When Soraya Chemaly began to give voice to her anger, she was well into her thirties. “If you had asked me if I was angry in my 20s or early 30s, I would have been the person who said, ‘Oh no, I’m just not an angry person,'” the writer and activist says. “But I had all of these physical manifestations of problems that I never associated with this emotion.”
Doctors told Chemaly, a working mother of three, that she was just stressed. As she tried to work through her stress, and the source of it, Chemaly started writing. “I didn’t realize at the time that writing was actually a very powerful force of sublimation of anger for me,” she says. “What resonated with people was the anger in my writing. I was much freer to express myself that way.”
In writing her new book, Rage Becomes Her, Chemaly was nothing short of angry. “I don’t throw plates, but I do throw words,” she writes in the introduction—a reference to an incident from her childhood, when Chemaly watched her mother silently throw her wedding china out the kitchen window. Rage Becomes Her lays bare the sources of women’s anger—from harassment and sexism to the expectations imposed on women as caretakers and mothers—and the ways in which women are trained, from childhood, to suppress their anger. (“I don’t think anyone can read this book without getting angry,” Chemaly tells me.) When women are permitted to be angry, she notes, it is often in the form of aggrieved mother.
But what Chemaly really sought to convey is the power in women’s anger—and to help alter how people think about a woman’s right to be angry. After all, in 2018, angry women are making things happen: They have won primary elections and have brought to heel serial sexual harassers. “I think that you would have had to be living on Mars to go through the last several years and not realize how profoundly the lives of women are being affected by this regulation of our freedom of expression,” she says. “What I wanted to accomplish was to really say, Stop dismissing women’s anger. Stop stereotyping it. And understand how much knowledge is embedded in it, and what we lose when we shut it down.”
The cost of confrontation
As Chemaly writes, regulating how women should or should not express their anger can be particularly harmful to how they are perceived in the workplace, especially as it intersects with race. “You can see a real break between how we socialize children to understand that confrontation is a ‘masculine’ quality,” she says. “Even in early childhood, we know that young black girls are severely penalized for acting in ways that are considered confrontational, but in a young white boy, that is literally considered a sign of leadership potential.” Women, she says, don’t even need to be confrontational to be labeled as such. “They basically have to speak with authority and with confidence,” she says. “We don’t get to make that nuanced distinction of saying I’m angry, but I’m not being aggressive.”
A recent example of this was, of course, how Serena Williams was penalized at the U.S. Open for arguing with the umpire. When Williams dared to show her anger after being slapped with a code violation she deemed unfair, the umpire docked her further with a game penalty—an unprecedented move in the final match of a Grand Slam. “What I think is so remarkable about this episode is how conscious Serena Williams was,” Chemaly says. “As a black woman who is smart, has gone through decades of discrimination, and is at the top of her profession, she must have an exquisite sense of the need to calibrate her assets. She knows. This is not new to her; this is not unfamiliar ground for her.”
Chemaly wants to empower women in moments like these, to give them the language to understand and challenge what unfolds, much like Williams did. “I know that on the spot, I freeze, and I clam up,” she says. “I don’t want to be confrontational because I grew up thinking that was unladylike and rude and all of these other things. But the prohibition on being confrontational often means we don’t say anything at all. And that’s a problem.” Often, the calculus of speaking up hinges on whether it feels worth it to do so, when women are so often penalized for anger.
Anger competence (aka, “What to do with all this rage?”)
Chemaly even points to the fact that women aren’t thrust into the role of caretaker only at home; women often bear the brunt of “office housework and emotional labor” in the office as well. “I was talking to a man the other day, and this guy considers himself a liberal, progressive Democrat who works in an office with many women and works for a woman,” Chemaly says. “I said, ‘Well, do you organize [office parties]? Do you clean up? Do you order the cake? Do you get the gifts? Do you do any of that?’ And he said no. And I said, ‘Well, who do you think is doing that? They’re not office fairies.’ And once I said it, it looked like a light bulb went off. He was like, ‘Oh my god, I just didn’t ever think of that.'”
Women have to “engineer around” those type of scenarios, she says, to ensure they don’t keep happening. Toward the end of her book, Chemaly devotes a chapter to tools for “anger competence,” an attempt to answer the question of, “What to do with all this rage?”
She recommends that women take stock of their anger and how it presents, and that they learn to distinguish between what she calls the three As. “Anger, assertiveness, and aggression are frequently and unhelpfully lumped together, particularly when the person who is being assertive, angry, or aggressive is a girl or woman,” she writes. “All three are, however, related by the word ‘no,’ and a simple unapologetic, declarative ‘no’ is not a word that girls and women are taught to embrace.”
Chemaly also encourages women to take their rage to work and use it to effect change. The things that anger women in the workplace—being taken for granted, for example, or experiencing gender- or race-based discrimination—are often the very things that stir discontent in their personal life. “Organize your thoughts and actions with clear objectives,” she says. “That may mean asking for a long-overdue raise, but it might also mean saving money to quit a miserable job and look for another one or taking the step to report harassment.” If you’re angry about something at work, she adds, it’s likely other people are, too.
“The hardest part about any of this, whether you’re at home or work or school, is coming to terms with whether or not your community cares enough to validate your anger,” Chemaly tells me. “Indeed, one of the major components of women’s anger is this failure of reciprocation—this feeling that their care is not being reciprocated.”