My parents’ wedding, in 1965, was a lavish affair that went on for more than 20 hours and with more than 500 guests in attendance. Among the most prized gifts my parents received that day was their wedding china. These white-and-gold plates were more than an expensive gesture: They were an important symbol both of adulthood and their community’s and family’s approval of marriage in general and this marriage in particular. When I was growing up, these look-but-don’t-touch dishes were used only on the rarest and most special occasions, and always with great care.

That’s why, one day, when I was 15, I was dumbfounded to see my mother standing on the long veranda outside our kitchen, chucking one china plate after another as far and as hard as she could into the hot, humid air. Our kitchen was on the second floor of a house that sat perched atop a long, rolling hill. I watched each dish soar through the atmosphere, its weight generating a sharp, steady trajectory before shattering into pieces on the terrace far below.

While the image is vivid in my mind, I have no memory of any noise. My mother didn’t utter a sound the entire time. I have no idea if she even knew anyone was watching. When she was done, she walked back into the kitchen and asked me how my school day had gone, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I desperately wanted to know what I had witnessed, but it didn’t feel like a good time to ask questions, so I sat and worked on my homework as my mother prepared dinner and the day morphed into night. We never talked about anger.


Why do we so rarely learn how to be angry?

Like most of us, I learned about anger in a vacuum of information by watching the people around me: what they did with their anger, how they responded to other people when they were mad. I don’t remember my parents or other adults ever talking to me about anger directly. Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger. It turns out that, for girls, this is par for the course. While parents talk to girls about emotions more than they do to boys, anger is excluded. Reflect with me for a moment: How did you first learn to think about emotions, and anger in particular? Can you remember having any conversations with authority figures or role models about how to think about your anger or what to do with it? If you are a woman, chances are the answer is no.

As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as to fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.

As far as my own early understanding of anger, the plate-throwing incident said it all. My mother may have been livid, but she gave every appearance of being cheerful and happy. By staying silent and choosing this particular outlet for her feelings, she communicated a trove of information: for example, that anger was experienced in isolation and was not worth sharing verbally with others. That furious feelings are best kept to oneself. That when they do inevitably come out, the results can be scary, shocking, and destructive.

My mother was acting in a way that remains typical for many women: She was getting her anger “out,” but in a way that explicitly separated it from her relationships. Most women report feeling the angriest in private and interpersonal settings. They also prioritize their relationships — at home, work, and even in political contexts — in determining, consciously or not, if and how to express negative emotions.

While we experience anger internally, it is mediated culturally and externally by other people’s expectations and social prohibitions. Roles and responsibilities, power and privilege, are the framers of our anger. Relationships, culture, social status, exposure to discrimination, poverty, and access to power all factor into how we think about, experience, and utilize anger. Different countries, regions — even neighboring communities in the same state — have been shown to have anger profiles, exhibiting different patterns of behavior and social dynamics. So, for example, in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men as criminality, and in black women as threat. In the Western world, anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”

Of course, everyone feels anger. Studies show that differences between men’s and women’s experiences of feeling angry are virtually nonexistent. But while women and men feel anger similarly, there are stark differences in how we respond to those feelings and how they are received by the people around us. At home, children still learn quickly that for boys and men, anger reinforces traditional gender expectations, but that for girls and women, anger confounds them. It’s as children that most of us learn to regard anger as unfeminine, unattractive, and selfish. Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others, making us irksome and unlikeable. That it will alienate our loved ones or put off people we want to attract. That it will twist our faces, make us ugly. This is true even for those of us who have to use anger to defend ourselves in charged and dangerous situations. As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.

There is not a woman alive who does not understand that women’s anger is openly reviled. We don’t need books, studies, theories, or specialists to tell us this. Over the past several years, I’ve spoken to thousands of girls and women at schools, conferences, and corporations. Without fail, afterward they come up to me to say the same two things: They want to know how to stand up for themselves “without sounding angry or bitter,” and they want to share stories about how, when they do express anger about issues specifically relevant to their lives as women, people respond with doubt and often aggression.

Women experience discrimination differently, but we share the experience — in anger or when simply speaking assertively — of being told we are “crazy,” “irrational,” even “demonic.” If we are worried and, as studies show, compelled to repackage, ignore, divert, or trivialize our anger, it is because we well understand the costs of displaying it. Our society is infinitely creative in finding ways to dismiss and pathologize women’s rage. I have always understood that being seen as an “angry woman” — sometimes simply for sharing my thoughts out loud — would cast me as overemotional, irrational, “passionate,” maybe hysterical, and certainly a “not objective” and fuzzy thinker.

When a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikable — the kiss of death for a class of people expected to maintain social connections. The same people who might opt to work for an angry-sounding, aggressive man are likely to be less tolerant of the same behavior if the boss were a woman. When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their own positions and defer to his. But when a woman acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the opposite response. For some of us, considered angry by nature and default, the risks of asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, or speaking out in support of issues that are important to us can be significant. Black girls and women, for example, routinely silenced by “angry black woman” stereotypes, have to contend with abiding dangers of institutionalized violence that might result from their expressing justifiable rage. It makes sense that men, as studies find, consider anger to be power enhancing in a way that women don’t. For men, anger is far more likely to be power enhancing.


Ask yourself why a society would deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and to be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what is and what ought to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from “good womanhood,” we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.

It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say “You sound angry” are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask “Why?”

Like many women, I am still constantly being reminded that it’s “better” if women didn’t “seem so angry.” What does “better” mean, exactly? And why does it fall so disproportionately on the shoulders of women to be “better” by putting aside anger in order to “understand” and to forgive and forget? Does it make us “good” people? Is it healthy? Does it enable us to protect our interests, bring change to struggling communities, or upend failing systems?

An unqualified no.

Mainly, it props up a profoundly corrupt status quo.

That anger metaphors are filled with kitchen imagery — anger simmers and smolders before reaching a boiling point; a person has to “mull things over” and “cool off”; we are supposed to “contain” or “put a lid” on our anger, or it will leave a bad “taste in the mouth” — strikes me as more than an interesting coincidence. As women, we often have to bite our tongues, eat our words, and swallow our pride. It’s almost, as one of my daughters put it, as if we are supposed to keep our anger in the kitchen. Where we might, for example, throw plates.

I don’t throw plates, but I do throw words. It took me years to acknowledge my own anger, and when I did, I didn’t know what do with it. I had the distinct sensation of being alien to myself — which was ironic, since the real inauthenticity was in my denying anger, not my recognizing it. Now I write and write and write. I write my rage onto paper and into bits and bytes. I write anger out of my head and my body and put it out in the world, where, frankly, it belongs. This can cause deep discomfort in the people around me, and at times it has brought personal or professional costs. But it also leads to richer and more productive experiences, relationships, and life outcomes. It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say “You sound angry” are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask “Why?” They’re interested in silence, not dialogue. This response to women expressing anger happens on larger and larger scales: in schools, places of worship, the workplace, and politics.

A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women, not as human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens. Women around the world are clearly angry and acting on that emotion. That means, inevitably, that a backlash is in full swing, most typically among “moderates” who are fond of disparaging angry women as dangerous and unhinged. It is easier to criticize the angry women than to ask the questions “What is making you so angry?” and “What can we do about it?” — the answers to which have disruptive and revolutionary implications.

There is real urgency behind these questions. We are living in what feels like an age of pronounced rage and near-constant outrage. There is a lot to be angry about, and everywhere you turn, people seem furious, indignant, and impatient. Every time I see a bold, outspoken, and unapologetically angry woman, I applaud her because of what her expression represents culturally. Despite the fact that many women are freer to take their considerable fury-fueled energy into homes, streets, schools, the workplace, and voting booths, anger is still poorly understood and, in women, often harshly penalized.

The truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.


From Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly. Copyright © 2018 by Soraya Chemaly. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.