by Dani Cooke
On January 19, 2019, individuals in cities all over the world took to the streets for the third annual Women’s March. For some, it was a display of solidarity or allyship; for others, a policy-specific act of civil disobedience; or, for those identifying with a different side of the movement, an opportunity for counter-protest. In times of massive societal momentum like this one, the classroom is never exempt from these discussions. And, at a school like Watershed, the classroom embraces them.
This semester’s 11th- and 12th-grade Expedition class, “Gender, Media, & Technology,” seeks to explore how understanding gender, media, and technology—both independently of one another and as they connect—can help individuals develop agency in their lives. In the days approaching the Women’s March, the in-class discussion turned toward an examination of gender-related issues and the movements that seek to address them.
Using an episode of the podcast On Being, entitled #MeToo Through a Solutions Lens, as a starting point, we discussed the Me Too movement and contemporary feminism as it relates to intersectionality, anger, vulnerability, and alienation. Students began by discussing shame and the structure of gendered expectations in society.
“I think that there’s this instilled shame between groups of women, especially growing up—there’s no happy medium for a lot of the stuff we do,” Sophie Kennedy explains. “If you’re too conservative, then you’re a prude; if you don’t wear enough clothes, then you’re a slut. If you are mean, then people hate you; if you’re too nice, then people think you’re being fake.”
Societal expectations based on gender—often referred to as “hegemonic” or “prescribed” femininity and masculinity—apply to all genders, but have a tendency to manifest themselves in different ways. “For all genders, there is a ‘goal’ that everyone is striving for, and to not meet that goal causes people to feel ashamed,” says Teo Schollmaier, adding that the goal tends to be “more complex” for women.
Grace Phillips theorizes that the complexity of hegemonic femininity may have a basis in the fact that femininity has been reworked and redefined so many times, while the expectations for men have remained more static. On the other hand, however, especially in today’s society, men may find it more difficult to break free from these expectations. Theresa Dooley observes the greater range of acceptable behaviors for women. People associate allowing men to be more sensitive and feminine with weakness and view it as a step back, while women “stepping up” and acting more traditionally masculine is seen as an act of empowerment.
One such act of empowerment, according to Rebecca Traister, an author of the podcast, is the reclamation of women’s anger. “Women angry about workplace inequality helped launch a labor movement; women angry about racial inequality and injustice [helped launch] the Civil Rights Movement… A lot of this stuff is about permitting yourself to feel the anger, to note where there is inequality.” To her, anger is an essential foundation of the feminist movement.
In many ways, women allowing themselves to be vocally angry is a large part of the feminist movement due to the dangerous stigma surrounding men and emotion. Standard ideas of masculinity have come to accept that anger is the only valid emotion for men, whereas women historically have been encouraged to never raise their voices and to never show dissent. As a result, reclaiming anger as an emotion is the basis of deconstructing the expectations that uphold gender-based oppression. Further, certain ideas of psychology suggest that shame is anger turned inward; so, if shame is something that’s truly fueling gender inequality, expressing that outwards is one way to dismantle that inequality.
Anger can also act as a “wake-up call,” and the women’s movement is one example. Eloise Howell describes that the contrast between anger and the emotions typically associated with women might act as a bridge for communication between men and women. And Kate Hranko observes that the anger of women is often taken less seriously than that of men, creating an environment in which the emotion is all the more necessary to get things done; women are, at times, expected to “meet” the anger of men to get their point across. At the same time, as Leo Sipowicz adds, the association of anger with masculinity is a dated paradigm becoming more antiquated by the second and isn’t always relevant in today’s world.
Anger can also lead to impulsive actions. The line between a movement and a riot can deteriorate rapidly, and anger is instrumental in the maintenance of that boundary. Though it often shows itself a reflection of injustice—a necessary component of social justice movements, as Jacob Wolhandler states—it can also be incredibly destructive.
Some people set anger as oppositional to rationality; others see it as an offshoot of reason. Sophie emphasizes that, in the historical push for gender equality, “[women] have been calm and maintained composure, and should be met here rather than having to be compulsive or having to get angry in order to be heard.” Yet, in the eyes of many, that hasn’t happened.
Regardless of its justification, anger has certainly taken a place in the women’s movement. It shows itself in the chants and signs at the Women’s March and showed itself well over a hundred years ago at the inception of the movement for women’s suffrage. It carries through the foundations of social justice, commanding attention to injustice as it seeks to topple systems of oppression. Even if feminism could exist without anger, it certainly hasn’t and shows no signs of doing so.
As Rebecca Traister writes, “Anger is often an exuberant expression. It is the force that injects energy, intensity, and urgency into battles that must be intense and urgent if they are to be won… Anger is moving women and their thinking on inequality forward, in ways that are both legal and tangible, and also imaginative and ideological. And sometimes the anger is working its magic simply by existing, persisting, unrelenting and unapologetic.”