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How come Men are "Angry" But Women are "Unreasonable"?


Dec 8th, 2003

Carol Tavris. Has anybody ever heard of this woman? She writes very clearly and cleanly about complicated things, and she's quite even-handed. Unlike people like Cathy Young, (who claims to be a feminist but has a nasty habit of quoting statistics rather than numbers), she represents feminism at its finest. You'll have a hard time finding her books, but they're worth looking for, and I'm not going to stop pimping them. I have to confess that the first book of hers that I read----The Mismeasure of Woman----changed some of my opinions. She's also written a book called, Anger: the Misunderstood Emotion. Which leads me to bitch this morning.

I used to have a Russian teacher who was all sensitive and sincere, and I scared him shitless. There was nothing else to call him but a fair weather feminist, and it was hard not to conclude that he was sort of ticked that people didn't appreciate him to the extent that he expected. Aren't I sensitive? Aren't I great? Whaddaya mean, that doesn't do you any good? I'm feminist, really I am! See?!

Well, you claim you're feminist, dude, but all you do is talk about yourself. Isn't sensitivity supposed to go both ways? And after a while it just becomes apparent, you're all talk, no action.

I remember this because I kept standing up for myself, and he kept commenting on it. We had a couple of guys in class who were bright but lazy, while I was the student who'd gone from a floundering D---the first one I'd ever gotten----to a easy A-. Those guys never got yelled at, but I did if I got a B. They got to be lazy and I got to be pissed off.

What interested me is that this teacher just sort of dismissed that irritation. I was irritated, not angry, but he repeatedly labeled it as being far more serious than it actually was. He really saw it that way, too. He also told me I was in danger of giving myself an ulcer. What's funny is, I used to get screaming headaches from tension----when I didn't stand up for myself. Once I started doing that, they vanished. Not an ulcer, precisely---but pretty close for somebody who was then in her twenties.

He tried to tell me I was too angry, but that always struck me as being more about him than about me. I think I threatened him. And I think it threatens a lot of people when you are angry but even more so when you have a good reason for it.

That last is important. I'm not talking about people who blow up over getting cut off in traffic. I’m not talking about the sort of people who bitch at waiters, cleaners, and bus drivers.  I'm talking about----well, a recent experience of mine is the perfect example. I kept pinning my ward representative on some simple questions, and he kept wriggling out of direct answers for high-stakes questions----I mean, the guy wants to use eminent domain to level my neighborhood. "That's not the question I asked you, Councilman. I didn't ask you that. No, I didn't ask you that, either. I'm using one-syllable words here. Either you don't know---which is pretty bad, because you're trying to disenfranchise people with no real grasp of the consequences---or you do know and you're trying to conceal that. So which is it?"  I'm talking about drawing a line and sticking to it. I'm talking about knowing that somebody is trying to screw you, and calling them on it. Most of all, I'm talking about what the results are for women.

Women getting angry for a sensible reason seems extraordinarily threatening to people. You don't get angry if you're a doormat. You get angry because you have a clear picture of yourself, and know that somebody isn't taking you seriously.  You know when somebody else can’t see that picture of you clearly. Anger can be perfectly reasonable if somebody does something to you and does it deliberately---not accidentally, unless they're recklessly careless-----and then tries to weasel out of it.

When a man gets angry, he's righteous and a stand-up guy. When a woman does, she's a shrew and a fishwife. She's shrill. She's out of control. She’s hormonal. The only exception is when she's a nice traditional woman doing something nice and traditional, like defending the children. I keep thinking about how automatic my response was when I was groped by some jerk on the bus. "Asshole, I served my country. Get the fuck off me." Or words to that effect. I have served my country, and you dare to try and cop a feel. I’m different from other women.. That was nothing but nice and traditional. You're not entitled to feel me up, I have moved myself above and beyond the common female. Implied in that statement is the idea that one can earn the right not to be groped, but not the idea that one has that right from birth.  That's called internalization, kids.  Another good word for internalization is 'invisible.' ‘Normalized.’ ‘Culture.’ They’re very polite words. They’re also very inaccurate.

Anger means knowing one's rights, and knowing that one has the right to enforce them. Ever wonder why female illiteracy is so common in cultures that abuse women? Because not knowing one's rights means one has to go by what trusted---or feared---individuals tell you they are. There's no ability to assess a wider situation, to compare notes. You're left feeling alone, and it's hard to stand up without any back up at all. Anger requires knowledge and perspective.

Anger is the recognition that your rights matter, and that you're entitled to be irritated when they're violated. Reasonable anger is not something that insecure people feel. Nothing is more threatening that a reasonable woman, which is why so many of the pejoratives thrown at women and feminists in particular refer to emotional instability. Like women arguing that, for example, we have the right to define and codify rape, it threatens some of the very foundations of sexism. Rape doesn't happen equally to men, and it's in their interest to build minimization and rationale into the language. Calling it what it is in clear, bright language leaves sexism no place to hide. So much sexism is sort of passive.... Just wait, ladies, we'll get around to you eventually. Just be patient. It's refusing to accept a lower standard for your rights, no matter how persistently people claim that you're too angry. And it's interesting how often women get labeled as precisely that. Ever see a man referred to as 'hysterical'? 'Hormonal'? 'Paranoid'?

Anger is not something that women are entitled to, because we're still supposed to be lowly and humble. Ultimately, the rejection of reasonable anger for women indicates just in what low esteem we are held. We're not entitled to ask, but to accept, and it's threatening when we demand our rights, because it shows clearly how some old ideas linger. Demanding our rights reveals clearly we know what we deserve, and that we're not accepting just getting the leftovers. It also makes it impossible for people to cling to their denial that 'women are equal now' and would we just shut up about it? Equality on paper, in law, is a different thing from being equal in reality. It's real interesting, too, how often people get angry, not at the sexism, but at the messenger. That alone reveals an agenda.

Traditionally, crimes against women have been manly matters, settled between groups of men with a purpose. Feminism is nothing less than a rejection of the idea that men get to fight over women and act as our proxies. And put words in our mouths, and motives in our hearts. Thanks, guys, we'll do it ourselves, and leave out all the racial, social, and emotional hyperbole. Nothing is more threatening than the idea that women have battles to fight, and want to do it ourselves. Defining our place in the world, our place in the language, our place in the law, by ourselves, with our needs at the forefront, recognizes that we're not accepting male euphemisms and visions of ourselves any longer. We're making our own. We're rebuilding things from the ground up.

Sometimes it seems like the only answer to sexism is to build a whole new world from the ground up, because the old one is so permeated with sexism. It's like adding food coloring to cookie dough; how do you take it out once it's baked? Some people don't even notice it's there---and when it's pointed out to them, they get enraged. Funny how there's no stereotype for that, isn't it?

Get angry. You've earned it.

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