“Why did I just watch that?” I asked myself, closing my laptop immediately after Christine Blasey Ford finished her statement. The question was as rhetorical as it was literal. Listening to her describe her sexual assault minutes before I had to teach my university students was, on its face, a terrible idea. I was in a mood. I was angry and hurt and frustrated and rattled in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. It felt physical. A scowl had formed on my face and I couldn’t wipe it off. Teaching seemed impossible. But I also genuinely wanted to know why I felt the need to watch the testimony, and to watch it live. There was no time figure out the answer. I had to step into the classroom and perform.
The day before the hearings, I didn’t know if I would go through with it. I kept checking in with myself — Should I watch? Should I listen? — and getting different answers. I’m a news junkie, so I keep up with political events even when they frighten and depress me. I wake up at 3am to check on the level of chaos in this country. I worry that if I look away, we will find ourselves fighting an illegal war, yet again. But I also have a hard time listening to detailed accounts of sexual assault. Learning about Rachel Mitchell’s involvement in the hearings added to my hesitation. The idea of a sex crimes prosecutor questioning an attempted rape victim in the context of someone else’s job interview seemed like a clear example of politicized moral corruption. The government intended to put a victim of assault on trial, before the entire world. The idea of it made me livid to the point of stupor. I struggled to review my notes for a class I’d taught several times but they didn’t sink in.
I wasn’t alone. There were many people online, mostly women, bracing themselves for the following day. The common denominator in their posts was outrage. Here was yet another woman who had to bare her psychological scars in front of an unsympathetic audience of powerful congresspeople. Anita Hill did the same thing in 1991 only to see her harasser confirmed. Yes, she eventually became one of the foremost figures in sexual harassment advocacy, but as Kimberlé Crenshaw writes, at the time, Hill faced resistance from Democrats (famously from Joe Biden, then chair of the Judiciary Committee), black Americans who bought into Clarence Thomas’s “high-tech lynching narrative” and white feminists who were “largely unaware of the racial dynamics.” During the hearings, Hill’s comportment was the epitome of composure but, according to Crenshaw, a member of Hill’s support team, “committee members painted her as an angry and sexually deranged woman.”
Twenty-seven years later, in my social media feeds, the expressions of rage were complemented by messages of care. “You don’t have to watch” some posters said, “Victims are not obligated to re-traumatize themselves.” I appreciated these words and took them to heart. And then, later that evening, Ford’s testimony appeared online. This seemed to be a safe alternative to bearing witness to her pain in real time. Here was a way to minimize the risk of my rage boiling over into my day. After reading the transcript, I promised myself I wouldn’t watch.
I broke that promise, of course. I went to bed reading about Ford’s testimony and I started my day doing the same thing. Flipping open my laptop in my dark office, I saw friends and strangers, mostly women, complaining about their lack of sleep the night before. Their anger gave them migraines and nausea. It was debilitating and all-consuming. And there were fresh reminders for survivors to take care of themselves and only watch if they felt capable. But even as I read these posts, I opened another tab and saw Ford sitting between her lawyers. On the opposite side, Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein berated each other about when and how Ford should be introduced. He reminded me of senior male colleagues who, upon meeting me for the first time, expressed skepticism about my qualifications, if not a complete lack of interest.
Still, I couldn’t turn away. Ford’s shaking voice and willingness to accommodate the men interrogating her made my face burn because they reminded me of my job interviews and work-related functions. The shaking voice traveled down the long hallway outside my office. The sun still hadn’t risen and it was quiet enough for me to hear the footsteps of another colleague climbing up the stairs. I didn’t tear myself away because I needed to hear the whole thing and to watch it. I needed to see the strands of hair falling between her eyes and glasses even though I feared that others would read her as vulnerable and therefore pitiful. I didn’t want anyone to pity her. I wanted everyone to be mad. So I sought out people who were angry in my group texts and social media feeds. My laptop had multiple windows and tabs open. I gulped down posts about the “garbage culture” that got us to this moment. I found myself “liking” calls to “burn it all down.”
At that moment, my humble fantasy of burning it all down entailed canceling class, just walking off campus and driving home — no email to students, no explanation to colleagues. I could imagine myself doing it. I was close to doing it. And yet, my feet carried me into the classroom, the scowl softened and I taught all three of my courses, albeit counting the minutes from start to finish. When I had breaks, I checked social media for updates. One colleague, a queer man, wrote that he had to excuse himself in the middle of his own class in order to yell in the bathroom. He then regrouped and returned to teaching. I could picture this vividly and the image gave me the final jolt of solidarity I needed to get through my song and dance.
The day didn’t end with teaching. There were more people to face, in more situations that called for calm, professional adulthood. I went to a faculty social and the hearings naturally came up. Most of my colleagues hadn’t listened. Instead they prepared for their courses, or caught snippets on NPR, or did school drop-offs. Or they simply didn’t want to get angry. How different from me.
My education was partly shaped by an early interest in trauma studies, which meant reading Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and Toni Morrison. When a survivor speaks, you listen. You don’t turn away because the testimony disrupts your day or life. This second-hand witnessing comes from a sense of moral obligation to know history, to help the survivor construct a narrative, no matter how fragmented and full of unbridgeable gaps. Yet, as much as I wanted to believe that I was listening to Ford deliver her statement as a kind of second-hand witness, this was only symbolically true. I was not in the room. I was not affecting her. I was not acting as a therapist helping her heal. I was doing something else: responding to an obligation to get angry, as angry as possible and sharing that anger with other survivors, mostly female-identifying and non-binary individuals, and allies.
Anger is our first line of resistance against perceived dehumanization. But in American culture, getting angry in public, consequence-free, is a privilege still reserved for white men. This makes it easy to forget the many instances when women embraced their rage, expressing it in front of an audience and channeling it toward political goals. Recent books, most notably Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, foreground personal experiences and key historical moments of female anger. They all take their cue, in part, from Audre Lorde, who in her 1981 essay “Anger and Its Many Uses” urged women to draw on their “well-stocked arsenal of anger,” not willy nilly but “focused with precision” on the goal of fighting oppression, “personal and institutional.” As Traister historicizes in her study of anger, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, Flo Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, and many more public women, tapped into their anger, using it to energize their political projects.
Despite this, more often women have had to blunt the edges of their resentment because political and ideological victories came easier when they appeared likable, and for black women especially, when they did not come off as angry. Just ask Congresswoman Barbara Lee, as Traister does in her book, or take a look at Michelle Obama during the 2008 election. Even when giving an impassioned speech at the 2016 DNC convention, Obama tempered it with the line “when they go low, we go high:” a call for respectability. According to Cooper, the message changed with Trump’s election. She writes, “Respectability politics died the day Michelle Obama showed up to her last official engagement as First Lady with a thrown-together ponytail-bun combination and a facial expression fit for a funeral.” This was an expression of silent, seething fury. This was an inspirational but individual moment that preceded the largest performance of intersubjective female rage that soon followed — the 2016 Women’s March.
We feel angry when people don’t treat us with the respect we think we deserve. Expressing that anger can be a powerful force for building solidarity. Feeling angry about how you and members of the groups you stand with is a way to demand respect when respect is not granted. And that anger needs to be expressed collectively. But intersubjective rage does not mean lack of internal conflict. All of the aforementioned books discuss the emergence of anger between women in attempts at coalition-building. Cooper allows herself to be vulnerable, sharing stories about the times she counted on white women only to watch them let her down. Traister analyzes the tensions that emerged in the organizing stages of the first and second women’s marches. In fact, these tensions reached a boiling point in the events leading up to the 2019 women’s march, with new discussions about inclusion, this time centered on accusations of anti-Semitism directed at the organizers. For me, the most iconic sign from any of the women’s marches is still “White Women Voted For Trump.” Many white women in America are new to public expressions of anger, as all these three writers remind. Speaking up and showing up are still relatively fresh for white women, particularly “college-educated suburban white women,” and they often make demands of activists of color to educate them but grow defensive when they don’t get the answers they expect. Decades ago, a white woman approaching Lorde to ask her how to deal with “our anger,” meaning white female anger, inspired Lorde to declare “I do not exist to feel her anger for her.”
Feeling anger for someone else is a tricky business. Before we can build coalitions we have to feel our personal anger, to do that emotional work. Days after watching Ford’s testimony, I realized that my obligation was first to the the rage of my own experiences of sexist aggression, and then to the rage that comes with knowing that other victims had been through the same. But feeling that rage in private is not enough. As Chemaly writes, we as women internalize from an early age the idea that anger must be “experienced in isolation” and that it is “not worth sharing verbally with others.” She first learned this lesson as a teenager, watching her mother silently flinging wedding china out their kitchen window. This was the only way her mother could externalize her anger. For Chemaly, it was a violent, mysterious, and disturbing performance of bottled up fury.
Anger accompanied by words and shared with other wronged individuals is indispensable for mobilizing to address injustice. My rage, forged from listening to Ford’s testimony, bonded me to others. Reading a transcript could not do this. Watching her testimony live and expressing my emotions in order to bind myself to others — this was the real source of my obligation to Ford. But my responsibility was also to acknowledge that, when it comes to expressions of fury, white men have it easier than white women, but white women have it easier than women of color and black women in particular. My obligation was also to acknowledge that Anita Hill’s experience was different because of her “unique vulnerability,” to borrow Crenshaw’s phrase, even though the outcome was ultimately the same.
Throughout the 24 hours following Ford’s testimony, I read think pieces mocking Kavanaugh’s anger and her reserved, academic tone. Unlike Hill, Ford was not accused of being “an angry and sexually deranged woman.” But outside my social media bubble, Kavanaugh’s bluster had played well. Lindsey Graham’s furious defense of the nominee also scored him brownie points with the base. What gave Kavanaugh an air of authenticity would’ve made Ford seem hysterical, despite her white womanhood. In a way, it was a lose-lose situation. This made it that much more important for me to stay angry, and not just at Brett Kavanaugh, who would soon be confirmed.
Being mad at toxic masculinity is maddening. The problem goes far beyond specific individuals. It feels impossibly large, pervading all aspects of our culture and institutions. Yet not getting mad is not an option. “Focused with precision,” to echo Lorde, anger is a necessary step in addressing institutional problems. There are other steps and they involve all the grunt work that comes with trying to change policies and culture—calling out, educating, organizing, holding accountable and showing up. But first, we’ve got to get angry.
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