Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that the women protesting about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court were “paid professionals” and “#Troublemakers”. He was echoing a sentiment that has become common in Republican circles over the past few weeks, and even appeared in Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate: that the outpouring of rage and anguish from women across the country in response to allegations against Kavanaugh was some sort of conspiracy, a coordinated effort to manipulate victims and persecute men.
It’s not, of course. George Soros isn’t handing out wads of cash to women on the street and the Clintons aren’t organising some massive behind-the-scenes retribution. The anger voiced by American women is deeply felt.
One sign of the depth of that anger? Two new books have just been published on women’s rage: Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Both works centre on the question of women’s anger in the age of Trump. And both present it – perhaps in overly optimistic ways – as the source for political change.
The rage is indeed real. It emerged from related events: the Access Hollywood tape and Donald Trump’s victory. The tape was a catalysing moment for women who were already tuned into Trump’s rough misogyny, the anti-woman animus that fuelled his attacks on Republican presidential nominee Carly Fiorina and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. The tape contained a bald admission of assault, and many assumed it would prove disqualifying, especially as Trump vied for the presidency against Hillary Clinton, a woman with a far superior resume.
That, of course, was not the result. For women who opposed Trump, the fact that an unqualified clown defeated a well-prepared woman (who handily won the popular vote) was evidence not of populism but of patriarchy.
The #MeToo movement that followed – triggered a year ago this week when news broke about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory actions toward women – was a direct outgrowth of the one-two punch of the tape and the election, a sense of rage and determination that was literally on the march the day after Trump’s inauguration, when millions of women took to the streets in protest. Much of that rage was channelled into action. Across the nation, women-led organisations mobilised to resist the Trump administration. Emily’s List, an organisation that supports pro-choice women who want to run for office, saw the number of women entering its candidacy programs explode in the months after Trump’s election. And as the midterm elections approach, an unprecedented number of Democratic women are running for office.
But the narrative of women’s anger and political change should not be taken at face value. For one, “women” is a description that needs a lot of qualifiers. Women’s anger has historically been limited by social norms about acceptable feminine conduct. But some women have always been allowed more room for anger than others. Conservative white women have used their anger effectively in opposing segregation, interracial busing programs, gay rights and abortion. And white liberal women have had space to rage as well, as part of second-wave feminism’s political action. Black women often had to make a tougher call. Pinned by the stereotype of the “angry black woman”, they had to choose between respectability and rage. And while some, like writer Audre Lorde, crafted powerful expressions of rage, that rage often disqualified them in the eyes of the establishment.
So “women’s rage” is not quite the unifying concept that it purports to be. Nor is it effective in every instance. It did not stop Donald Trump’s election, and it did not halt Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Whether it will have a measurable impact on the midterm elections has yet to be seen.
And that is the part of these treatises on women’s rage that serves more as an assertion than a fact: the power of women’s rage. In America, as in many other parts of the world, we are in an age when power seems to matter more than anything: more than norms, more than morals, more than ideology, more than law itself. This has played out again and again in recent years, from the wresting of Antonin Scalia’s seat from Barack Obama to Republicans’ casual disregard for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to the decision to ram through Kavanaugh’s nomination, even when a deep bench of equally conservative justices without his history with women were waiting in the wings.
The primacy of power has seldom been starker. Which is why the claims that Traister and Chemaly make feel like an act of hope: an insistence that women’s rage must translate into power, must become something transformative. Because if that is not the case — if all this pain and anger unleashed by #MeToo is for nothing — then we will have to come to terms with the reality that asking for people to “believe women” is not enough. We have to ask them to also care about women’s experiences more than their own political goals. And as Brett Kavanaugh prepares to take the bench for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, there is vanishingly little evidence that they will.