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Rebecca Traister: On embracing the power of anger

The Write Stuff

This is the final profile in The Write Stuff five-part series featuring literary journalists from around the world.

It's been 16 months since Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger hit stores - almost as hard as the American feminist writer has been hitting patriarchal structures across the globe.

As Donald Trump gears up to face the American voters again this November, Traister recalls living in the United States in the autumn of 2016 when Trump first won the White House. It was through sharing her personal response to that 2016 electoral outcome, Traister fully realised the potency of anger, a theme which drives her New York Times best-selling book.

"I was not surprised, and yet I was completely shocked that he was going to be President," Traister said, reflecting on her initial reaction to the results of the 2016 election. "What was my job as a feminist journalist, going into the Trump administration? What was my job as a feminist, what was my work, my responsibility? I was struggling ... and I was having that conversation with my husband and I said, 'The problem is, I can't even think clearly because I'm so angry'.

"In that elocution, I knew that anger was blocking me. I had to get around it - I had to get under it, or over it, or something - in order to do the work that I needed to do. And my husband said very casually … 'Well, why don't you write about the anger?'

The realisation that she could look straight at the anger, study it, that she didn't have to push it out of her brain, was an epiphany. "Once I began to [examine the role and power of anger], everything fell into place. I was like 'Oh! Anger has been there throughout all of this history I've ever written about ... women in the textile mills ... and abolition movements. There's the anger."

'Trump is not an aberration. He is fundamentally a symptom of a far bigger problem.'

For Traister, it would bring a defining change in her perspective. Through her research in the months that followed, she began to notice a pattern in global historiography - namely, that the stories of women using rage to drive social change had been strategically suppressed.

"We never talk about the anger, we're scared of the anger, we never look directly at the anger," she said. "Why do they a) never teach us about it, and b) teach us that it's bad? Because it's catalytic. Because it's often the spark that lights these transformative movements that change structures, laws, governments, norms.

"I write a bit in [Good and Mad] about the furious women who kicked off the French revolution. It was angry women at the marketplace who led the charge. They were furious and starving, furious about the price of bread. And men had been talking about challenging King Louis for a long time, and they hadn't done it, and it was the women who led the charge. It's true!"

"So many of these women's stories haven't been told, or if they've been told, they've been told in a way that whitewashes the anger, just takes it away. She cited the example of Mumbat, a Massachusetts woman enslaved in the home of a revolutionary male politician who vocally decried English tyranny in the colony. Mumbat, later known as Elizabeth Freeman, heard this rhetoric and applied it to her own situation. She petitioned for her freedom and won.

"Her case became one of the building blocks for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783 ... It's bananas to me that I had never been taught that story in school!"

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TRAISTER'S career as a writer challenging culturally-entrenched patriarchal social structures has not been an easy road. She describes herself as an "accidental journalist"; her first foray into journalism was as a fact-checker and writer for a weekly newspaper.

"My first piece of hate mail, it was in crayon!" Traister laughed, reflecting on the contents of the stamped envelope sent by snail mail. The angry note arrived in response to critique Traister had written on American teen TV star Tiffani Amber Thiessen. A very devoted fan of Tiffani had scrawled in crayon: 'You're just jealous because you're not as pretty as she is' or something'.

This first exposure to hate mail for expressing her opinion would definitely not be Traister's last, or the most vicious.

'We would get letters, with paragraphs, via email; then a comments section [and] the letters got shorter and meaner. Then we just wound up at Twitter, with a poop emoji, and that's that.'

Following her gig at the newspaper, Traister moved on to the trailblazing digital publication, Salon, where she was encouraged to write opinion pieces from a feminist perspective. It was here that the hate mail increased exponentially in volume, speed and bitterness. Although it predated Twitter and Facebook, Traister says that the feedback felt "lightning fast", first piling in as emails, and then instant, shorter replies on her work itself as the publication opened up a comments section online.

"We would get letters sent in via email ... letters with paragraphs. We'd sort through them and pick the good ones and the bad ones and publish them the next day as letters to the editor. It was soon after that in 2004 or 2005 that we began to have a comments section. That was the next phase, and then the letters got shorter and meaner. Then we just wound up at Twitter somehow, with a poop emoji, and that's that.

"But the angry letters [they were] ...'You stupid bitch! You just need to get laid!' That was pretty much the tenor. 'You'd be a lot less angry if you were prettier ... you don't know what you're talking about' and, you know, it was horrible."

Perhaps it was Traister's creative vein, or perhaps it was her sense of mischief, but the writer had an unconventional approach in store for dealing with the haters. "I started a practice of writing back to them. I wrote back to everyone who took the time to write to me. For people with constructive criticism, it was like, 'Thank you so much, you're right' or 'Actually I disagree with you on this one point…'. To pure haters, I would write back and say, 'Thanks so much for taking the time to write. We obviously disagree, but it's always rewarding for a writer to know that her work has provoked such an intense response in her readership.'

"This was meant to be a little twist of the knife. I would say the vast majority of them, 95 per cent of them, would immediately write back and say, 'Oh thank you so much for responding! I'm sorry I was so mean in my first letter. I always forget there's a real person there.' And they would start a correspondence with me. A lot of them just wanted attention and to be heard."

Traister continues to engage closely with her online following. In the final Democratic presidential debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses she reminded her 191,000 Twitter followers of then frontrunner Joe Biden's track record on "respect and dignity" in his treatment of Anita Hill.

As well as a decade writing for Salon, Traister has worked for The New Republic and contributed to The Nation, The New York Observer, The New York Times and The Washington Post. She now works as a writer-at-large for New York magazine. She has written three books: her first was the award-winning Big Girls Don't Cry which made The New York Times 2010 Notable Books list; and her follow-ups, All the Single Ladies, (2016) and Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger (2018) are both New York Times bestsellers.

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TRAISTER'S feminist attention stretches beyond American shores. Her mood, as she spoke with Newsworthy at UNSW Sydney last year for the Sydney Writers Festival, shifted from relaxed humour to fierce animation as she drew Australia into the international narrative of catalytic anger.

"Women's anger ... is recognisable everywhere. One of the things that went viral in the United States from Australia was politics — the misogyny speech from 2012, Julia Gillard. That's a speech that is born of fury and inequity ... Look at New Zealand. There's a female prime minister and there's a mass shooting and four days later, guns are outlawed. Around the world, there are women who are angry at the things that are broken."

Despite the fierce urgency evident in Traister's eyes and voice, what strikes me is her reasonability and the scholarly critical eye she brings to the debate. Having set out her criticism of social structures which have left tales of women's rage untold, Traister makes an elegant step back to clarify she isn't arguing that women's anger is "inherently more valuable than male anger." Rather, she said, her criticism is centred around the way females have historically been told that, in comparison to men's anger, which is often described as "leadership, drive [and] toughness", women's rage is reducible to caricatures of victimisation and overreaction.

She said it was also important to recognise that sometimes women's anger was deployed on behalf of unjust power structures as a result of a complex social phenomenon in which some women understand their own power to be derived from supporting patriarchal institutions.

"That's certainly true here," Traister said, referring again to Australia. "One Nation, Pauline Hanson. We have figures like that in the United States too. Women who are angry on behalf of fundamentally white, capitalist patriarchal power structures. Their anger is very potent ... So, I'm not arguing that women's anger is inherently progressive in its nature but I'm arguing that a lot of it is, because women are very often on the wrong end of those unjust power structures."

By this point in our interview, Traister had name-dropped at least half a dozen feminists responsible for engineering social change and sparking widespread discussion about gender inequity, a collective force slowly but surely driving social reform and empowerment for women around the world. As Traister tells the tales of these largely unsung heroines, it's apparent the writer herself should be counted among their ranks for her life's core work in voicing women's fury with honesty and precision.

"As a writer I was ironic and funny and cheerful and eminently reasonable at all times [but] there were a couple of instances that I write about in [Good and Mad] where I broke that. I was so angry that I let the anger loose in my writing. [What] was astounding to me, and I didn't think about until later, when I was writing this book ... was that the first column I wrote, that was just lividly, purely angry with no attempt to hide it, went viral.

"I'd had good readership in the past, but this was the thing that was being posted — people made t-shirts! I was largely pregnant and I was angry about an economic circumstance that I was in having to do with my job and my pregnancy. And I was just absolutely furious and I just let it out on paper and I couldn't believe my editor published it! It wasn't just about me. It was about a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the United States...it was about...stories of the mishandling of sexual misconduct cases on college campuses, catcalling of a young girl, the rape of a young girl, it was a bunch of news stories altogether and I just let loose. And it was massively viral.

"I was so surprised by it. I couldn't believe people wanted that. And I knew instinctively that it was not something you could replicate...that kind of thing only works once. It's stayed with me, that experience."

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OF HER interactions with readers, Traister said the vast majority of the haters, especially of the "you just need to get laid" kind, were men, but there were also women who wrote in to respond to her opinion pieces. A group of these, she said, were older feminists who provided valuable insights that pointed to further opportunities for research, or highlighted her early approach to feminist writing which Traister now describes as "unschooled".

"[They] became a very valuable part of how I understood generational difference. A lot of older women [were] saying, 'Learn your history.' I think the degree to which they were right, was that I didn't know enough about the second wave [of feminism] when I started writing about feminism. That was an important thing to understand, that I was being flip about it and working off of caricatures that had been presented to me during that period of backlash."

She recalls the attitude to feminism in the United States during her youth as "so suffocating and so frozen that I could not have imagined, as a young person, there ever being a place or outlet for the feminism that I was interested in, in an academic way...nobody called themselves a feminist when I was ... at university.

"[So] there's also a lot of criticism that was very valid that I still get about the blind spots in my work or what I do ... Much of that is ... valuable because it does remind me of the assumptions that I make and the narrowness of my perspective as a white, hetero, middle-class woman."

However, in defence of contemporary feminists, Traister says these women should be responsive to the given vicissitudes of society at the point of time in which they find themselves campaigning, and that sometimes, a fresh and unschooled perspective can offer women's movements the necessary momentum to make progress in their specific era. She sees a place for the next generation to have a degree of amnesia about what came before. "It's hard to see — especially when you've devoted your life to doing certain kinds of work — another generation come along and act like they've invented the battle.

"And I hope [when I'm older] I'm not writing angry letters to young people!" she laughed. "But I have no doubt that there'll be a part of me that's like, 'We did that!' and it's fine. That's fine. That's how it's supposed to go."

Trump's 2016 presidential victory triggered Traister's exploration of the process of harnessing female anger to forge social change. If she could meet him today, four years on, what would she say? "I have met Donald Trump, long before he was president. He is a ridiculous human being. When I was a gossip columnist back in 2000, he was a regular fixture and I often had to call him for a comment. He is a loathsome human being.

"But here is the thing ...Trump is not an aberration. He is fundamentally a symptom of a far bigger problem ... around the world. It is the rise of racist, misogynistic ... nationalism, authoritarianism …This is right at where we are globally. It is a global reaction to the rising power of women and non-white populations."

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