Angry Women Are Taken More Seriously When They’re Moms

Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad touches on a key point about female rage: It's more palatable when it’s framed as a maternal instinct.

Benajamin Nadler / AP

At the heart of Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad—a history of women’s anger and how it has shaped society and politics in the United States—is a deep, righteous indignation over the right to get deeply, righteously indignant. Women fed up with their lack of opportunity or unequal treatment have, throughout history, been known to ignite movements for progress and social change, but women’s anger has also, as Traister writes, “been received—and often vilified or marginalized—in ways that have reflected the very same biases that provoked it.”

Throughout the book, Traister tells grim stories of women who acted publicly in outrage and were punished or belittled for it. Just in the past year, there’s Caitlin Marriott, the congressional intern who yelled a pointed profanity at President Donald Trump and was promptly suspended; 18-year-old Emma González, who expressed fury at legislators’ inaction on gun safety after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and was, as Traister describes it, “scoffed” at by many in the press; and Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who, when they’ve used aggressive tones with men during hearings, Traister notes, have been described by conservative commentators as “hysterical” and “positively unglued.”

Yet Good and Mad posits that there are a few particular types of female anger that are generally exempt from this type of backlash. Which is why, Traister explains, women learn pretty quickly to either hold in their anger or channel it into something more palatable—like caustic humor, indignation inspired by God, or mama-bear protective ferocity. She goes on to suggest that historically, women who have expressed fury on behalf of their children, their household, or some other sort of family-like flock tend to get better results than women who publicly express their fury in other sorts of ways. In other words, the anger of women has a better shot at being taken seriously if it’s recognizable as, or reminiscent of, a mother’s protective anger. In other words, women’s anger is often taken more seriously when it’s packaged as mothers’ anger.

Indeed, when Traister offers examples of women who have packaged their anger as a maternal instinct, often they’re the success stories, the women whose dissatisfaction has been taken seriously. For example, there’s Mary Harris Jones, otherwise known as “Mother Jones,” who fought for the rights of miners and other laborers—“her boys,” as she called them—in the late 1800s. More recently, there’s Senator Patty Murray, who as a young aspiring state representative drove to the Washington State Capitol with her two small children in tow to give speeches about state cuts to preschool funding. (She was derided as “just a mom in tennis shoes,” which later became her campaign slogan.) And then there were the conservative women who protested and ran for office during the Tea Party uprising in 2010, dubbed “Mama Grizzlies” by Sarah Palin. As Traister puts it, “these women voicing their anger and throwing around their political weight weren’t caricatured as ugly hysterics; instead they were permitted to cast themselves as patriotic moms on steroids.”

This isn’t just a political phenomenon—it wound up in the spotlight a month ago when Serena Williams, during the hotly contested U.S. Open final, invoked her motherhood in an outburst after the umpire penalized her for on-court coaching: “I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right for her,” Williams said.

But the anger of mothers has proven powerful on the political stage lately, too. One of the most influential lobbying groups pushing for gun control is Moms Demand Action, whose self-described mission is to enact “common-sense solutions [that] can help decrease the escalating epidemic of gun violence that kills too many of our children and loved ones every day,” and whose membership numbers grew from 70,000 to more than 200,000 after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February. And in recent weeks, conservative women have invoked their roles as mothers of sons to defend Brett Kavanaugh as he faces allegations of sexual assault; it is on behalf of their sons, the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and others have said, that they believe men should be considered innocent of alleged sexual misconduct unless proven guilty.

And as further evidence of the political strength of mothers’ discontent, some of the most popular and bipartisan laws affecting women in recent decades are those that look to empower them as child-rearers and family-builders. Ending pregnancy discrimination, for instance, has for decades been a rare common cause that unites feminists and family-values conservatives. In recent months, several commentators have observed the same unlikely tandem effort emerging in the push for paid family leave. Meanwhile, other efforts that aren’t so explicitly focused on helping mothers, like expanding access to contraception or closing the gender wage gap, remain as divisive as ever.

The other kinds of female anger that Traister focuses on are often less well received and less politically effective. The culture may have accepted women’s right to be angry on behalf of their children, but it’s less accepting of women’s right to be angry on behalf of themselves.