‘In my dissent, I am deeply patriotic’: Rebecca Traister’s all-American anger

Talking fury, politics, and patriarchy with the author of 'Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger.'

Rebecca Traister. CREDIT: Art by Diana Ofosu
Rebecca Traister. CREDIT: Art by Diana Ofosu

If you are a woman, and you have always had a feeling that much of the power in this country is interconnected; and that all of those connected things are in cahoots against you — yes, you, personally! — not by accident, but actually by design; and this feeling has intensified over the last 24 months or so; and you worry that harboring these suspicions mean you are, as it is no longer in vogue to say, being hysterical, Rebecca Traister is here with an assurance: You are not.

“It’s not a conspiracy theory,” she tells me by phone. “Look at the very structure of our government. I don’t think it’s conspiracy theory to point out that we live in a white capitalist patriarchy. You don’t have to go to Roswell.

Traister has a new book out, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, that tracks, analyzes, and affirms female fury as a mighty political force. She writes about how the relentless actions of outraged women throughout time who organized, marched, protested, testified, and legislated are to thank for many of the basic rights we’re all enjoying (you know, for now), only to be largely erased from the public consciousness by historians who prefer to attribute meaningful change to men.

Female rage disrupts the establishment, Traister writes, so backlash is inevitable, though not insurmountable. And it is so unsettling to those who would prefer things stay just the way they are or, better yet, go back to the way things were, that a vast, centuries-long campaign has effectively taught society, women included, to dismiss women’s anger as unattractive, untrustworthy, and unreliable. And this rage, she warns, is so incendiary that it poses a threat to its own existence: a power so explosive it could obliterate itself.

What, if anything, are you angry about right now? What’s on your rage-radar today?

Oh God, the inattention to the environmental report. The fact that, I read, very briefly, because I’ve been on this crazy tour, so I’m not even able to keep up as well as I usually do, but I just read that Trump said, “Oh they handed it to me but I really want to see who’s responsible for it, because some groups say the environment is great.” I saw that, and I thought my head was going to blow off.

Not that it’s a surprise, by the way. I shouldn’t say, I’m enraged because I’m shocked by Donald Trump’s inattention to the impending environmental disaster! It’s that, I’m enraged that it actually is emblematic of so much inattention to this. Trump is not an outlier. He is representative of a desire to tune out decades worth of crucial, urgent science.


That’s such an interesting turn of phrase, because my sense is that a lot of outrage about Trump is exactly that: That he is not an outlier. That he is representative.

Yes, and I’m angry at people who treat him as an outlier! I’ll add that. I’m angry at people who treat him as exceptional and that as if we get rid of him, we’ve solved a problem. When in fact, clearly the rot, and the abuse, and the constriction of power at the very top, and the sclerotic nature of where all of the resources and the money and the power lie is, this is not just about Donald Trump. It’s about the very system in which we live and the very system that governs us.

I love that you’re going there right away, because one of my questions for you that I thought we’d get to later is, how do you talk about this without sounding and feeling like a conspiracy theorist? Where you’re like: The problem is everything.

It’s true! [laughs] It’s not a conspiracy theory! It’s: look at the very structure of our government. I don’t think it’s conspiracy theory to point out that we live in a white capitalist patriarchy. You don’t have to go to Roswell. You can look at the founding documents that the country was built on the enslavement of a portion of its population and the lack of enfranchisement and legal and civic recognition of another portion of its population. And the labor done by enslaved people and by women was the basis for the accumulation of wealth and the accumulation of political and public power by white people in this country. Those are the building blocks of the country! This is not a squeaky conspiracy theory where if you squint with one eye, you can see it. No. It’s our constitution.

It’s just true. It’s not arguable. You can look at the makeup of our reportedly representative bodies and note that they are more than 75% male, that the first black woman was elected to the United States Senate in 1992 and that the second black woman was elected to the United States Senate in 2016. That we have never had a black woman governor. Stacy Abrams is currently running to become the first black female governor of a state in its history. This is not conspiracy theory. This is like, it’s Wednesday.


It is so interesting to me to see how all these things that, as you say, should not, on their face, be controversial — that these are not a shared set of facts where people start these conversations from.

Well, they are a shared set of facts. The way in which we choose to not pay attention to them as diagnostic or consequential is where there is a difference of opinion.

We don’t like to think, in this country, about the fact that we’ve never had a black woman governor and that we’ve only had two black women in the Senate, or that we have never, in 45 administrations, had a woman president, a woman vice president, and only one female candidate of a major party for the presidency, that we’ve only had one not-white man serve as president in our two and a half centuries of American history. These are just basic facts. There is no disagreement about these facts.

The question of what it tells us about power in this country is what is up for debate: Do these facts matter? Do they reflect inequality? I say, unequivocally, that they do. There are people who want to dispute the notion that we live in a country that is governed by a fundamentally minority population over a majority population and say, “Oh, we’ve had a black president and Hillary Clinton was the person with all power and there are lady Ghostbusters, and therefore, everything is equal!” Those people are wrong. But that’s where the dispute comes from. It’s about what you do with this information.

It does seem to me that there’s also this tension in talking about those facts: you can be accused of being insufficiently patriotic. If you want to be president, you have to end all your speeches with “God bless America” and you have to wear a flag pin and you have to do all this stuff–

Thank God I don’t want to be president!

But then, how do you talk about these facts without sounding like you hate it here? I think women and people of color are in this trap, where you can talk about those facts but it sets you up to be accused, mostly by white men, of not loving America enough.


Let me tell you that the women and people of color — and for that matter, the white men — who have been engaged in the battle to make this country better are among the most patriotic. It’s actually people who are so committed to the unfulfilled promise of this country that they are spending their lives working toward fulfilling it. That is a deep form of patriotism.

In my dissent, I am deeply patriotic. My commitment, and the desire of people who give their lives and energies, who risk things — this is not about me, this is about activists, politicians, those engaged in mass social movements that have engaged this nation, have done the work of making this country better and fairer. And I can’t think of anything more patriotic.

Don’t let those who have the most power define what patriotism means, which is a kind of blind allegiance to the fundamentally unjust structures on which the country was based. It’s those who have been laboring and putting their lives and livelihoods on the line over the course of centuries, who have been, in many ways, the most committed to this country and its future, and ensuring that its future is more inclusive for more Americans, that is deep, deep patriotism.

There are parts of this book where you had to react to things that have only just happened. And since it has been published, there has been a whole new book’s worth of material about rage, just in this, I don’t want to say post-Kavanaugh because we’re still in it.

Oh yeah, we’re gonna be in Kavanaugh-land for a generation.

And I don’t know about you, but I feel personally and also like I am witnessing even more anger around this than I did after the election.

I think the level of mass rage is sort of comparable to the post-election period. I think that’s the thing it felt closest to, to me. The morning after the Kavanaugh testimony, where both Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified, when I woke up after that, that was very much like the morning after the election for me, in terms of opening my eyes and having the crushing memory of what was upon us hit me. That felt very much like November 9 to me. And I think I’m not alone in that. I’ve heard that from a lot of people, including you, just now.

But there have been a million others. This is the period in which the fury, the immigration family separation policy, the fury at the continued killing of African Americans by police, the fury at mass shootings, the Parkland shooting, the fury of Me Too, the fever of anger that was unleashed and expressed during the peak of Me Too, those four months last fall — this is the anniversary, basically, of this period — that’s all part of what this book is attempting to make sense of and contextualize within our political history.

Because of the anniversary, people are doing these reflections on Me Too right now. And I have to say, I am amazed that we are still talking about it!

Me too! Me too. Because in the history of women’s anger —  everybody is like, is this the backlash? Is this the backlash? We live with the backlash! The Trump administration is the backlash. Reaganism was the backlash. The backlash is a constant, swirling force. The power structure is the backlash to protest, and to the mass movements and those objecting to power abuse. Power will work to quash that.

And because I know that and the rhythms of it, I assumed that the anger that was expressed in advance of the election, after the Access Hollywood tape — and look, there was a backlash there! It was the election of Donald Trump! I didn’t think that, a year later, it would erupt as the #MeToo movement, which of course is a continuation of the Me Too movement Tarana Burke founded years previous, and that she’s been a leader on.

Then after the [Harvey] Weinstein story, I couldn’t believe that people were still talking about it. I’d heard it was coming, but I couldn’t believe it would actually be published. There were so many years I heard the story about Weinstein was going to be published, and it never was. I was going on a week away in England and Ireland that day. And I wrote very quickly about my own experience with Weinstein, and when I got off the plane I was like, “Wow, a lot of people are really talking about this!” I was gone for a week, ten days, and when I came back, I couldn’t believe people were still talking about this.

Because in my work as a feminist journalist, chronicling eruptions of women’s rage, it makes people so uncomfortable that all kinds of forces work to obscure it and to quiet it, when it erupts in such a disruptive way. I couldn’t believe that those forces hadn’t worked to quell it while I’d been gone! And then it went on for weeks, and more women were telling their stories, and there was more rage, and there was more of a commitment and a drive to give voice to anger. And I was like, oh my God, this is STILL going on, it’s been three weeks, it’s been four weeks, a month, two months, four months.

And you’re right,, there was the three months, what I think of as the peak of it — from October through December or so — and there was a sense like, okay, it’s over, it passed. But then there was Eric Schneiderman. And before Kavanaugh, there was Les Moonves, the CBS guy! That story was horrifying! And had a massive repercussion at an enormously powerful media organization. That’s a year after Me Too.

Then, of course, there’s Brett Kavanaugh. And yes, he did get confirmed but let me tell you that, as we know from Anita Hill, the confirmation is one with very long-lasting effects, but the fury that it inspires also has long-lasting effects. In some ways, we are in the midst of this conversation because of the testimony of Anita Hill, 27 years later. And I suspect that we’ll be looking at the reverberations of the fury about what happened around Brett Kavanaugh for another three decades and more into our future.

As you say, this is something we’re going to be working on forever. And you don’t like the term “wave” [as it pertains to feminism]. I’m curious when in your life you first realized that all the things I assume you’d been promised as a child — that you’d have equality, and anything boys can do you can do, whatever — when you realized, oh, that is not going to materialize for me. I am never going to experience that.

I have to say that a lot of my politicization wasn’t necessarily about limitations on my own experience. There were certain personal lived realities, especially when I went to college. I happened to go to college the same year Katie Roiphe’s “The Morning After” was published. And that was the most personalized thing I could think of. And there are a million other things, when I got into a workplace and realized about pay rates and who was being paid more and being treated differently within workplaces and sexual harassment and all of that stuff.

But a lot of my sort of awakening to feminism was not necessarily even in response to my own experiences, though those experiences are real, but rather to learning more about the world and whose opportunities and whose equality is denied, not just my own. Really thinking, even as a child, when feminism was deeply in remission, and there was a period of great anti-feminist backlash, looking at the conversations around abortion and really beginning to see for the first time: who suffered most, from lack of reproductive autonomy? And understanding later about the kinds of economic inequality that produces different outcomes for different people in combination with their gender and their race. It was understanding structural inequality that was the thing that brought me into feminism in a more nuanced way.

That brings me to this number that, I think you’re not the only person who was very fixated on after the election, that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. And that was an inciting incident for you to write this book. I’m curious if you think differently about that number now, having done all this research and writing and having had two years to wrestle with it.

It was actually the thing that was the least surprising to me about the 2016 election. That number was not shocking to me! I think it was shocking to a lot of people who assumed, incorrectly, that white women were going to vote for another white woman. But in fact, all of the history on women’s voting patterns suggest that women do not vote as a block, and that white women voted for Republicans in every election since they’ve been tracking it, except for ‘92 and ‘96. In fact, 56 percent of white women voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

So I was not shocked. But the fact that so many people were, I think, prompted a real curiosity about why it is that white women so frequently support policies that better support the continued power of a white patriarchy. And that is part of what I’m investigating in this book and trying to shed light on.

People often accuse white women of voting against their interests in voting for Republicans, because they are voting for a party that doesn’t support equal pay or that doesn’t treat sexual harassment and sexual assault with the seriousness that it should, and that doesn’t support reproductive autonomy. But very often, we are not looking at the ways that white supremacy is in the interest of white women, and that white women benefit from white patriarchy via their associations with white men, and the ways in which those associations can motivate them to vote for the further accumulation of power by powerful white men.

It reminds me of your last book [All the Single Ladies], and they’re not the same thing, but this idea of women entering into marriages even knowing the structural inequality that exists there, because there are still benefits. Those benefits are not as toxic as white patriarchy benefits, but they seem related to me.

And often, they are related! One of the things about that 53 percent number of white women that’s really important is that the demographic of white women who did not vote for Donald Trump are never-married women. There’s a study that I cite in the book: The more closely white women were tied to men by marriage, the more likely they were to vote for Donald Trump.

So it’s not at all unrelated. This is all around questions of dependency. If white men are offered certain kinds of power, then other people become dependent on them for proximal portions of power.

You’ve been covering the election. I imagine that a lot of this, even though organizing this in this way was a new project, wasn’t new information for you. What, if anything, did you learn in writing this book that was really surprising to you?

There are pieces of the history that I just didn’t know. A lot of the history is stuff that I learned about when I was writing All the Single Ladies, which dealt a lot with all the history we’re never taught about women in this country and their participation in transformative political and social movements that have reshaped the country. So I did draw on history I’d been acquainted with only recently.

But I didn’t know about the women or female-identifying people of color who were, according to many accounts, so instrumental in the Stonewall insurrection in 1969. I’d been taught about the gay rights movement as a fundamentally white male cisgender movement. I knew a little bit about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, but I didn’t know about Stormé DeLarverie, who was a lesbian, a non-gender conforming woman of color, who reportedly resisted arrest that night and asked the crowd of onlookers outside the Stonewall Inn, “Why don’t you guys do something?” And Marsha and Sylvia were among the female-identifying transvestites and they were inciting some of the insurrection inside the bar. Those stories had been kind of obscured.

There’s a lot that I thought about after I wrote the book. I wrote it very quickly, and it’s one of those books I wish I could take another ten years and write a complete encyclopedia of women’s anger as politically catalytic. I write about women in the labor movement whose stories have not been widely known, or even if they’re known, have not been acknowledged as catalytic.

One of the stories that I didn’t really know enough about, even though there’d been a great book about it that I just hadn’t read, by Tera Hunter, was the 1881 washerwoman’s strike in Atlanta. It was black washerwomen — and these were in the years just after emancipation in Atlanta — and it was the laundresses, who of course were doing incredibly physically punishing work, making lye in the Atlanta heat, who went on strike! Who objected, who wanted higher wages, and reacted politically.

They organized, they reached out to workers in other industries, like hotel workers, and found alliances with workers in other positions. They reached out across racial lines. Two percent of the laundresses in Atlanta were white women, and they recruited the white women to join them in their labor action. It’s this incredibly fascinating chapter in labor history that I knew nothing about. Keisha Blaine’s book about women in the black power movement is fascinating. There’s so much about this history that I wish — there’s benefits to having written a book so quickly, in the moment as the moment is still unfolding. That’s one of the things I wanted to do. But there’s just so much history that we’re not taught.

In your book, you say that you are now suspicious of “nearly every attempt to code women’s anger as unhealthy,” even when people say that because they are well-intentioned. Knowing, as we do, that women’s anger is an important political force, and that it’s righteous, why do you think people are still to resistant to that idea of anger as a healthy emotion?

I think that women’s anger is very threatening because it’s potentially disruptive to the power structure, and that there are all kinds of reasons that the powerful try to quell and quiet women’s anger, because it can be a tremendous connecting force between women.

When women are told that their anger works against them, or makes them unattractive, or makes their arguments less compelling, or they sound too emotional, they sound crazy, all the messages we’re sent about how we’re going to be heard if we’re angry, to the degree that they compel us to not express our anger. Think of Uma Thurman saying, “I’ve learned that when I express myself in anger, it doesn’t work, so I’m going to wait until I’m less angry.” That’s a very open acknowledgment of it. We do that calculation all the time.

One of the things that people accomplish, if they keep women from expressing their anger, is that keeps women in isolation. Because if you’re not expressing it, it’s just inside you. But if you express it, then you become audible to other people who may share your anger and frustrations, and with whom you might find alliance and coalition, and with whom you might organize. Anger can be a tremendously connective and communicative force, and one of the reasons that people try to discourage women from expressing it is to keep women isolated and less powerful, because it prevents them from making some of those kinds of connections.