Anger isn’t an emotion women can easily come to terms with. From the day we are born it is pushed down (by society and by ourselves) and pressed beneath other emotions like a sock at the bottom of an over-packed suitcase. It is much too active an emotion for women, society says, and, therefore, when it does arise it is often viewed as an overreaction, unnecessary, or disregarded entirely (hence the phrase “you look cute when you’re angry”).
If you don’t believe me, you needn’t look far for examples. There’s a reason women in powerful, active positions are often labeled “control freaks,” “bossy,” or “bitches.” Those labels don’t fit so well with men in the same positions, and not just because the last of the three is a strictly female insult. In a culture in which men have always been running the show, it feels more natural for a man to be leading, giving orders, and, if things don’t go his way, getting angry.
I myself have had a relatively active personality throughout the majority of my life. As a child I thrived in leadership roles: I loved being the star of a play, singing in front of an audience, or, most often, making up games for my siblings and friends to play. I distinctly remember being called “bossy” multiple times for dragging my younger brother around with me and “ordering” him to participate in my games. If it had been the other way around, I now wonder, if he had been the one telling me what to do, would he have been called “bossy”? Part of me doubts it. Part of me believes he would have instead been called “strong-willed” or “a good leader,” and I would have been expected to listen to him.
Whether my brother would have had an easier time in my position or not, somewhere along the way I lost my fervour and most of my desire to be a leader. My energy turned inwards; instead of being external expressions through games, my stories became internal expressions through writing. On top of all this, I became increasingly angry for reasons I couldn’t at that time understand. By the time I finished high school I was dissatisfied with nearly everything and beyond furious. I could find nowhere to release my anger and I descended quickly into depression.*
The repression of anger in women is not unique to myself. It has been going on, I am sure, as long as history itself, but because women’s voices have only recently been recorded, not many first-hand accounts are available. One of my favourite examples is from the mid-1800’s when the novel, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, was first published. Brontë wrote the book under the pseudonym “Currer Bell” and only stepped forward to declare her authorship when critics had decided a man had written the text, the chief reason for this belief being that the main character, Jane, was much too angry to be created by a woman.
Fast-forward nearly eighty years and you will find Virginia Woolf struggling with the same anger as fiery Jane. Adrienne Rich, writing on Woolf’s momentous piece, A Room of One’s Own, describes “the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of [the] essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. … Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice” (191).
One of these “rare moments” of open anger in the essay occurs when Woolf discovers in the library a book titled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of Women. She offhandedly begins to doodle in her sketchbook and soon discovers that she is drawing the professor who wrote the book. Somewhat to her astonishment, “the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly,” and she spends the next couple of paragraphs debating why this might be:
“A very elementary exercise in psychology … showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made out of anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom—all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger” (Woolf 28-9).
Despite her explicit fury at the professor’s assumptions, Woolf soon after discounts her anger by saying that her refusal to think of herself below men was merely a “foolish vanity” (29). Adrienne Rich was right in claiming that Woolf was aware of the men in the lecture room and how unacceptable her anger would be to them.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Woolf’s encounter with anger in the library that day is her description of the professor’s emotion. “It was anger that had gone underground,” she writes, “and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions. … it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open” (Woolf 29). Though the description is meant to be of the professor, it clearly also depicts Woolf’s own emotion. Her anger, as with many women today, is concealed behind a veneer of careful control and subtle bitterness.
Could this discomfort with one’s own anger be the cause of the stereotypical manipulative behaviour of women? I have thought for a long time on this subject and have come up with no solid evidence. I am not a psychologist; I do not fully understand human behaviour. It does seem odd, though, that the “natural” way for women to express discontent and frustration is to guilt-trip, talk behind people’s backs, and manipulate.
This idea of women’s manipulation seems to be woven tightly into every crevice of culture in the Western world. It is said to be common knowledge that men fight with their fists and women with their mouths, and not long ago at a dinner party I was told by a man, who spoke as if he had just tasted something sour, that “if you get a guy angry, he’ll fight it out and then forget about it. A girl, though, will fight with her mind, and she’ll never forget.”
An overwhelming amount of negative assumptions is stacked against women and the way in which they deal with conflicts, but has anyone ever stopped to wonder why it is that women fight so differently than men? We can’t all be cruel, cold backstabbers with a talent for trickery, can we? I’ll admit I’ve met my fair share of girls and women who disappoint me in their forms of communication, and I’ve encountered more than a few who I would have liked to physically fight. But I never did. And why? My reluctance to throw a punch had less to do, I believe, with my desire to be a good, kind person and not start a scuffle, than with the knowledge that hitting someone was not what I was supposed to do. As a female, I knew that kind of physical behaviour was not only improper, it was verging on barbaric.
But, if one cannot release her anger through physical action, how is she to rid herself of it? She can repress it, as I most often did, or she can glare, make snide comments in the change room, and isolate the person who is the source of her anger.
The fact that the term “angry feminist” has negative connotations is obvious evidence that women are often oppressed for having an opinion and speaking it out loud. Since the beginning of mankind (note the term “mankind”) women have been objectified, used, raped, sold, shamed, and, perhaps worst of all, silenced. Today, more complicated inequalities come to mind, like less pay in the workforce and, in many countries, a lack of political standing.
Isn’t this something to be angry about? I think it is, and I am very angry. This doesn’t mean that I hate men. The term “angry feminist” should not be felt as a threat to the male gender. As Virginia Woolf puts it, “it is absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control” (34). Besides, if I am to be angry at a gender, I might as well be angry at women just as much as men. Women internalize their own oppression and encourage others to do the same. Women embrace manipulative stereotypes and set themselves apart from men, as if the oppression of an entire gender doesn’t hurt all of us together.
All I want is to be allowed to feel my anger. I want to be able to express it, and to be heard. I should be allowed to be angry when my friend’s professor tells her he doesn’t like her forward behaviour, that she has a “strict and serious face” and should learn to smile more often (Sorry, professor, I had forgotten the only way a woman can move up in the world is to flatter and charm). I should be allowed to be angry when another friend tells me she’s not a feminist, because, well, she believes in gender equality, but she “still wants to shave her legs.” I should be allowed to be angry when my father tells me that if he had had three daughters instead of three sons, ours would be a house “full of complaining.”
I should be allowed to feel the natural emotion which such statements elicit: anger.
* I am not by any means blaming my depression on society’s influence to repress my anger. According to my therapist, though, internalized anger can often contribute to depression.
Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision.” Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. 188-200. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2011. Print.