Revolutionary Anger: Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad

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Facebook has become a pit of horror. Every day, I read distressing recollections from colleagues and friends. #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport, content warnings and rape testimonies from college campuses to closed offices to childhood bedrooms. Announcements and reminders of a myriad of violence against marginalized communities in recent months. I draft my own and delete them. Draft, delete, read. Every day, it gets worse.

A #WhyIDidntReport post by a woman from my hometown, Carrollton, Texas, bowled me over. A bright, religious girl—the kind that plays Belle in the school musical, and did—described being so distraught by her assault at sixteen that she didn’t tell a single person, and immediately threw her clothes away in an alley dumpster. She described thinking that’s what sex was, and not even knowing—like many—that it was assault at the time.

I knew her well when we were sixteen. I gave her rides. I probably drove past that dumpster a hundred times, and I had no idea.

Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, takes this sickening information, digests it, and shouts through a megaphone what to do with it. The answer is more simple than it sounds. It is to get angry, to let yourself remain angry, and to be creative about how to channel it. The inside of the cover is lined with pictures of protests signs, like, “There is so much to f***ing protest” and “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter march, right?” The book tracks different forms of women’s protest across the last two centuries, from active disobedience to simple, silent refusal.

The book had me feeling both validated and hot in the face. Like marching with cheeks red from the cold, throats sore from screaming, and fingers stiff from picketing, reading Traister’s commentary allowed me to feel a part of something. But unlike protesting, the experience of reading can be singular, and I continued to feel private about my anger. I found myself hiding the book. When a senior citizen boarded the train cat I was sitting in, I placed a scarf over the book jacket that reads “F*CK F*CK F*CK” over and over. But why? I was mad, and it was okay. She was probably mad, too.

While Traister’s narrative stirs a desire to be revolutionary in emotional pride, there are moments that bitterly trigger flashbacks of times women have been discarded by society.

For example, when reading sections about reproductive rights, I remembered a women’s march, when a screaming pro-life protester got so close to my face that he smacked my nose with a gruesome, bloody photograph of a disembodied fetus. And in a moment where Traister recounts Trump saying Hillary didn’t have the “stamina” to be president, I was reminded of her sexual humiliation.

Then I thought of Monica Lewinsky, who was an unpaid, twenty-two-year-old intern when the President of the United States courted her to be a sexual partner, and the President called her “that woman” before millions of people, and she was to face a lifetime of sitcoms, stand-ups, songs, and gossip, all with the intention of ruining her life.

When the audio of Donald Trump saying “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” first broke, I was sitting in an Italian restaurant with my now-husband, trying to enjoy some pasta and a glass of wine. I became so ill I couldn’t finish either.

But I said, “It’s over for him now, right? He can’t come back from this, right?” In retrospect, I should have known it was far from over.

Then, in the height of the heated confirmation process for Kavanaugh, Trump stood before a MAGA rally in Southaven, Mississippi and imitated Dr. Ford, saying “I don’t know, I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs—where was it? I don’t know—but I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.” People laughed and applauded. And everyone wonders why we don’t report.

In the wake of my shock from Trump’s election, I got checked. I’m white and was feeling fragile that my liberalism was compromised by a sexist bigot. But a black colleague was the first to tell me, lovingly, that it wasn’t surprising and I should shut up and take action.

Traister talks a lot about this in Good and Mad. She refers to the phenomenon of reemerging feminism as “a mass impulse after decades of feminist deep freeze.” This sleeping giant, as she puts it, woke up after a lot of internalized denial of the issues beneath the optimism of the Obama administration.

In Good and Mad’s four parts, Eruption, Medusas, Season of the Witch, and The Furies, one of the major themes is white fragility, and the historical habit of white people to exclude. At the beginning of the chapter, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” Traister writes:

The election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for the presidency of the United States in 2016 may have felt like a stinging, agonizing shock to many of us who lived through it. But in the context of American history, it should have been wholly unsurprising. In the wake of a challenge to white supremacy, in the form of two Obama administrations, racism won. Over the threat of a potential female leader, brutal masculinity won.

In the years since Trump’s election, this has become increasingly apparent. Traister quotes from Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who wrote in the New York Times:

American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force of capable governing.

But this liberalism he’s talking about—the branches of social justice warriors—do form a kind of framework. It just often isn’t as graceful, as Traister notes, as Beyoncé’s “Formation” video.

Part of anger is accepting that it can get ugly.

The book opens with a story from political activist Jessica Morales, who says, “I remember the first time I got angry. I was about ten.” She describes going to McDonald’s with her mother and some family friends. Morales and her mother are Mexican, but both have light skin, and were often perceived as white. Their family friends were darker in tone, and were forbidden to play in the ball pit.

“My mom f***ing flipped her s***t,” Morales recalls. She continues:

She screamed like a banshee at this woman in the McDonald’s. She said, “I will never come back. I will tell all my friends never to come here. Give me the number of your manager. I’m going to call headquarters.”

Then, she treated all the kids to ice cream sundaes. “I remember watching her and thinking, she’s doing the right thing.”

This opening anecdote sets the tone for what I describe—the gradient, and often divide, within the feminist movement. The concept of using white privilege to better service others has become a prominent theme during the Trump administration. More than that, the awareness of when to sit and listen has come to the forefront.

Traister writes:

White women, who—as wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, neighbors, employees, colleagues, and friends of white men—have been offered a proximal power: greater access, via their relation to powerful white men, to wealth, jobs, educational opportunities, housing, and health-care options…

She then explains how these relationships offer an incentive for white women to disadvantage others: inclusion, stability, and success.

A lot of white women continue to victimize themselves, making them blind to this systematic oppression they take part in. Or they want to equalize their strife with others, as though being a feminist is the same as being on a volleyball team, or in a trivia group. The thing is, white women should be less concerned with being called privileged and more concerned with hearing from their friends of color.

I recently got into a tizzy in a conversation with my husband, who is a white male, and our friend, who is also a white male, about the legalization of marijuana. We all agreed on legalization, but there was a divide within our agreement. I felt legalization would not be a sufficient reparation for everyone who has been negatively affected by its informal sale, with consequences including violence, death, incarceration, racism, debt, and prejudice.

I said, “What can we do to support people who have been a part of the informal economy, and transition them into a formal economy?” This was met with blank stares. So I went on, “There are people who have made their living distributing marijuana on the streets all this time, and they will not be the people operating dispensaries.” More blank stares. “It will be the white hipsters, like at Teavana.”

“Well we could—!” they began, but I could tell they were talking about the general, intangible kind of “we.”

So I said, “No. What can we do? You guys, and me.” The general “we” does nothing but share articles. The individual “I” signs up for action.

This is a big problem with activism, particularly in the era of the Internet. We stuff our faces with news that gets us pissed, swallow it by the mouthful, then insist we don’t have time in our busy lives to get active. In the time we spent inhaling all that news, we could have been on the streets or sending texts or logging into PayPal and getting a move on. While the Internet has made activism accessible in many ways, it has also created an echo-chamber of lazy, algorithmed anger.

In Good and Mad’s final section, “The Furies,” Traister moves from how to digest all this rage to how to act on it. She begins with an anecdote by Cortney Tunis, activist and Executive Director of Pantsuit Nation. “After the election, first I felt totally numb, just deflated,” Tunis says. “I was walking down the street and there were just all these big white guys in suits in New York City and I was just mad at every single one of them.” Then, something in Tunis changes. She realizes she can walk down the street in a confident, straight line and not move out of the way for anyone. She gets bumped on the shoulder a few times, but thinks,

Today I am not moving for you because I am pissed and I own this street as much as you do, so I’m gonna walk down it with even more of a straight back and a straight line than I ever have before.

This story leads into a triumphant chapter of the book, “The Exhilaration of Activism,” with a mantra that states, “My anger has hardened into determination.”

“Throughout conversations about this book,” Traister writes, “I heard again and again: the desire to take anger and transform it into something else, something that was not anger.” One really thoughtful thing about this chapter, and book as a whole, is that it shows that anger is a way to perceive inequity. Rather than just being a feeling that women succumb to, anger is an active point of view. In the nineteenth century, female suffragists including Maria Stewart and the Grimké sisters were among the first to speak in public spaces with mixed genders and races.

The simple act of lecturing in a public space was part of a larger movement, a trend that had before been forced to sleep. Women were—and still are, particularly women of color and women at an economic disadvantage—isolated in their homes. They’ve spent lifetimes feeling like they haven’t had an invitation to come out.

Traister’s book shows that the worst kind of activist is one that is simply not active. Angry women have made marks on the world in all different shapes. In the early twentieth century, British feminists were more militant, and inspired American women to protest through hunger strikes and violent public displays. Jewish suffragist Ernestine Rose refused her father’s command to marry her betrothed. African American educator Septima Clark built training grounds for civil rights activism in the Jim Crow South. They all did something. We should do something.

The final chapter of Good and Mad offers a collection of radicalism, like Erica Jong’s novel, Fear of Flying, of sexual liberation and Ntozake Shange’s poetic play, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. She describes university educators transforming how sexual education is portrayed in academia. She comments on the ways medical leaders are gravitating more to accommodate women’s physiological and psychological needs, and reassesses what it means to be civilly disobedient.

The most important idea within the book is that our anger, in all its shapes, is justified. It’s powerful, earned, valid, understood, communal, and acknowledged. Because the media, society, workplaces, the economy, and our political system have failed us. In many ways, it has taken all our womanly activism, and has all but left us behind. One bittersweet thread in Good and Mad is the hope that the women who came before us could witness the progress we are making. In one example, she wishes the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin were here to see what is happening. “Not because I felt she would be wholly satisfied by #MeToo; though I do hope she would be cheered it was taking place.” She goes on to say that sentiments that left Dworkin ostracized in her time would today “earn a bunch of fire emojis on Twitter.”

Reading the book, I am encouraged to make our feminist ancestors light up. I want to make them as proud, if not more, as I want to make our feminist grandchildren.

I always think about Sandra Bland’s cigarette. How annoying, to demand someone put out her cigarette, someone who was pulled over for not using a goddamn blinker. A blinker. I always wish the cigarette was the most infuriating part of the story. But then it gets much, much worse. It makes me so sick I could scream.

“I say to all the women reading this now,” Traister writes at the end of her book:

What you’re angry about now—injustice—will still exist, even if you yourself are not experiencing it, or are tempted to stop thinking about how you experience it, and how you contribute to it. Others are still experiencing it, still mad, some of them are mad at you. Don’t forget them; don’t write off their anger. Stay mad for them. Stay mad with them. They’re right to be mad and you’re right to be mad alongside them.

Caroline Macon Fleischer is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and theatremaker. Follow her whereabouts on Twitter at @caromacon. More from this author →