On Anger

I recently read a book that was very angry.

The author’s open embrace of her anger was almost jarring to me.  She was openly outraged about a whole host of issues, and even though I agreed with her on the issues, there was something about her anger that was really uncomfortable to me.

The fact that her anger made me uncomfortable, also made me uncomfortable.  I kept trying to come up with reasons that her anger bothered me.  Maybe it’s because her anger wasn’t “productive” – she didn’t offer solutions, only assertions about things that are broken and/or unjust.  Maybe it was because she didn’t examine both sides of the issue, instead insisting that one side had the moral authority and the other didn’t.  Maybe it’s because she was just so bold and harsh in her declarations.  I have read so many books about female anger (I especially loved this one, and also this one), so I understand intellectually why female anger is so openly reviled, and I even think women *should* be angry.  So why did her anger make me so uncomfortable?

In “Down Girl,” Kate Manne specifically points to misogyny as the reason why angry women make us so uncomfortable: “misogyny [upholds the patriarchal order] by visiting hostile or adverse social consequences on a certain (more or less circumscribed) class of girls or women to enforce or police social norms that are gendered either in theory (i.e., content) or in practice (i.e., norm enforcement mechanisms).” She adds, “misogyny’s primary manifestations may be in punishing bad women, and policing women’s behavior, as a system of punishment and reward.”  Basically, angry women are breaking patriarchal social norms.  Anger is gendered – it’s a traditionally masculine trait, one that men are expected to express, even as they’re asked to control it. Women aren’t allowed even controlled expressions of anger without being called unhinged, shrill, bitchy, or insert-your-favorite-sexist-epithet-here.  So often the emotion of anger is conflated with the actions that are fueled by anger – violence, destruction, abuse.  But those are choices that can be made out of other emotions, too – shame, grief, disgust.  Men are allowed to feel the emotion of anger, even if we condemn the actions that anger sometimes fuels.  But women are allowed neither to act in anger, nor feel anger.  We’re taught to suppress it, to swallow the tyrannies “day by day, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence” (Audre Lorde).

In 1960, Valerie Saiving argued in “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” that “a theology based solely on masculine experience may well be irrelevant,” because it ignores the different ways men and women move throughout the world and are socialized to interact with one another.  For example, the scriptures continually exhort against pride and selfishness, but Saiving argues that women are already socialized to negate and under-develop themselves, instead acting as support people to the men and children in their lives.  She essentially argues that while selfishness and pride may be sins for men, selflessness and self-negation may be sins for women.

I think we can look at anger in the same way.  The scriptures are full of exhortations to peace, of being “slow to anger.” A cursory search of general conference archives shows that anger is “Satan’s tool,” “will drive away the spirit,” a synonym of contention and wrath, and something “to overcome.”If selflessness and self-negation are sins for women, couldn’t a lack of anger be one, too?  We live in a world where we are second-class citizens, are paid less, are respected less, are valued less.  We live in a world with rampant sexual violence against women that is barely taken seriously or prosecuted in any meaningful way across the globe.  In Mormonism, we’re taught to be silently supportive (how many conference talks have you heard about the saintly wife who sweetly supported her husband’s demanding work/church schedule and never once complained?).  We are taught that we don’t matter as much as men matter.  We are fed these lies from the moment we are born.  We should be so, so, so angry.

In “Rage Becomes Her,” Soraya Chemaly writes,

When we forgo talking about anger, because it represents risk or challenge, or because it disrupts a comfortable status quo, we forgo valuable lessons about risk and challenge and the discomforts of the status quo. By naturalizing the idea that girls and women aren’t angry but are sad, by insisting that they keep their anger to themselves, we render women’s feelings and demands mute and with little social value. When we call our anger sadness instead of anger, we often fail to acknowledge what is wrong, specifically in a way that discourages us from imagining and pursuing change. Sadness, as an emotion, is paired with acceptance. Anger, on the other hand, invokes the possibility of change and of fighting back.

About halfway through the angry book, I really let myself sink in and feel the anger that the author was expressing. You know how sometimes it’s really nice to have a good cleansing cry and intensely feel how sad you are about various things in your life?  Well, turns out it’s also nice to listen to this book, feel your anger validated, and have a nice cleansing rage-fest about how intensely angry you are, too.  Anger does not have to be productive (it is not capitalism). Anger is one of the many emotions that human beings experience, and is just as valid to feel and express as any other emotion.  And I really believe that just as selfishness and anger may be taught as sins to men in scripture, for women, those sins are an over-abundance of selflessness and a repression of our anger.


Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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8 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    This is great post and something I’ve been thinking about. It seems that there are a lot of sins that are as old as time. The male expression of these sins in society is not generally viewed positively but is expected and in some subcultures lauded. However, once women are in a position to express these sins or traits, once they have rights and opportunities, then all hell breaks loose. This is one of the great lies of misogyny.

    For example, sexual immorality – men have been doing this forever, but once women have this opportunity through birth control and changing social norms, then it’s a societal problem. Or abandoning offspring – men have been doing this forever, but once women can do it through abortion, then it’s a problem. Or anger of course, like this post suggests. How much male anger has been directed against women across the millennia with horrifying effects? Yet when feminists express anger, many men clutch their pearls and call them man-hating. Yet these same men say nothing about rampant misogyny.

    It also reminds me of the general conference talk from President Nelson, where he says something to the effect that if the world loses the moral rectitude of its women, society will never recover. I laughed to myself thinking, right because a society where only half the population is expected to be moral works so well. Placing the burden for a civilized society only on women’s shoulders is evil. Of course church leaders call on men to be moral, but acting like women are the last line of defense just silences them more and gives men an out for bad behavior because their wives or daughters will be there to clean up after them. It’s reprehensible.

  2. This really got me thinking. Thank you.

  3. Caroline says:

    Love this post, Liz! I think extending Saiving’s framework to anger is very productive. When I read Saiving’s foundational work years ago it struck me as profoundly insightful. Pride/selfishness may be men’s number one sin, but like Saiving said, self-negation could very well be women’s. I certainly saw that dynamic play out in many people I knew. I like the idea that women need to own their anger and not turn it into sadness/acceptance. There is a motivating quality to anger, an outrage that there is injustice in the world and things need to change. I think, over the last few years, I’ve largely moved from anger to sadness regarding gender issues within Mormonism. Maybe it’s time I rekindle that anger.

  4. Heather says:

    I love everything you write Liz. This is no exception.

  5. Wendy says:

    I love how you take us on a journey in this post in which you reclaim your right to feel such a core human emotion as anger.

    Your story reminds me of a Mother’s Day sermon I heard last year at the UU Church my family and I now attend. The minister spoke eloquently and passionate about how from his mother—a well-known feminist and artist—he learned that anger is women’s power in the face of the inequities and injustice they experience in patriarchy. And that when society attempts to stamp out women’s anger (such as when they voice their feelings about being mistreated) they are in essence attempting to deny them women their power.

    That sermon will stay with me forever. It resonated with my Mormon-feminist-self. Listening to my anger in the last decade and a half has led me on a journey to reclaiming myself and has felt truly empowering.

    I wish female-identified humans didn’t have to experience patriarchy and misogyny which is central to its power structure. But since it’s the waters we swim in, at the very least we are entitled to feel angry and even enraged about it.

  6. Mary Young says:

    For four long years, women in my stake were not allowed to pray in Sacrament meeting because one misogynist penciled a note to that effect on his printed Area Meetings minutes.
    I asked questions, researched, called attention to this, and listened to women in their meetings recount offenses, sigh, and say, “Well, you know the priesthood.” It took a new stake president and a GA’s visit to end the practice.
    Yes, I am still angry!

  7. Em says:

    ” selflessness and self-negation may be sins for women.” This is something really worth sitting with. I’m thinking back to how many times in conversations with my girlfriends I’ll narrate an interaction when something infuriating happened and I’ll say “and I was like [insert assertive furious response]…. of course I didn’t really SAY that. But I was thinking it.” I mean seriously, I narrate my inner life so consistently you’d think it matched my outer life. But it doesn’t. Not at all. Christ was selfless. But Christ was also righteously angry. It’s worth thinking about the whole picture.

  8. Jessica says:

    In the context of being a Type 9 in the Enneageam system, I was so validated when I heard a pastor talk about how the messages at church can be so damaging for Type 9s, because they are so naturally prone to forget (fall asleep to) themselves – the last thing they need is to be told they are selfish and to forget themselves more. That realization spoke to years of pain and was very healing. This post takes that to another level for me, uniting me with all my sisters, not just Type 9s. Looks like I need to read some Saiving. Thanks for addressing this and introducing me to some good resources.

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