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Review: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

“You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver, at the beginning of her seminal poem, “Wild Geese,” and I thought of this poem often as I devoured Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad. What is it to be good, and good how, and good for whom?

I have found no better way to describe this book than as a political history of women’s anger in America. An essential new addition to the evolving canon of feminist history, this is a history we have needed; especially those of us who doubted the likelihood of Trump’s election, who were shocked when it happened. It is sad to think, as Traister recently said in an interview[1] with NPR, that “our founders who were … white men chafing against their lack of representation … But when they made their new nation, they codified some of the very inequities that they themselves were angry about … [building] the nation on slavery and the disenfranchisement of women.” In so building the nation, they claimed anger as a selective birthright, one reasonable for white men and less so by exponential degrees for everyone else.

In the introduction, Traister writes: “I had no idea how old and deep and urgent was women’s impulse to sometimes just let their fury out without a care to how it would be evaluated, even if that expression of rage put them at risk,” following a story about Rosa Parks, who as a young girl, picked up a brick to defend herself from a white boy who was threatening her. At times, it feels like the book’s primary audience is white women “newly awakened” to anger; perhaps it should be. Conservatives would call it liberal or leftist for me to say that if you are newly awakened to anger—or if you are not angry about everything that is happening politically to women, to immigrants, to people of color—then you are, or have been, complicit in oppression.

However, I would submit that this is a book for all to read. Even if your anger is old, generational even, it is important to remember that your rage is important not just because it is yours. Empathy is a hard skill to learn, but one necessary as much for solidarity in resistance as it is in abandoning the privilege of complacency.

Wisely, Traister opens the book with recognizable images; in the first chapter alone, Beyonce-brand feminism, beloved Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Black Lives Matter all surface. By the second chapter, she is waist-deep in the muck of the 2016 Presidential election, flitting back and forth between analysis of Trump’s misogyny winning him support, rather than functioning as a roadblock, and deconstructing how Hillary Clinton, “hell-bent on overcoming” outsider status, had played the game too well, “[offering] her opponents on the left the ammunition to undercut the historic nature of her candidacy.” She fit in, pretty well. She played nice with Wall Street, cooperated with Republicans as a senator, supported Bill Clinton’s neoliberal policies, gathered a who’s who of big donors for her own campaign; her success in fitting in “kept her from being understood or celebrated as the outsider that, as a member of a gender that had been historically denied access to executive power, she was.”

From Clinton, we move forward and backward in time, shifting from a macro view to a micro. Traister’s years of experience reporting on women in media and politics have earned her incredible skill and insight. She is able to succinctly broach predictable topics, like the Women’s March, before showing us little public moments that many of us either missed, or forgot about. Like many others who attended the March, the morning after, I was blown away by the positive reporting from all over the world, the pictures, the numbers. Traister shows us another angle: ABC News anchor George Stephanopolous interviewing Kellyanne Conway, one of the few women admitted to Trump’s inner circle. Conway mentions the March twice before, nearing the end of their time, Stephanopolous asks, “What did the president think of that march?” His total nonchalance is staggering. “It was as though a massive political eruption of women had happened, and the male-dominated political media hadn’t even seen it,” Traister writes.

Attitude, and performance, are frequent topics of inquiry within the text. If women have to feel anger, cannot stem it up, we must at least consider how we will allow it to be seen. Sometimes anger is strategic, sometimes we allow our own credibility to be lost because we need to express it, sometimes it wells to the surface in tears, as grief. In “Dress Up Your Anger,” Traister shows us the range of ways people interpret women’s tears: crying—rather than lashing out—preserves femininity, which is “vulnerable,” and “nonabrasive,” powerful, in it’s own way. But crying is also indicative of weakness. Patricia Schroder, a Congresswoman from Colorado who ran for President in the late ‘80s, became emotional in public and was mocked on SNL. She kept a “ ‘crying file,’ a little list of all the male politicians who’d wept publicly that year,” yet the reaction to men crying was completely different.

Think of Brett Kavanaugh, having a full-on tantrum before the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Dr. Christine Blasey Ford let her life be ripped apart by the media, literally putting her trauma on trial to attempt to protect America from a rapist on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh was reassured, checked in on, apologized to; Ford was grilled.

Good and Mad is an ambitious book. Its only possible failure is that what it attempts to cover is so cyclical, braided, and intersectional, that it is not best read in a linear, narrative way, or even from the same angle all throughout. Divvied into four sections (Eruption, Medusas, Season of the Witch, and the Furies), the chapters dip back and forth in time, touching on figures from history class like Abigail Adams, whose words offer one of the book’s two epigraphs, to less well-known figures like Marsha P. Johnson, one of the trans women who started the Stonewall Riots, and finally names you definitely know, but whose more radical pasts have been glossed over in popular narratives, such as Rosa Parks. “We have never been taught,” Traister writes, “how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present…We should be.” Traister’s choices of anecdotes are powerful, and some of the figures she describes, such as Shirley Chisholm, appear multiples times throughout the book, like guides helping Traister lead the reader along.

Just as Traister reveals the beautiful, radical history we are often not taught, she exposes feminist failures: the rampant racism espoused by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the latter of whom had a close friendship with Frederick Douglass, the fact of white women being able to vote forty-five years before women of color, the historic willingness of white women to propel themselves forward alone. Even in arriving “late to the party,” as Traister puts it, white women and others new to activism have a lot to learn. For example, the phrase Me Too, which exploded into a hashtag-based movement, was originally pioneered by black civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, co-opted primarily by white women who didn’t know where it had come from.

This divisiveness, and selfishness, is one of the problems of unchecked anger. Another is willful ignorance. It is easy to rage against a nameless or faceless patriarchy; it is much more difficult when that patriarchy is “our colleagues and family members and boyfriends and buddies.” A joke I’ve chuckled over many times is that there is no better evidence for the fact of sexuality not being a choice than the fact that people are still attracted to cis men in 2016, 2017, 2018 (I’ll keep making the joke as long as I need to). Our relationships with men though are not just romantic or familial, but tied to the power they inevitably have better access to, so “the potential for damage to relationships on which women depend is real; consequences may be both emotional and material.”

Of course it is precisely this reality—once again, this dependence—that has permitted powerful men to mistreat and discriminate against those with less power. It is also what has often kept women paralyzed—by fear, risk, love, loyalty—and reluctant to push back angrily against their own ill treatment, or in response to the ill-treatment of other women.

So what are we to do with all of that? Traister cites author Judith Levine, who in her 1992 book, My Enemy, My Love, wrote, “Once you know something, you cannot unknow it,” reminiscent somewhat of W. E. B. DuBois concept of double-consciousness. We can vote, we can talk back, we can identify and resist the ways in which language and rhetoric are used against us; we can be active citizens, even run for office. “The law cannot do it for us,” Traister quotes Shirley Chisholm, “We must do it for ourselves. Women in this country must become revolutionaries.”

Because there is no real way to conclude a story of a war that is not over, Traister bows out returning to the here and now. From grassroots voter registration organizations to the record-breaking 2018 midterm election, women are getting started earlier. Patricia Russo, head of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, tells Traister that the median age of women attending the program has dropped from forties to thirties.

“Anger…is a mode of connection,” Traister writes in one of the final chapters, “My Sisters Are Here.” Anger can be motivating. Anger can be restorative. Anger is as much yours to claim as anyone else’s. Whether it’s political or personal (although they are often intertwined), anger is powerful, a powerful force for good. The book’s final line is a warning as much as an entreaty: “Don’t ever let them talk you out of being mad again.”

[1] Interview with Rachel Martin for NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/10/02/653570004/good-and-mad-examines-how-anger-can-be-perilous-for-women

 

About the author








Anna Press is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn and teaching in East Harlem. She writes fiction and essays, and her reviews appear in Necessary Fiction and Glass Poetry. Talk to her on Twitter @annaepress.








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