If there was a moment tailor-made for a new book about women and rage, it would be now. And Rebecca Traister, a columnist at New York Magazine, has written it.
“Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger” traces the complicated history of female fury, and what that fury has meant for social progress, starting with the suffragist and abolitionist movements of the 19th century and ending with the resistance to the Trump administration. The book went to print before the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, but that hasn’t stopped Ms. Traister from sharing news and opinions swirling around the fast-moving and divisive story on Twitter.
Last Friday, Ms. Traister, who has lived in New York for 21 years, spoke with The New York Times at the Stonewall Inn, a site mentioned in her book.
The following interview is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
There’s an anecdote midway through your book where Cortney Tunis, the founder of Pantsuit Nation, has a moment that many women in the city will understand.
About getting angry at the men in suits in New York after the 2016 election?
Exactly. When I first moved here, I had daily rage at the same scene: the barrage of white men in suits coming at me.
The thing about the guys just charging through, taking up space and not caring if they push you out of the way — that works metaphorically with so much of the rage when we’re talking about Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh.
When you moved to New York, did you know what you wanted to pursue?
I didn’t know. I had an internship. I worked at Bath & Body Works. After I’d been here for about six months, I got a job working as an assistant to an actor, Harvey Keitel.
O.K., I have so many questions.
It’s like one of these weird details of my life.
I remember hearing stories about Harvey Keitel in the ’90s. This is when you were working for him?
The very early part of my career, which had nothing to do with feminism and nothing to do with journalism, offered a view of power that I think that I, without realizing it, learned a lot from. I had a tremendously close view of Hollywood power because I worked for Keitel. I met very famous people.
You were conscious of the power structure?
I saw so many behaviors that entailed an abuse of tremendous power and money. I was small, and sometimes that really helps you get a clear view, because no one thinks you’re paying attention. No one considers you a person with eyes and a brain.
When did you find your voice as a writer?
In the fall of 2003, I was offered a job at Salon. Around this time I was realizing my value on the market was writing about my own sex life.
100 percent true. It was the era of “Sex and the City,” and my market value at that point was first-person columns about my life in New York.
You wrote a dating column?
Well, I was not really dating. I think I was totally single. There was not any sex, really. So I would write about my work life. It was in Mademoiselle, and then it shut down after I wrote three columns. I needed money; I had a friend at Allure who offered me $1,000 to do a review of sex toys, which I did. That was the freelance work I could get. It was not uncommon at the time. There was a tremendous appetite for young women writers to write first person. So I got a job working at Salon. It was the section called Life, and it sort of encompassed all the sort of stuff that wasn’t politics, science …
The “Lady Pages.”
It was the Lady Pages, but it was also religion, parenthood, sex. I was thrilled. I was writing mostly pop culture criticism, I was encouraged to have more voice. Some of them were really ham-handed attempts to to give voice to a feminist perspective. In 2006, my boss kind of forced me to write a big piece about Hillary Clinton. I was not a Hillary Clinton fan.
I saw her as a total centrist sellout. I’d been kind of turned off by what I felt like she had to do in order to gain stature within the Senate. It was when Hillary ran for president in 2008 that I began writing about politics. I wrote my first book, which was about the gender dynamics, racial dynamics and classism around Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. And how that election, and those three women, offered such remarkable stories.
How did you turn to the topic of women’s anger?
I was thinking that I might write a book if Hillary Clinton had won. I’d felt the rise of racism and misogyny during the presidential campaign. The pop culture backlash: the fury of the all-women Ghostbusters and Star Wars jedis who weren’t white guys. I felt like we were in the midst of an extremely punishing moment. And that’s what I guessed I might be writing about throughout Hillary Clinton’s administration, if there was one. And then there wasn’t one. But in early 2017, I was walking with my husband, and I felt like my brain was going to boil. I was telling him how it was hard for me to think because I was so angry. He said to me, “Well maybe that’s your book: anger.” I was like, “Of course, that’s my book.”
Every female activist you mention in the book is angry and also did something about it. The personal and the political seem impossible to separate.
You can’t. People tell you how bad anger is for you. If it’s inside of you, it’s going to corrode and poison you. I think it’s the bottling it up or swallowing it down or thinking that there’s no outlet for it — that’s the thing that corrodes.
Do you think we’re in a new wave of feminism?
I don’t love the “wave” term. If you think about the first wave, it extended a century. Are we in a moment of a major social and political uprising driven by women’s anger? Yes. But will this extend to the rest of our lives? I suspect it probably will. I suspect we are not looking at something that in 10 years we’ll say, “Oh, remember that? Remember when that wave happened?”
You write a lot about how racial and sexist divisions in social movements can hinder group efforts. Meanwhile, the city is changing. Some neighborhoods have lost that sense of community that can lead to activism. For example, here we sit at the Stonewall Inn, where I suggested we meet because you wrote about it in your book. It is considered the birthplace of the gay rights movement. And yet —
I’d read enough about Stonewall to know that it was more complicated than the pop culture picture of it.
But I think most of us were given the pop culture version of it.
Right. I was thinking about all the history where the anger of women was catalytic but has been obscured. There’s the labor movement too; in the popular imagination it’s white male teamsters, coal miners. But in fact, a lot of the labor organizers were young working women in the factories and mills, like Clara Lemlick and Rose Schneiderman, who gave some of the most furious oratory calls for the New York Shirtwaist strike in 1909. And actually it was a colleague of mine who mentioned Stonewall. And Stormé DeLarverie.
Who was Stormé DeLarverie?
Stormé was a lesbian singer/performer who was taken out by police, and on her way out, some people said she fought the policemen. Others report she had said to the onlookers who had gathered outside, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This spurred them to eventually storm the bar. She was a catalytic figure on that night, along with Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, female-identifying drag performers of color. Stormé was African-American, and yet those figures aren’t the ones who leap to mind in a popular discussion of the origins of the gay rights movement. Stonewall mostly remains understood as an uprising of white gay men. This happens in the women’s movement too. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall have both credited Pauli Murray, who is a black, non-gender-conforming woman, with writing the law that undergirded civil rights and gender discrimination. The fury and the work and the organizing, much of it born out of anger at injustice, which was done by women of color, is so often erased in the retelling.
Maybe, in terms of whatever wave we’re in now, that’s the difference. Black women are not being erased anymore.
Well, if you look at the women’s march, the origins are with white female organizers who originally tried to call it the million women’s march without acknowledging that it had been the name of an event staged by black women in Philadelphia years earlier. I agree that one of the projects of a contemporary women’s movement is to correct that. You can see the same with #MeToo. Tarana Burke is the person who developed the #metoo movement, which was originally supposed to be about telling the stories of sexual predation and assault specifically for women and girls of color. Now, in some circles, #metoo is understood to have been invented by white women in Hollywood. So this is one of the fundamental questions of the book: in our anger, can we find coalition?
What do you think is going to happen with Kavanaugh?
I have no idea. After Anita Hill, I don’t think people understood the long tail of what women’s rage was going to produce. I would argue that the tail of the Anita Hill fury got us to #MeToo.
We are still processing it.
Anita Hill has been the through line in my thinking about women, gender, race and power in this country for 27 years. I don’t think you can begin to conceive of what the impact is going to be on the women who are watching this Kavanaugh thing happen. I think what we are constantly underestimating in this country is the reaction of those — what I talked about in the beginning of this interview, in my earliest jobs, the eyes that are watching and thinking even if they’re not putting it all in a framework yet.