In Jan. 2017, millions of marchers all over the United States came together in what may have been the largest single day of protest in U.S. history. Later that year, the #MeToo movement — which had begun quietly more than a decade earlier — began to snowball. And in 2018, a record number of women were elected to public office in the U.S.
In her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” journalist Rebecca Traister argues that these movements were far from the first to have their roots in women’s anger.
Traister will talk about what women’s anger means in this political moment at a University of Maine lecture on Thursday that’s part of the Stephen E. King Chair lecture series.
All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty spoke with Traister about how she believes women’s anger helps explain why U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is in such a tough campaign fight this year.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Traister: One of the things that has been interesting about this period has been some exposure of the women who have worked in service of the power structures and not against them. And Collins is a prime example of that, because we have gotten angry and started picking apart the systems that we’ve been kind of asleep to before. And part of what’s been exposed is the way that some women have actually worked to uphold systems that oppress women. And Collins — and probably most viscerally through her vote for Brett Kavanaugh and her speech defending that vote — made that incredibly clear to a lot of voters. And I think that is one of the things that’s having a massive impact on how she’s faring in 2020.
Flaherty: The Senate race and obviously the presidential election would be huge in any year. But right now, there is just so much going on. As someone who writes about politics and culture, how do you make sense of all of it?
A lot about what’s happening around us is easier to understand if you think of some of the revolutionary and transformative changes that took place in the mid to late 20th century around the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement. And then you think about the opposition party’s multidecade efforts to reverse those transformative victories. It helps us to understand a little bit more about how we got to where we are right now, when you see it as part of a longer story. And not just this crazy thing that’s happened in the past four years, looking at it in the far larger course of history helps to make it make a little bit more sense.
Talking about history, one thing you go through in the book, and that I think is really helpful in understanding the arguments that you’re making, is the story of Rosa Parks and how her real life and work is very different from how it’s taught and remembered. You say she’s a good example of how women’s anger is often integral to social movements and how it’s often forgotten.
Yeah, and it’s interesting because it’s not just forgotten, the anger is actively erased. I always say that there are two steps that I have had to take. The first is finding the women who were never taught about. But then the second step is looking at the women that we were taught about and thinking about how we were taught about them, and Parks is a great example.
I was taught about Parks when I was in elementary school. But the story of Parks that I was taught was that she was exhausted and stoic and she was tired. All these things are true, but they are such a reduced part of the story of Parks. Parks’ choice to not give up her bus seat in 1955 was a conscious political act born of a lifetime of rage at racist injustice and violence. Parks worked for the NAACP, and she investigated claims of gang rape of black women by white men in the Jim Crow South. And she investigated claims of sexual violence levied by white women against black men to justify racist violence and lynching. But all of the rage at injustice that motivated so much of Parks’ activism was just drained from her story in a retelling.
There is no way in which we were taught to lionize or admire or see the power in the anger of a black woman. And if you think about that, in comparison with how we’re taught to admire the anger of say, the founding fathers, the absolute fury of colonists, who were so livid at being taxed and policed without representation that they threw tea in a harbor, and they started a war to win their freedom. And we’re just not taught any of those same stories when we’re taught about women. It’s very rare that we see women’s rage as a good and driving force behind social change, but it has been over and over again.