the presidency of Donald Trump (even if the marches did feel like the “world’s largest women’s bathroom line”, as Noreen Malone of the New York Times’ magazine memorably put it). The #MeToo movement, originated by Tarana Burke, was amplified last October, thanks to some high-profile women setting workplaces and allegations alight. Beyoncé appeared swinging a baseball bat. The Good Fight celebrated angry women as smart and fierce, not shrill and hysterical. Twenty-eighteen is the Year of the Woman (again), as more women than ever run for office in the US. In the first hour of the Senate confirmation hearings of pro-life Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, on Tuesday, women protestors yelled as they were forcibly removed (which, inevitably, one male senator described as “hysteria”).

Have we truly, finally, had enough?

“Revolution is not a one-time event,” wrote Audre Lorde. Women have been angry for, well, ever since men have been around. Think of Boudica or Joan of Arc or Ching Shih, a Chinese sex worker turned pirate lord commanding 40,000 outlaws (under her rule, rape was punishable by death). Think of the Suffragettes, the second-wavers, the Black Lives Matter founders and one of my personal favourite Angry Women, Alanis Morissette.

As I turned 10, Alanis’s rage, guitars and wild, long, loose hair seemed as untamable to me as she was. On Right Through You she sings: “You took me for a joke/ You took me for child / you took a long hard look at my arse and then you played golf for a while”. Alanis taught me that to be a woman is to be angry.

But for as long as women have been angry, they have been ostracised, punished and belittled. Socialised to swallow their anger, mask it behind smiles and politeness, do whatever they can to hide the tumour growing ever larger under their skin, pulsating with every headline or interaction or injustice.

Because, as woman, anger is everything we’re not meant to be: challenging, opinionated, difficult, loud, the cause of another’s discomfort or a voice that says they are wrong. A woman’s anger is the realisation that she lives in a world of profound injustice; to acknowledge and respect that would be to admit the crimes.

Despite my early education from Alanis, I soon learned that anger was actually off limits outside the safety of the three-minute album track. On dates, men shied away from the heated ideas I’d express over politics. When I started writing, an editor repeatedly told me to “take the anger out”. And, despite what I could feel in my bones, in a professional setting, especially, my anger would simply melt into tears whenever I even got close to speaking anger to power. Instead, my mouth froze and the rage morphed into tears trickling down my hot cheeks, all feminine and acceptable.

American feminist, writer and activist Soraya Chemaly told me over Skype that she literally bit a hole in her tongue holding in her anger: “It was a habit and I wasn’t thinking about what it meant. I would have said, ‘Me? I’m not angry!’ But then I started to write. And what came out of my fingers, which couldn’t come out of my mouth, was infused with rage. I obviously felt that I couldn’t say things verbally. The inhibition is so strong. I grew up Catholic, [as did Alanis] being a good kind person, being a good girl. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the expression ‘lower your voice’. So when I write I have none of those inhibitions and it’s a gift.”                                                                                              Now, Chemaly’s ability to channel her anger is both her “gift” and her subject. Her new book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, is packed full of reasons why women might be so angry, including the usual suspects of violence and sexual violence; discrimination; the “drip drip drip” of inequality; the burden of care; the burden of intersectional oppression and how we are socialised to avoid anger like the plague from before we can even walk. Chemaly warns what can happen if we repress this anger, in part illustrating this through her own family.

From her great grandmother – mute from the trauma of a forced marriage as a child – to her perfectly behaved mother, who she once found smashing the family's best china in the garden, the narrative of her bloodlines suggests that unaddressed anger can be like an illness that is passed down through a family and needs to be treated before it spreads. “Anger is a genealogical phenomenon,” writes Chemaly.                                                                                                                                    This language of illness and health isn't just a useful metaphor. She writes that, “unaddressed anger affects our neurological, hormonal, adrenal and vascular systems in ways that are still largely ignored in the treatment of pain. It’s hard to overstate what this means in terms of women's health.” And she’s not messing around: “Women who repress their anger are twice as likely to die from heart-related disease.” She’s careful to point out that, “anger does not cause these illnesses, but studies repeatedly suggest, and in some cases confirm, that its mismanagement is implicated in their incidence and prevalence among women.”

Yet Chemaly doesn't only want to talk about anger as a disease. It’s only harmful in women (male anger, of course, is a different, albeit extremely related, essay for another day) if it’s left festering under layers of societal expectation and discrimination. She believes it’s a force for good and for change and she offers strategies of how to achieve this. As she writes: “Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world.”

As we talk about the record number of American women running for office in the US, she links this development to the fact that a whole generation of women has now grown up doing more sports at school, after a bill that prohibited schools discriminating by sex in any of their programmes: “We know that sports isn’t just sports: it’s about leadership, collective action, regulating oppression. So, you went from an environment where girls were not allowed to be aggressive… [to] a group of women [who are] strong physically, used to confrontation and challenge and conflict, and they are making that political.”

Perhaps, ironically, allowing angry women is the sign of a progressive society, which ultimately means there’ll be less to be angry about

British journalist Helen Lewis recently wrote a piece in the New Statesman on the “new toxicity”, in which she examines how British politics is drenched in rage, anger and spite. “On the internet,” she writes, “everything is outrageous to 15 people.” So, are we all just angry at the world right now? “There’s a difference between constructive and deconstructive anger,” she tells me over the phone. It has to be a “tool” to change things, not, she says, “a feeling of being snarky, grouchy and snappy, a kind dickishness.”

Yet even when women are angry in efforts to make change, this is rarely deemed acceptable. “I’ve been reading a lot about the suffragettes,” Lewis continues, “and we don't think of women’s anger as being revolutionary. I guess it is because it is scary in some ways, there’s a temptation to diminish it. The whole idea of the ‘Suffragettes’ was that it was a diminutive suffix, intended to make them silly, like an authoress or a usheress, because these were terrorists, they were extremely militant and they caused damage to both property and people and they were extremely angry.” Only certain women, Lewis suggests, can display anger: “As a mother, you’re allowed to be angry. I always think of the Jamie Bulger killers. The press always phone up Denise Fergus because that’s a socially approved channel for women’s anger.”

For women of colour, displaying anger is even more complex: the racist trope of the Angry Black Woman spares no victims. When the Obamas left the White House, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote of Michelle Obama: “Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.”

Melanie Eusebe, chair of the Black British Business Awards and on the Women Of The World committee, says it’s an almost impossible thing to talk about. “It handcuffs me. And it upsets me. Because I don’t want to indict black women. Are our feelings closer to the surface? Do we not have that self-examination thinking process? Is it that generally we feel more angry on behalf of others because we have this ‘Mamma Africa’ thing, because we’ve been fighting for other peoples our whole lives? And look at bell hooks and Angela Davis. Some of our most amazing feminist writings were angry. There were barely the white equivalents and so what is that?” Chemaly argues that having to embrace this stereotype might actually be ironically liberating. “I think the most successful [women running for office] will not be straight, cisgender white women. I think they will be women who have been forced to live with intersecting marginalised identities and because of that are ironically free to express themselves.”

Eusebe believes in anger and its healing powers: “I love anger. Anger for me is natural and healthy and it teaches you when your boundaries have been crossed. I don’t want to discourage any woman from feeling anger because quite frankly, if you’re not being paid the same as the dude next to you, then yes, you should be angry; when your president says he can grab women by the p-u-s-s-y, yes, you should be angry.” Perhaps more importantly, confronting anger has helped Eusebe confront some of her biggest life experiences: “I was abused as a child, sexual abuse for 10 years. My therapist recommend a book called The Dance Of Anger. When I read that book it really freed me up. It freed me up to confront my abusers. And I’m not angry anymore.”

Healthily explored and expressed, anger can take women to the highest levels. It can start revolutions. It can level playing fields and deconstruct the damaging binaries of gender. It can be a liberation, not a negative ball of hate, but a euphoric transgression into a happier state. Yet it can be shackles when unexpressed, it can make us unwell, it can be a racially motivated silencer. Is society any better at dealing with our anger than in the past? Chemaly and Lewis tell me we’re in a period of “backlash” and “social conservatism”, respectively. That, as Chemaly puts it to me, “it’s two steps forward, one step back.” Perhaps, ironically, allowing angry women is the sign of a progressive society, which ultimately means there’ll be less to be angry about.

Like Chemaly’s mother standing in the garden, about to throw the next china plate, I feel that so many of us exist in that state; the pregnant pause, the 30 seconds away from boiling over, but always pulling back just before any real damage is done. And then, like Chemaly's mother, carrying on with our lives, smile and hair back in place.

But surely anger means action. Surely anger means change. Apathy never got anyone anywhere. If we don’t allow ourselves to be angry – to explore that anger to its full potential, to admit those crimes that made us angry – we are standing in the way of our own progress and that of others.

Who knows what could happen if we really allowed ourselves to go there?

Alanis does, of course: “Well Hello Mr Man/You didn’t think I’d come back/You didn’t think I’d show up with this army and this ammunition on my back.”

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger is published by Simon and Schuster on 20 September.


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Illustration: Esme Mackey
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