As a little girl, I was warned that anger would earn me beatings. As an adult woman, I’m angry all the time — and not willing to apologize for it.
The first man to ever warn me that my anger was “too much” meant well. I know he did: He was my dad. My younger brother and I had been bickering, not an unusual activity for siblings who had only each other for company — in the back of the car — as we moved and changed schools every year, as we followed my father’s peripatetic career. I have no idea what our fight was about or even what I might have said. But I do remember how chilled I felt when my father pulled me aside and explained to me that I needed to watch what I said. In the future when I was older, he cautioned, if I tried to talk to guys that way, some guy would “knock ten shades of sh*t out of you.” I was seven years old.
That message, that girls who get angry will be injured by boys, feels as if it has always been part of my DNA, as if I were born knowing this. But because I remember the moments of my dad’s specific warning, I know that the linking of male violence in response to female anger was a learned idea, not a genetic truth, as some au courant celebrity thinkers have posited.
Later, I would hear Margaret Atwood quoted about the difference between men’s and women’s fears. Men, she said, were afraid women would laugh at them. Women were afraid men would kill them.
The women who came forward to say that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh behaved in predatory ways toward them are the same age as me. I, too, began college in the early 1980s, and while I attended university on the other coast, the behaviors described are familiar. I heard similar stories about things that had happened on dates, or at parties, or in the basements of frat houses, or in many other quotidian activities.
I have my own stories. To be honest, I don’t know any women who don’t. The differences among our stories are matters of degree — whether the injuries inflicted were physical or emotional, whether the sexual assault occurred or was averted — all the costs that were accrued for refusing to do what we had been told, what was expected of us because we had dared to drink with our male acquaintances, or to accept the offer of a ride home, or to meet for a study date.
I still remember the relief of making it back safely to my space after encounters with men who were angry over thwarted desires. How I would feel the washout of cold water flushing my arms and legs, the clattering of my heart, the pressure in my throat, as the fight-or-flight reflex triggered by a threat would recede from my body.
How, after the panic had subsided, I would begin to analyze every thing that I had done, anything I might have said, that signaled to the man that I had promised to have sex with him. Was I stupid? Would another woman have understood that the offer to drive her home was a proposition that she had agreed to when she accepted the ride? As the fear washed away, but before the tide of anger washed in, would be those moments of my trying to understand how I had been so misread.
With the partner of my choice, I was happy to explore my sexual boundaries, to participate in the exchange that provides willing partners with so much pleasure. Even now, as I write this, I feel it necessary to indicate that I’m not a woman who hates sex or hates men or hates physical pleasure. But writing down the fact that I have experienced various forms of violence solely because of my gender makes me flinch in anticipation of the blow.
And, like so many women I know, the revelations that were attached to the the Kavanaugh hearings caused me to remember many, many instances from my past that I thought I had forgotten, or at least come to peace with. Instead, I walk around feeling both angry beyond measure but also frightened. Not only for me, but for all women when excuses such as “he was only seventeen” are supposed to make it okay that he allegedly attempted to rape a classmate or that he sexually assaulted another woman. It’s almost as if men are allowed “starter rapes” as practice for being adult males. Rather than focus on how “young” he was, and how he made a youthful mistake, those same defenders want to know why women of the same age or younger were not mature enough to immediately report him to the authorities. He was too young to control his impulses, they argue, but young women were supposed to have had enough self-awareness to charge him with a crime.
I saw the same set of excuses arise with the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein. The language was more veiled, but even in the words used to describe the girls who Epstein and his friends raped, journalists revealed that white boys may be white boys until they’re finally men, but girls are not described as girls. Instead, headline after headline referred to the victims as “underage women,” as if they were fruit that had been picked before they were ripe, rather than children who were abused by adult men who knew what they were doing was wrong.
People insist that Kavanaugh’s accusers or Epstein’s victims should have spoken up, despite the evidence of what happened to the myriad young women who did speak up when these things happened to them. As Jon Krakauer documented in Missoula women had their lives destroyed for “ruining young men’s lives.” Or the case of Brock Turner, prosecuted for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, but whose father said that his son’s life shouldn’t be ruined for “twenty minutes of action.” Or the young woman in Arlington, Texas who reported her rape and had her hometown turn against her.
As Chanel Miller emerges from the four-year long shadow cast by the actions of the rapist Brock Turner, she talks about the “relief” she felt after she wrote her victim statement that was read at his trial. But when the judge sentenced Turner to six months in jail, rather than the six years requested by prosecutors, she believed that she had failed, that she had revealed to the court how devastating the attack had been, and instead of executing justice, the judge left her “humiliated.”
Humiliation seems to be the point for women who report rape or harassment. Those women who came forward to talk about Kavanaugh were asked to produce corroborating witnesses. Why? Because women’s language is not enough. What is implied by such demands is this: If all that is available as evidence is her words versus his words, her words will count for less. We live in a culture that tells women that their words are not as valuable as those of men. We are told that the Constitution protects those who lie to us. Bogus clinics can lie to women about their bodies and reproductive options.
Without a witness to what occurred, a woman’s words are not enough. His words, like his body, take up more space and carry more weight.
As Anne Helen Petersen documents in Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, women who insist on taking up as much room as men are deemed as “too much.” Whether her body is “too strong” like Serena Williams, or “too old” like Madonna, or “too shrill” like Hillary Clinton or “too loud” like Jennifer Weiner, the assertion that women can claim for themselves attributes of character that are positives for men is greeted with horror and derision. Julia Kristeva, in her work, Powers of Horror, claimed that the fluidity of women’s boundaries provoke a sense of horror in men. Whether it’s the ways that a woman’s body can expand to accommodate a pregnancy, or the breaching of a woman’s boundaries during vaginal intercourse, or the feeding of a child through nursing, the fluidity of a woman’s body and its shape-shifting qualities frighten men. Using this metaphorical construction of women allows us to better understand the thousands of years of history in which men have attempted to discipline unruly women. Whether that meant banning them from the public sphere, requiring them to dress in ways that their bodies were hidden, and preventing them from participating in government have been just some of the many strategies of secular or religious law that men have used to restrict women. And where the law has not been used in such ways, threats of violence — especially sexual violence — has been used to prevent women from asserting themselves in ways that make men uncomfortable or make them feel threatened.
Women’s rage in response to this behavior by men is characterized as lying outside the boundaries of civil behavior. Angry women have been imprisoned, enslaved, beaten, raped, and murdered for the crime of being angry. The culture that provokes this rage, we are told, has been hamstrung by those who seek to make “snowflakes” of men, to silence them through “political correctness.” That culture, we are told, is dying because of “identity politics,” which is the assertion by those of us who are not cis-gender white heterosexual men, that we matter. But if the men who walk around with so much resentment are correct that they are no longer allowed to behave “like men,” then why is Brett Kavanaugh now a Justice of the Supreme Court? Why isn’t Brock Turner still in jail? And why are the men who participated with Jeffrey Epstein in the rape of girls not in jail?
In many of the same ways that Petersen documented men’s fear of women’s lack of boundaries, Rebecca Traister documents the fear of women’s anger. She, too, provides myriad examples of the ways in which angry women have been disciplined — or ignored — in our culture. But she also acknowledges that when it is convenient for a woman to be angry — such as Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzly” persona during the Tea Party movement — a woman’s anger can be used to discipline other women by shaming them back to their traditional spheres. Sarah Palin’s maternal anger was lauded, but the anger of mothers of color, women like the mothers of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin was demonized. That anger, it was said, threatened the established order and was denigrated as dangerous, even “unpatriotic.”
I used to apologize for my anger, afraid that I had upset friends or alienated strangers as I responded to provocations with rage. And I used to think that as I got older, I would grow more mellow, would find that it would take longer for me to rise to a boil. But in our current situation, as I witness the denigration of women and women’s language on a near-daily basis, I find myself “sharp as steel with discontent.” And I will not say “sorry.”
Image credit: Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders (public domain)