Rebecca Traister, a journalist and leading voice on the feminist internet, has built her career on chronicling women’s political lives. She writes thoughtfully about feminist themes, like the declining marriage rate and sexual assault, in essays smartly packaged to feel revolutionary. In her latest book, Good and Mad, she offers a condensed history of women’s anger that largely charts the last two years.
Good and Mad considers the untapped power of women’s anger, arguing that it can propel progress and foment change. Her previous book, 2016's All The Single Ladies, argued that single women were driving a progressive political agenda embraced by the Democratic party and, more broadly, by the American electorate. While optimistic and well-argued, it was not necessarily predictive. The progressive values of single women, particularly those identified by Traister, were rejected in the 2016 election. Ultimately that rejection was by white men and married, white women who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.
It’s the election of Trump—or rather, the loss of Hillary Clinton—that Good and Mad takes as its point of departure. Those single women have, after a gutting loss, transformed into angry women with the possibility to change the world. Women’s righteous anger, Traister posits, is not new, but has crystallized since Clinton’s surprising defeat. “In the United States, we have never been taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism, and our art,” Traister writes. “We should be.”
There’s no doubt too that women are angry, as evidenced by the groundswell of collective rage felt in the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing. But the women’s anger that primarily concerns Traister is the fury of the white, well-intentioned, and liberal: Pantsuit Nation members who were so convinced that Clinton would win that when Trump actually did it, they were floored. It was these women in particular, who saw Clinton as a stand-in for all women, that felt her defeat on a deeply personal level: her loss was their loss, too.
To her credit, Traister pays tribute to the women of color whose anger fundamentally changed American culture. Rosa Parks is pictured as an angry radical whose refusal to sit on the back of a segregated Montgomery bus was the result of a deeply ingrained psychic anger. Mamie Till, who is also mentioned, is recast from grieving mother to an angry woman demanding justice. Traister visits the stories of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Lee along the way, noting that because they are also black women, thus further subjugated by systemic and institutional racism. As a gesture towards intersectionality, it is appreciated; acknowledging that these women have long labored with their anger while white women who use white supremacy to their benefit have remained silent is crucial to her argument but she doesn’t give it the consideration it deserves.
Traister is careful to acknowledge that black women have served as vehicles for anger but that their rage is not allowed to be public facing. For Traister, the hard-earned anger of black women “makes it easier to applaud their toughness, precisely because it is so far removed from being a true threat to white male dominance.” Their rage is only allowed to be used as a tool for others to express themselves; a discussion of the “digital blackface” phenomenon touches on this point, as does a mention of Audre Lorde’s speech “The Uses of Anger,” where she argued that “black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation.”
The structure of Good and Mad—a bird’s eye view of a complicated topic—gives these stories short shrift. Each chapter stands on its own as an essay, with the topic of anger as its only thread, making for a reading experience that feels a little bit like clicking back and forth from tab to tab, gathering a few context clues, and then returning to the main argument. Traister’s examination of the Women’s March in 2017, the day Trump was sworn into office, serves as the clearest example of the issues with her approach.
She considers the “racial resentments” that sprung up and around the Women’s March, without digging deep into the criticisms that women of color wrote about extensively: namely, that white women’s anger is the only anger that counts. The unease about the intentions of the marchers in pink pussy hats felt by many black women who attended the Women’s March is not considered. What’s missing is not just an analysis of that unease but an acknowledgment that many progressive and liberal women were suspicious of both the tenor and the tone of the Women’s March and its participants. Instead, real ideological disagreement and well-founded concerns are painted over in favor of an impressionist mural depicting a “protest that spanned all fifty states, led by a young, multiracial coalition of women hoping to lead a new iteration of the [women’s] movement into the future.” Traister’s characterization is optimistic and, as always, she writes with convicting clarity but the power she claims for the expression of this single feeling is not convincing.
But if Good and Mad draws on women’s anger as a source of inspiration, the book is as much a lament for Clinton as it is an examination of rage. By positioning Clinton’s loss as the origin of this new kind of political anger, Traister is (perhaps inadvertently) suggesting that a particular kind of liberal politics, coupled with a particular kind of anger is the authentic expression of an “all women” politics. Thus women whose anger do not fit neatly in Traister’s view of gendered politics—the angry women who voted for Trump or the angry women who have propelled radical, leftist politics—are omitted from the book. Traister’s women might be mad, but they still hew to good.
Perhaps even more valuable would have been a consideration of the blue-collar angry white women who were eager to absorb Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-feminist rhetoric. Trump won his campaign by tapping into that very anger and fanning the flames of racism. After all, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump and, as a recent poll shows, a sizable percentage of those women support Kavanaugh. Surely they are also angry, but their fury is not explored in Traister’s book, likely because their anger is wielded for less progressive visions of the future. (Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative firebrand, is mentioned a few times, but her enduring legacy in American politics is just a passing mention.)
Instead of approaching women’s anger as unclassifiable or even unwieldy, Traister effectively argues that women’s anger is inherently pure and just. It must have a purpose; it must contain a promise to guide us toward more progressive, yet unpredictable, future. (History does not necessarily bear this out.) But if women on the left are angry that the government is chipping away at their bodily autonomy, anti-abortion women are angry that the government, as they claim, funds abortions. Discounting the fact that anger is not simply a liberal, feminist issue ignores the very power she claims it has.
Despite its title, Good and Mad is a feel-good book, and it affirms what her readership already knows to be true: Hillary Clinton should have won. It’s an affirmation rather than a confrontation: a call to arms for a group of women whose bubbles were burst only after the election of Donald Trump. Maybe they can use their anger for good—maybe they can create a progressive utopia—but I’m not convinced.