Why I’m an Angry Feminist

Why I’m an Angry Feminist August 31, 2012

I’ve been turning this post over in my head for a few months, and now seems like a good time to make it.

I am not accused too often of being an “angry feminist,” but it still happens from time to time. As though that is such a terrible thing to be; worse than a greedy capitalist, or a dishonest politician, or an unapologetic rapist. As though it would be better for me to not be angry or not be feminist, but be something else instead, even if that something else is also a negative trait.

This Tiger Beatdown post on angry-feminist-shaming really resonated with me. In it, Flavia writes: I refuse to be boxed in the simplified category of “ranter” because I am angry. Because this anger makes me “difficult”, it makes me “alienating”, it makes me “impossible to deal with” and I should just accept that certain things just are.

Anger drives us to action; anger keeps us from being complacent. Yet it is a really charged thing for women to be angry, since in many cultures, women are not supposed to get angry. There is no safe way for us to unleash our passions. In folklore, literature, and history, we see the dire consequences of women getting angry: Medea, Snow White’s (step)mother, the doomed Amazons, the Maenads. There is little cultural space for women’s anger. We are supposed to swallow it and, I don’t know, transform it into milk chocolate hearts and rainbow bird’s nests. Or better yet, not feel it at all.

This excellent (but potentially triggering) post at Fugitivus talks about the conditioning women undergo to be pleasant and agreeable in every.single.interaction of their lives, and how given that context, it’s unsurprising that “if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution. Behavior exists on a continuum.”

One reason I chafe at the negative connotations of the “angry feminist” label is that it’s meant to police women’s behavior. Because if being an angry woman is clearly unacceptable in our society, being an angry feminist must be a billion times worse.

Another reason I dislike the stigma is that I don’t actually see being an angry feminist as a bad thing depending on what you are doing with that anger. I totally do not mean this to turn into a judgment of how those feminists are doing it wrong but these feminists are doing it right; rather, I mean that anger can be an intensely destructive emotion, and that shit will consume you if you let it. Which is not helpful for anyone, really, unless self-destruction does something unique or desirable for you.

But here is the thing: when feminists are angry, we are angry about oppression. We are angry about women’s (and indeed, men’s) options and identities being limited and defined by patriarchy, religion, laws, culture. We are pissed off that being born with a certain set of genitals means you are far more likely to experience sexual assault, to be denied health care coverage, to take a pay cut for the same work.

And our anger is frequently tempered with empathy. Feminism is a collective movement. You gain empathy by realizing that yeah, it also sucks for people who are both like you and unlike you. That opens you up to awareness that oppression happens on many axes, not just gender/sexuality, but also ethnicity, religious identity, immigrant status, nationality, class, and so on.

When you start to think about oppression and you start to realize how much it sucks to be oppressed, you generally don’t want to inflict those same feelings on others. This is where I’m going with the empathy thing. And while bell hooks has said this way more eloquently than I ever will, this is why feminism can and should intersect with multiple anti-oppression stances, and why all forms of oppression are related.

I think this, ultimately, is why the idea of the angry feminist is so threatening in a contemporary mainstream American/Western context: because the oppressors can’t understand a way of being angry that does not involve doing violence to others. Since that is how they work, by keeping others in check through fear and control. It’s power-over rather than power-with, to borrow a term from Starhawk.

But many feminists (and again, it’s such a broad movement that it’s hard to generalize about) understand that being oppressed–for gender or anything else–really blows, so we channel our anger into challenging oppression, not redirecting it onto whoever’s lower on the totem pole than us. We comprehend the destructive effects of displaced abusive anger and instead strive for transformative passionate anger.

Not that we’re perfect and get it right every time; I still feel helpless, and I still fight losing battles on the internet with people who are turned off by my anger so I really should adopt another tactic but I don’t because this shit is so raw, this being told I am less than human and don’t deserve sovereignty over my body. I am trying to do it better, to be more compassionate, to channel my anger into something useful and not wallow in rageful depression or lash out at potential allies.

This is why I don’t back away from the term angry feminist: I think it can teach us many things. It can be used to start conversations, or to end them, if the idea of an angry woman is so alien as to point out irreconciliable differences that it’s not worth bashing your head against. We do need some amount of self-preservation instincts to keep up this fight while life goes on around us, after all.

I hope that someday we won’t even need the term anymore: that women will have socially acceptable access to the same range of emotions as men, and that the idea of feminism will be something taught in history classes since it’ll no longer be necessary once gender-based oppression is banished forever. Yeah, I can keep dreaming. But I like my anger with a dash of optimism.

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  • All too often, I hear feminists described as “angry” by detractors seeking to deligitimize their complaints. Anger, like all emotions, represents a breakdown in logical reasoning, but should not preclude the validity of an argument. However, rather than responding with anger, it behooves women (and men) everywhere to remain calm and rational in their response. Ad hominem attacks of this variety deliberately seek to elicit anger because they often indicate the user has run out of viable arguments and is making an emotional assault on their opponent’s baser nature.

    In addition, for every anecdotal example of strong female characters punished for their anger, there are an equal number of fictional men who are consumed by their hatred: Achilles and Odysseus, Edmund Dantes, and even Dirty Harry. The last example is particularly poignant because the film does everything to glorify the unrepentant rage of its titular character, but can’t hide the fact that Harry Callahan is lonely, has little life outside his work, and keeps getting his partners killed.

    There is so much to be angry about, but feminism should be a celebration of femininity. Otherwise, when women finally reach an equal position in society, or more powerful, they will be guilty of the same shortcomings men suffer and commit themselves to similarly destructive myopia.

    Your blog is wonderful as always. Thank you.

  • jeana

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with you that angry responses don’t always help an argument or a case, but I also think that there are a lot of issues that it makes sense to be angry about (the prevalence of sexual assault, or the gendered pay gap, for instance). My point is that we should let anger be a part of our processing of these issues, and then go on to make rational and calm arguments (as you say).

    I don’t agree that feminism should be a celebration of femininity, though, because femininity is socially constructed in so many different ways, and a lot of the time, femininity is constructed in opposition to masculinity. What that means is often that women get the social traits that men don’t want or don’t value, so I see no reason to celebrate those aspects of femininity. I would say instead that feminism should be a celebration of women’s lives and women’s choices in the many forms they take, and that we should also be supporting men (and every other gender/sexual identity out there) having choices and options too. Basically, I like to think of feminism as an anti-oppression movement that focuses on gender inequality and ripples out from there to tackle other forms of oppression when possible.