Ask Soraya Chemaly why she wrote Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, and she will say with a laugh, “First, I was mad.” Chemaly works by day as director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project in Washington, D.C., an initiative developed to “raise awareness about the way women’s freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and civic and political participation is affected by violent threats.” After the 2016 election, Chemaly says, “Anger seemed to be a good filter through which to examine the state of women’s lives.”
The book, which interweaves research and analysis with Chemaly’s personal experience, opens with a vivid scene from her childhood: her mother pitching her wedding china, one piece at a time, onto the terrace. Women have a lot to be angry about in our patriarchal society: sexism and objectification, unequal pay, the burden of caregiving and emotional labor, sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence, and the double bind of a culture that trains us to suppress our emotions to keep the peace, and then accuses us of deceit or hysteria when those feelings come out. Chemaly writes, “A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women—not as human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens.”
“The real question I wanted to ask,” she says, “is, if anger is a moral emotion indicative of harm, injustice, or indignity, why is it culturally only associated with men and masculinity in positive ways, but we deny it of women as a function of their femininity? We need to take a step back and see how dangerous the gendered allocation of emotions is for boys and girls.”
The most surprising thing she learned in her research about the socialization of boys and girls is how wrong our understanding of the relationship between hormones and aggression is. Many people believe that hormones dictate our behavior and attribute differences between the sexes to intrinsic traits. “But that’s a very confused estimation of what’s happening,” she says.
“Boys are allowed freer rein of their environment and taught to control their environment, which sometimes includes women and girls. But girls are taught to control themselves,” Chemaly says. “A lot of the way we socialize children causes more testosterone in boys. Studies show if you act in physically aggressive ways and exert power over other people, your testosterone levels go up.”
In contrast, “If you are treated in demeaning ways, your testosterone levels go down. When men nurture, their testosterone levels also drop. So the idea that hormones are produced in men and women in extreme ways because of our chromosomes is wrong.” The impact of our social conditioning, she argues, should not be discounted.
In addition to exploring the reasons for women’s anger, Rage Becomes Her examines how suppressing anger impacts our health. “Anger is implicated in a lot of illnesses that are sometimes dismissed as women’s illnesses,” Chemaly says, “as if we have no choice but to develop them,” such as autoimmune disorders, depression, and anxiety. Mismanaged anger also plays a role in heart disease and hypertension. In addition, she says, “We know the impact of discrimination on women’s health, so for black women that is really compounded. There can be terrible outcomes for those who live at the nexus of those oppressions.”
What, then, can women do with their anger? Chemaly says, “The most important thing is to acknowledge anger is a valid emotion for women. Acknowledge it, label it, give it a name, and then make meaning of it. ‘What is my anger telling me, what is wrong, and what can I do about it?’”
“Very often women attribute anger to sadness or stress, but in both we’re supposed to take care of those feelings by ourselves, do some self-care. If instead you said, ‘I’m angry,’ you’re going to hold other people accountable and that’s really important. Developing that as a form of life competence gives you better efficacy and intimacy in your life.”
She writes in her conclusion, “The anger we have as women is an act of radical imagination.” Asked to explain further, she says, “Anger helps you imagine a different course of action or a different future. In order to be angry you have to be able to envision alternatives. To me, sadness is more about resignation. You can’t be angry if you don’t have some hope.”
Because women are often charged with keeping the peace, their anger can be seen as a threat to balance. But Chemaly believes, “Anger will allow you to see how much the people around you care, or not. If you can’t say what makes you angry, you can’t have a meaningful relationship. If you can’t say, ‘I need you to be as responsible as I am for the health of this family,’ you can’t have intimacy.”
“Often women spend time dancing around men’s emotions,” she adds. “We are socialized to learn that first we are responsible for our own emotions and then for everyone else’s. It’s a pink tax and I think we need to stop paying it.”