New Book Looks At Why Women Have The Right To Be 'Good And Mad'

Oct 2, 2018

Following a hearing last week that sought to look into sexual assault allegations brought against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the FBI is investigating further and discussions of assault have been kicked off around the country.

For author and New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister, Thursday's contentious hearing highlighted important differences in the way Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to the allegations, told their stories.

Traister says Ford's polite and constrained demeanor was in stark contrast to Kavanaugh's use of a full range of expression.

"He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people. I don't think that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — I can't imagine a scenario in which she would have gone into that hearing room armed with that same weapon, that same tool; that she could yell and be furious in her retelling of what happened to her," Traister tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

Traister's new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, is a deeper exploration of that dynamic. She says the idea for the book came to her just before the 2017 Women's March. She describes a buildup of anger — her own anger, the anger of other women that spilled over from the 2016 election of President Trump, and anger at many of the white women who voted for Trump in that election — as a catalyst for her book.

Though the Women's March had a massive turnout and has been followed by "a year that has women protesters opposing the health care repeal, teacher strikes, women running for office in historic numbers, and then #MeToo," Traister says the potency of women's anger and activism is still routinely diminished.

In an interview with Morning Edition, she discusses why she chose to examine women's anger and how it has been both politically transformative and perilous for women throughout U.S. history.


Interview Highlights

On why women's anger has been historically perceived as threatening

Well, in part, that anger of the founding — our founders who were the white men chafing against their lack of representation and who were angry and protested in ways that we understand correctly to this is our revolutionary moment. But when they made their new nation, they codified some of the very inequities that they themselves were angry about with regard to the British government. So they built the nation on slavery and the disenfranchisement of women.

On the silencing of women of color in the #MeToo movement

I think it's almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it's women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us. So when we think about #MeToo, one of the things that gets lost is that the definition of sexual harassment stems from cases that were brought in the '70s by women of color. ...

In 1991, it was Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas, claiming that he sexually harassed her, sort of cemented the idea that sexual harassment wasn't individual behavior but damage done to a class. It's Tarana Burke, who in 2006 pioneers and leads the #MeToo movement. And then when the #MeToo movement erupts — I think it's really important that we understand that the first people to get attention were very wealthy white actresses. ... I don't say that to diminish the experience or the reality of the harm they sustained. But in fact, all of that is foregrounded by women of color whose stories so often get lost or kind of erased.

On why the power of women's anger is not limited to a progressive partisan agenda

My argument is not that women's anger is always righteous. It's that it's very often politically potent and yet we're told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it's the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that's going to extend deep into our future.

Noor Wazwaz and Ashley Brown produced and edited this story for broadcast. Cameron Jenkins adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FBI is broadening its investigation into Brett Kavanaugh this week. And with the Supreme Court nominee still in the news, it's hard for a lot of us to get last week's hearing out of our minds. Author Rebecca Traister keeps thinking about how different the tone was of the two witnesses.

REBECCA TRAISTER: Dr. Blasey Ford was so deferential, so polite, so constrained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: I understand and appreciate the importance of your hearing from me directly about what happened to me and the impact that it has had on my life and on my family.

TRAISTER: And then in came Brett Kavanaugh. His instinct was fury - public fury on his own behalf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRETT KAVANAUGH: I was No. 1 in the class, freshman...

PATRICK LEAHY: And I thought only the Senate...

KAVANAUGH: No, no, no, no, no.

LEAHY: I thought only the Senate could filibuster.

KAVANAUGH: You got this up. I'm going to talk about my high school...

LEAHY: I thought only the Senate could filibuster.

KAVANAUGH: No, no. I'm going to talk...

ORRIN HATCH: Let him answer.

KAVANAUGH: I'm going talk about my high school record if you're going to sit here and mock me.

MARTIN: That was an exchange between Brett Kavanaugh and Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy during those hearings. Rebecca Traister says men, in general, are allowed to use a fuller range of expression and still come off as credible.

TRAISTER: He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people. I don't think that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford - I can't imagine a scenario in which she would've gone into that hearing room armed with that same weapon, that same tool, that she could yell and be furious in her retelling of what happened to her.

MARTIN: Traister's been exploring the idea of women and anger in her new book out today. It's called "Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women's Anger."

TRAISTER: The moment that it occurred to me that I wanted to write this book - it probably was just in advance of the Women's March. And you could feel the post-2016 election anger building. And it wasn't just the anger of the women who were planning a women's march. It was also anger at some of the white women who were planning a women's march after 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump. The intra-ally anger was crucial and important. And then there was the Women's March, and it was the biggest single-day political demonstration in our nation's history. And it obviously made a big impression, and yet I saw the political press not treat it as politically serious. And it was really dismissed in a lot of quarters as being about the pink hats, the pussy hats, you know, a bunch of women getting together. And there's a pundit, Mark Halperin on MSNBC, who asks the Monday after the Women's march, seriously, what are these women going to do, not just running for school board down the road but this week? And of course then that gets us to a year that has women protesters opposing the health care repeal, teacher strikes, women running for office in historic numbers and then Me Too.

MARTIN: You lean into history in this book. And it's full of examples of men's anger being laudable, creating admirable political change. The Boston Tea Party is a great example. What historically was so threatening about women's anger?

TRAISTER: Well, in part, that anger of the founding - our founders, who were the white men chafing against their lack of representation and who were angry and protested in ways that we understand correctly to - this is our revolutionary moment. But when they made their new nation, they codified some of the very inequities that they themselves were angry about with regard to the British government. So they built the nation on slavery and the disenfranchisement of women.

MARTIN: You referenced the racial dynamic of the Me Too movement earlier. But I want to ask again because women who speak out are condemned in the broader culture under many circumstances. But there is an outsized penalty for women of color who do so. Do you think those voices are being heard loudly enough in this moment?

TRAISTER: I think it's almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long when, in fact, it's women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements in ways that have remained invisible to us. So when we think about Me Too, one of the things that gets lost is that the definition of sexual harassment stems from cases that were brought in the '70s by women of color who were actually borrowing legal ideas from a civil rights movement around racial discrimination and applying them to their cases of having, in many cases, been brutally sexually harassed in their workplaces. In 1991, it was Anita Hill whose testimony against Clarence Thomas, claiming that he sexually harassed her, sort of cemented the idea that sexual harassment was not individual behavior but damage done to a class. It's Tarana Burke who in 2006 pioneers and leads the Me Too movement. And then when the Me Too movement erupts, I think it's really important that we understand that the first people to gain attention were very wealthy white actresses, which is in no way - I don't say that to diminish their experience or the reality of the harm they sustained. But in fact, all of that is foregrounded by women of color whose stories so often get lost or kind of erased.

MARTIN: As the author of a book called "Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women's Anger," you could not have divined a more appropriate time for your book to come out.

TRAISTER: That's true, but that could've been true of so many other weeks over the past two years (laughter).

MARTIN: That's true, although we have to say there are plenty of women who support Kavanaugh, women who are indeed angry because they believe that this is a character assassination by the left. So is women's anger only a productive force if it's done in the service to a progressive partisan agenda?

TRAISTER: Not at all. It is very often politically potent, and yet we're told not to take it seriously still. I think that the anger that women are feeling around the country, that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process. Social movements take a long time, and the kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that's going to extend deep into our future.

MARTIN: Rebecca Traister is the author of the book "Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women's Anger." It is out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHASTITY BELT SONG, "DRONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.