Good and Mad review: Great blaze of a book tells women to stay mad
Rebecca Traister proposes that we rage and rage until we get the wrongs righted
Rosa Parks seated toward the front of the bus, Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. Photograph: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
Simon and Schuster
This is a time of furious women, and in this great blaze of a book Rebecca Traister proposes that we rage and rage until we get the wrongs righted that have sparked our anger, until we change the world so that it becomes a more pleasing, safe and just place in which to be a woman. Traister wrote the book because she was so furious first of all at the election of blatant misogynist Donald Trump as US president, and secondly at the commentaries that somehow blamed feminists and civil rights activists for provoking white America into voting for him. “I felt as though I might lose my mind with the rage I’d not been able to give full voice to,” she writes. Women told her they were ready to explode. They urged her to write the book, to validate their feelings. Her research led her to discover that “Female rage in American has a long and righteous history, one that we have, very pointedly, never been taught.”
She cites the case of Rosa Parks, who has gone down in history as a quiet, demure black woman whose sole act of defiance was to refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a white person who, according to the laws of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, was entitled to demand it. In reality, Parks’ first recorded act of angry resistance had occurred when she was 10 years old. Threatened by a white boy, she picked up a brick and made ready to throw it at him. “He went his way without further comment,” she noted. She was both an anti-rape activist and a campaigner in defence of black men falsely accused of it by white women. She was an elected official in the civil rights movement, and she admired Malcolm X.
Traister comments on the frequent intimation that women who are not nice enough to men, who challenge them instead of humouring them, are somehow to blame when the man turns violent. This is as likely to be used to explain a mass shooting at a school as it is a man who kills his family. She quotes Andrea Dworkin: “The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat which usually works....Men often react to women’s words...as if they were acts of violence; sometimes...with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologise. Women shut up. Women trivialise what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back.”
When she was first accused of being “a Dworkinist”, Traister took it to heart: “So I was funny!” she writes. She perfected an ironic persona, swallowed her fury, distanced herself from the “bonkers rage” of the Dworkin generation - though in truth Dworkin was always a radical step ahead. Now that feminism has come “roaring back to life” Traister has found herself thrilled as she looks back at rebel feminist voices and acts from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was Dworkin who identified the importance of first-person testimony: “Because the mainstream will say ‘Oh that doesn’t happen,’”, she said. “And then a group of women will say, ‘Well, it happened to me’.”
In 2017 “the anger window” was blown open and there was suddenly space and air for women to talk: “and to yell and scream and rage.” The exposing of Harvey Weinstein re-launched the #metoo movement and wave upon wave of stories from women who had been subjected to abuses by men with power that had degraded them and thwarted their lives and careers, stories they had harmfully suppressed within themselves. Traister comments sadly on the irrevocable loss to public life of all the women who were driven out, banished, marginalised or self-exiled.
There was a recklessness to the release of all this pent up anger. Traister considers the “dangerous and irresponsible” naming by women in the media of “shitty men” they had encountered. It showed, she says, “how utterly, profoundly furious they were, and how out of fucks they were about letting the world know.” This broke with the ethics of professional behaviour she had been trained to respect. “I felt like I was in some space movie, on a ship getting rocked by fire as it moved forward at a speed I’d never travelled before...Exhilarating. Terrifying. Uncomfortable. Necessary and long overdue and as if it were either going to burn us all up or save us.”
There has been a backlash, and the “feral intensity” of #metoo has abated. Far too many white women went out again and voted for Trump. But Traister quotes the pioneering and now veteran feminist lawyer Catherine McKinnon who believes that it is “today’s movement that is shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” Sexism has survived eruptions of feminist rage before, and will again, for it is hard to “reverse the emotional habits of centuries.” It is tempting to retreat from “the raw bite of fury”. But then the next generation of women facing injustice in the patriarchal world will look back in anger at us. Traister’s message is simple: “Stay mad.”
Susan McKay is a writer and journalist and one of the founders in the 1980s of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre.