Rebecca Traister writes for New York magazine and Elle, as well as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her new book is Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: The New York Times page-one headline after Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony read, “A Nominee is Rescued By a Display of Rage.” I wonder if you have any comment on that.
Rebecca Traister: One of the things I write about in the book is the issue of whose rage is taken seriously as politically valid and politically consequential. Of course, I finished writing this book months before the Kavanaugh hearings. I wrote about how the kind of political rage that we take seriously is the rage of powerful white men. Our founding lullaby is the founders’ rage, the anger that undergirded the American Revolution: “Give me liberty, or Give me death!” “Live free or die!”
Of course, those founders who were so angry about being taxed and policed without being represented in government built the new nation on a lack of representation: enslaving African Americans, wiping out the native population, leaving women with all kinds of barriers to fill—legal, economic, political. Those who were left out of the nation’s equality of representation expressed rage that in many ways echoed the founding rage: From the early labor movement in Lowell, striking mill girls talked about their anger at poor working conditions, borrowing the language and ideas from the founders. MumBet, an enslaved woman in the 18th century in Massachusetts who would later be known as Elizabeth Freeman, lived in the home of an active revolutionary politician. She heard the revolutionary rhetoric in her home and she applied it to her own situation and petitioned for her freedom. Her case became the basis for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783.
But often the anger of people who are not powerful white men is disregarded: marginalized, made to sound hysterical or animalistic or infantile or threatening, depending on who it’s coming from. In this past couple of weeks, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, we’ve seen all kinds of examples of the rage of the powerful white man, not just Kavanaugh but also Lindsay Graham, Donald Trump, and other members of the Republican party, all of them powerful white men, representing the interests of a white capitalist patriarchy. That rage worked to their benefit. Brett Kavanaugh could go into that hearing room and rage about the injustice that was being done to him. They could all talk about “the mob.” Donald Trump could apologize for the pain that has been inflicted on Kavanaugh’s family.
JW: Kavanaugh, we could say, performed anger. Dr. Ford took the opposite course. Lot of people thought she was very effective as a result. What do you think?
RT: She was effective, but that’s in part because of the way we’re conditioned to respond to anger differently when it comes from different people. In Kavanaugh’s case, the snarling and the fury could be used to make his point more strongly. Had Christine Blasey Ford employed that kind of anger, yelling, making faces, talking back to people, it would have badly undermined her point. Women aren’t permitted to use anger as a weapon. She was deferential, solicitous, measured, rational. She often talked about how she just wanted to be collegial. That was the mode of expression that she was permitted, if she wanted to be taken seriously. And she did it.
JW: Dr. Ford wasn’t angry, but there were some other women who were: to…