Rebecca Traister Headlines First Student Engagement and Women’s Center Lecture

by Samantha Walla Asst. Production Editor

Manhattan College’s Student Engagement Lecture Series kicked off the year with an event co-sponsored by the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center at noon on Friday, Sept. 7. The lecture featured Rebecca Traister, a journalist who writes for New York Magazine in addition to her three books. Her most recent, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, comes out on Oct. 2. Her previous books, All the Single Ladies and Big Girls Don’t Cry, were named Notable Book of 2016 and 2010, respectively, by the New York Times. The latter was also the winner of the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. The lecture, which dealt with Traister’s research for her book, focused on women’s anger as a political force.

Traister spoke about the implications of day-to-day interactions that women experience, such as being urged to smile. While it may seem like a nicety to be told to smile, Traister urged her listeners to think about where that comes from. 

“That message on the street from strangers is ‘don’t be negative, don’t be querulous.’ The proper and appreciated view of femininity is one that is contented, not angry, not disruptive,” said Traister. This type of interaction is not limited to the streets; Hillary Clinton was told to smile by Joe Scarborough, a host at MSNBC, after winning several primaries. Nancy Pelosi was also criticized for “embodying bitterness” and frowning during Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Additionally, Traister pointed out that powerful women are usually photographed with their mouths open.

“This is the image of the woman who we’re told scares us the most: the one who has her mouth open in loud and assured complaint. It is the angry woman who is the big threat,” said Traister.

The connection between anger and power was also a prominent theme of Traister’s speech. 

Traister discussed the #MeToo Movement, drawing attention to the story not only being about the repercussions many faced after being exposed for their crimes, but how for decades many evaded repercussions even when their stories were out in the open.

“One of the chief traits of the powerful is their ability to suppress and discourage those who would challenge their power by dissenting and expressing anger,” said Traister. “We try to suppress women’s anger in part because we understand power. We in this country do understand and should understand the power of mass anger. It was our founding narrative and we fetishize it as our founding narrative. Think about it: ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ ‘live free or die,’ ‘don’t tread on me.’ This patriotic catechism, we carve it into our buildings. We obsess about it.” 

Traister highlighted how these expressions of mass anger are only considered rational, patriotic and admirable when it comes from white men. These notions are not only applicable to historical events, but to the 2016 election. While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were praised for their channeling of mass anger, Hillary Clinton faced criticism for being “shrill” and yelling. In the New York Times review of a debate in which Sanders was congratulated for being controlled, Clinton’s “ferocity was risky given that many voters already have an unfavorable opinion of her.” 

“Anger is a regular, normalized mode of expression for white men in America,” said Traister. “That’s in part because white men have always been our normative citizen, our intellectual ideal. Their dissatisfactions are understood and being rounded in reason and not this emotional buck of femininity.” 

While writing Good and Mad, Traister revisited the media’s coverage of the Women’s March. Despite being the biggest single-day protest in this country’s history, the day-after coverage largely ignored the protest. However, Traister cited the increase of women holding political office and the #MeToo movement as responses following the example of the march.

“I believe that all of this has shaken us to our foundations. I believe that it is the stuff of insurgency, not something that’s going to happen next week. Political movements in this country take decades. This is a long term fight. Nonetheless, I believe that it is an insurgency against a white male, patriarchal, capitalist minority that is clinging desperately to its power.”

She continued, bringing to light the influence of race in discussing anger and power. “I want you to begin to hear how common and how pervasive this kind of language and these reversals are, how we register anger that’s coming from those with less power as violence, while any violence perpetrated by those with more power is so normalized to be indiscernible. It’s obviously not just about gender, it’s about race.”

After her speech, Traister took questions from the audience, which she cited the as her favorite aspect of visiting colleges, as she likes to hear what students in different parts of the country are thinking about. Traister was particularly glad that people asked about race and white women and their role in today’s politics.

Liola Moody, a political science and international studies major, asked Traister’s opinion of the recent anonymous op-ed about the Trump administration published in the New York Times.

 “I think my favorite part was just how much she knows,” said Moody. “I feel like now we hear a lot of people speak just to speak, because there’s a lot of opportunities for people to have their voice out there, but a lot of times it’s really not knowledgeable. But the fact that she really understood the pressure and she really answered to the best of her ability. She wasn’t speaking just to hear herself talk, she was speaking to teach.”

“I got chills,” said Carolina Perez, also a political science and international studies major. “My philosophy teacher told us to come for class, but it was actually really interesting and I’m glad I came. The way she talks, she’s so passionate.”

Above all, Traister wants to change how people listen to women and understand their anger as valid political thought. 

“Begin to tune your ears to how this works. I want you to think about whose voices are being discounted. Who is being told, as Pamela Harris was earlier this week, that they are ‘out of order.’ That they are causing the chaos, that they are disruptive, that their mouths are loud. And I want you to think about the fact that those messages are being sent in part because the people who are sending them understand the power of those loud mouths and that disruption. Because that power is, in theory, perhaps, revolutionary.”