Rebecca Traister on the revolutionary and unifying power of women’s anger

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

If Rebecca Traister made house calls, I could have gotten rid of my mouth guard sooner.

I was diagnosed a few years back with debilitating TMJ. I had a bad habit of clenching my jaw in times of stress. But lately, it had gotten much worse, and now required an attractive new nighttime mouth guard that made me sound like Stan’s sister in Southpark. The pain forced me to ask: Why am I clenching my jaw all night? What’s behind this?

My body finally had my attention and didn’t mince words: “Listen, you’ve suppressed anger to the point that you don’t even recognize it. Yes, you do sad, but when was the last time you acknowledged mad?!

Traister, award-winning author, National Magazine Award finalist, and writer for New York magazine on women and race in politics, media, entertainment, explains why it’s so critical that we get comfortable with the discomfort of anger.  “We are the midst of a potentially revolutionary moment: not one in which all wrongs will be righted, or errors fixed, but one with the potential for a big alteration in who has power in this country,” she writes in her latest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.

Traister writes, “Progress in America takes a punishingly long time, but it also happens in fits and bursts.  We are in one of those moments now, and we need to think hard about what we’re angry about, and what needs to change. Because change can happen quickly.”

While my desire to get better at anger began for personal reasons, the revolutionary moment we inhabit soon made it clear that there was much more at stake than my own well-being.

Traister deconstructs how women’s complicated relationship with anger has far reaching social consequences.  “What becomes clear when we look to the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger—via silencing, erasure, and repression—stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”

I vowed to never, ever, ever again bottle up rage.  But first, I needed to practice detecting the tiniest glint of anger. To feel it in my body before my head rushed into talk me out of it. As my endurance grows, I smile inwardly while I stomp and curse.

But the volatile combustibility of anger has its challenges. I’ve caught myself judging friends, family members, anyone who wasn’t appropriately outraged at the relentless roll-back of protections and liberties for the most vulnerable. Somewhere down deep, I know the enemy isn’t the other side, regardless of how easy it is for me to blame them.  Traister centers us on the culprit we have in common, but distracted by reductive right vs. left squabbling, often fail to see: the power structure tightening its authoritative grip.

Rebecca Traistor and I spoke the week the Kavanaugh hearings unleashed torrents of rage across the country.  I began to recognize the same tight, squinty-eyed expression on so many women from the sidelines of sports fields to the aisles of the grocery store. Stunned disbelief.  My reaction felt positively feral.  Not only could I not contain boiling anger, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to.  When I ran into my friend Ellen, the gentlest grandmother on the planet, I dumped my mess all over her. To my surprised delight, she dumped right back.

We had never discussed politics before.

It was exactly what Traister explains in this clip. That the cost of swallowing our fury is lonely isolation. But by voicing our anger, other women hear us and realize they aren’t alone. Anger provides a joyful mode of connection among women that can lead to organizing and real change. Anger as joyful? After the Ellen encounter, I got it.

My years of not talking politics was not “being polite.”  It was complacency.  “Politics” is code for difficult topics.  Isn’t it our worldview, rooted in ethics and informed by our sense of justice, that shapes our political persuasions? How can we not talk about it?

“Having the rare and privileged experience of having my anger taken seriously, I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that mocks or ignores it,” Traister concludes in Good and Mad. “That’s what’s making us sick. And that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.”

Seriously? Where you been all my life, Rebecca Traister!

Her work illuminates for a new generation the spirit of feminism where there is no place else to be except with each other. Where we’re released, as journalist Vivian Gornick writes, from a collective lifetime of silence, into the rebirth of sisterhood.  Where we’re joyfully held in the loose embrace of shared vision. Where we proudly join the centuries-long fight to realize the promises our nation made to us at its founding.

Thank you, most of all, for reminding us we are not alone.

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