The fear and dismissal of female anger along both gender and racial lines, has roots that go deep — “It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious and angry woman,” alleges Proverbs 21:19. (Studies suggest that, unlike men, women who express anger or lose their tempers in the workplace are seen as less competent and therefore less valued.) Females learn to curb their hostilities from a young age, and when female aggression is deployed, it has to be tiptoed around, gussied up with a shiny coat of lip gloss, an updo and a wink or, as evidenced in many a junior high school hallway, communicated passively, along back channels and in whispers.
What is all the more infuriating about such prohibitions are the breathtaking hypocrisies they contain. Sometimes it seems that those most likely to mock anger as a means of dismissing and silencing legitimate female claims of dissatisfaction are those most likely to utilize the politics of resentment and victimization for personal or ideological gain.
Take Newt Gingrich. On Jan. 19, the same day that this newspaper published an interview with Marianne Gingrich reiterating the trajectory of her marriage, the Republican presidential candidate enlisted an adviser to undermine his ex-wife by describing her as “probably very bitter.” Later that evening, when Gingrich was asked about the allegations at a debate moderated by CNN’s John King, he refused to entertain or engage the issue.
It was stunning: Instead of graciously acknowledging that the split with Marianne had been difficult or painful, instead of expressing regrets about the role he played in it or allowing that his version of events differed from that of his ex-wife, he all but called Marianne a liar and launched into a self-righteous tirade about his own victimization at the hands of the mainstream media. The assembled South Carolinian crowd ate it up.
Lose the guilt
That the first lady of the United States felt compelled to defend supposedly unflattering characterizations is unfortunate but not entirely discouraging. The CBS interview is the first time Michelle Obama has made explicit, public reference to accusations of ungratefulness and unhappiness, often racially based, that have dogged her for years. The best defense, after all, is a good offense. As writer Litsa Dremousis asserted in “I’m Mad at You Because You’re an Idiot, Not Because I’m a Woman,” a recent and highly trafficked post on the women’s Web site Jezebel, it’s “time for more men to understand our behavior isn’t aberrant, and for more women not to feel ‘guilty’ for not staying in the narrow range of traditionally accepted emotional responses.” (Full disclosure: I used to edit the site.)
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren did just that. The Senate candidate and Harvard professor, appearing on “The Daily Show” to discuss the state of the American economy, didn’t skip a beat after her ire over corporate lobbying in Washington was called into question by host Jon Stewart. “For a second, it does seem like you’re a little mad at me,” interjected Stewart, leaning away in apparent discomfort with the zeal on display.
Warren responded by tilting her head to the side — as if to say, “I’ve heard that one before” — then delved into an animated discussion of Chinese vs. American infrastructure.
Stewart didn’t interrupt her that way again.