Serena Williams in the US Open final. Photograph: Dave Shopland/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
“The Serena Williams incident is a really good example,” says Chemaly, referring to the 2018 US Open final last weekend, in which Williams was penalised for arguing with the umpire when he accused her of cheating. “Of course she’d be angry, but she wasn’t explosive.” She also notes the intense media scrutiny that Williams came under, typically accompanied by images of her looking “almost unhinged”.
“When you think about the male players – most of whom seem to be white men in this extremely genteel sport – the ones who do explode are ‘bad boys’; they’re charismatic. Williams just never has the benefit of the doubt.”
Rage Becomes Her uses anecdotes from Chemaly’s own encounters with female anger. The book opens with a memory of her mother silently throwing her wedding china out of the window – a lot of the plates were destroyed. Then there was the young male student attending a guest lecture Chemaly was giving at a college in New England who couldn’t see why, hypothetically, him sending somebody a photo of a naked woman without getting her permission first was any different from sending a picture of a toaster (no woman at the lecture challenged this assertion).
“I am still arrested by the thought of Toaster Boy,” as he is called in the book, she says. “At the time, I was in shock. So many thoughts crossed my mind; simultaneous disbelief and anger. I was appalled. I also knew that I was older [than him], in authority and I shouldn’t bully him. In the end, I just replied: ‘In the beginning, there was darkness.’ As if to say: ‘Where do I even start with this?’”
But mainly Rage … asks what it would mean for us to “ungender our emotions” and for women to feel their full range of rage in a healthy, productive way. Couldn’t such an unleashing change the world? Chemaly hopes so. “I had already been writing about many of these issues in the book, but in the wake of the US election, the anger was palpable. Men’s anger, women’s anger, just anger everywhere. It enabled me to focus these thoughts through that lens,” she says.
Chemaly is a US-based feminist writer and director of the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit organisation that aims to increase women’s participation in the media and the public sphere. She has years of experience in public speaking, often to resistant audiences on heated topics – and it shows. Despite having weathered a transatlantic flight and a morning of interviews, she is the consummate professional: calm, precise and succinct with every phrase. “I can’t afford not to be,” she says, pointing to the bullying that women endure in the public sphere. “It’s why I tend to research so compulsively.”
Rage is a battle-cry of a book, drawing on all corners of contemporary life, from media to education and medicine. She takes the reader through a woman’s life, from infancy to adulthood, highlighting the systemic ways female rage is suppressed, diverted or minimised. And she provides scientific evidence to back up her ideas. If life as a modern woman is maddening, then Rage is a sanity-restorer.
One chapter looks at parental bias and discusses studies that show parents respond differently to their babies depending on their gender (a fussy boy is frustrated or angry; a fussy girl is sad). Another chapter looks at health – how anger is a key factor in feeling pain, and how mental and physical illness is affected by suppression of anger, yet how doctors fail to catch certain conditions because of gender biases. Then there are the sections looking at the women written out of history; how, from books to films, women are funnelled to see the world through a man’s eyes and to self-police and self-objectify. The book even tackles abortion – linking it to the conditions of working women and the lack of societal support for mothers (60% of US abortions are had by women who are already mothers and simply cannot go through it all again).
Chemaly pulls no punches when outlining how women with more privilege exert power over women with less – and the differences in experience for women based on class, race, sexuality and more.
“It is vital that we don’t have one-size-fits-all feminism,” she says. “It will fail and exacerbate problems. People were surprised by the percentage of college-educated white women who voted for Trump. But a white woman grappling with gender inequality might be angry, and she can leverage racial privilege to compensate for her losses. Women have always been levers of white supremacy in US culture. That does not mean that they do not themselves suffer from oppression. White women understanding how their fragility is used to enforce racism is an important lesson, which is a hard one to talk about.”
Rather than telling women to “let go” of their rage, Chemaly asks us to hold on to it – there is after all plenty to be mad about – and to work with other women to channel rage productively; that instead of being afraid of our anger and burying it (with potentially disastrous health consequences) to own it. (“Be angry. Be loud. Rage becomes you.”) The power to change our lives and the world is within us. And why not? It’s not like feminism hasn’t done it before.
“Every form of justice-seeking involves feminism. You just never hear about it,” she says. “We don’t educate children in the history of women’s rights or how they intersect with civil rights, social justice, worker’s rights or environmental rights.”
She talks about the prohibition fight in the US. “That really was a fight to stop domestic violence because men would get drunk and bludgeon their wives and children. But you couldn’t be a woman who was angry about it because that was a privacy issue and a patriarchal right. But you could get angry about the social cost of drunkenness.
“Women were very angry. It went unacknowledged, but they drove the temperance movement. That was a global political movement! The same again in the 1960s and 70s. There are waves and cycles in which society recognises female rage and gives it more leeway.”
But what about where we are in 2018? “The internet has allowed women to work in unprecedented ways. We’re forming transnational networks, to share our stories collectively … it is a sad commentary that it takes millions of women saying the same thing to get the world to pay attention.”
When we share something with a #MeToo hashtag, we are using anger to be heard because nothing else works, she says. “But I think it’s important to stress that anger is just the vehicle. Really the movement is about spreading knowledge.” Though Rage offers tangible steps to help build a healthier life, she is adamant that this is not a self-help book. “Self-help is a neoliberal view saying that everything is the fault of the individual.”
Instead, the book asks women to challenge everything we have been conditioned to think about our bodies, our work-life dynamics, our religious and political lives – and encourages us to speak up, stand up, don’t be afraid. It asks us to counter oppression everywhere we see it and at every level – and that our collective power can make a small action a huge change.
But wait, I ask Chemaly. What happened at the family dinner in the end? “I refused. I told my father: ‘I’m not getting up unless he – my brother – does, too.’ And do you know what? It worked.”