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Episode 27: The Power of Women's Anger (Transcript)

Episode 27: The Power of Women's Anger

News Clip, Ayanna Pressley: Well, I am angry. And I am outraged. Because this is outrageous.

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Welcome to Can We Talk from the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous.

Judith Rosenbaum: And I’m Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: This month on Can We Talk, we’re looking at the power of anger…. The productivity of women’s political outrage.

News Clip, Kirsten Gillibrand: We want to be counted heard, we want to be heard, and we are going to fight for what we believe in.

Judith: There’s a lot to be angry about: sexual assault, discrimination, and violence against women, children, people of color, Jews, and LGBTQ people.

Nahanni: In the 2018 midterms, more than one hundred Democratic women rode that anger into office. Many women embraced the power of anger during their campaigns.

News Clip, Kirsten Gillibrand: What are they afraid of? Ask the question: What are they afraid of? What is this White House afraid of? What is this president afraid of? What is the US Senate afraid of?

News Clip, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It is only women who are marginalized, it is the young, it is the interns, it is the immigrant, it is the trans. They are always most at risk because society listens to them the least.

News Clip, Ayanna Pressley: Can you hear us now? Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you. Can you hear us now?

Nahanni: We hear you Kirsten Gillibrand, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley. And we know that women in America have been angry for a long time.

Judith: Remember the ladies?

Nahanni: Yes, remember the ladies. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams while he was serving in the Continental Congress. She urged him not to forget women’s rights when fighting for America’s independence from Britain...

[quill pen scratching sound]

Reader 1: (Abigail Adams) In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

Nahanni: It’s known as the “remember the ladies” quote, and that’s the famous part of it. But she goes on to write:

Reader 1: (Abigail Adams) Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Nahanni: Even in the very beginning, at the outset of the American experiment, women in the country were angry about not being heard.

Judith: In this episode, we’ll hear of women’s anger in politics at two important times in history… the labor movement of the early 20th century and the women’s movement of the 1970s.

Nahanni: We’ll hear from Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad, the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Judith, you recently spoke with her.

Judith: I did speak with Rebecca… I read Good and Mad right around when it came out, which happened to be during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It really fit my mood and helped me put my feelings into a larger context. I told her that when we spoke on the phone. The sound is a little scratchy.

Rebecca Traister: I’m very glad that it could be helpful. You know, it’s hard to feel wonderful and excited about it when you’re like, oh yeah, this is a tool to process grief and rage.

Nahanni: Let’s start by talking about what drew us to this topic.

Judith: So, women are not supposed to express anger. We get that message from a young age, that anger makes us unattractive and ineffective, or not credible. Of course, this is just a way of shutting women up and invalidating our emotions. Anger can actually be a really productive force! And we wanted to examine why it’s okay for men to get angry, and how Jewish women and Jewish culture might have a different take on anger than mainstream American culture.

Nahanni: And we should be clear that we’re not just talking about yelling… we’re talking about the expression of indignation, fury, and outrage… through action… whatever form that takes. Judith, how do you relate to this?

Judith: I was definitely raised to believe anger could be constructive, and not to be afraid of my anger. I was raised by a feminist, and my mom made it clear that women had a lot to be angry about. As I grew up, and saw how often women deny their anger, or try to separate themselves from expressions of anger, I realized that many women, maybe most, did not grow up with the message about anger that I received. Here’s Rebecca Traister again:

Rebecca: Women of every color are given some version of those messages. But you can track the history of women raising their voices despite those messages, and often when they do, provoking change.

Judith: And that’s what Rebecca does in Good and Mad. She tracks examples of women’s anger inspiring action. At JWA we celebrate that as quote unquote making trouble. So I asked her about the relationship between being angry and being a troublemaker.

Rebecca: Well I think that the anger of people with less power, anger at injustice and inequity is inherently received as trouble making, as chaotic as a disturbance, because it aims to disturb the way that power is supposed to work.

Judith: And that’s different from how the anger of people in power is perceived:

Rebecca: Anger of the more powerful toward the less powerful… That's just registered as power. Brett Kavanaugh’s anger on behalf of himself wasn't seen as disruptive.

News Clip, Brett Kavanaugh: This is a circus. This confirmation process has become a national disgrace.

Rebecca: It was affirmative of the power that he had and his fury at it being challenged.

Judith: And then there’s the way we hear women’s anger as opposed to men’s anger.

Rebecca: We hear anger when it’s expressed by women as emotion and we imagine it to be personal, but the very same anger when it comes from men is read as political. I mean, Bernie Sanders was angry in 2016 and we understood it to be his crusade against economic inequality.

Sanders: We need to develop a political movement which once again is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.

Rebecca: Our founders were angry at being taxed without being represented in British government. But we understand that to be the politics of revolution.

Judith: From the time of the revolution, really until the present, women’s rights were not considered central to the American project. It’s no accident that Abigail Adams had to remind her husband to “remember the ladies” and that he failed to do so; women’s suffrage didn’t become the law of the land until almost 150 years later. But women kept at it, in various forms, fighting for their own rights and the rights of others, sometimes with decorum and sometimes with more explicit expressions of anger.

Nahanni: Two hundred years after the revolution, Bella Abzug was one of the few women who was serving in Congress. In the 1970s, she was fighting for women’s equality.

Archival Audio, Bella Abzug: We are going to enter into the 200th anniversary of this great nation in 1976 in a way in which we the women are given leadership not only to our own needs and our own demands, but in the hopes and the aspirations of all Americans that we can complete the American Revolution for all of us in nineteen-hundred-and-seventy-six.

Judith: Bella Abzug is remembered as combative. It’s not that she always yelled or outwardly expressed anger, it’s that she was clearly motivated by her outrage over the injustices she witnessed… And she was assertive, she liked to stand out. She had her trademark hats, which she always wore. She didn’t hide her feelings, and she didn’t always follow the social rules of hierarchy in Congress. For example, on her first day in office, as a junior congresswoman, she introduced a resolution demanding a withdrawal from Vietnam. At the same time, she was an effective politician who worked well with people across the aisle.

Nahanni: Bella Abzug might just be remembered as angry because she was a woman with power. She wasn’t quiet or restrained. She was a Jewish woman with a New York accent, who talked with her hands! She was a force to be reckoned with. Rebecca tells this great story about Gloria Steinem and Bella at the Women’s Convention in 1977.

Rebecca: She and Bella Abzug were screaming at each other about something, they were disagreeing about something, and then a young Maxine Waters was standing there looking horrified. And Gloria Steinem turns to her and says “Don't worry, that's just the way we talk to each other in New York.”

Judith: Keep in mind that New York is often code for Jewish... So this story isn't directly about Jewish stereotypes, but as Rebecca said to me, it's not NOT about Jewish stereotypes.

Rebecca: These are in some ways tremendous stereotypes, but also I think that there is a Jewish familial model that encourages dissent within social and familial circles. But that's a little different from suggesting that Jewish women are encouraged to speak up politically, which in some cases there is a long history of it, but it doesn't mean that is necessarily true.

Nahanni: You know… Just because you grew up in a house where you shouted at the dinner table, doesn’t mean you necessarily grew up to be a political activist.

Judith: Of course. But still there may be some correlation...If you’re not comfortable or used to speaking up and arguing, it’s probably harder to enter into the political fray.

Rebecca: There is this history, specifically around the labor movement, where so many of the women in the early 20th century who were leading those early iterations of those labor movement were of course Jewish immigrants: Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman… there is a tradition of women's political dissent, Jewish women's political dissent, coming straight out of that labor movement of the early 20th century.

Nahanni: Let’s talk about one of those labor activists... Rose Schneiderman.

Judith: Rose was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant. She was a factory worker from a young age and then became a labor organizer, helping immigrant women and girls, whose wages and working conditions were horrible. She also worked closely with middle- and upper-class women who were interested in supporting working women’s rights. Rose was really a bridge across the classes.

Nahanni: In 1911, there was a terrible fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Judith: The doors to the factory were locked and 146 people, mostly young women, died.

Nahanni: After the fire, Rose Schneiderman addressed an audience of middle class women. Rose knew many of them were sympathetic to the cause, even though they were not workers themselves. We only have the text of the speech… but the anguish, anger, and alienation come through. Here’s part of it:

Reader 2: (Rose Schneiderman) I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies, if I were to come here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public—and we have found you wanting. This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death. // I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled.

Nahanni: What do you hear in these words?

Judith: It's really striking. Rose Schneiderman often worked across class divides, and therefore kept her tone relatively polite and measured. But this was clearly a moment where she couldn’t hold back and be diplomatic -- her anger and despair broke through.

Rebecca: This is a lesson we see all over again in all kinds of different political contexts, that playing nice with the powerful isn't going to actually gain the protection or respect of the powerful. And, that kind of clarity, I think, often comes when you are cut off from the axes of power and privilege. And the Jewish immigrant women of the early 20th century were cut off even though many of them were white. But they were immigrants, many of them were not English speakers, or native English speakers.

Judith: They were living with impoverished families in extremely poor housing conditions.

Rebecca: There was no incentive on offer for them to behave well and thus reap some reward from a power structure. They were so distant from that power structure, and that is part of what enables Rose Schneiderman’s speech in that moment, I think.

Judith: Of course, Rose Schneiderman did eventually go back to working with upper class women. She actually became part of President Roosevelt’s inner circle during the New Deal and made policy to protect workers.

Nahanni: So in the garment workers, anger helped fuel the labor movement. But what happens when anger becomes a destructive force inside a coalition? For example, the case of the suffragists after the civil war.

Judith: In the mid-19th century, many abolitionists and suffragists had been working together for women’s and African Americans rights. But then that alliance fell apart.

Nahanni: Right. The 15th amendment granted universal suffrage… but only to men.

Judith: Many white suffragists were furious that black men got the vote while they remained disenfranchised. They felt their cause had been thrown under the bus. In this case, the anger and sense of betrayal that white women felt turned destructive. They formed an alliance that included both Northern and Southern white women, and they played on racist fears about the power of black men’s vote.

Nahanni: White suffragists marginalized and excluded black suffragists. For example, as we remember from our episode on the women’s march, in 1913, white suffragists made black suffragists walk at the back of the parade and they left their names off the written program.

Judith: The legacy of that racist strategy still haunts the feminist movement today. I take that as an important lesson about what happens when we allow anger to turn inward and divide social movements.

Nahanni: And anger can be manipulated… outside forces can and do exploit anger to turn allies against each other. As we see across history, anger can be destructive as well as productive. Either way, it’s a powerful political force.

Judith: One of the great insights of the feminist movement is that the personal is political. And I think that’s true about anger as well: Feeling something emotional and personal doesn’t make it politically irrelevant. The things that make us angry ARE important and often political. So we need to stay in touch with the original, personal sources of our anger.

Nahanni: And there’s so much to be angry about… so much on the line. Now is the time to recognize and embrace the potency of our anger.

News Clip, Ayanna Pressley: Can you hear us now? Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you. Can you hear us now?

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Thank you for listening. This is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Thanks to our readers, Sarah Gershman and Jenn Geetter. Our production assistant is Becky Long. Ibby Caputo edits our scripts. And our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

Judith: Rebecca Traister’s excellent book, Good and Mad, is one of JWA’s Book Club picks this year. You can find our book list at jwa.org/bookclub.

Nahanni: Visit Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk. You can also find Can We Talk? just about anywhere you get your podcasts.

Judith: And as we approach the end of 2018, we hope you will consider supporting our work by including us in your end of year giving. Please go to jwa.org/donate to make a donation and help us produce more episodes. Thank you for being with us. I’m Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: And I’m Nahanni Rous. See you again next month.

[Fade music]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 27: The Power of Women's Anger (Transcript)." (Viewed on March 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-27-power-of-women-s-anger/transcript>.

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