In her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” Rebecca Traister writes, “In the United States, we have never been taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism and our art.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the time I came of age as a young woman in the 1970s and 1980s, I was force-fed a diet of so-called strong and defiant women who changed the world. There was Gloria Steinem who said that women need men like fish need a bicycle, Gloria Allred, the camera-loving attorney who made a career out of exploiting the anger of pain victims of abuse, Gloria Feldt, who led Planned Parenthood, an organization that teaches women to be angry at having to buy their own birth control. Not all of the “noncompliant, insistent, furious women” referenced by Traister are named Gloria, of course, but a disproportionate number share that ironically happy name.
I always used to laugh when I heard someone say that “nice women don’t make history.” It would have been quite easy to mention Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Marian Anderson, St. Katharine Drexel, Malala Yousafzai, Condolleezza Rice, and a litany of other women who acted with profound grace, but the sort of person who thinks that a seething, cursing virago is the only authentic trailblazer wouldn’t listen. To her, we must always operate from a position of fury and resentment.
That’s not how I operate, and that’s not how the women who raised me operated. My mother was widowed at 41, and she had to figure out how to support five children between the ages of 11 and 20 by herself. She never complained, and never made her two daughters and three sons feel as if we were a burden. Her laugh her was light and infectious, and her outlook her was optimistic. She didn’t curse God or circumstance for stealing her husband from her at the age of 43. She didn’t rage against the heavens 15 years later when her middle child died before his 31st birthday, or when her own mother died of a heart attack in the back seat of a car she was driving. If there was anger there, and perhaps there was, it was canceled out by honor and obligation and gratitude for, as Wordsworth wrote, “what remains behind.”
Angry women take the easy route to success. When you scream at the top of your lungs about how poorly you’ve been treated, the weak and the congenitally guilt-ridden accede to your demands. Even if you’re not entitled to that promotion, or that role, or that admission to college or that leadership position, you are likely to get it. The screeching wheel gets the grease, and the payoff. Those who choose to let their accomplishments speak for themselves are only appreciated after time has passed and the emotion whipped up by the nasty girls dissipates.
There are reasons to be angry, of course. Inequities in society have existed since before my great grandmother emigrated to this country from Italy, and Traister makes sure we remember the words of Abigail Adams by opening her book with this quote from the former first lady: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment in rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no votes or representation.” Abby was a colonial nasty woman, and the waves she made reverberated a century and a half later with the suffragettes. So yes, being angry does sometimes get results.
But to suggest that only the irate and the irascible, the hostile and exacerbated, the in-your-face and the insolent make their mark on our institutional geography is to ignore the power of women who digest their disappointment with grace, and sidestep obstacles instead of taking a machete to them.
When I attended Bryn Mawr in the early ’80s, we were taught to be “cussed individuals.” I always liked to focus on the “individual” as opposed to the “cussed” because it seemed to me that making people curse at you was a blueprint for failure. Persuasion, I thought, was more powerful than pulverization. Sadly, that’s come to equal weakness in a society that rewards two things above all else: Amazonian anger, and inauthentic victimhood. On the one hand my sisters are told to “speak their truths” at 100 decibals and accuse anyone who pushes back of being sexist, racist, and whatever other “ist” fits at the moment. Exhibits “A” through “Z” can be distilled into one figure: Kamala Harris. The vice president has some accomplishments, many of which have been facilitated by her relationships with other people, but people still claim she’s a victim. Most recently on “The View,” panelists pained that any criticism of her boiled down to hatred of Black women. The victim card feeds the anger, and the anger seeks out more victims. A truly vicious circle of patent dishonesty.
I can’t be the only female who is tired of being told “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.” Madeleine Albright might have thought she was being clever when she made that statement, but she looked pathetic. Women should not support women who make a living out of lashing out at the world and demanding respect. Respect is earned, not purchased in bulk at Walmart, and the ones who scream the loudest are usually the ones who deserve it the least.
I’ve been called Joan of Arc on many occasions because of my opinions, which always surprises me because those opinions are fairly mainstream and uncontroversial. (As an aside, Joan had a lot of reasons to be angry, including that “medium well done” thing, but she looks pretty calm in the stain glass windows. The feminists should take note.)
I believe in the dignity of every human being, regardless of gender, religion, race or sexuality. But in this society, pointing that out gets you into trouble with all of the groups that thrive on their anger, believing that they have been deprived of this or that or everything. A lot of them happen to be gals.
And so, as Women’s History Month limps towards its predictable end, I’ll just ask St. Teresa and St. Katharine to pray for annoyed Amazons. And throw in a few “Gloria Be Quiets,” to the father.
Christine Flowers is an attorney. Her column her appears Sunday and Thursday. Email her her at firstname.lastname@example.org.