From Virginia Woolf's refined rage to the rise of uber-positive "girl squad" culture, women's anger has been a powerful, destabilizing, and often misunderstood force.
Image by Kat Aileen via B & J / Stocksy
Women's anger is a powerful force; coded as a dangerous and destabilizing, it wreaks havoc on blissful homes and placid communities. Stereotypes about female anger ubiquitous: the shrill wife, the crazy ex-girlfriend, feminazis, and the angry black woman. These phrases are familiar haunts, easily conjured when women's anger threatens to sabotage a certain sense of social order.
And yet, despite the warnings and dismissals, there are women who have refused to remain silent, who let their anger runneth over. In their hands, anger is a radical refusal to remain silent, a refusal to confine disruptive emotion. History is filled with women who refuse to yield to new-age Oprah-inspired advice to "let it go."
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Bible to Renaissance
"It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and angry woman," a verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs reads. What a striking thought: a reclusive existence wandering the wilderness is preferable to a woman who might dare to express any inkling of dissatisfaction. If a woman wants to keep both husband and home happy, she best tuck away her rage, place it in some mental file cabinet marked "do not open."
It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and angry woman.
It's a charge that seems nearly impossible, since study after study has shown that women report higher rates of anger and that we feel it more intensely, more persistently than men. And the reasons for that anger, modern science tells us, are hardly abstract: women feel most enraged by condescension, neglect, and rejection. One researcher found that overwhelmingly "women tend to be angered by the negative behaviors of men, whereas men tend to be angered by women's negative emotional reactions."
Yet Proverbs neither warns men to alter their behavior, nor does it suggest that they might be the source of a woman's anger. It simply suggests that they seek masculine solitude. Perhaps that's why societies, seemingly regardless of time frame or location, treat women's anger with such disdain.
Arguably the first woman to truly embrace anger was the appropriately named 16th-century writer Jane Anger. In 1589 pamphlet, Protection for Women, Jane rails against the ignorance of her male counterparts, their easy recourse to stereotypes of the gentler sex, their haughty belief that impression is synonymous with fact. Jane did not write her fervid pamphlet to ferret out and respond to the claims of men: she wrote Protection for Women to express the inexpressible. She wrote it to express her anger.
Societies, seemingly regardless of time frame or location, treat women's anger with disdain.
Jane herself acknowledges that rage was her muse and describes her text as one "that which my [bad-tempered vanity] hath rashly set downe...it was ANGER that did write it." And her prose is pointedly indignant by modern standards, a radical departure from the conciliatory tone that women were expected to adapt in the 16th century. Jane took neither shit nor prisoners in her proto-feminist manifesto, hitting men hard for lechery, excess, and their refusal to break with rhetorical traditions that painted women as witless sluts:
"Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a–madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing. Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women?"
Whether or not Jane Anger was a nom de plume or a conveniently perfect name is something that scholars of early English literature still debate. Some (men) wonder whether or not Jane was a woman at all, or if she was a man claiming a woman's voice; a "ventriloquizing woman" it's called. But it seems unlikely that Jane was a man—no man could muster up such passion and let a woman take credit.
Jane would prove to be an influential figure. Her pamphlet one of the earliest articulations of frustrations felt over the dominant perception of women, particularly since such perceptions increasingly determined women's roles in heterosexual relationships.
Hell hath no fury, like a woman scorn'd.
Think of Congreve's famous line from The Mourning Bride (1679): "Heav'n hath no rage like love to hatred turn'd/ Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd." It's a phrase so deeply lodged in our cultural consciousness that its manifestation seems almost natural; like when Glenn Close boils a sweet bunny in Fatal Attraction, or in movies marketed as a salve for the girl power set—like John Tucker Must Die and The Other Woman—where women form bonds for the sole reason of that assuaging scorn.
Wollstonecraft To Woolf
It was precisely that ideology that Mary Wollstonecraft was attacking in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) when she wrote, "I war only with the sensibility that led him to degrade woman by making her the slave of love."
Wollstonecraft's anger was softened by gentility—she had none of Jane Anger's anonymity—yet she nonetheless explored the depths of angry expression. It was anger born of the absence of visibility and, by extension, the absence of identity. That kind of deeply intellectualized anger was a more typical method of articulation.
Virginia Woolf might have been the ultimate embodiment of that kind of refined rage. So much of her work is an exploration of the frustrations created by wielding language without any power. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf charts the anger in other women's writing and refracts her own anger through that history. She sees that anger as a reaction to women's plight as second-class citizens, particularly in the work of Charlotte Bronte—a writer so angry that she wrote a madwoman into an attic and burned down the house.
"We feel the influence of fear in it," Woolf writes about Bronte's Jane Eyre, "just as we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion." Woolf identifies the tension between the perception that women's anger is invasive—a corrosive force that undermines women's creative force—and a legitimate reaction to oppression. Anger haunts the work of Woolf, of Bronte, of many lady novelists that felt the fearful force of oppression.
Woolf's anger found new form in the mid-twentieth-century, a period that was truly the golden age of angry women. Second-wave feminism was underpinned by the expression of rage; a generation of women birthed the angry feminist, and they did so believing that it would dismantle the patriarchy. "I have nurtured and protected my feminist anger like a cherished daughter," the feminist critic Jane Marcus wrote.
I have nurtured and protected my feminist anger like a cherished daughter.
And that anger was palpable, born out in manifestos like Valerie Solanas' SCUM (1968) and artist Martha Rosler's knife-wielding video installation Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). For six minutes, Rosler recites the alphabet, holding up a kitchen implement that corresponds to that letter: "A, apron," Rosler says while staring into the camera. As she recites, labeling the objects of her oppression, she grows increasingly unhinged. She stabs with knives, slams down heavy equipment, and by the letters "W, X, Y, Z," she's quit the attempt to name kitchen objects at all. Instead she contorts her body to resemble the letters, wielding a knife in her right hand and a fork in the other. At "Z," she puts down the fork and, like Zorro, slashes a Z through the air. In the hands of Rosler, the celebratory action of a fictional hero turns into a menacing expression of powerlessness. Solanas, more to the point, just called men a "shitpile."
Rosler had her knives; Solanas, who later shot Andy Warhol, had her gun. That kind of violent anger was new, not the kind mustered up by men in poetry, and not the kind that can be fractured by beauty or infantilized. No man could read SCUM or watch Semiotics and patronizingly say, "You're beautiful when you're angry." Neither Rosler nor Solanas allow for a space of reassurance, and anger here isn't simply a passionate state of arousal; its contours are explored, its boundaries sought, purely for the sake of destruction.
hooks, Lorde, and Call-Out Culture
While the anger of second-wave feminists was meant to be liberating, it wasn't without its own limitations. Solanas and Rosler, Kate Millet and Judy Chicago all have one thing in common: They were white women. Even while trying to liberate their own anger, second-wave feminists bristled at black women's anger, telling women of color to repress their fury for the sake of stability. White women demanded that women of color to do exactly what the patriarchy had demanded of women for centuries.
"White folks have colonized black Americans," bell hooks writes. "Part of that colonizing process has been teaching us to repress our rage, to never make them targets of any anger we feel about racism." If the unbridled expression of anger had been a newly-discovered tool to break down walls, then white feminists gathered the pieces of that crumbling edifice, used those remnants to repel the anger of women of color.
White feminists could handle insults hurled their way by men—there was power in being a mob of angry feminists—but, unless they could wield black women's anger for their own purposes, they silenced it. "Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people's salvation...but that time is over," Audre Lorde said in a 1981 speech. "My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival and before I give it up I'm going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity."
Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people's salvation.
For black women like hooks and Lorde, owning their anger was a particularly radical act. The stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman" stems from 19th-century minstrel shows, a genre of entertainment devoted to the degradation of blacks in post-slavery America. Yet this radical declaration was lost on white feminists who saw mere expression as a neutral act free from racial politics.
Girl Squads and Collective Culture
Negotiating anger has been an issue in nearly every wave of feminism. However, while anger can bring people together, it can also be divisive. Collective expressions of rage are only effective if every member of a specific group is angered in the same way. To speak of oppression is powerful, but women writ large are no harmonious collective, and they perceive their powerlessness in different ways and from different directions.
Once a palpable form of dissent, women's anger now seems banished from contemporary conversations on feminism—replaced, instead with a kind of cathartic baring of wounds. With the rise of collective relationships—of cliques and their softened makeover as "girl squads"—it seems that the room traditionally reserved for righteous anger has vanished.
When compulsory positivity is the norm, criticizing another women is seen as a threat to feminist progress.
With the increasing popularity of feminism, the movement has taken a turn for the positive: Mean is banished, and everyone is supposed to lift each other up as a political act. But when compulsory positivity is the norm, criticizing another women is seen as a distraction at best, and a threat to feminist progress at worst. Think of Taylor Swift, patron saint of the girl squad, who has publicly championed feminism, and yet infamously bristled at criticism from a rightfully angry woman. In the Swiftian worldview, celebration is the modus operandi. In a world where women are either team players or petty, women's anger is often reduced to the squabbling of "mean girls."
Yet, women's anger—in its pure and powerful expression and the history from which it draws—is a rebellious act. Angry women still haunt: Elena Ferrante's women are furious, Pussy Riot and the Guerilla Girls still revel in rage, and movements like the SlutWalk still believe in the destabilizing force of anger. The history of angry women, it seems, has not yet found its conclusion.