‘Good and Mad’ Helped Me Understand The Woman Who Makes Me Angriest
Rebecca Traister’s book made me realize that my grandmother’s anger comes from the same sources as my own
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M y grandmother and I are both angry about a lot of things. She was angry that Barack Obama was our 44th president; I am pissed that Donald Trump is our 45th. She is mad that immigrants are trying to come into the United States; I am furious that they are being kept out. She is enraged about the things they say on CNN; I am livid about the rhetoric on Fox. You get the idea: my grandmother and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. And, because of all this, she is often angry with me, and I am often angry with her. “Among the trickiest and most central dynamics between angry women is the degree to which they have often been angry at one another,” writes Rebecca Traister in her new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
My grandmother and I have clashed over many things in the 30 years we’ve known each other. Those things have included, but are not limited to: my hair, my career goals, my romantic partners, my future offspring, my clothes, my jewelry, my makeup, and my weight. But, more often than not, our disagreements have been over ideological differences, and lately, it is these fights that make both of us the angriest. Our most recent argument began with my grandmother making several comments over family dinner about everyone coming over the border being on drugs and it ended with me screaming I guess we just fucking disagree. (I would like to note here that it was this same grandmother who first taught me how to use the F word.)
Rebecca Traister and I, however, are on the same end of the spectrum. I may be biased because of this, but I think that she is a masterful writer and, as an editor friend of mine said, “the kind of genius we need right now.” Her new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, is yet another example of Traister’s diligent reporting and thorough researching. The connections she makes between contemporary and historic events and figures are both unexpected and exciting, and also completely logical. Even despite the fact she wrote the entire book in four months (“I needed to work swiftly, to capture this rebellion [of female fury] before its sharp, spiky contours got retroactively smoothed and flattened by time,” she writes), her attention to detail and extreme depth of journalistic reporting is mind-blowing. But perhaps the most mind-blowing thing about Good and Mad was that after reading this book, a manifesto by a far-left-leaning writer, I found I better understood my extreme-right-wing grandmother. Traister’s book helped me understand my own anger and figure out how to use it for good, but she also helped me understand the anger of a person who makes me angry.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing about “Good and Mad” was that after reading this book, a manifesto by a far-left-leaning writer, I found I better understood my extreme-right-wing grandmother.
In Good and Mad, Traister explores the history of women’s anger thematically, jumping back and forth through time as she seamlessly moves from topic to topic: how women suppress or disguise their anger, how women’s anger is considered unattractive, how women’s anger can lead to their downfall, and how, of course, how women’s anger has the power to be revolutionary. “We must train ourselves to even be able to see and hear anger from women and understand it not only as rational, but as politically weighty,” writes Traister as she shows how female rage has fueled social movements from abolition to women’s suffrage to gun control to reproductive health to civil rights. “Perhaps,” she writes, “the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated — treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational — is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it.”
Traister’s book is about women’s political and societal anger — she clearly states in the opening of Good and Mad that she is not going to dive into women’s individual or familial anger, because plenty of other excellent books have been written on the topic. But I couldn’t help but analyze my own and my grandmother’s personal anger, both for ourselves and at one another, while reading Good and Mad. In the case of me and my grandmother, our domestic disagreements are often due to political and societal issues — and isn’t the personal always political, and the political always personal? Your politics reflect your worldview, and that view is shaped by the things that personally happened to you, and sometimes those things can make you very angry. Traister encourages her readers to acknowledge, pay attention to, respect, and not shy away from other women’s anger. “Seek it out, notice it, ask women what makes them angry and then listen to them when they tell you,” writes Traister. “If part of what they’re angry at is you, take it in, acknowledge how their frustrations might mirror your own, even if they are refracted at you.” And so as I read, I found myself better understanding the reasons for my grandmother’s anger. Even though my grandmother and I may look as though we are angry about completely different and opposite things, under the surface, a lot of the anger comes from the same root problems.
Even though my grandmother and I may look as though we are angry about completely opposite things, under the surface, a lot of the anger comes from the same root problems.
My grandmother and I are angry because we have been told we aren’t supposed to be angry. Women are trained to shrink, to laugh off their feelings, to shut up, to leave the room, to make jokes instead of yell. “To full-throatedly express my ire would have been alienating, tactically unsound,” she explains. Traister quotes feminist writer Lindy West: “Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all of the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily… we are not even allowed to be angry about it.” As a girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, my grandmother was taught to be quiet and demure — that was how she was told she would find respect and power in society — and as a girl growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I wasn’t taught all that different. Don’t yell, be quiet, calm down. Phrases thrown at both of us, sixty years apart. We even do it to each other: my grandmother tells me to stop talking back and to be respectful, and I tell her to let it go and to shut up.
My grandmother and I are both angry because we get judged for our appearances. Like all women, my grandmother and I have been told all our lives that our main value as a women is our attractiveness. Even though my grandmother was, for many years, the secretary to one of the most powerful men in academia in Boston, doing much of his work for him behind the scenes, others judged her not by her intellect or attention to detail, but by her weight, her hair, her clothes. My grandmother eventually internalized this critical gaze and turned it on me, often angrily expressing her dislike of my weight, my hair, my clothes. And while these criticisms don’t feel good, and while it hurts to have my own grandmother remind me of all of society’s judgements, I can see now, after reading Good and Mad, that my grandmother is expressing her anger over the fact that this is what the world did to her. In a way, she is trying to protect me. If she is the one who tells me that my eyeliner is too dark or my jewelry too bright or my clothes too weird, if she tries to get me to follow the rules she was forced to follow, then maybe I will be spared that judgment. Through her yelling she is trying to tell me they won’t see your intelligence and your humor, they will only see the pink dye in your hair.
My grandmother and I are angry because our pain has been dismissed and ignored. I mean this in a literal sense — several times in her life, and in the lives of her daughters, my grandmother has expressed concern over physical pain to medical doctors who dismissed her worries, only to realize too late that they had made a mistake by ignoring her. My grandmother wasn’t able to have any more children after my mom and my aunt, due to her doctor’s mishandling of post-partum medical issues. My aunt died at age 49 of a rare type of cancer because doctors didn’t take her health concerns more seriously early on. But I also mean it figuratively: women’s feelings, especially their anger, are seen as shrill and hysterical, as nonexistent and not real. Traister writes about psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, who conducted a study that revealed people believe women are usually angry because of internal factors, while men get angry because of external factors. Barrett summarized: “She’s a bitch, but he’s just having a bad day.” When my grandmother starts yelling, I roll my eyes, sigh, tell her to shut up. Not acknowledging her pain, her feelings, her anger, only makes her more angry. And, when my grandmother does the same thing back to me, when she tells me my feelings are trivial, misguided, reactionary, unwarranted, I feel dismissed and, therefore, angry. We both just want our hurt to be acknowledged.
My grandmother and I are angry because we feel we have no control. Often in her life, my grandmother has felt powerless and victimized. When she was a child, my grandmother’s mother died suddenly, and she was left at an orphanage for several years when her newly widowed father couldn’t take care of her. When she was a stay-at-home mom, my grandmother had to depend entirely on my grandfather financially. When country club suburbanites found out her maiden name was Italian, heard her father’s thick Gaeta accent, and learned he worked in a sausage factory, they thought less of my grandmother. And, after she worked so hard to try to shape herself to fit the system — wearing the right clothes, having the right accent, playing into exactly what the white, wealthy, WASP-y patriarchy wanted — she is angry with people like me who come along and want to blow the whole system up. She followed the rules, but I want to write new rules. She feels she worked to get her piece of the pie, and now I want to take her piece back and recut the pie in a different way. In Good and Mad, Traister writes of the white wealthy women who try to gain power by associating with white wealthy men. My grandmother is one of these women — as long as the system works for her, and it did, that’s all that matters in her mind. I do not agree with this thinking. I am angry because I feel that the groups I am fighting for have no control in our society, that I want to fight for a redistribution of power, that as long as rapists and white supremacists and greedy corporation-owners are in charge, none of the rest of us us have any control. Those scraps of power the patriarchy tosses out are not enough, but my grandmother is angry because she wants to hold onto her scraps. I understand that now. I don’t agree with why she is mad, I don’t condone her way of thinking, but I at least understand where my grandmother’s anger is coming from, and that makes it easier to bear.
Easier to bear, but it doesn’t make it hurt less. One thing Traister doesn’t really cover is what it is like when you are the target of a woman’s anger. Traister does write about how often men react violently to angry women because it reminds them of being reprimanded by the matriarchs of their childhood households. “We’re raised by women,” says Gloria Steinem, “so we experience female power when we’re younger. And men, especially, when they see a powerful woman as an adult, feel regressed to childhood and strike out at her.” When my grandmother directs her anger at me, it does send me back to that childhood version of myself, in part, because I once was that childhood version of myself with her. But what Traister doesn’t say is that having anger directed at you just plain hurts. For me to bear the brunt of my grandmother’s outrage at the world is painful. There is no denying that. But, at least, after reading Good and Mad, at least I can understand better where my grandmother’s anger is coming from, and what to do with my own, now and in the future. If in fifty years, I end up with a granddaughter who is super conservative (who knows what the kids will be into in 2068?), I will know what to do with any anger towards her. Because, as activist and organizer Jessica Morales Rocketto says: “…The other side of anger is hope. We wouldn’t be angry if we didn’t still believe that it could be better.” My anger at my grandmother comes from the fact that, while she thinks things are fine now, or were actually better back when America was great, I have hope for a future that can be even better, for both me and for her. A future where women are allowed to be angry, where women won’t be valued just by their looks, where women’s pain will be acknowledged and considered, and where women will finally have control over their lives.
I have hope for a future that can be even better, for both me and for her. A future where women are allowed to be angry.
I see my grandmother’s anger as directionless, unfocused; there are so many things she is upset about that she doesn’t know where to aim her fury, and so her rage often ends up directed at me, because I am right there. She often focuses on little things, like my too-long hair or my too-bright jewelry, because the big things that make her angry — feeling worthless, invisible, ignored, underappreciated, denied power — are too big to take on. So my grandmother yells at me for believing what I hear on CNN and wearing those “gaudy earrings” she hates. Naturally, this makes me angry in return. I could easily channel this anger back towards my grandmother, and I have; it’s what I’ve done every time we’ve fought over the past 30 years. But instead, now, inspired by Good and Mad, the next time my grandmother gets angry at me, I am going to try to understand what she is really angry about. When she yells at me for not listening to her Fox News talking points, I will see she is really angry that no one listens to women. And when she screams at me for not following conventional fashion standards, I will see that she is actually upset that women are still valued primarily for their appearance. I am going to acknowledge her anger, legitimize it, try to see where it is coming from, and then, and this is important, I am not going to throw my own anger back at her. Instead, I am going to use the anger I feel in those moments to fuel my energy to fight for causes I care about, to try to change the problems that make both me and my grandmother so angry, inspired by the many angry and revolutionary Traister writes about in Good and Mad.
“Women’s anger spurs creativity and drives innovation in politics and social change, and it always has,” writes Traister. “Anger has driven women to develop a million approaches to changing the world.” I want to use my anger to march in Black Lives Matter protests and volunteer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and donate all the money I can to Planned Parenthood. I want my anger to be fuel for good. “Anger leads me to seek answers, to see change,” says the writer Moira Donegan.
There is something powerful about understanding another woman’s anger, and also about channeling my own anger into a force for revolution. Good and Mad showed me the way. I felt ready, a stirring near my heart.
As Traister writes: “Don’t forget how this feels.”