The need for women's Anger
The necessary fire of women's anger in print—past, present, and future.
Hello dear readers. Like many women, I’ve been reading and thinking about what it means to make room for women’s anger. Aswrote in a fantastic post this week about her early days at Jezebel, which has recently been shuttered—where does women’s rage go—and how do we resist a world that tells us it is too disruptive, and worse, not marketable enough (ugh)?
I wrote about women’s anger in the early days of this newsletter—and how one of the earliest works in English by a woman was a retort to the blatant misogyny of the ‘woman question’ that was endlessly debated, mostly by men in print. The woman’s name? JANE ANGER.
Maybe it is a pseudonym—maybe not—but regardless, it’s the kind of wink the universe gives when it’s saying the obvious and we still think it might be chance and ignore the point entirely: that woman’s anger—in print and personified—is one of the first subjects to be addressed in print by a woman is no accident.
I wanted to share that essay this week, as there are many of you who are new subscribers (thank you!), and also to (humbly) be in conversation with so many of the fantastic writers on substack who are also writing about women’s anger, who create space as they write for all women to feel more seen, whole, and heard—such as and — to name but a few taking back the spaces that larger gatekeepers try to keep closed for women’s writing.
When I first moved to Alaska—a place my husband is from and wanted to return to—we were both starting new jobs in a new place. His new work took him to western Alaska for a month to do fieldwork. As a result, I started my new job in this new place with my dog, navigating Anchorage. Soon after we arrived, cities of boxes from the first home my husband and I had bought together in Oregon arrived, and I unpacked the tetris of our older life, trying to make it fit into the small apartment we had been able to find ahead of the move. Needless to say, my introduction to Alaska was not a soft one. It had ragged edges. It asked me to dig up the roots I had in a job I had loved, to move north with the person I loved more.
As Kate Zambreno writes in her book Heroines:
I am realizing you become a wife, despite the mutual attempt at an egalitarian partnership, once you agree to move for him. You are placed into the feminine role—you play the pawn. Once you let that tornado take you away into the self-abnegating state of wifedom. Which I did from the beginning, now almost a decade ago, quitting my job...so we could live in London and he could attend a graduate program.1
I felt that realization. I had never resented being a wife before, but that summer, I could feel myself growing more angry. Angry that because of internalized misogyny, my husband and I both never really questioned whose career we would follow, despite our beliefs in being equal partners. I wanted to help him not feel homesick—but then I was the homesick one in a way I had never experienced—and I had lived abroad and in cities that were not my home previously with pangs, but nothing I couldn’t recover from. Alaska is a very distinct place—I’m still trying.
Some friends visited us that first summer of our move, and I said something of my frustration, missing my old job and friends, of feeling so uprooted. One of them asked me in a conversation, “why are you so vitriolic?”
The question hit me hard—because I was feeling vitriolic. And I was ashamed at it being so obvious, and yet angry that there was nowhere for my anger to go. I was angry that Alaska was coming between my husband and me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I was angry at myself for that—and at society, the world.
My mom has asked me the same question at times. Once when I was working at the museum 60 hours a week, trying to please a boss who would repeatedly criticize a perceived lack of time spent at the museum, despite working each night at home until at least 11 pm and weekends—desperately clinging to be present in my 8-year-old son’s life, picking him up from after school care to be home and present at dinner and before bed. Having lunch with my parents felt like another demand in a hectic time, and I was angry about it—not at them, but at being in a situation of constant scarcity, of my professional commitment being questioned by a boss who held to manic, masculine ideals of what work looks like while still being a woman. And in the same breath trying to have lunch with visiting parents, who I also wanted to make time for but which also meant time away from the office. While we waited for our water my mom asked: why are you so angry?
How can we not be angry—how can we go about life without feelings of anger towards history, toward the chasms in history that remain invisible, the raging exploitation of people and resources, inequalities, injustices—all of it.
I’m angry because there should be no reason today that a woman cannot work and be present for her own child. I’m angry that women are expected to still do it all. I’m angry because of how women’s rights in this country are disintegrating before our eyes—and how rarely people in this state, let alone the country, seek to rectify the injustices of genocide and slavery that made this country what it is and now are screaming at school boards because they want to talk about it even less.
We are constantly told anger is a dangerous emotion, to never let it show lest you make someone else uncomfortable. Another way we are taught to make ourselves smaller for other people’s comfort.
But those admonishments to never show anger are told to us because anger has power. Anger causes things to change. It’s a catalyst. I understand why so many platitudes tell us to let anger recede, to stay calm and carry on, to move forward from the past, to let it go. But for me, my anger feels more like a fire that reminds me I am lit from within, that without it, we move to acceptance of standards that discriminate and oppress.
I want to be alive to the fire that tells me there is still so much fuel that needs to burn—to change it into another form of matter than what it is currently masquerades as. Critical race theory opposition rhetoric needs to burn. Ignorance of Indigenous genocide and oppression needs to burn. Misogyny and patriarchy sure as hell need to burn. All of it can feed something greener and more alive than what we have been handed and told we must learn to accept.
My etymology text tells me that anger has roots in the 13th century, when as a verb it is rooted in Old Norse, angra, “to grieve, vex, distress.” As a noun, its use dates slightly later—the mid-13th century—rooted from Old Norse angr—here given as “distress, grief, sorrow, affliction,” also citing a Proto-Germanic word angaz, meaning “tight, painfully constricted, painful.” Finally, it notes that Old Norse had the term “angr-luass,” as in ‘anger less’—meaning ‘free from care.’
The hint that anger arises out of grief, distress, sorrow, and affliction feels right. Anger is so much more than rage or wrath directed outward; it's about the grief of being hurt, oppressed, painfully constricted. And it’s the last meaning that gets at the crux of it—angre-lauss, free from care—meaning anger is essentially care. Because that’s what anger feels like to me—like giving more than a damn. Care for the things that constrict and hurt one’s self at times, but especially care for others who are experiencing hurt, grief, sorrow, and affliction. Polite silence does not create change.
In one of those great ironies that only rediscovered history can provide, the first woman to have published a polemic proto-feminist work under her own name in early modern England was named Jane Anger.
While some scholars suspect that her name was a penname—which many later women writers adopted when responding to misogynist texts, with fantastic names like Mary Tattlewell and Joane Hit-him-home (!)—there were several people with the surname Anger in England at the same time that Jane Anger wrote her feminist essay.
Jane Anger—Her Protection For Women (1589) is framed within the querrelle des femmes—otherwise known as “the woman question”—which began in the 1400s through the nineteenth century. Arguably, it has never stopped. It was common during the heights of the querelle des femmes for men to publish arguments against the education and equality of women, maligning women and the reasons they should not be considered equal with men. Several women who witnessed these misogynist attacks refused to stay silent, writing their own defense in return. It’s been difficult to track down if Anger wrote in direct response to a particular misogynist text—but regardless, hers is the first work by a woman to publish a full-length defense of her sex in English.
for the first time, her text brought a distinctive new voice to English writing, which emphasized the voice of female anger.
Jane Anger wasn’t following the rules of staying silent, and she wasn’t following rules by politely arguing her case. She was anger personified as a woman. Another source3 writes that by doing so Anger
…transformed the idea of masculine models of composition to invent a female writing style to suit her enterprise.
Anger’s work criticizes masculine rhetorical styles with their overemphasis on “manner” over “matter.” She repeatedly points out that men misinterpret women because male writers assume that women are incapable of entering the male sphere of print, writing:
their slanderous tongues are so short, that the time wherein they have lavished out their words freely hath been so long, and they know we cannot catch hold of them to pull them out, and they think we will not write to reprove their lying lips.
I love how her anger is placed front and center and doesn’t hold back, how she employs wit and humor, inviting laughter while also making fun of the men who hold themselves superior:
Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a-madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing. Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women? Will the gods permit it, the goddesses stay their punishing judgments, and we ourselves not pursue their undoings for such devilish practices? O Paul’s steeple and Charing Cross!
O Paul’s steeple and Charing Cross!—a new exclamation for the vocabulary of vitriol and anger, from the mouth of Anger herself.
Even now writing about anger, I still have that reflex of worry—that I sound too bitter, too much. But I refuse to push away a fire that can fuel questions, that doesn’t want to accept the way things are when they feel so instinctively wrong. To stay polite and hope for—and expect—something more.
Anger asks us to think critically—to cause change for others and for ourselves. Aswrites:
Silence is golden for the men who smother and intimidate women into not talking, or have them change their tune to maintain harmony. Silence isolates his victims; and it enables misogyny. So, let us break it.4
In homage to Jane Anger: O Paul’s steeple and Charing Cross! Yes. Let us break it.