Soraya Chemaly still remembers the day her mother went out into the backyard of their home and started smashing precious wedding china, slowly and deliberately, before re-entering the house and resuming as if nothing had happened.
“I remember the silence. There were no words around the anger. It was just this kind of very visible destructive act,” Chemaly recalls.
It’s a childhood anecdote that begins the Washington-based feminist author’s new book Rage Becomes Her and helped Chemaly start to think about the screaming into the void quality of women’s anger - anger that has been traditionally pathologised and personalised, resulting in the emotion being tessellated into depression, anxiety and neurosis and finding its salve in the burgeoning wellness industry.
Chemaly says writing the book was a validating experience, inspired by her own journey having children and feeling a raw anger masked as anxiety at having to deliver messages to her teenager around sexuality and safety, she thought she would never have to.
“For me it was a like an epiphany. If you asked me if I was angry I would be like no! But I had all of these physical discomforts and pain. I would have said I have a lot of stress or maybe I’m very tired. But at that point it struck me it was none of things at all. So what is preventing me from actually just saying this – saying I was angry?”
The answer, Chemaly charges, is because anger for women has been socially unacceptable and taboo, conflicting against their mandated role as caretakers, responsible for maintaining communities and relationships.
But this denial, she argues comes at a cost to women’s physical and mental health.
“There are so many examples of women who are silent, sick or obsessively trying to be younger or thinner. So many different ways we’re socialised to turn in on ourselves.”
From #MeToo and #TimesUp, social media has been transformative in highlighting stories that have been traditionally ignored, giving legitimacy to women’s activism at the state and personal level - from the fight for reproductive health rights to the awareness of the pervasiveness of domestic violence and harassment.
“If you were a feminist person and if you were vocal about it you were told – you were exaggerating, you hated men, you had your own problems,” Chemaly said. “It was always this denial and gaslighting as a response which is very isolating.”
"I think it's helpful to know we're not all crazy!"
Chemaly maintains understanding racism is inextricably linked to the liberation project, with the trivialisation of women’s anger impacting women of colour disproportionately.
“If you think of slavery in America- there were horrific examples of white women perpetrating gruesome violence on black people, but they were simultaneously considered their husband’s property so the relationship between between oppressor and oppressed is quite intimate.”
“In the case of the black women, they don’t even have to be angry, they just have to wake up in the morning to be dismissed as angry and irrational and unpleasant.”
For Chemaly, channeling anger for social transformation is key, with women more likely to find relief in a march than in the psychologist’s couch.
“When I say women should embrace anger – I’m not saying to have some explosive rage, it is to understand that anger like water will find a way – either a way that is unproductive and unhealthy or you can find a way to think about it to create productive, joyful change.”
Soraya Chemaly’s book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger is published by Simon & Schuster. She will speak at All About Women n Sunday March 10 at the Sydney Opera House.