“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being.”
Black, lesbian and feminist activist Audre Lorde said these words in her 1981 keynote addressing the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, a convention dedicated to exploring new themes in the field of feminism. She was articulating her fellow women of color’s struggles to embrace the mainstream feminist movement of the time. She was also urging white attendees to recognize the role anger played in fueling these women’s modes of feminism.
I have thought about this speech, titled “The Uses of Anger,” time and again throughout my career. But it has felt especially apt in 2017. Of all the feelings that have surfaced since January — sadness, depression, hopelessness, rare bits of joy — the one that has sustained, motivated and sometimes felt like it was destroying me, has been anger.
I am not alone. Just this year, women’s anger has upended several norms and conventions governing how society justifies men’s bad behavior. It has prompted reckonings with the way powerful men’s abuses, sexual and otherwise, have dogged various industries, spaces and time periods — from the film industry, to media, to comedy, to the factory floor.
The year started with the Women’s March, one of the largest public gatherings of women in history, protesting a newly inaugurated president who was caught on tape saying that when you are famous, you can do whatever you want to a woman. Its demographics were broad. The attendees weren’t just activists with tote bags, patched hoodies and side cuts. They were mostly middle-class suburban white women, organized by a Palestinian Muslim, a Latina and a black woman. They were immigrant rights organizers and young Native dissidents and Black Lives Matter supporters — all of whom came together in protest to say, “No more.”
As the year went on, women’s anger increasingly became the pulpit from which change precipitated. An explosive New York Times report about sexual harassment allegations against studio mogul Harvey Weinstein preceded a landslide of similar claims against men across industries, causing firings left and right. New abusers were exposed almost daily. Women broke their silence and, sometimes, their non-disclosure agreements, to tap into their anger and pain to demand accountability and consequences for these men.
The odds against the women have been steep. When women express rage, they are often considered irrational — unable to be objective, or too emotional to participate in measured political discussions. The rage that defined 2017 had been simmering for decades, from that of indigenous women fighting high rates of sexual assault on reservations, to that of black mothers fighting for accountability in the killing of their children.
For these and many other women, anger has been fundamental to existing in the United States — a reaction to centuries of injustice and erasure, of being ignored, abused and forgotten. One would think this year’s reckonings would feel satisfying, given the decades women have suppressed some of these feelings. Instead, they have felt terrifying. Women’s anger is still “taboo,” according to activist and writer Soraya Chemaly, who is writing a book about women’s anger titled Rage Becomes Her: Women’s Relationship to Anger.
“[I’ve] encountered girls and women’s discomfort with anger and, layered on top of that, the real penalties we continue to face when we use it to accomplish our goals,” Chemaly said via email. “We, culturally, continue to ignore women’s ways of being angry. But it is the anger of women, in its diversity, that will alter the political landscape moving forward.”
It is natural for women to suspect that unleashing their anger will prompt a backlash. For decades we have failed to believe women’s accounts of sexual abuse and those primed to disbelieve them may indeed own the conversation once again. Detractors may cry, “Not all men,” as we’ve seen in the past. But the fact remains that it was a whole lot of them.
2017 marked a turning point where men may have finally started fearing women’s anger, and even if they weren’t personally guilty of abuse, they profited from norms that forced women to suppress and eat their own anger in the service of men’s egos, freedom and advancement.
We still have a long way to go as a society. The institutions that have kept women silent for so long have not been fully dismantled, and the systems that benefit men and keep women’s anger on the sidelines still exist. It can feel hopeless at times. But when channeled properly, women’s anger can have a profound impact.
“Being able to assess your own anger, strategically, and being able to work collectively, in anger, with others, almost always dispel those feelings of helplessness,” Chemaly tells me. “It’s important to remember that your anger will find a way. If you don’t guide it, you might not like where you end up.”
The quote I pulled from Lorde’s famous speech ends with what she sees as the potential uses of this anger for women.
“Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change,” Lorde said. “And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”
In 2017, we began to see the range and depth of women’s anger finally being released. Incidentally, the most-searched word on Merriam-Webster’s website this year was “feminism“ — long considered a “dirty word“ due to its perceived relationship to female rage. Today, that rage is where our power lies. A sustained, revolutionary feminism is one that is organized, driven by righteous anger and rooted in the need for systemic change. Perhaps, in 2018, we will see the fruits of that anger finally come to bear, in the form of a genuine cultural and social shift toward women being able to live without fear.