Women are angry. Polls have shown that we’re getting angrier by the year, all around the world. We’re not supposed to be angry though, are we? We’re supposed to be calm and quiet, or at least sad and crying rather than irate and furious. But we have every reason to be angry, especially in the face of male violence against women. It’s no exaggeration to call it an epidemic; in 2021, five women and girls were killed by intimate partners or family members every hour. For survivors of domestic and sexual violence and for those who support them, there is a lot to be rageful about.
Misogyny on the Front Lines
In the two years I worked for a domestic abuse service, I often drove down the motorway screaming in the safety of my car when the rage became too much. Other ways workers in the sector told me they deal with their rage ranged from screaming until they cry, to boxing, to going for a pint. Working on the frontline of women’s services means being faced with reasons to be furious every day, but can that rage be useful or does it hinder us in our ability to help?
In Mona Eltahawy’s book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, she writes that we “must teach girls that their anger is a valuable weapon” against a patriarchy that “socialises them to acquiesce and to be compliant”. Most women today have grown up being told their anger is not ‘ladylike’, that they must ‘calm down’, that if they raise their voices then they are ‘bitches’, witches and nasty women. Viewing anger as a weapon means unlearning years, decades even, of social conditioning.
Camaraderie in Rage
In my job, I heard detailed stories of the violence, abuse, degradation and fear women suffer at the hands’ of men. Not only that but I saw how services supposed to protect survivors, such as the police, fail them, especially women of colour and migrant women. I would challenge anyone to walk away from a day in that office without a fiery ball of rage burning in their stomachs. And yet, it’s this fury that brought me to the job in the first place.
When I asked others working in the sector about their feminist rage, many of them described it motivating them to take action. Charlotte, manager at a domestic abuse service, told me that anger “sped me to action” and was the catalyst for her dedicating her life to supporting women. However, seeing the impact of violence on women’s lives up-close has had a profound impact on her, sometimes causing her to disengage or numb herself. “It’s not good enough to keep plugging the gaps,” she says. “The system has to change.”
Imogen, an activist and Disability Independent Domestic Violence Advocate, describes feminist rage as being “about activation and drive, it’s about wanting to stimulate change”. They say it motivates them and drives their activism, but it also has another vein that can be “incapacitating” and “comes with overwhelming frustration”. This is a constant theme, finding the balance between empowering anger and self-destructive rage.
Why we are Angry
Again and again, the world gives us reasons to be furious. The #MeToo movement, the murder of Sarah Everard, police taking photos of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman’s bodies. Each event has seen a rise of righteous anger, demonstrating what women can do when they embrace that rage. It can be difficult to hold onto those feelings without a satisfying outlet though. We have not been taught how to use our anger, so too often it can turn inwards.
Growing up, my body’s response to anger was to cry. It frustrated me, because I knew people would think I was sad, when actually I was furious. Tears stopped me expressing my anger, so it stayed inside. Now, I hold so much rage at the injustices women face, I have to shut down from the news or social media to protect myself at times. I used to leave work and hope a man harassed me so I could shout at him. I am aware of my anger, but still not in control of it.
Maya, a former triage worker for a women’s mental health service, says what made her mad one day wasn’t hearing horrific stories of violence against women at work. Instead, her trigger was being catcalled while cycling home. She described how the incident filled her with a “cold, sweaty rage”. When we don’t have an outlet for our anger, supposedly ‘small’ incidents like this can cause intense physical reactions. All the people I spoke to have turned their anger into action through their work, but their work also fans the flames of rage. To stop it from consuming us, we need to learn, together, how to release it in a way that is satisfying, healthy and disruptive to the patriarchy rather than to our lives.
The Mental Load
Studies have shown that women are more affected by burnout than men for a variety of reasons, including the gender pay gap and unequal mental loads. I wonder if some of that burnout is also caused by the unspent rage so many of us carry. Maybe if we found a way to burn up that anger instead, we would be better able to keep fighting.
What we need is a collective scream. A scream so loud, so full of rage, that it can’t be ignored. We need to stop being silenced. We need to learn how to feel our anger, to harness it for change, to express it fully so it does not sit with us and weigh us down. As Charlotte said, “I’m tired of carrying this with me. I want to pass this burden over to men.”