SALT LAKE CITY — Historically, anger has not been considered a virtue; in fact, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins.
But amid the #MeToo movement and the now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings, anger has become something to celebrate, and women are at the forefront of a pro-anger movement.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, has said she plans to use anger to win more seats for Democrats in Congress.
Ana Maria Archila, the woman whose taped encounter with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, outside an elevator went viral, said her impassioned words that reportedly influenced Flake to call for an FBI investigation into accusations against Kavanaugh before the confirmation vote by the Senate were motivated by rage.
And three new books — “Rage Becomes Her” by Soraya Chemaly, “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister and "Eloquent Rage" by Brittney Cooper — extol anger as a superpower that women have left unused for too long.
“By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us from danger and injustice,” Chemaly writes in “Rage Becomes Her.”
Chemaly argues that repressed anger leads to depression, anxiety and other chronic health issues, and she shuns the concept of "anger management," saying that women instead should develop what she calls "anger competence."
But psychologists consider anger a “negative emotion,” and the health consequences of anger are well established. Chronic anger is associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems, as well as to damaging behavior such as substance abuse and overeating. And in religious traditions, anger is considered a sin. Jesus addresses it in the Sermon on the Mount, saying anyone who is angry without cause is subject to judgment.
Writing in the journal First Things, editor R.R. Reno warned that by introducing “the politics of rage” into the Kavanaugh debate, Democrats ran the risk of becoming the instruments of rage, instead of its master. Others argue that anger simply doesn’t work and makes matters worse by increasing polarization.
"Our organization categorically rejects anger as an effective tool of change," said Sharlee Mullins Glenn, founder of the Utah-based Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
Can anger solve America's problems, or is it adding to them?
Brett Kavanaugh was allowed to be angry. Dr. Ford wasn’t. Women grow up hearing that being angry makes us unattractive. Well, today, I’m angry – and I own it. I plan to use that anger to take back the House, take back the Senate, & put Democrats in charge. Are you with me? pic.twitter.com/c9DebKTQEV— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 30, 2018
Anger and power
Women’s anger is not a modern phenomenon, nor is it unique to the United States.
In 1789, thousands of French women furious over food shortages picked up pitchforks and spears and stormed the Palace of Versailles, forcing King Louis XVI to flee in a pivotal event in the French Revolution.
Two hundred and twenty-eight years later, in Washington, D.C., hundreds of thousands of women convened on Jan. 21, 2017, to promote women's rights and protest past misogynistic behavior by newly elected President Donald Trump.
Despite these and other moments of collective rage that dot history, anger has traditionally been an emotion that women felt they had to disguise, Traister writes in “Good and Mad.”
“Most of the time, female anger is discouraged, repressed, ignored, swallowed. Or transformed into something more palatable and less recognizable as fury — something like tears. When women are truly livid, they often weep,” Traister wrote in The New York Times.
But the revelations of sexual misconduct that led to the #MeToo movement, coupled with the accusations against Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings were the equivalent of grease thrown into a fire for women who have other issues to be angry about — among them persistent inequity in salaries, leadership roles and the division of labor at home.
Traister and other women point to the testimonies of Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, as proof of a double standard when it comes to the expression of anger.
“Brett Kavanaugh was allowed to be angry. Dr. Ford wasn’t,” Warren, the Massachusetts senator, said after Kavanaugh’s testimony before a Senate committee about accusations of sexual assault by Ford and other women.
Research has shown that anger in women is perceived differently than when it is expressed by men. Angry men are perceived as more powerful, while angry women are seen as out of control. Moreover, angry men are more likely to be seen as being temporarily angry while women who express anger are perceived as being angry people generally.
There is, however, one category of female anger that society is more apt to tolerate, according to Traister — the anger of mothers defending their children. As an example, she cites Mary Harris Jones, who came to be known as "Mother Jones" for her activism on behalf of mine workers and child laborers. More recently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tried to harness the political power of "Mama Grizzlies."
Ryan Martin, a psychology professor who studies anger, said he believes that Ford was probably just as angry as Kavanaugh in their testimony before the Senate, but Ford knew she had to conceal the emotion.
“There is research that shows women who express anger at work are seen as less competent. The consequences to her would have been very different if she had yelled,” said Martin, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and co-host of a podcast "All the Rage."
The disparate standards go back to old notions about how men and women should behave, notions that were cemented centuries before large numbers of women entered the workforce and became the majority of college graduates in the U.S.
“I think there are very clear messages we send to boys versus girls about how to express emotions, and what is OK, and what is not OK,” Martin said.
This was confirmed in a recent survey conducted by the Washington, D.C., polling firm PerryUndem for Plan International USA. When children and teens ages 10 through 19 were asked how society expects men to behave when they are angry, a majority said men are expected to yell or be aggressive. When asked how society expects women to behave, the teens said women are expected to cry, which is always perceived as a sign of weakness, even if the impetus for the tears is suppressed rage.
The current celebration of rage, therefore, is seen by some as another step in the ladder to gender equality. If men get to be angry, women should, too, the thinking goes.
But members of the advocacy group Mormon Women for Ethical Government (which is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) promotes more peaceable ways of resolving disputes, said Glenn, the group’s founder.
“Not only is getting angry and hateful not the right way to do things; it’s not effective,” Glenn said. “Hate fuels more hate, anger fuels more anger. Until we can see each other as human beings and treat each other with deep respect, we’re never going to heal this rift.”
Instead of vying for the right to be angry like men, women should be encouraging men and women to find other ways of solving disputes, she said.
“The vitriol and the lack of civility and the hate and the yelling and extreme polarization we saw, particularly during the 2016 election cycle, really rattled us. It’s time for women to lead the way in a very different way,” Glenn said.
Why anger works
"Good and Mad", too, might be seen as lacking civility, as its cover is overlaid with rows of an expletive that makes up the background.
In the book, Traister writes of exploring a "deep, rich, curdled fury that for years I tried to pretty up and make easier on everyone's stomach." When she began to voice her anger in her writing, Traister said she found it was an effective tool of communication that surprisingly served as a balm for others dealing with their own anger. Rage, she writes, is "a force that injects energy, intensity and urgency into battles that must be intense and urgent if they are to be won."
Moreover, it can work, says the University of Wisconsin's Martin, describing anger as a “tried-and-true mechanism for motivating voters.”
“There are two emotions that politicians use to get people to the polls. One is anger, the other is fear. There’s a little bit of pride or joy that candidates may use, but by and large, it’s to be scared about what some person is going to do, or to be angry. People are more likely to click on an angry political post than a neutral one," he said.
Both Chemaly and Cooper write about the frequency with which they have been told by men to smile — an evolutionary tactic used by a variety of species to show others that we’re not a threat. And plastic surgeons are touting procedures to erase “angry face” from women and men. “You’d be prettier if you’d smile” is a “classic chestnut” that women hear many times over the course of their lives, Chemaly wrote.
Martin considers anger a healthy emotion with evolutionary roots. An angry face warns others to keep their distance and allows us to protect boundaries and our tribe. And a rush of anger sets off biological changes that prepare us to fight. Our blood flow increases, our pupils dilate, our muscles tense, and our digestive functions slow in preparation for conflict. “It’s one of our brain’s ways of energizing us to confront injustice,” Martin said.
But it’s those same responses that also contribute to poor cardiovascular health and other health problems. And anger doesn’t only affect angry people, but also the people around them.
“I had an angry father,” Martin said. “He wasn’t always angry at me, but when he was angry at other people, I found it scary.
“I think that’s something for people to be aware of. (Anger) may damage relationships, not in the way we typically think of, but it may make your kid scared of you.”
Before adopting anger as a strategy, “Think about the consequences to those around you, and decide whether or not it’s worth it,” he advises.
While Chemaly believes that anger is an important tool to help women to combat injustice, she argues for its mature expression, not destructive acts. For herself, “writing has been a mechanism for converting very powerful negative feelings into immensely satisfying and productive work.” Other examples she cites include Jacqueline Wernimont, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who maintains a database she calls an “angry bibliography,” and sports journalists who started a feminist podcast called “Burn It All Down.”
“Plan how to best use the anger you feel. Focus, think and analyze,” Chemaly advises, arguing for “a wise anger” that isn’t destructive or reactive.
“Reinvisioned, anger can be the most feminine of virtues: compassionate, fierce, wise and powerful,” she says.