rebecca traister wants women to stay furious
The acclaimed author talks to i-D about her new book, #MeToo, and the looming threat of Brett Kavanaugh.
Photography Saul Loeb via Getty Images
Rebecca Traister’s first forays into feminist writing were innocent bits of “cheerful pop feminism.” They were relatively mild. Much different from her recent pieces; “When the Muzzle Comes Off,” on the harrowing stories of Deborah Ramirez and Christine Blasey Ford; and “Too Much Too Soon,” on Louis C.K.’s controversial return to comedy. Yet, the world still wasn’t ready. “I was told that I was just clearly angry that I didn’t have a man. That’s what was in the comments section,” Traister says, of her early work. “When I was writing about gender inequity, I was told it wasn’t real. It was just because nobody wanted to have sex with me or I was ugly... and that I sounded like, you know, a crazy radical feminist.”
Times have changed. Last March, Traister won a National Magazine Award for her brilliant piece, “Why the Harvey Weinstein Sexual-Harassment Allegations Didn’t Come Out Until Now.” She’s a writer at large for New York Magazine and contributes to The New York Times. Her game-changing books Big Girls Don’t Cry and All The Single Ladies have made her one of the leading voices in journalism for her persistent, witty coverage of women in politics.
Not so surprisingly, Traister found it hard to write after the election of Donald Trump because she was overwhelmingly furious. This visceral reaction became fuel for her new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. In it, she explores the history of female anger, from suffragettes chaining themselves to White House railings in 1917 to office boycotts following Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991. Traister hopes that it might help others contextualize similar feelings and even take political action. Given the relevancy of these historic events in today’s news cycle, we’re ready for Traister’s next installment.
Good and Mad was written over a period of four prolific months, in an experience that can only be described as totally, completely liberating. “I had a very rare chance to feel what it might feel like to just indulge in anger without fear of repercussion, fear of censure, or fear of somebody telling me that I sounded crazy,” Traister explains. We caught up with the New York Times bestselling author to discuss the transformative power of female fury, the all-consuming velocity of #MeToo, and the impending threat that is Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
When did you realize this was what you wanted to write about, that anger would be your topic?
Well, I was feeling a lot of confusion in the wake of the 2016 election. I was feeling like I was too angry to think straight and somehow my anger invalidated the various things I wanted to write about. And that I was too angry to be rational. I was internalizing some of the things that I was describing in the book, like, “If I’m angry, nobody’s going to take me seriously.” Then it was my husband actually, who told me that maybe I should look at the anger itself and ever since he’d suggested it, I realized that this was a through line in so much of my own work and history.
Sometimes, you just need someone else to point something out like that.
Right! This particular kind of anger especially, we’re discouraged from taking seriously and from expressing. Women are regularly told not to think too much about their anger, not to indulge in it, because it’s never going to be helpful to them rhetorically.
Or to just squash it or be quiet.
Or to be happy, cheerful, polite – smile. That’s something I write about a lot in the book is the pressure to just swallow it and not indulge it because it’s not going to help you.
You wanted to write this book over Trump’s entire term. When did this change?
It changed in the midst of #MeToo. I realized I wanted to write a book about anger in early January 2017 when Trump hadn’t even been inaugurated yet. I knew how angry women were and I wanted to look at the ways anger had operated leading up to the election and then how it was going to play out during his administration. Then there was the Women’s March and it’s the largest single-day political demonstration in the nation’s history. Then there are the airport protests, women begin running for office in unprecedented numbers and there’s the healthcare activism lead so prominently by women. This is all building. I can’t believe everything that’s happening and how angry women are.
I was doing interviews, doing research, thinking this is all still a very long-term thing, and then came #MeToo about a year ago. And obviously, I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe its intensity and its velocity. I didn’t want to lose this and I think we can feel it now. I’d sort of forgotten the intensity of that period of #MeToo. Some of the actual, visceral reality of it, it gets dulled by time and I realized last fall that this is such a profoundly intense period that I can’t risk losing it. I want to try to catch it, to take a picture of it in a book. So, I decided I needed to write it very quickly to get it out quickly. And also, there was so much rage and political fury that I thought it might be helpful to some women who are still made to feel shame about feeling so angry, or made to feel like it makes them feel weird or unattractive or crazy. I felt like it might be helpful to contextualize their anger politically and historically.
I mean, the feeling of #MeToo is all-consuming. Especially in this last week, we’re feeling it come up again.
I do too. I do feel like there’s something. We have such an illustration of how quickly we repress these memories. I thought this last year too. After the Access Hollywood tapes, so two years ago exactly this week, there was this outpouring of people — millions of people telling stories about how they had been groped or assaulted or harassed and it was a huge news story. And it was. It was one of the more electrically charged social and political moments of my memory. I remember my friends telling stories of how they were turning on their catcallers on the street, saying, ‘You can’t do that anymore!’ I had a conversation with a million men saying, ‘I didn’t know how prevalent this was. I’m shocked. I’ve seen the world in a different way.’ That happened and then Donald Trump got elected.
Then a year later there’s #MeToo, and again, I heard so many people saying, ‘I had no idea.’ I was like, ‘But we did this last year. You still didn’t have any idea?’ And we’re going through it again. Now, a whole new crop of women are telling stories about sexual assault that they had experienced. A lot of older women are telling stories that maybe they hadn’t before, that aren’t necessarily about groping or workplace harassment, but are about assault that they had experienced in the context of their youthful social lives. But again, there’s this like, ‘I had no idea.’ And it’s because this stuff that is fundamentally disruptive to power and how it’s supposed to work makes us so uncomfortable that we work very quickly to repress it, as soon as we get into a position where we can put it behind us. We cover it up and work to forget how it feels. I was told so many times over the past few months that #MeToo was over and then came Kavanaugh. There’s just a refusal to have this quieted this time.
In the book, you say that, “We’re in the midst of a potentially revolutionary moment.” How come it’s not quite revolutionary yet?
Because the people who are in power have an enormous amount of power and revolutions take a long time. There are things that move very quickly and there are some that take decades, in many cases centuries. One of the points of this book is that a lot of the fights that we’re having now have roots that go back centuries and they’ll move forward over centuries. But there can be moments, you know? The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement in the 1970s – these were all revolutionary to some degree insofar as they all change the rules, changed the laws, and altered the power. Part of what’s being asked now is if it will have the energy to sustain itself as a true social and political movement that’s in front of us. We don’t have the answer to that yet, but the fact is that there wouldn’t be this level of anger if there wasn’t such a tight grip on power that works to keep women and people of color from having as little power and autonomy as they do.
That’s what this court battle is about. Who will have power over this country’s laws, which are going to fundamentally determine how much power women and people of color are going to have moving forward? Controlling voting is one of the key ways to suppress the revolutionary power of anybody. One of the things that might be revolutionary about this moment is if we fundamentally change the representative percentages in our governments, if we’re actually electing more women and women of color especially, at federal, state, and local positions.
Do you feel that this time now is any different, than other historical movements?
Well, it’s very hard to have a women’s movement because it requires something incredibly disruptive, personal, and difficult, which is for women to become angry en masse about gender inequity. It requires them on some level to identify their oppressors who are also their partners, their friends, their fathers, and their brothers. Because of the nature of a gender power imbalance, because women are actually a subjugated majority, every woman has men in her life and every man has women in his life. That means if you change the power dynamics between men and women, you’re affecting really intimate relationships. It’s a very, very hard thing to have happen.
The last time that this happened, with the potential to feel like this moment, was in the 60s and 70s, and that is now 50 years ago. And prior to that, was that final push towards the 19th Amendment which guaranteed the right to vote for some women, though not for black women or black men in the Jim Crow South. There was a period of extending professional and educational opportunities, demanding fair wages and pushing into other kinds of economic, social, and sexual freedoms. Do I think this moment has the potential to provoke changes that are on the same scale as the second wave movement of the 1970s? Yes. I do think it has that potential, but I don’t think it’s going to be done next week.
Get your copy of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger here.