Women Are Angry

When progressives say "women" do we really mean only the women with whom we agree?

November 9, 2018

When you read the title above, which women came to mind? Was it the women who were angry for Christine Blasey Ford, or the ones who were angry at her? There are plenty on both sides.

This is the basic question that Casey Cep raises in her excellent New Yorker review of the recent spate of books on women’s anger. Cep makes the point, “… anger knows no political persuasion. For every Maxine Waters, there’s a Michelle Bachmann; for every Gloria Steinem, a Phylis Schlafly. At the same time that Chemaly, Cooper, and Traister (authors of recent books on progressive women’s anger) were watching their own angry takes and rage-filled tweets go viral, Ann Coulter, Candace Owens, and Jeanine Pirro were watching theirs do the same.”

Rebecca Traister’s best-seller Good and Mad, for example, traces the impact of women’s anger throughout history, from the righteously angry American women at the 1972 Democratic National Convention to the righteously angry women who stormed Versailles during the French Revolution. But, as Cep points out, not much space is given to Sarah Palin or the women who power the Pro Life movement. 

Cep calls this the “rampaging elephant in the room” that progressive intellectuals almost never deal with. She sums this up with a classic Ogden Nash nugget: “a notable feat/of one-way thinking on a two-way street”. 

There are all sorts of important intellectual questions here, but the one that I want to raise for now is about language. When progressives say ‘women’ do we really mean only the women with whom we agree? And if we do really mean the latter, why don’t we just say it? Instead of saying ‘women are angry’, for example, why not be more specific and say ‘The women I generally agree with on politics are angry about issue X’?

Intellectuals and academics pride themselves on the precise use of language. It is therefore surprising how we go from using identity labels like ‘black’ or ‘women’ in a way that mostly describes physical/biological characteristics and then a moment later deploying the same term as an ideological category. It happens frequently and without fair warning.

A simple illustration: when progressives talk about the importance and effectiveness of women’s anger, they are not talking about Sarah Palin. Yet Sarah Palin is clearly angry, and she is clearly effective. After all, no other American woman has sailed on her anger to a major party Vice Presidential nomination.

So, is Sarah Palin not a woman? Does someone have to fit a certain ideological definition of ‘woman’ to count in the physical/biological category ‘woman’? Who gets to make that decision?

Indeed, there is often a vast distance between the views of individuals in the biological/physical identity category and views of the (often self-appointed) leaders of the ideological identity category. (We should recognize that gender fluidity is a reality for an important set of people who ought to be recognized and have rights and protections, and also that in a physical/biological sense most people still categorize themselves as either ‘men’ or ‘women’.

The classic case here is abortion. My progressive friends refer to this as the quintessential women’s issue. That makes sense when you think about how anti-abortion policies limit the freedom of women in obvious ways. What it doesn’t account for is that a variety of surveys over the years seem to suggest that more women in the biological/physical category ‘women’ actually oppose abortion than people in the biological/physical category ‘men’.

As this article from the UK paper The Guardian puts it: if only women voted on abortion rights, they would probably vote to restrict them. If only men voted on abortion rights, they would probably vote to liberalize them.

You can see how the women in the biological/physical category ‘women’ who want to restrict abortion can be frustrated when they hear progressive women writing and speaking about abortion as a ‘women’s issue’, and really only ever pay attention to one group of women. After all, are the women who seek to restrict abortion not, well, ‘women’?

What was that Ogden Nash quote again? 


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