Last month, I started a blog to document “my quest to earn a catalytic grant.” Thanks for the positive feedback on my first post, which shared my gripe over a prestigious foundation’s emails not hitting my inbox — and their subsequent decision to invalidate my grant application.
I wrote about how frustrated I was. What I’ve come to realize in the last six weeks is: I’m actually ANGRY. Really angry. That’s surprising, even to me. I never raise my voice; I don’t swear; I have a very calm demeanour.
But reading Soraya Chemaly’s new book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, changed everything.
Dear Everyone, but Especially Men,
Please read Rage Becomes Her. You will unearth the language, the facts and figures, and a perspective that changes the way you understand every woman’s experience in the world.
Before I tell you how the book impacted me, I want to talk to men:
In this book, I learned that many studies reveal that Millennials hold more gender conservative beliefs when it comes to domestic and work life than prior generations do (pg. 80). This was shocking to me! Men between 18–34 are more likely to say that sexism does not affect women’s lives (38%), compared to 63% of their female peers who say it does significantly (pg. 224).
Men, did you know women on average have 1–2 impactful sexist/racist experiences a week? I don’t even have to look up that citation; I know firsthand it’s true (pg. 177).
Men, especially my fellow Millennials, PLEASE read this book and photocopy pages to distribute around the office, post quotes on your Facebook wall, whatever it takes. You will end up understanding what the women in your life have been up against since birth on a much deeper level, and it will make you a better partner, friend, and leader.
“If you are a man sitting in a room where there are no or few women or people of color, your first question should be whether you want to be complicit in the perpetuation of these problems.” (pg. 195)
Women have to do this as well for other women, and (white) men, you have to do it most of all, because you have power and privilege. I’ll give you an example. Earlier this week, I was invited to a roundtable discussion at a legendary foundation’s office, to talk about gender equality. When I got there, among the 15–20 guests, every single one was white. About half were men. I had a visceral reaction. My veins were pumping. I was furious. I cannot take another conversation about making the world a more equal place for women and girls when there is no racial diversity at the table —and the only faces of color are on a screen, in photos of the women who are “helped.”
As the discussion began, I sat there brewing, collecting my thoughts, calculating how I was going to conduct myself in a meeting that I wasn’t proud to be in anymore. When I was called upon, I took a deep breath. I said: “First, I want to thank all the men who are here today to talk about gender equality. You are important allies. As an ally to other women, I have to take a moment to acknowledge that there are no women of color present here today. And therefore, whatever conversation we have will be very limited.” Looking over to the organizer, I said, “It is absolutely essential that future meetings include them.”
Of course it’s important to back these acknowledgements up with all sorts of action, and to keep making the meetings, Committees, and forums you control as diverse and representative as possible. I’m continually working on that. But it starts with just calling out…and men, after reading this book, you will be able to call out and recognize so much of the structural inequalities women face.
The only thing I would suggest the publisher of this book do differently (when the paperback version comes out) is include a blurb on the back cover from an influential man, so that men recognize this as a must-read too.
Now, here is why I’ve been dropping Rage Becomes Her into my conversations at every single women’s networking event and friend catch-up I’ve done the past two weeks. I could spend hours talking about it (Book Club, anyone?), but here are three big ways:
#1, I realized I am indeed ANGRY
The truth is I may not have picked up this book if I was walking by it in Barnes & Noble. I would have looked at the intense red-and-black cover and thought oh, I’m not angry, this isn’t for me. Thankfully, my friend Kate mailed me a copy. And lo and behold, this book was written precisely for me. It’s for all women who haven’t unlocked the power of expressing their anger; and it’s for everyone to understand why it’s important we do.
Have you ever thought anger just isn’t productive? I sure did, and I was very mistaken.
True to research mentioned in the book, here’s where I measured up:
- as a middle-class white woman, I’m the least likely to suppress negative feelings and the least likely to be openly angry. (Sidenote: Soraya does an excellent job peeling back the layers of race and ethnicity in every chapter, because it’s so important to acknowledge the privilege white women do have).
- I learn to hide how I feel about power and its imbalances. As Soraya points out, “women are aggregated in sectors where being cheerful, accommodating, flexible, and patient, no matter the circumstances, are job requirements.”
- I choose words like “frustrated,” “stressed,” and “sad” to describe how I’m feeling, when I’m actually angry.
The more she described women who suppress anger, the more I identified with myself. I’m still trying to figure out how to express it without jeopardizing relationships that She’s the First may be dependent on in the short-term for funding. While my co-founder and I are frequently speaking out on the power imbalance in “charity,” between donors and their beneficiaries, I have yet to really speak my mind on the power imbalance between funders and myself, as a nonprofit grantee. In my first blog post, when the whole email fiasco happened, I had a physical reaction; my entire body tensed, my hands clenched into fists. I wasn’t just reacting to this one unfair situation, but to many of them that I have been suppressing the past nine years. I’m angry that women-led organizations don’t get funded at the level that male-led organizations do. I’m angry that the funders wanting to serve us uphold rules that make no sense.
Turns out that anger isn’t an unproductive emotion. Just the opposite. It’s a clarifying one, connecting you to what matters most to you, and it can be channelled into creating change. But to most effectively harness your anger, you have to fully understand why a patriarchal society doesn’t want you to have it. When you know what you’re up against, you can more effectively overcome it.
Which leads me to #2… I became less hard on myself — and instead, harder on the system
Once you are self-aware and recognize anger within you, you start to see that your rejections and weaknesses aren’t all personal flaws. Rage Becomes Her is chock full of research without being textbook-y. Reading it actually increased my confidence professionally, because it turned back the dials on imposter syndrome. It’s easy to think when you don’t have seven-figure grants at this stage in the game, that the problem is with you. This book pulled me out of my individual challenges to see the systems of structural inequality that I’m working within (and once again, I’m not even affected as negatively as women of color, those differently abled, or LGBTQ+). This isn’t to say we shouldn’t continue to be introspective about personal weakness — because we all have it. However, if a desire to be well-liked is holding you back, for example, it’s important to realize this is a gendered trait and push yourself past it.
#3, I was reminded of the power of personal history
In Gender Studies classes in college, we discussed how the personal is political, and Soraya illustrates that beautifully in how she bookends her research and brilliant writing with stories of her mother and her grandmother. I don’t want to give it away so that you can enjoy when you read it, but she dives back into her own matrilineage. This was one of the most memorable pieces of her writing. There is something deeply moving in how she turns her great-grandmother’s story, which could have gone into oblivion, into print that will never fade. As a woman today, it’s important to recognize that the women who came before us — regardless of the lore that may exist around their lives as mothers and wives — didn’t have the same chance that many of us have today to own our anger. It will come at a price, one that some cannot afford but many of us can. You can take that risk “of finding out how much what you care about matters to your community.”
That’s the risk I want to explore, in the “practice writing” I do here… with the intent that I can one day publish a book that is as meaningful to someone as Rage Becomes Her was to me. So in this post, I’m grateful for Soraya! (And Kate Gardiner, for sending me her book).