On Anger and Feminism
The words “angry” and “feminist” are often lumped together as a derogation of a supposedly radical group arguing for ‘feminine domination.’ It gets flung as an insult and aims to aggravate the accused.
As feminists, we must repurpose this intended insult, this deliberate misunderstanding of our cause — which is one of passion, fairness and equality for people of all genders (while recognizing the historical misogynistic and patriarchal domination that still pervades our worldview).
We are angry. We are angry and we are passionate and we are frustrated. And we have a right to be. My feminist anger involves many things. The man on the bus denying the gender wage gap, the funding cuts to feminist organizations all across Europe, the pervasiveness of rape and rape culture on campuses and in cities where I study, work and travel.
I’m angry that often, as feminists, we disagree. But this disagreement is important, and so is the anger that fuels it. In “The Uses of Anger” Audre Lorde, black lesbian feminist poet and scholar, writes,
“If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy I need to join with her. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman’s voice delineate an agony I do not share, or even one in which I myself may have participated” (Lorde 281).
As feminists, we cannot “other” each other. We must find solidarity in our particularities and begin listening to one another. Through our anger. Through multiple layers of trauma that are sometimes very difficult to understand. Sometimes it seems appealing to streamline feminist anger into something that can be branded, homogenous and specific — an embodiment of our own identities. This makes an easy weapon, a straight shot, a bullet of identity encased in our individual experiences of discrimination, erasure and oppression. We can arm ourselves, carry extra bullets in our pockets and up our sleeves. As feminists, we are accustomed to self-defence and our own insulated opinions are an accessible weapon. But carrying a loaded gun, we’re practically asking to be shot in the foot.
Dr. Erin Wunker, feminist scholar and professor at Dalhousie University, speaks to the importance of anger in her book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. In encouraging this anger, however, she warns: “when anger becomes righteous it can be oppressive” (Wunker 73).
Our individual trauma and experience is important to feminism. But we cannot become feminism, or we risk limiting our vision of equality for all — including feminists who do not look, speak or move like us. If we disagree, we do not need to homogenize our experiences to gain strength as a movement.
Our anger teaches us that what we feel matters. From a very young age, any exhibition of power or authority I made as a girl was attributed to my being “bossy” or, later, a bitch. I have been both of those things in my life, but the justification for most of said accusations was not my character, but my opinions and my willingness to speak up for what I wanted. Teachers talk about the difference in class participation after students reach age 13 or 14 — female students suddenly seem to have a lot less to say as gendered relationships between peers become increasingly tenuous. It can sometimes feel easier to keep quiet when social norms call into question not just your authority (bossy, implying unreasonably demanding and controlling) but also trickle down into doubts of your own intelligence and self-knowledge.
Lorde explains, “For women raised to fear, too often anger threatens annihilation. In the male construct of brute force, we were taught that our lives depended upon the good will of patriarchal power. The anger of others was to be avoided at all costs” (Lorde 283).
So many of my non-male peers feel silenced and overlooked in both public and personal debate — is it so strange that when we are able to raise our voices, it’s with anger, frustration and alarm? Misogynistic and oppressive social and cultural ideology begins at a very young age and feeds in to the normalization of discrimination and rape culture, considering the heteronormative discourse around sex and sexuality that often pervades the social atmosphere of young adults.
As feminists, we can mobilize our anger to overcome this feeling of powerlessness, and represent solidarity for one another, uplifting feminized voices both like and unlike our own.
Virginia Woolf talks about oppression as the “Angel in the House.” The Angel, she explains, is the traditionally feminine figure on our shoulder who tells us to conform to misogynistic ideals, to flatter male authority and to ignore or repress the anger and frustration we feel as feminized people. She experiences this spectre as she engages in scholarly critique:
“you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must — to put it bluntly — tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality” (Woolf).
The repercussions of feminine oppression are very, very real. But the elusive and all-consuming spectre that perpetuates gender inequality and haunts our everyday lives can be revealed. We have to stop thinking of sexism and rape culture as inevitable, as skeletons in a dusty, patriarchal closet that will never get cleaned. This pervasive ideology, being mostly intangible and obscured by the heavy velvet curtains of social norm, is difficult to uncover. But in order to begin deconstructing these ingrained values, normalized misogyny must be revealed. In writing this, I’m flinging my own metaphorical inkpot at the angel that is telling me that my experiences of rape culture are insignificant, normal and inevitable. That my experience of harassment is irrational, and that I am exaggerating.
We must be angry, but we can’t let our anger consume us. We must work together, but we can never assume that our struggles are identical, or that our feminism is homogenous. Our diversity is our strength, and our assertion is our most significant tool against oppression.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. ½, 1997, pp. 278–285, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40005441
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1942.
Wunker, Erin. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. BookThug, 2016.