In the Caldecott Honor awarded children’s book When Sophie gets Angry, Really Really Angry, a small girl gets mad — really, really mad. From her point of view, an injustice has not only happened to her but her mother — judge and jury of her preschool world — has allowed it to happen. A toy she has been happily playing with has been snatched away by her sister (grabbed is the precise description) with not so much as a please can I have it now. And she gets hurt to boot.
Her mother does not come to her defense, does not right the wrong. She lets it happen.
So Sophie kicks and screams and wants to smash the world to smithereens. She roars A red red roar.
The bulk of this story is about how she copes with anger, how she takes herself away from the place and situation which triggered it, and how she self-soothes in the face of such indignity and even pain.
This is not the astonishing in the course of gender history part. It is that this very young female is allowed to get angry at all.
When I first read the book, I kept thinking about how when my children were Sophie’s age, more or less, I would read them Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which is 50 years old this year. In it, Max cavorts with other-worldly creatures gnashing their terrible teeth and roaring their terrible roars. He joins them in their furious eruptions of mayhem. He is really really angry.
And a boy.
A friend of mine reminded me about a nursery rhyme she was taught, probably when she was the age of a Sophie or a Max, one you most likely know as well: There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.
In girls, being bad might mean an actual act of disobedience, but when we heard that being bad and horrid part, it could just as well be expressing anger.
Being like Sophie in that picture book: kicking, screaming, roaring, a volcano ready to explode, a gnashing monster like Max and his wild nocturnal companions.
Which was simply unacceptable. And not typically the stuff of a story book at all.
Regardless of gender, we receive persistent messages about the folly of, the downside of anger. An online scroll through quotes and sayings on anger reveals the dominant message: anger is not beneficial, in fact just the opposite, and must be curbed if not eliminated.
Truisms like these:
- He who angers you conquers you.
- For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
- Anger is one letter short of danger.
- Anger blows out the lamp of the mind.
Anger management experts explain the causes of a badly wired angry brain: frustration, too much stress, physical or emotional trauma, alcohol and drug abuse, excessive hormone release, problems with neurotransmitters, genetic personality factors that promote anger, families and cultures that promote anger and aggression.
They teach us about increasing our bodily awareness to notice where we first begin to feel our anger — is it in our chest, our jaw, our hands? They instruct us in deep breathing and muscle relaxation, biofeedback, and mindfulness meditation.
They suggest that like the really really angry little girl Sophie, that we take a time out, go to a safe away place, calm ourselves down.
Dear Abby, who has billed herself for a half-century at least (in the form of a mother and now her daughter) as “everybody’s friend” has written a mail order pamphlet on The Anger in All of us and How to Deal With it. For seven dollars and a couple of first class stamps, you can avail yourself of her advice on how to channel what she does describe as a normal emotion, into healthy and acceptable means of expression: hitting a punching bag, kicking or beating a pillow, going into another room and screaming as loudly and as long as you wish, or when all else fails try crying.
In fairness to her — and others who have approached anger from the perspective of diverting it, most of the examples she gives are from letters beseeching her for intervention in or solutions to repressed anger turned violent: domestic abuse, child abuse, elder abuse.
There’s that kind of unacceptable anger, dangerous, displaced rage. Lashing out, bursting out rage. And devastating depression — anger held back for too long and then turned inward.
But there is another kind of anger that has been given short shrift. As Dear Abby does tell us — it is important to recognize that not all anger is bad. That appropriate anger, she writes, is a force for good.
That anger, she reminds us, has provoked good and courageous people to come forward and defend the rights of others who are powerless to defend themselves.
That there is after all, as clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer has described in a blog for Psychology Today, “a rarely recognized upside of anger.” Sure your anger should be controlled, he says, but don’t try to obliterate it either. While maintaining that he continues to see anger as mostly hazardous to our physical and mental health, and to our relationships with others — there is what he sees as one aspect of anger that makes it invaluable. Anger, he believes, is the one emotion that can be seen as moralistic — having everything to do with our values, our system of ethics.
Righteous anger, as he defines it, is the emotion associated with affirming personal worth and dignity. The anger, as he writes, that might help you maintain crucial feelings of honor, importance, and self-respect, even as a child whose self-concept has been constantly battered. When you have personally been taken advantage of or exploited, for example being fired from a job and there is no credible explanation for why you were let go. Or on a less personal level perhaps, if you believe in fair wages for work done — a raise in the minimum wage for example — and there is no response in Congress — this sense of injustice can lead to completely understandable and justifiable and expressed anger. That leads to social change.
Which over history has been much harder for women.
Three female therapists who have studied the links between gender and anger have found that for women, even more than for men, anger has been considered and still is a dangerous emotion, frowned upon as unflattering and as they describe it a sure fire way to sabotage careers and relationships. Rather than seeing anger — when expressed openly and directly as an advantage, the anger advantage (the title of the book they wrote together) which can be a positive tool for transforming women’s lives.
They tell us that we are taught and then buy into a list of myths about anger: that is absolutely destructive and naughty. That anger itself (vs. stuffing anger away) is bad for our health. That anger equals weakness or emotional instability. That anger is a cover-up for other feelings, that anger is avoidable, instead of something that has a will and finds a way to make us listen, meant to be a part of each of us.
In a girl’s gender journey — over the centuries and even now in our time of Wonder Women and Super Girls — from infancy, her experience of anger differs from those of boys. From showing the same basic emotions, including anger in the first six months, to by the age of two, girls learning to mask this undesirable emotion.
Being told by parents and other caregivers that no one likes to be around an angry girl. And pretty is as pretty does. In classrooms, being punished more often than boys for expressions of anger and assertiveness. Rewarded on the other hand with popularity and adult praise for “being sweet.”
Learning, some of us better than others, to divert our anger, diversion meaning to detour and bypass what these therapists call oppositional feelings. With both deeply personal and societal consequences.
Missing out on opportunities to know themselves better by paying attention to what makes them mad and why. Getting stuck in stagnant, unfulfilling, even harmful relationships. Running the risk of hurting themselves or others as anger morphs into rage.
Beyond the personal damage done to girls by anger disadvantage is the disempowerment of women, the therapists have found, at economic and social/political levels.
To discourage and to thwart women from using the tool of anger for gaining what we need, for making a difference in the world.
Which leads us to previous waves of women who dared to be angry in the cause of gender justice, even if they might not have admitted to such a risky emotion. We can hearken back to first wave feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose bicentennial birthday is November 12. Her Unitarian biographer Mary Ann Oakley says that Elizabeth was never overtly angry at a time in the mid 19th century in America when even the act of “speaking out” as a woman was considered immodest, when any “eruption” of emotion was considered irrational, called hysterical, even grounds for being hauled off to a mental sanatorium. Yet who boldly went to that historic 1848 gathering of like-minded females in Seneca Falls, New York — and in the face of the status of the women of her time: with no more legal standing than the dead, with no right to property or custody of her own children, no opportunities for education or decent jobs, and no vote — stood up and in a clear, firm tone read a Declaration of Sentiments, citing “repeated injuries and usurpations” against her sex.
Who wrote and spoke often in terms of outrage. Who was described by one of her contemporaries, along with her life-long compatriot Susan B. Anthony as “the rub-a-dub of agitation.” Outrage and agitation.
A lifetime of anger in the name of women’s right to self-determination, including the right to cast a ballot, a right she did not live to see become a national constitutional amendment, missing out on it by more than 18 years.
Consider the militant Suffragettes (portrayed in a recently released fictionalized film) who organized for women’s franchise in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. Whose grim, underpaid, overworked, abused, and disrespected status led them to abandon more proper and peaceful efforts to better their lives for far more radicalized and certainly enraged and enraging acts of civil disobedience. Over a thousand women were arrested for demanding the vote, leading to prison hunger strikes and forced feeding.
Other tactics included chaining themselves to railings, pouring harsh chemicals into and blowing up mailboxes, throwing rocks through windows and arson of unoccupied buildings. A long and even deadly struggle that did not lead to the franchise for all adult British women until 1928.
The story of the so-called Second Wave of American feminists has also been told in a recent movie, a documentary called She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. This film, a Kickstarter project with a very limited run so far, has been called a painstakingly researched dive into the women’s movement from 1966-1973, through archives and interviews with scores of “vibrant, passionate women,” women like Kate Millet, Alex Kates Shulman, and Rita Mae Brown.
Women who felt they were changing the world, probably never with real bra burning but certainly with anger-driven disruptions, including actually burning their college degrees to protest the dearth of women’s history courses in most universities and shutting down a Congressional hearing on the side effects of birth control when lobbyists for drug companies swore under oath that there were none.
They had the vote thanks to women who acted before them, but not yet guaranteed the same rights as men. Like their sisters in the earlier movement, they were still paid less and had far less corporate and political power than men, and whatever reproductive rights they had narrowly gained from the federal courts were already under attack again.
I came into this movement as a younger woman by a full decade than most of them — as an emerging poet writing for some of the same publications as icons like Susan Griffin and Alta. Small presses like Shameless Hussy, stapled together anthologies like Women Talking, Women Listening. I certainly didn’t feel beautiful and my anger was mostly turned on myself as I cared for two young children, scrubbed floors and ovens, and tried to break into newsrooms. Interviewed a few of our famous, met a few others in passing, including Kathleen Cleaver from the Black Panthers party and the Black Power movement.
And she was indeed beautiful and so very angry for her people. She and her black sisters were having their own struggles about equality: talking about what it meant to be a Womanista, while not in lockstep with traditionally white feminists, still seeking the political, social, economic, and sexual equality of women and girls in their communities. What did parity really signify for them beyond the men in the party making breakfast for the children at school, and the women learning self-defense?
And now their story is being retold in another new film about the movements for women — The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
For me, even on the periphery, after the marches and the rallies and I could feel the shattering disappointment when equal rights were not finally gained, when wage disparities did not narrow, when we still couldn’t find or afford quality childcare, when our bodies were still not really our own (and perhaps even getting less so by the year).
Other fresh waves of not so gentle angry women have come since my early adulthood, sometimes calling themselves girlies, sometimes putting out what they have titled Manifestas of their own. Seeing sexual definition in more fluid ways, asking not only for equity but gender liberation as well.
Our own Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Women’s Federation, I am privileged to serve as their affiliated minister, have worked over the past four years to explore and then pass a statement of conscience affirming our commitment to full reproductive justice, acting as allies with women of color to see as they have been seeing for many years – the urgency of holding a vision beyond legal reproductive rights alone and the existence of birth control and pregnancy options alone — to the full set of human rights that must be in place in order for all women to have genuine choices at all.
We are rising up together now, with new leadership from what we are calling a New Prophetic Sisterhood of UU female ministers, who are pledging to be engaged, energized, and empowered – on behalf of justice for all women and girls. Who are looking to gather in what they are calling a bad ass convergence in 2017 to plot a more multi-generational, multi-cultural, intersectional movement.
Well into the 21st century now, studies are showing that a woman’s anger is still most often unproductive and disliked. Recent research using a mock trial deliberation about a murder case has found that angry men are taken more seriously than angry women. That angry women are less likely to wield influence over others, the opposite impact from their male counterparts.
Dr. Jeanne Vaccaro, a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Indiana University, views these findings as a deeply ingrained continuation of the perception of women when they express anger, let alone rise up in anger as a result of personal or social injustice and violations, as being out of control. (Even when we are being clear and forthright about what is making us angry: most commonly powerlessness, injustice, and the irresponsibility of other people.)
My recent experiences listening to other women talk about anger tells me that for some of us it is still dangerous and destructive, something to be managed and channeled, perhaps a tool but a double-edged one and sharp at that.
For others, anger is best described in the words of bell hooks:
Take your anger and make it the compost for your garden.
As one friend told me, “and that’s what we do as women. We use it to fuel our art and our activism and our fierce (FIERCE) love.”