How Furious Women Shaped Our History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

How Furious Women Shaped Our History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

How Furious Women Shaped Our History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

The author and New York magazine writer on anger as a catalyst for change.


On the eve of the 2000 presidential election, Rebecca Traister, then a reporter with The New York Observer, had a run-in with Harvey Weinstein. After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to reach him for an article she was doing, she managed to track him down at a party he was hosting. But after she approached him with her questions, Weinstein erupted in a rage, stabbing a finger into her chest, calling her a “cunt” and a “bitch.” When Traister’s Observer colleague Andrew Goldman, who was standing by with a tape recorder, intervened, Weinstein shoved him down a set of stairs, causing the tape recorder to fly out of his hand and hit a female attendee in the head, then dragged him out of the party in a headlock.

In its account of the incident, the New York Post dismissed Traister and Goldman as “pushy reporters,” while The New York Times quoted a Miramax official saying that Traister’s line of questioning “really wasn’t appropriate” and had made Weinstein “upset.” Simply by doing her job, Traister became the aggressor, and Weinstein’s furious response, like so many acts committed by powerful men, was treated as something different from what it truly was: an act of violence.

Now a writer at large for New York magazine, Traister is all too aware that this has long been the way of the world. But she also knows that it shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be. In her new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Traister presents an account of the role that anger plays in feminist, progressive, and reactionary politics. Her subjects include the Declaration of Sentiments recited at Seneca Falls in 1848, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential candidacy and the Democratic National Convention that year, both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, the #MeToo movement, and the many women doing their part to change the politics of our time, including Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Alicia Garza, Moira Donegan, Emma Gonzalez, as well as those women running for office—and winning—in recent primaries.

By centering her argument on women’s anger—an issue largely omitted from the narrative of women’s social history—Traister situates it as the primary force for change over more than a century and a half of feminist movements. And she leaves us with an answer to a fundamental problem: that in the United States, “we have never been taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism and our art. We should be.”

Leah Rosenzweig: I was reading a personal essay you wrote for Salon in 2004, a piece called “Girlfriends Are the New Husbands,” which is so radically different from your writing now but was also considerably feminist for what was happening at the time. How do you think the landscape for feminist writing has changed over the past 15 to 20 years?

Rebecca Traister: It’s hard to describe the tone of feminist writing when I was a young journalist. When I went to Salon in the early 2000s, Feministing and Jezebel were just starting to pop up; the feminist blogosphere was just beginning to explode. Still, the conversation was not the same. Social media was very different or nonexistent, and there certainly wasn’t the supportive community of women online that you have today. In fact, most responses on social media came from haters—angry males telling you that you needed to get laid. There was a lot of that.

The market for women writers, never mind if they were beat reporters or if they were interested in politics, was based on your ability to produce a first-person narrative. Everyone wanted me to write about my sex life, and I didn’t really have a sex life at the time, so I just wrote about my relationships with my friends; I had to mine my own life for material. The stuff I was finding would later surface in my work as I began to think more rigorously about feminism—not just through a lens of individual experience, but the economic and structural realities of feminism, about the architecture of gender and power and race.

LR: What made you want to start writing about women in politics?

RT: My writing about politics happened entirely because Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008. That election was one of the biggest turning points for me. The first story I wrote about Hillary was actually in 2006, and that was because my editor forced me to. I hated Hillary Clinton and didn’t want to write about her, but my editor told me, “You have to grapple with the Hillary question, because she’s going to run for president.” A lot of my original writing on it was pretty simplistic, but it was really from there that my thinking began to expand and grow. I was forced to think more about race and whiteness and blackness and gender and all the ways that they intersect. That was the beginning of my writing about Hillary, which has been more than a decade at this point. It’s also how I began writing about politics: through a woman running for office—for president.

LR: I saw an interview where you mentioned hearing a pundit describe the 2008 election as “post-gender” and how that statement made your skin crawl. Why was that the case, and do you still feel the same way about the idea that we live in a post-bias society?

RT: I think you can argue that “post-gender,” along with “post-racial” and “post–second wave,” is a particular hallmark of the Obama era. The lessons that so many people drew from that race were basically that we’d fixed things: Now a woman is a front-runner for the presidency and a black man is president. That’s basically where the book starts—with the sense that there’s nothing to be angry about anymore. We constantly want to tell ourselves that inequality is a thing of the American past, that we’ve healed it, gotten past it—and we are always wrong about that. Always. I think particularly during the Obama administration, there was a great desire to tell a story about how we could all finally stop being angry about our sins of the past. The same story was so much a part of the 2016 election. MRAs [so-called “men’s-rights activists”] and neo-Nazis were really mad because there’s this sense that people who have not really had much power in the past have taken more than their share of it. It’s a false story which, up until very recently, had been used to quell the anger around persistent, worsening inequality. It provokes anger on one side and is used to suppress it on the other.

LR: In your “Summer of Rage” piece for The Cut, you write, “One reason that the fury of women is regularly dismissed as theatrical and marginal and unserious is precisely because, on some level, the powerful must sense that it is the opposite of all those things.” Still, it seems to me that those in power are not nearly as moved by women’s anger as they are by, say, men’s anger when it comes to changing policy or redirecting social agendas.

RT: My hope is that we can all start valuing and understanding women’s anger differently, because right now it’s not treated as politically serious, and yet the anger of white men is treated totally differently: After the 2016 election, the narrative became so focused on how we didn’t take their anger into account—how the anger channeled into support for Donald Trump should have been a road map for politicians, for Hillary Clinton, for Democrats. I’m not saying that it’s incorrect to understand anger that way, but I am saying that we have to try to understand everybody’s anger at all levels. This doesn’t just apply to politics, but to everyday social and professional scenarios. If there’s an angry woman in your office, try considering what her anger might be telling you about the challenges she’s experiencing that actually need to be addressed instead of laughing at her or assuming she’s crazy.

LR: This sort of speaks to the Kavanaugh hearings and the responses from men like Senators Ben Sasse and Orrin Hatch, who referred to female protesters as crazy or hysterical. Can women benefit at all when men in power stoop to this kind of rhetoric?

RT: In 1992, after the Anita Hill [hearing], America witnessed an all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee make themselves look like assholes. Now we have protesters like Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland, and Piper Perabo who are going in there and trying to change that. And yes, there’s still some faction of America that sees them and thinks, “Crazy ladies!” But I would argue that there’s a larger number of women who are considering—some of them for the first time—that their efforts might be forcing men in power to behave like jackasses, to use the word “hysteria.” Orrin Hatch was so jolted that he exclaimed, “I think we ought to have this loudmouth removed” at one of the protesters. It’s like Elizabeth Warren reading Coretta Scott King’s letter and drawing out of Mitch McConnell the ubiquitous “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” People might make fun of the way it became commercialized, plastered on T-shirts and coffee mugs, but you can’t deny that it truly brings women together. I profiled Elizabeth Warren this summer and she has a massive base of people who want nothing more than to fill a room and chant, “Nevertheless, she persisted”—the very same words McConnell once used to silence her. That matters.

LR: In the book Eloquent Rage, which you reference in your own book, author Brittney Cooper writes that she doesn’t feel that she fits into one single “wave” of feminism. In the past, you’ve said that “waves” create problematic separations in the way we teach and learn the history of feminism. What do you think are some of the biggest discrepancies?

RT: If you really think about it, the suffrage movement stood 80 years before the 19th Amendment even passed. I say this in the book, but one of the statistics that’s always sobered me tremendously is that, of the 300 people who were at Seneca Falls in 1848, only one woman lived long enough to cast a vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment, and no one lived to see women fully enfranchised in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. So how can we still talk about the 19th Amendment as “first wave”?

Within the first wave alone, you have a multitude of divisions and different ideologies related to how the suffragists should act, who should be included in the movement, whom to align themselves with, and so on. I write in the book about how they tried to make Susan B. Anthony into this sweet old grandmother when she was this mean old biddy. The second wave occurred over a much more condensed period of time—the 1960s and ’70s—and was more clearly characterized by anger and protests. But in the 1990s, that rage sort of softened into a feminism of pop culture, what we now think of as “third wave.” To some degree in the book, I characterize this as a cheerful feminism that made a women’s movement palatable again after decades of it having been made unpalatable. I think it worked in some ways that are important, that threw lots of people into a movement that had been made to seem ugly and unappealing by making it overly appealing. Once women were more interested in politics, I think it got angrier. But what we’re in right now… I’m not sure it’s really third wave. At some point you have to say, “What wave is it that we’re in?”

LR: I read that you wrote this book in four months. Is that true?

RT: I did the writing in four months, yes, although the research took place over a longer period of time. Let me tell you, writing 300 pages this quickly leaves you with a lot of fear in the middle of the night. It’s really the most intensely felt thing I’ve ever written, which is very scary. There was an urgency about this that I have never felt before. I am constantly the writer who is saying to my editors, “It can wait a day,” but I felt this had to happen quickly, which is not my usual impulse. I was sensing, in part because of the women I spoke to for the book, that there was a desperation for framework. Women want to understand what they are feeling. I’m not proposing that I’m going to swoop in and suddenly make women understand, but I would like to offer them a tool. I would like to put a tool on the table which they can use to help them understand what they’re feeling and thinking, because so much of the world is telling them that it’s not serious or that it won’t work or that it’s not effectual or that we’re all gonna die anyway.

I felt like this was a book that had to get out there quicker than I’ve had to get anything out there in the past. I didn’t want to forget what this period felt like—for myself, for women. I don’t know how it’s going to end, or if it’s going to end well. But everything is so quick and fast, and the news is so huge, we forget things so easily. And I didn’t want to forget.

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