It’s not like women weren’t already aflame with fury.
September had brought handmaids to Washington, some standing silent sentinel in Senate office buildings. Women had dressed demurely to get into Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, then leapt up and yelled: about life and death, health care, and abortion. Those women were pulled roughly from the room, then replaced by others. Every day, more women willing to yell. Women sent 3,000 coat hangers to Senator Susan Collins; anti-Kavanaugh messages have been projected onto the City Hall building in Portland, Maine. One day, during the Kavanaugh hearings, a few dozen women — plus some men! — flooded into the office of Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and started chanting and clapping: “Chuck Grassley! Come out! We’ve got some things to talk about!”
But this weekend, the view of the wrath — and the stakes that have it ratcheted it so high — got even clearer. Against her own original wishes, a woman named Christine Blasey Ford identified herself as the person to have written a letter earlier this summer to Representative Anna Eshoo and Senator Dianne Feinstein, claiming that when she was a teenager, Brett Kavanaugh and a friend attempted to sexually assault her. On Sunday, Ford went on the record in the Washington Post, describing what she remembered of the Supreme Court nominee pinning her to a bed during a party, trying to pull her clothes off.
“When she tried to scream,” the Post reported of Ford’s recollections, “he put his hand over her mouth.” “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,’” Ford told the paper, recalling also how she eventually got away. Still, the incident left a lasting mark, enough that she had discussed it with a therapist years later, in 2012.
With Ford’s story came the explicit acknowledgment of what all those handmaids and demonstrators had been working to convey for weeks: that this fight has been against an administration with virtually no regard for women, for their rights, or for the integrity of their bodies, either in the public or private sense. The point should be obvious, yet the anger of the female protesters has repeatedly been cast — as Ford’s story quickly was — by those threatened by it as desperate and performed.
On the first day of the Supreme Court hearings, Orrin Hatch chuckled nervously as a woman in the back of the room stood and screamed about how if health-care reform were gutted by the court, she’d die. “We oughtta have this loudmouth removed,” Hatch blustered. “We shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of stuff.” Ben Sasse suggested that maybe the ladies should all just calm down, noting that “screaming protesters [have been] saying ‘Women are going to die’ at every hearing for decades.” Concern over the prospect of this very real history repeating itself was just “hysteria,” Sasse went on. On the third day of hearings, greeted with more screaming women, Senator John Kennedy opined, “It’s not really how democracy is supposed to work.”
But this is the way democracy is supposed to work — and the reason these men are getting so upset is that the force of female protest right now feels like it has the potential to shake our power structure to its core.
Twenty-seven years ago this fall, Anita Hill, came forward, not of her own volition, with claims that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas was confirmed to the Court nonetheless, but a wave of angry women ran for office in the wake of Hill’s treatment by the committee, and her story was crucial to establishing “sexual harassment” as a form of gender discrimination. The seeds sown during the Hill hearings have come into full flower in the past two years, as the #MeToo movement erupted following the election of a multiply accused sexual harasser, and angry women jumped into electoral contests around the country.
It’s those women who’ve been winning primaries, toppling men who’ve occupied seats of power since God was a boy. The partisan gender gap has become a chasm, a fault line splitting open under the pressure of so much rage. Based on polls going into the midterms, the gap has grown to 33 points, largely because white women — a majority of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and have supported Republicans in all but two elections since 1952 — have shifted toward backing Democrats over Republicans, 52-38; among millennials, 39 points separates women who favor Democrats and men who prefer Republicans.* It’s angry women who’ve staged teachers’ strikes, who’ve knocked powerful men off their perches at television networks and in the Senate; it’s often female elected officials who’ve linked arms with the angry masses. It was Kamala Harris, whose place on the Judiciary Committee, along with Cory Booker’s, opened up after the resignation of Al Franken and the loss of Roy Moore — both sidelined by the agitations of women — who first interrupted the Kavanaugh hearings and called for an adjournment.
Harris was told that she was “out of order.”
But the challenges deemed by ideological foes to be “out of order” may be so discomfiting in part because they suggest a yearning for a new order.
The idealized vision of what this country might be was born of the virtuous, and sometimes chaotic, fury of the unrepresented. We are taught it as patriotic catechism — give me liberty or give me death; live free or die; don’t tread on me. We carve our Founders’ anger into buildings, visit their broken bells, name contemporary political factions after the temper tantrums they threw, dressed in native garb, dumping tea in a harbor. We call these events a revolution.
This is the anger of white men, of course. Their anger is revered, respected as the stimulus for necessary political change. Because they’ve always been the rational norm, the intellectual ideal, their dissatisfactions are assumed to be grounded in reason — not the emotional muck of femininity.
(This isn’t just in the past. Think about how the anger of white men in the Rust Belt is often treated as politically diagnostic, as a guide to their understandable frustrations: the loss of jobs and stature, the shortage of affordable health care, the scourge of drugs. Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives, a response to police killings of African Americans initiated by women activists, is considered by the FBI to pose a threat of “retaliatory violence” and discussed as a “hate group” by Meghan McCain.)
As nobly enraged as the Founders were at being taxed and policed by a government in which they had no voice or vote, they failed, we know, to establish a true representative democracy. Their government was one in which a minority ruled. The few cleared the field of competition by subjugating the many — the enslaved, women — and then built their economic and political power on the labor of those they’d deprived of any say in civic or social life.
But to keep minority rule in place, order must be maintained, as the honorable senator from California was peremptorily instructed. It is order, after all, that throughout our history has worked to suppress the anger of women, to discourage us from speaking it or even feeling it. And when women have gotten mad, they’ve been ignored or marginalized, laughed or blanched at, their vehement objections treated as irrational theater, inconsequential to the important matter of governing the nation. This has always been an error. Look to the start, the germinating seeds, of nearly every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation — from abolition to suffrage to labor to civil rights and LGBTQ rights to, yes, feminism — and you will find near its start the passionate dissent of women.
Consider Mumbet, the enslaved Massachusetts woman who’d later be known as Elizabeth Freeman. Seething at the abuse she suffered at the hands of her owners — including being hit with a hot shovel by her “missis” (“I never covered the wound,” Mumbet reportedly said, and when people asked her what happened to her arm in front of her owner, “I only answered, ‘Ask Missis!’ ”) — Freeman applied the revolutionary rhetoric she heard around the home in which she worked to her own circumstances. She petitioned for her freedom, and her case was instrumental to Massachusetts’s abolition of slavery in 1783.
Abigail Adams’s low-bar request of her husband, John, “Remember the ladies,” is frequently warbled in mid-Atlantic accents in PBS documentaries, supposedly embodying the voice of polite female pique. Less often cited is her sharp warning, from that same missive, that if John and his colleagues “put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” without paying “particular care and attention” to the rights of women, “we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
In the early-19th century, young women laboring in the Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mills explained their own uprising over low wages and dangerous working conditions in revolutionary terms: “As our fathers resisted unto blood the lordly avarice of the British ministry, so we, their daughters, never will wear the yoke which has been prepared for us.” The walkouts they staged, and the union they formed, were among the first iterations of what would become the American labor movement.
Seventy years later, a 23-year-old organizer named Clara Lemlich, who’d already been beaten for participating in garment-industry strikes, grew impatient with all the talk at a meeting at Cooper Union and rose to appeal for a general strike, kicking off the great 1909 rebellion of 20,000 shirtwaist laborers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, one of the shops that didn’t give in to the strikers, burned two years later, killing 146 people, the majority women. That fire provoked the wrath of other activists, including Rose Schneiderman, who issued a call to action at a memorial for the dead at the Metropolitan Opera House: “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city … But every time the workers come out in the only way they know, to protest against conditions which are unbearable … public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable … I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled.”
Schneiderman, alongside Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle fire and was so appalled by it that she changed the course of her career to address labor issues, would wind up drafting some of the very workplace-safety requirements that are still in place today.
Perhaps the most viscerally catalytic moment in the civil-rights movement was the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, who was beaten to death and left in a river after having been (falsely) accused of making a pass at a white woman while visiting an uncle in Mississippi in 1955. After his body was finally found, officials tried to bury him in Mississippi without allowing his mother, Mamie, to even look at him. But she insisted on having the casket delivered back to Chicago. Once it got there, the funeral director told her he’d been prohibited from opening it.
“Do you have a hammer?” Mamie recalled saying to him in a 2005 documentary. “[Because] if you can’t open the box, I can.”
Interviewed 50 years after the fact, Mamie was still driven to describe in detail what she saw as she gazed at her son’s dead body: “I saw his tongue had been choked out and was lying down on his chin. I saw that his eye was out and was lying about midway to his cheek. I looked at this eye and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. And I looked at his teeth because I took so much pride in his teeth … and I only saw two … They’d been just knocked out, and I was looking at his ears … and I didn’t see the ear … That’s when I discovered a hole about here and could see daylight on the other side … And I also discovered that they had taken an ax and they had gone straight down across his head and his face and the back of his head were separate.”
Mamie then told the funeral director to keep her son’s casket open. When he asked if he should try to fix Emmett’s features, she replied, “No, let the people see what I’ve seen.”
The people saw. More than 50,000 of them saw Emmett’s body — identifiable only because of a ring he wore — in person. Thousands more saw, because Mamie wanted the photos of her son’s bloated, mutilated face to be published in Jet magazine.
Mamie Till is credited as a transformative figure, but she is most often pictured as a grieving mother at her son’s grave, her mouth open in keening loss. What we aren’t trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow was rage. Lamentation and sadness do not drive a woman to vow to smash open her son’s casket, to make damn sure that the world has to look at the racist brutality that has been visited on her family and her life.
Anger does that. In the case of Mamie Till, it lit a match under a burgeoning social struggle that would help to partially remake the United States and lessen (though hardly obliterate) the legal and political obstacles to racial parity. She insisted that a nation look at the human costs of violent oppression — a strategy that has been employed since by, among others, the editors of Ms. magazine, who in 1973 published a photo of Geraldine Santoro, a Connecticut woman who’d bled to death after an illegal abortion, and by Diamond Reynolds, who in 2016 live-streamed the murder of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by police.
Instead of recognizing female fury as the righteous spark that alters what we see, what we know, we are typically encouraged to focus on feminine “peaceability”: Mamie Till’s grief, or Rosa Parks’s stoicism and exhaustion in refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, the same year that Emmett Till was murdered. In fact, Parks was a fiery lifelong organizer challenging sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men, including the brutal 1944 gang rape of the sharecropper Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama.
“Dr. Martin Luther King is the name most people associate with the Montgomery bus boycott,” observed Angela Davis in A Place of Rage, the terrific 1991 documentary about black women activists. “Most often [Rosa Parks] is portrayed as someone who … simply one day got tired of sitting in the back of the bus and refused to move … Well, of course she probably did get tired of sitting in the back of the bus. But that wasn’t the reason she refused to move to the back of the bus. That was a political act on her part.”
Women’s anger certainly isn’t always progressive. White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers. They’ve been the warriors on the front lines against school integration; their claims that black men propositioned them, or just looked at them funny, have been used — as they were with Emmett Till — as cover for lynching. Still today, their uneasiness about sharing space with nonwhite people — be they sleeping in dorms or barbecuing by a river or selling lemonade on the street — is enough to bring police rushing to their sides.
A white woman, Phyllis Schlafly, waged an all-out campaign against Second Wave feminism in the late 1970s. And while she dressed it in smiling servility (her most famous book was The Power of the Positive Woman), Schlafly’s crusade harnessed the fury of those whose families and workplaces had been upended by the progress of feminism. She led an army of angry white women to deal the women’s movement of the late-20th century its most deadening, if symbolic, defeat, blocking the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
So no, the point is not that the anger is always righteous; rather, that it is often potent — the stuff of eruptive social movements and thwarted ones — and yet to this day, it continues to be written off as loudmouthed hysteria, or the dubious ravings of pussy-hatted suburbanites with itchy Etsy trigger fingers.
In January 2017, the morning after millions crowded streets around the country (and the world) for the largest single-day political demonstration in US history, George Stephanopoulos didn’t even bring up the Women’s March on his Sunday-morning show. During a 17-minute interview with Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, he lingered on the details of the president’s inaugural-crowd size, until Conway herself addressed the giant rally against her boss. Even then, Conway had to mention the Women’s March twice before drawing a direct question from her host, who asked, 13 minutes in: “What did the president think of that march?” In Stephanopoulos’s next segment, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer noted that he’d participated in the Women’s March in his home state of New York the day before, and Stephanopoulos responded with only one question, in reference to the profanity in Madonna’s speech: “Were you comfortable with everything you heard?”
And it wasn’t just Stephanopoulos who shrugged off the political significance of this mass outpouring of female rage. On the Monday after, speaking on Morning Joe to Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who, in discussion with Mika Brzezinski, had just detailed the marchers’ stated commitments to equal pay, women’s health care, defending Obamacare, environmental activism, and their plans to run for office and volunteer for campaigns leading to the midterms, MSNBC analyst Mark Halperin — a man who’d reported extensively on the tea party’s “huge impact on America” — asked her, with suppurating condescension, “Senator, [can I] just ask you to be a notch more specific” about how the marchers might “impact what’s going on in Washington [this week], not running for [the] school board down the road?”
The next week, protesters and public-interest lawyers, the majority of them female, flooded airports to lambaste and subvert Trump’s travel ban; women judges and a female acting attorney general obstructed his path. In the coming months, women flooded congressional phone lines and filled their representatives’ mailboxes with postcards, applying pressure that eventually helped persuade a few key Republicans to vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Female candidates signed up to run not just for school boards — though yeah, those too — but for all kinds of elected positions. So far this year, record numbers of women have secured nominations in state legislative, congressional, gubernatorial, and senate races, including more than a hundred teachers who entered primaries from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona, states where teachers, many female, led strikes this spring.
Meanwhile, high-school students, women prominent among them, started a widespread movement for gun control, calling powerful people out on their BS and promising a revolt against a gun lobby that has held America in its grip for too long. On the opening day of the Kavanaugh hearings, it was a Women’s March leader, Linda Sarsour, who was the first to stand and yell — and she and a co-leader, Bob Bland, were among those arrested.
As for Halperin, he no longer works at MSNBC, after some of his former subordinates, joining the angry female crusade against workplace sexual harassment, accused him of pressing his penis against them.
This is the bigger picture — of interwoven protest and a multi-tentacled approach to change — that really should be capturing the attention of political analysts, and politicians themselves. Yes, plenty of members of the resistance are suburban white women. The abomination of a President Trump propelled them to yell and scream, to make themselves audible to one another, often for the first time, and put them in touch with other women who’ve never not been yelling and organizing. Though many of these women are not particularly radical, the civic education they’re getting has gone some distance toward altering their understanding of how their fights are connected to those of others. This period echoes the 1830s, when the abolition, labor, and suffrage movements began to take shape alongside each other, to recognize their common enemies.
That this precarious coalescence triggers internecine resentments is to be expected, and recalls, in fact, our revolutionary past. The nation’s first political cartoon, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, is of the colonies represented as a segmented snake; it accompanied his editorial about the importance of bringing together the “disunited state” into one force. There is also a famous Revolution-era story about a snowball fight that broke out between militia members from different colonies — men from rural and urban areas, men who dressed differently from one another, some of whom were black, some southern, some northern — as they were amassing an army against the British in Harvard Yard. The snowball fight turned so violent that General George Washington had to step in and break it up. Hearing this story as a girl, I learned that it exemplified the best of the United States: its ability to bring diverse people together toward a greater goal.
To return to contemporary times: In the days before the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour told me that “contentious dialogue is by design … As women of color who came into this effort, we came in not only to mobilize and organize but also to educate, to argue that we can’t talk about women’s rights, about reproductive rights, about equal pay, without also talking about race and class … We are hoping the conversation continues, and that we can move into a different place and focus on the way we’re coming together nonetheless.”
When the Women’s March held its 2017 convention in Detroit, the session called “Confronting White Womanhood” — intended “to unpack the ways white women uphold and benefit from white supremacy” — had a line out the door. It was so oversubscribed that it had to be held twice, and on the second day, it was moved to a space that could hold 500. In the summer of 2018, when 600 women took over the central lobby of the Senate’s Hart office building to protest immigration policy, the majority of them looked to be white. Sitting on the floor, they wrapped themselves in foil blankets, arms locked, and most were arrested. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has noticed these racial demographics, of course, but she says she has no interest in turning away people who share her movement’s goals. That doesn’t mean, however, that her anger at white women for excluding women of color for generations isn’t still “palpable.” “That hasn’t changed,” she says. “What has changed is that I understand that the coalition that is going to save us has to be much bigger than what it is. I want people to get free. I’m mad as hell about a whole bunch of things, every single day. But I want to be free more than I want to be mad.”
Sometimes, it seems, the only ones able to see how powerful a movement is are those who are threatened by it. So Conway put the Women’s March in front of Stephanopoulos, and reactionary ideologue Jordan Peterson has collected a legion of adherents desperate to restore order (represented by the “white masculine serpent”) over chaos (represented by its “black feminine counterpart”). Steve Bannon, of all people, has warned that “the anti-patriarchy movement” is aiming to “undo 10,000 years of recorded history … You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch. This is a [defining] moment in the culture. It’ll never be the same going forward.”
Rarely is there a good lesson to be drawn from Bannon, but here, everyone could learn. Chuck Schumer should have gone all-in to fight Kavanaugh on the grounds of protecting Roe. The Senate minority leader should have absorbed the fact that legal abortion is one of his party’s most popular positions and channeled the force of the volunteer army. Better tactical choices might not have changed the result, but there is communicative, coalition-building power in a fight — a fight that is right, and that is only going to get more intense: We can’t underestimate the oppressive power — the political mechanisms, the courts, the laws, the money — that the minority still holds over a bucking majority. And we can’t underestimate the pushback to anything that, as feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon wrote of the #MeToo movement, is “shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” The gender gap is widening not just because women are moving left but because men are moving right. Twenty-eight percent more white male millennials said they supported Republican congressional candidates in the spring of 2018 than did in the fall of 2016, according to a Reuters poll. And we have a party being led by a president who isn’t trying to smooth over the resentments driving women left but instead stoking them, betting that men will respond strongly enough to make women’s fury moot. That might happen. Insurrections don’t always work; in fact, they often don’t work.
Repeatedly, during 2017 and 2018, I was asked — of the Women’s March, of #MeToo, of women running for elected office: “Is this a moment or a movement?” In part, the questioners craved reassurance that all this work, this pain and risk, was in service of something long-term and important. But the binary on which the question relies is a false one. Because movements are made up of moments, strung out over months, years, decades.
They become discernible as movements — are made to look continuous and coherent — only after they’ve made a substantive difference. It was nine years between Emmett Till’s murder and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. It was more than 80 years between the first meeting of abolitionists and suffragists and the passage of the 19th Amendment, and more than 130 years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. That law was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, a body that in 2018 also defended states’ rights to purge voter rolls, disproportionately affecting minority voters. Which means that the push for full enfranchisement in the United States is ongoing, two centuries hence. It’s easy to feel defeated by this, but more worthwhile to feel inspired: to know that in resisting today, we are playing our parts in a story with deep, proud roots.
Look too, to the ways in which the legacy of Anita Hill’s willingness to speak up is playing out now. Hill’s alleged harasser was confirmed to the Court in spite of her harrowing testimony. In his capacity as a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas has helped to decide cases — for example, Citizens United and the Voting Rights Act decision — that paved the way for Donald Trump’s election, and in turn for the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. But it is simultaneously true that the rage women felt at the way Anita Hill was treated by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee inspired record numbers of them to run for office, and a record number of them to come to Washington in 1992, the same year that Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived in the White House. President Clinton’s own abuse of sexual power would derail the feminist conversation around harassment, and complicate his wife’s later campaigns for the presidency. But the rage over her 2016 loss to Trump would help set off the contemporary #MeToo campaign, reigniting an awareness of sexual harassment that returns us now to the spectacular injustice done to Hill, nearly three decades ago.
This work of perfecting our union is often circular, always daunting; these efforts take time; they require our resilience and determination. Rage helps drive them forward, through the bleakest periods.
“It is probably going to be years,” the young activist Emma González told reporters in 2018 about her battle against the gun lobby. “And at this point, I don’t know that I mind. Nothing that’s worth it is easy … We could very well die trying to do this. But we could very well die not trying to do this, too. So why not die for something rather than nothing?”
González seems to know in her youth what it took some activists ages to figure out: what’s ahead of her. Vivian Gornick has written of her delight, in the 1970s, at discovering the writing of the First Wave feminists, who’d preceded her by a century: “I remember reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton and feeling amazed that a hundred years ago she had said exactly what I was now saying. Amazed, and gratified. Not sobered. That would come later.”
What should have been sobering — what was sobering to me, in the summer of 2018, and to Gornick as time went on — was that women had been here before, yet we had to get here again. The process of change was going to be slow, hard, and often circular.
Nonetheless, so many women are prepared to dig in — even as it costs them their comforts and profoundly unsettles their lives, their very sense of self. Freshly hatched activist Dawn Penich-Thacker told me in the spring of 2018 that she knew five women getting divorced over their commitment to activism. “Because it has fundamentally changed how they see themselves as women,” said Penich-Thacker, a 38-year-old college professor and former Army public-affairs officer in Tempe, Arizona, who, in the wake of Trump’s election, led a petition drive to reverse a Betsy DeVos–supported voucher program in Arizona and assisted in the teachers’ strike there in 2018. “I would be lying if I said I see an end to this,” Penich-Thacker told me she’d confided to her husband the night before our conversation. “It’s not going to be over in November. It’s not going to be over next year, because you don’t change things overnight.” When she and her original co-conspirators started working together, she believed that their only goal was to roll back the one bad law. “But it’s now clear to all of us that there’s way more work to do than that.” She paused. “But in many ways, we actually love this. It has consumed our lives.”
“That is a moment of joy,” Gornick wrote in 1990, looking back at the 1970s, “when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape, and are gathered together in the same place … It is the joy of revolutionary politics, and it was ours. To be a feminist in New York City in the early ’70s — bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it. There was no other place to be, except with each other. We lived then, all of us, inside the loose embrace of feminism. It was as though we’d been released from a collective lifetime of silence.”
Adapted from Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Traister.
*A version of this article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that 55 points separates millennial women who favor Democrats and millennial men who prefer Republicans. The actual gap is 39 points.