Review by Katie Booth
It’s emblazoned in the memories of those of us following the Kavanaugh hearing: two women—Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher—cornering Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, holding it open while they confronted him, yelling, sobbing, insisting that he recognize their pain. “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” shouts Gallagher, as Flake slowly lifts his eyes. “…Don’t look away from me! Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me—that you’ll let people like that go into the highest court in the land!”
Later Archila told the New York Times, “I wanted him to feel my rage.”
These women weren’t alone in their fury. Across the nation, we watched on our televisions and computers and phones; we felt the keening rage of these women.
Since the hearing began, I had been avoiding the news. Or rather, I’d been carefully modulating it, taking it in small doses with long breaks between. It wasn’t conscious, not exactly. It was more like second nature; I could feel it scraping against some old wound, some old rage. It had always been there, I knew, but I wanted to keep it at bay. Christine Blasey-Ford remained calm, kept up a cool veneer. She would help me maintain my own. But then the elevator, the rage.
This rage has captured us and knocked us down. In Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister explores it as part of both a national history and a contemporary reckoning. “What happened in the second decade of the twenty-first century,” Traister writes, “is that women began to rage publicly in ways that made them audible to one another; we began to hear one another and understand that we were not as isolated in our rage as we had been led to believe.”
Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.
Traister’s primary work is un-erasing this rage.
The focusing thread of Good and Mad is the 2016 election and its aftermath, which threw this anger back into the spotlight, but Traister also contextualizes it historically, exploring events like the triangle shirtwaist factory fire, Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid, and the Seneca Falls convention. She contextualizes anger in other identity issues, especially race but also, to a lesser degree, class. Early in the book, Traister writes, “We must train ourselves to even be able to see and hear anger from women and understand it not only as rational, but as politically weighty.” Her call is to bring about this transformation in an audience that has been witness to this anger as it has become more and more visible: a sea of protestors in Washington, the days after Trump’s inauguration; two women cornering a senator in an elevator; dozens of women representatives dressed in “suffragette white” for the 2019 State of the Union address.
Traister is performing a sort of archeological dig for anger—finding it in places where it surely always lingered but was also often dismissed, recast, or unseen. That’s one of the great challenges of a work like Good and Mad. It is a study of an oft-invisible thing. There are risks in studying an invisible things, and there are times when Traister writes anger into a historical event without much evidence. But more often she makes the erasure of anger evident, as she does when she writes about Rosa Park’s history as an anti-rape activist. Parks wasn’t just some tired woman, as she is so often painted. She had been an activist long before she refused to move to the back of a bus, and she was angry—though this history is often revised out of the story.
Similarly, Traister tells the story of Mamie Till insisting on having a public, open-casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till. Traister points out that Till is often pictured by her son’s casket or grave, weeping and consumed by grief, but Traister suggests that Till’s acts leading up to these pictured moments suggest that there is something more than just sadness in her actions:
“What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage. Lamentation and sadness do not drive a woman to fight for her son’s body, to vow to smash open his casket, to commit the crimes done to his body and face to eternal memory, to make damn sure that the world has to look at the same image of racist brutality that has been visited on your family and your life.”
Lifting this anger out of historical stories and re-presenting is important—if complicated—work. Traister runs the risk of glorifying or encouraging anger, as some critics have suggested. But to fault her for this is to miss the bigger point. Though anger is the very spine of this book, her message is obviously not a call to violence or aggression, nor a pass on complex thought or deliberation. Traister doesn’t say that anger is the primary effective way to create political change—but her book is still often summarized that way. Her counterarguments don’t draw from arguments of nonviolence or pacifism; rather, Traister places herself in opposition to those who would erase or diminish or distort the perception of women’s anger. To reinstate women’s anger as viable and powerful, even central, is not to promote anger but wholeness: Women being recognized as having anger, and the potential to wield it, is fundamental to power.
In the weeks following the Kavanaugh hearings, I was a wreck. To say that I was unproductive is an understatement, and to say that it was a matter of will would be inaccurate. My whole self had slid into an old pain and shut down inside of it. It was then that someone sent me a New York Times article by Rebecca Traister: “Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” The piece is adapted from the book, but framed by the context of the Kavanaugh hearings. In it, Traister recounts the anger as performed by both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham as “an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.” She also delves into the misunderstood nature of women’s tears, which often express not sadness but fury. She does not turn away from that fury.
She writes, “If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled.”
Being angry doesn’t mean acting impulsively, violently, or thoughtlessly. Anger, for Traister, is about being awake to the world around you, to your own responses, to the reactions of people who have been systematically hurt for generations. In that post-Kavanaugh moment, Traister recognized my anger for what it was—not sadness, not woundedness, not weakness, but rage. Being seen in this way can be almost comically powerful.
This is not Traister’s only accomplishment, though. If one of the greatest powers of Traister’s voice is her ability to remind us of our unity—and the power of an angry and united majority—the other great power of her voice is to remind us of the ways we’ve betrayed each other, of how precarious our unity is. There are many ways that this betrayal manifests, but predominant is the betrayal of black women by white women. This betrayal has a long history in the women’s movement, a history that Traister catalogues throughout the book. After the 2016 election, as many white women have realized that they need to be move involved, she warns of the significant risk of repeating this history. This betrayal is a path that is practiced and familiar to many white women; she urges caution with this moment: “… the opportunity is not simply to be angry on their own behalf, but also at the injustices faced by other women who experience those injustices in part thanks to the very mechanisms that protect and enrich those white women.”
She points out that the earliest iterations of the #MeToo movement have been focused on abuses of power that have harmed white women in predominantly white industries, “while too little attention was paid to factory workers, tipped employees, women in the service industries, and low-wage employees, among the most economically precarious, therefore the most vulnerable to harassment, and also far more likely to be nonwhite.”
And so this book is both a historical primer and a calling-out, a step toward the undoing, a history that lets very few people off the hook. Instead, it capitalizes on our obligations to each other moving forward, demanding recognition of stories that have been obscured, and accountability both on the parts of those who obscured those stories, and those who have never questioned them. The excavation of this anger allows the everyday woman, often seething in unseen anger at everyday discrimination, to see herself in history’s great historical figures and change-makers, to understand her link to other women within her immediate identity-sphere while challenging her not to dismiss the anger of women outside of it.
Central to this is the argument that women’s anger has the power to change the political landscape. It’s hard to look at the images of the State of the Union Address, in which a sea of women representatives dressed in suffragette white, and not think that anger was part of what brought them there. It’s hard to see Nancy Pelosi’s snarky applause to Trump and not see anger as part of what motivated it. And it’s hard, too, not to think of the way Pelosi blocked that very speech just weeks before. And when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cites Traister as she deconstructs women’s anger as a motivating force not just broadly in this moment as woman after woman announces her candidacy for president, but also historically as white women supported both the Ku Klux Klan and the erection of confederate statues. This anger is complicated, and Traister doesn’t deny that. This book doesn’t tell women to be angry; instead it encourages women to put to productive use the anger we already have. More than that, it insists that we all recognize and legitimize anger from women.
Bio: Katie Booth’s work has appeared in Aeon, Catapult, Harper's Magazine, Kaleidoscope, NPR's The Pulse and Vela. Her work has been highlighted on Longform and Longreads, and her essay "The Sign for This" was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. She has received support from the Edward Albee Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was a 2017-18 John W. Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. She grew up bilingual and bicultural in a mixed hearing/ Deaf family. Her first book, The Illusion of Miracles, about Alexander Graham Bell's lifelong work to alienate Deaf people from Sign Language, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in 2020. Learn more at katiebooth.net.