My guest today is a woman whose book changed my life and my marriage. Soraya Chemaly is an activist, award-winning writer, and media critic. Her recent book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, was named the best book of 2018 by Fast Company, Psychology Today, Book Riot, and The Washington Post.
For me personally, it’s been one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. I got three chapters in and said to my husband, “You have got to read this. This book is a summary of what it’s like to be a woman in America. This is everything. If you read this, you will understand me 1000 times better because Soraya’s saying everything I’ve been thinking and feeling but couldn’t articulate.”
So he started listening to the audiobook and called me a half-hour into it and said, “I get it now, this lady is amazing!” and started piecing together all the same revelations I was having. We have since spent hours dissecting this book together. I think we both have a much deeper understanding of how we have been conditioned to express our emotions, him as a man and me as a woman, and that insight has really transformed the way we relate to one another now.
Soraya has this fascinating way of illuminating patterns and connecting the dots between all the little things that you know aren’t quite right and don’t make sense, and tying them together so you can see the big picture.
I want to begin with reading you an excerpt from the book which I think sums up its premise well and lays the groundwork for the questions I’m going to ask Soraya. She writes:
“Men more frequently associate feeling powerful with experiencing anger, but women, notably, associate powerlessness with their anger.
It’s as children that most of us learn to regard anger as unfeminine, unattractive, and selfish. Many of us [as girls] are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others, making us irksome and unlikeable. That it will alienate our loved ones or put off people we want to attract. That it will twist our faces, make us ugly. This is true even for those of us who have to use anger to defend ourselves in charged and dangerous situations. As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.
On the other hand, anger and masculinity are powerfully enmeshed and reinforce one another. In boys and men, anger has to be controlled, but it is often seen as a virtue, especially when it is used to protect, defend, or lead. Anger is thought of in terms of disruption, loudness, authority, vulgarity, and physical aggression and domination, and couched in terms of violence and clichés of masculinity.
Boys learn early on about anger, but far less about other feelings, which handicaps them—and society—in different ways. Socially discouraged from seeming feminine (in other words, being empathetic, vulnerable, and compassionate), their emotional alternatives often come down to withdrawal or aggressive expressions of anger.
…This book is an interrogation of questions that demand our attention, such as: What would it mean to ungender our emotions? What would the world look like if all of us were allowed to experience and productively express the full range of our emotions without penalty?
That’s what I want to explore with Soraya here today so that we can do better by our students. Along the way, we’ll also explore how these principles can improve our lives, friendships, partnerships, marriages, and so on, because every person is impacted by and restricted by these gender norms. Listen in.
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ANGELA: I want to start off with one of the most important terms that I learned from the book, which is benevolent sexism. And I think that the word benevolent makes a really important distinction, because a lot of people think that sexism only means hating women or consciously believing that men are superior to women. But benevolent sexism is something that’s maybe more prevalent and something that all of us have internalized to some extent, and therefore we need to examine. So I’m wondering if you can tell us more about that term.
SORAYA: Sure. So benevolent sexism, also sometimes referred to as ambivalent sexism, is not hostile. It’s not, as you described, a hatred of women. As a matter of fact, it’s often the opposite. It seems very caring, very paternalistic, very protective. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t reflect prejudices. That distinction between a hostile sexism and a warmer, fuzzier sexism is important because very often the insidious quality of sexism comes out of this idea that this is good for you, that the person who is enacting this sexism is caring for you. And that makes it very difficult, right? Because you don’t look at someone who’s smiling and opening a door for you or talking about how they would like to provide materially for you and think, “Oh, this is a problem for me. This is limiting my ability to live a free and equal life.”
So if, for example, somebody says, “Oh, women, they’re just better parents. They just have a caring instinct and men, they’re just not very good at it,” or if someone excessively complements a man for simply doing the task of taking care of this child, right? The foundation of that is that he cannot “naturally and normally” do that. It must be that he’s an exceptional man. And so that’s one good example, all of the gender essentialist ideas about feelings. Women are kinder, they’re more compassionate. They put others first, they’re more communal, all of those types of things.
On the flip side of that, of course, is that men are stronger and that they’re warriors and that they’re supposed to physically protect us and that they’re bigger. All of those generalized attributes then become institutionalized in things like who we think of as an ideal worker and how we think about protection. Men know that a big part of masculinity is this idea that they need to provide and protect, but in fact, women are providing and protecting all the time. We protect our families, for example, from food toxicity but nobody ever thinks about that as a form of protection because the word protection itself is so masculinized.
That’s a really great example. I really liked another one that you also give in your book, “Rage Becomes Her.” You talk about how benevolent sexism can show up in classrooms, and you talk about how research has shown that teachers ask boys more open-ended questions and that “When boys speak out of order in class, which they do at eight times the rate that girls do, they are not reprimanded as frequently or told to raise their hands and wait their turns.”
You also mentioned that “Girls’ higher grades in school are tied to their being good, meaning quiet, as they are to mastery of subject matter. And this compliance put girls and women at a disadvantage as they move into college and the workplace, where disruptive speech is an element of competence and self-promotion and competitiveness.”
I’m wondering if you can talk to us about what teachers need to understand to disrupt these patterns.
It’s interesting — It’s now been about 30 years of research about classroom dynamics, and over the course of those 30 years, the research has changed, the studies have changed, but these biases are really stubborn and consistent. And so we know from studies in linguistics, educational studies like those of classroom dynamics, sociology — it’s coming from many different disciplines — that linguistics really matter and that disruptive speech, so for example, telling jokes, using curse words, or being loud, all of that speech very early on is coded as masculine. It’s coded as a more male behavior. So girls who are loud or disruptive or funny are often excessively disciplined and reprimanded for that behavior because not only is it disruptive, but it’s also gender-transgressive.
And then when you add the element of race to that, it becomes much more complicated, yet again. So we know, for example, that starting in kindergarten in the United States, young black girls are disciplined, suspended, and expelled at excessively high rates compared to young white girls and even to boys. They’re often held accountable for acting in ways that in young boys is seen as rambunctiousness or potential leadership, and so that’s how the bias really plays out. What you end up with is that in part of the idea that boys are not doing their school work well or don’t have preschool preparedness or that girls are just better students, is that we are rewarding girls for conformity and for doing what they’re told, as opposed to for mastering a subject matter.
Is there something specific or actionable that you can think of that teachers can do to correct this, maybe a behavior that they can look out for in themselves or something they could do to sort of disrupt these patterns that would be a good first step?
I think that it’s a whole community effort. Teachers are really not aware — they’re humans. We’re all human beings. We all have these biases. In fact, a lot of research suggests that being aware of a bias not only may not help, but might in fact cognitively cause people to double down on the bias because people don’t like the association of guilt or shame or the idea that maybe they’re doing this, and that causes a kind of cognitive blindness or stubbornness.
But, one of the things that I always recommend is that an assessment be done by schools, like What’s really happening? Can we do some classroom observations? Can we film what’s happening? Because what is often the case is a teacher will say, “Oh no, that’s me. I don’t have that at all. I’m very aware of this.” But if you show them a video of their interactions with the classroom, it’s very clear, for example, that they’re making more eye contact with boys, that they’re rewarding girls for holding their hands up, but they are allowing boys to just not do that and to answer anyway. It’s very subtle. It’s very granular. It’s quite pervasive. So one would be this idea that you need a climate survey or an assessment survey so that you can frankly convince a lot of people that it’s happening and that it’s meaningful.
This 12 minute TED Talk can be used by teachers to introduce students to the concepts we’re discussing in this podcast episode.
I want to share another quote from the book here. You wrote, “As children, we learn that the realm of feelings is feminine, so it is easy for men and boys to fall into a habit of outsourcing relationships, social networking, and the emotional work that comes with them. Women will spend time and effort sending holiday cards and gifts to family members, arranging teacher’s presents and coach’s retirement parties. We are often busy not only managing our own feelings, but also regulating the feelings of others.” I’m wondering if you can talk about this emotional labor a little bit and how this shows up not only with students in the classroom, but in teachers’ personal lives, too.
I think now we have decades of academic study about this quality of emotional labor, which technically was coined by Arlie Hochschild, maybe 27 years ago. She was describing the work that people do, overwhelmingly women in service industries, for example, the emotional work of suppressing their own feelings in order to set other people at ease. And she used the example, at the time, of maybe flight attendants or nurses, and teachers also have a high quotient of emotional labor that they do. In fact, the stress of the labor that teachers do, which includes this kind of labor, which is, “Be kind, be nice, be patient, put aside your negative feelings, put aside your exhaustion, make sure that you’re focused on others,” all of that care work and nurturing work, it’s stressful and it’s exhausting. So teachers have extremely high burnout rates all over the world and yet we don’t talk about those impacts.
So the expression that I write about in the book is called punching down, and punching down is that you take that frustration that you have and you get angry at someone who is less powerful than you, and that might be your child, for example, right? You go home and you lose it with your spouse or your kids in a way that you can’t at school or in your job. And so those are really all tangled up together.
I have another really powerful quote from your book that I want to share here: “When women are asked why they are tired and frustrated, they don’t say ‘Discrimination and bias are wearing me out today.’ They usually say it is because they are always working, are taken for granted, never have enough time, and can’t make ends meet financially, all of which have direct links to discrimination and bias…The jobs that women tend to do are intensely emotionally demanding and require suppressing negative emotions such as anger… Women are aggregated in sectors where being cheerful, accommodating, flexible, and patient, no matter the circumstances, are job requirements. These are idealized maternal qualities that, when fulfilled on demand, require constant suppression of negative emotions and trigger high stress.” Can you elaborate on this?
One thing that I have found healthy and useful is the ability to have people around you that you trust or that you rely on as a community with whom you can express those feelings freely. It may be other teachers, it might be a circle of friends outside of school, but part of the issue is that there’s a lot of conflict in saying, “These kids really tick me off,” right? You’re supposed to care for these kids and teach them and nurture them and grow them into kind human beings and curious people. But that is really hard. And saying that, “This causes me stress,” or, “This makes me angry,” can also be hard.
I think it’s interesting because professions like teaching and nursing are maternal professions, right? They literally are female-dominated, largely because they have been traditionally and continue to be seen as extensions of mothering, responsibility for children and responsibility for the health and well-being of other people. And we’re not supposed to feel frustration or anger about that responsibility because in the magical world that we live in, it just makes us warm and fuzzy and happy to sacrifice everything for others. And I think there’s a lot of that in teaching.
Right. If you don’t enjoy giving of yourself selflessly, of doing everything for the kids every minute and always setting your needs aside, then maybe you’re not in the profession for the right reasons. Maybe you don’t really care about kids. I think there’s a lot of that kind of pressure going on.
I think there is too, and it goes even deeper to the issue of identity, which is, “You’re not a good person. You’re not a good person because you feel these negative emotions,” which are frankly the most reasonable and rational response to the situation you might be finding yourself in, under-resourced, no time, no money, no support. That’s often the situation that teachers find themselves in. And yet, we just, as a society, expect them to give of their time and energy and their bodies and their minds, and it’s a whole job. It implicates every aspect of your existence.
How do you think this is different for men who are in the profession? Because I’ve talked on the podcast before about how the expectations for all teachers are based on expectations for women. As you said, teaching is seen as an extension of mothering. And then when men enter the field, a lot of times they’re held to those same expectations.
That’s right. It’s interesting because I think a lot of male teachers that I’ve talked to, they’re still experiencing the slight stigma of entering a women’s field. And they do actually, as teachers, often have — within the field of education — higher status and more pay, so they will tend more to go into administration or for example, to teach in high school as opposed to in primary school, or elementary school. So within teaching itself, there are all kinds of subtle hierarchies, right? Are more men teaching STEM classes, for example. Those dynamics are reproduced even within the education system. And yes, I do think men feel this exact same exhaustion and stress and pressure. But I would also say that it’s sometimes different in nature, in its quality, because men still are not thought of as intrinsically, inherently designed to do this work. So it’s almost as though some people, including parents, feel that men have to overcome their maleness to be good teachers.
Yes. They’re suspicious of them.
They are. They’re suspicious.
They’re like, “Can I leave my kids alone with this man?” in a way that they wouldn’t think about that with women.
I want to go back to something that you were saying in the beginning about the different types of tasks that men and women are responsible for and how in the home, something that a woman does on a regular basis is something that she is expected to be naturally good at, such as managing the logistics of childcare, meal preparation and that sort of thing, whereas if a man is doing it, then he’s seen as sort of helping and the type of maintenance tasks that men are often responsible for at home are more isolated chores. So it might be something like going to get the oil changed in the car, or something like that, versus the day in, day out, daily grind. And you talk about the constant decision making that so many women are making minute by minute, especially caring for kids in the home and how that makes a woman’s workload just so exhausting. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Yes, I think that one of the major social public policy issues we have is care work and who does it and who is recognized for doing it and paid for doing it. Even in the U.S., we know that girls and women are still doing much more of that work, whether it involves children or the elderly or just domestic chores. I think the average is two hours more, including in children. If kids have chores at home, girls are on average doing two hours more than boys. Boys are also more likely to be paid for their chores and to be paid more for their chores and to do chores that are marketable outside of the home. So think of the difference between unloading the dishwasher, which a girl might be more likely to do, and mowing someone’s lawn, which a boy is more likely to do. The boy can mow the lawns of 10 people in his neighborhood. The girl is not going to empty the dishwashers of 10 households, right?
I mean, that literally is the way children learn sex segregation in labor and they learn it really early on and they learn lessons about whose time is valued. Even adults, we know in childcare, men and women do different types of work and the quality of that work can produce a lot of stress for women. A man might, for example, give a child a bath and that bath will be fun. You can have fun bathing a child, less fun bathing three children admittedly, but you can have fun bathing a child. If, however, you are responsible for making sure that a child has all their medications and their EpiPen every day and you are responsible for the logistics of making sure that the child can get home every day, that’s a different order of stress, that maintenance of every small detail that can be life or death sometimes. Because these are really often dangerous situations, even though we don’t think of them as dangerous situations, because if we did, it would be overwhelming. So the quality of the care that men and women provide also really matters, not just the time spent doing it.
So what you’re advocating for really is a sort of an ungendering, one of the terms that you use in the book, so that we’re not thinking, “All men are just naturally strong and protective and all women are just naturally kind and caring, enjoy giving of themselves, and their number one thing that fulfills them for all women is childcare,” that sort of thing. We’re sort of ungendering these qualities, and you’re also talking about ungendering emotions because there are certain emotions that are permissible for women to express and some that are permissible for men to express. Can you speak to that?
We do have these feelings that women are infused with emotionality and that just has something to do with our biology, and men, on the other hand, don’t have feelings, and that’s really debilitating to everyone. We know that the lessons that children learn about gender are really powerful lessons about emotions, who gets to have them, and who can express them. Boys, very, very early on, learn that masculinity means being strong, means being stoic, means not showing vulnerability or weakness, both of which are seen as feminized and feminizing.
Little boys are often cut off from feelings of sadness or fear and empathy, whereas girls are supposed to embody those feelings and to ignore, reject, and minimize the more powerful, negative feelings they may have, such as anger or behaviors associated with anger, like aggression. And so what often happens to boys, as they grow up, is they feel that they cannot express their fears or their sadness in a way that other people would hear them or understand, and the most extreme outcomes of that are higher rates of suicide and violence against other people because not being able to express your emotions is deeply unhealthy, and boys learn to externalize that negative aspect of their lives with violence. Girls, on the other hand, subsume all their anger.
Exactly. And a lot of times, I think we’re not even calling it anger. We call it frustration or impatience or we’re exasperated, we’re irritated because even just owning that word, anger, is so difficult. I know I feel that way.
Absolutely. I mean, adults will look at a baby. Even in infancy, adults will look at a baby girl and a baby boy and the children will be behaving in the exact same way, but the adults will describe a baby girl as sad or in need of help in some way, and they will describe the baby boy as angry or touchy or with some kind of aggressive, fighting, metaphor language, even though the children are acting the same way. Adults will look at a girl who’s angry and say, “Oh, she’s sad,” and they will look at a boy who’s sad and say, “Oh, he must be so angry.”
It’s amazing. It’s like wearing a pair of sex segregation goggles when we look at people and that goes on through adulthood. We see it constantly, but anger and sadness are really different, right? I mean, anger implies this idea that you might be able to control something, that you want to make some change, that you have identified a problem and that you are demanding that something happen, for better or worse, whereas sadness is a retreat emotion. It’s a much more resigned emotion and it has more empathy in it, but it also has a quality of powerlessness to it.
Right, and so if you can’t express your anger without being seen as irrational or emotional or some other negative quality to it, and you talk about it in the book, about how that anger is our first line of defense against injustice, being able to speak up when something’s not right.
Yes, that’s right. I mean, anger is this vital emotion in human evolution. It is a signal emotion. It tells us when something’s wrong. It tells us that we are suffering an indignity or a threat. And so my question really is, what are we doing when we separate access to that emotion from girls and women? What are we saying to them? Because what we actually do is we make indignity, unfairness, acceptance of slight and insult, and threat imminent in our notions of femininity. Those become part and parcel of being good girls and good women. And on the other hand, for boys who are denuded of other emotions like sadness and even acting kind, their sense of themselves becomes dominated by this idea that anger and angry expression is how men are real men.
I love how in your book you help us see anger as a useful emotion and not necessarily a negative one. Can you share some strategies for women to make their anger into something that’s useful?
Well, first of all, I think a lot of us, and this was certainly the case with me, we struggle to even name our anger. As you said, sometimes it’s hard to recognize the anger and it requires us to unlearn so many life lessons so that we can even articulate the idea that we’re angry. Once we do that, once you say, “Oh, actually, this feeling I have, I’m angry,” a lot of us have problems even getting to that point, so once you say, “I’m angry,” the second thing to do that is really vital is to understand the meaning of that anger. What is the anger telling you?
Anger’s full of information. Audrey Lord said that decades ago. What is the information in the anger and what are you going to do about it? And once you’ve identified the meaning of the anger, then step three I would say is, now what is your plan? What are you going to do? Because you’ve identified a problem, you’ve identified that the problem is meaningful to you and that in order for you to eliminate the problem, something has to happen. Who has to help you do that? Is it your spouse? Is it your coworker? Is it your child? Is it someone you don’t even know? And so the solutions range from being applicable in a personal setting, a professional setting, and a political setting. In all three, anger is relevant for bringing you to that knowledge in the sense that you have the right to be heard and have your problem solved by yourself and the people around you.
I want to wrap up with a return to this thought about ungendering our emotions and making it possible where in many ways, it feels like women can express any emotion but anger and men could only express anger, and how limiting that is, how it really limits us from being able to express a full range of who we are and how we’re feeling and how anger should be an emotion that is accessible and acceptable for women, and how men should also be able to access their other emotions without it being “unmasculine” or weak or feminine, which are often seen as synonyms in some ways.
And so I’m thinking about the people who are listening to this who are working with children every single day, who may be parents themselves, who might be seeing these issues show up in their own marriage as I have seen. What advice would you give them? What is something that you wish that every person listening understood about this process of ungendering our emotions?
This is, I think, extremely simple and I hope not simplistic, but men and women are far more alike than they are different. And yet in our society, all of the emphasis is put on the difference. We’re all human beings. We all have these emotions. Everybody feels anger, everybody feels sadness, and it makes no sense to be gendering these feelings. As a matter of fact, not only does it not make sense, it is definitively harmful to people and to society. What I’m saying is, if you find yourself thinking in terms of gender, if you find yourself teaching children politeness norms according to whether they are, for example, boys or girls, challenge yourself to stop doing that, because even the most basic childhood lessons about how to behave have such a long tail in society. There’s no reason why all children can’t learn to be kind and considerate to other people in exactly the same way.
And that’s what I think we need to understand, we need to get at. We should resist the urge to tell boys that they have to be stoic and that they shouldn’t cry or to be considerate of others or empathetic is actually to be weak. They get a lot of those messages by default. So in addition to just not doing it, we also have to counter those messages, right? We have to make sure that girls understand that it’s okay if they feel angry and we have to stop punishing them for being assertive or being aggressive, which are also different from anger. In girls, we don’t distinguish among those three things very well. If a girl is just forthright and confident and shares her opinion, many people will say, “Wow, she’s being really rude or really pushy,” and so she goes from being sassy, which is a sort of cutesy term for a young girl who shares her mind, to being a hormonal teen who is obnoxious, even though all she’s trying to do is say, “I believe in this. It’s important to me. Listen to what I’m saying.”
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