What does it mean to be a woman in 2018? It's a term in flux. For centuries, women were defined according to their relationship to men—as a wife, mother, sister, or daughter. Even until recently, Thesaurus.com proclaimed synonyms for "feminity" as soft, tender, and ladylike. But there's no doubt that narrative is dissolving.
Last year's Women's March saw two million people nationwide channel a typically "unfeminine" emotion: anger. And that's not a bad thing. "We are afraid of anger in general, I think, and see it as a negative emotion, [but] I don't believe this is true," says Leigh Melander, Ph.D., who hosts a women's empowerment workshop in upstate New York. "When it is seen, understood, and even honored, it can flow like any other form of energy—and can be a creative force as well as one that breaks barriers."
Jen Winston, activist and founder of Girl Power Supply, believes this cultural shift is just starting. "I hope young girls see 2018's marches and PDRs (public displays of rage) as empowering—a sign that they can be exactly who they want to be." Girl Power Supply's tagline, "Keeping you pissed off through 2020 and beyond," says it all. Winston argues it's important to maintain this momentum and act on the anger. The initial marches are over, but our work isn't done.
Here's why we're standing by angry women—and proud to be one, too.
If we accept that everyone experiences an array of emotions, why do we suppress or think less of women who express anger? Winston says it can be traced back to childhood. "From a young age, women are taught traditional ideas of femininity: politeness, agreeability, and making yourself small," she points out. "Meanwhile, men are taught traditional ideas of masculinity: dominance, violence, and never showing pain or fear. If we encourage boys to act the exact opposite of the way we encourage girls to act, then why are we surprised when boys don't treat girls with respect?"
It's a double-edged sword for women, says Melander, a cultural mythologist who examines how stories underpin our identity. "If you express [anger], you're a bitch, and if you repress it, you're a weak little girl. Everyone is the worse for it," she says. "It pushes people to become less of themselves, rather than the most they can be, and society at large loses the benefit of that person's particular energy and genius."
Winston finds it hard to talk about the suppression of female anger without raising the encouragement of male anger—most recently, shown in the shootings in Florida and Maryland. "Gender is the single most common factor in shootings across the country, and yet we tend to not think of gun violence in this way—perhaps because the problems are so deeply entrenched that we prefer not to think about them," she says.
The solution is so simple in theory yet incredibly nuanced in reality: Let's allow kids to develop their own sense of identity. "We need to make society a safe place for anyone to express emotions. That means allowing women to be tough and allowing men to be soft—before it’s too late."
Make Yourself (Un)comfortable
For many women, the marches signaled a shift in the way we think about and act on rage—which can only be a good thing. "I think that movements like the Women's March, like the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, are breaking that open in some important ways," says Melander. "First, I think that there has been an awakening in a lot of women that as uncomfortable as their anger may be, it is real, it is legitimate, and it is necessary." Giving women a platform to speak up, whether it be to disagree with a political opponent or name an abuser, sets a strong example.
"Whatever shame might emerge from it (either internally or externally), it has value and needs to be acted upon," she says.
In order to stride forward, we've got to address those feelings of shame. Melander says that while subtle, it can hold women back from expressing themselves. "How often, for example, as a woman, do you feel shame after you've been angry? And how much does that limit your ability to feel anger the next time around, and manage it so it can be productive versus destructive to yourself and the people around you?" she asks.
Learn to Channel That Rage
It isn't enough to simply give ourselves permission to be angry—we've got to articulate the source and channel it if we really want to create change, something Winston learned after the U.S. presidential election. "I like to think of anger as heavily charged energy, and when channeled properly, that can be a powerful thing. After the 2016 election, I let my rage drive me to a series of organized protests, events, and meetings. It was kind of like going on tons of dates after a breakup to help myself move forward," she says.
It spurred her to create Girl Power Supply to continue the conversation and create a community.
If you feel like the task at hand is too hard, too troubling, and that society is too set in its ways, call on Winston's advice to gain clarity. "I try to think of it like this: Showing our true selves is the day-to-day work. Smashing the patriarchy is the life work. To move forward, it's essential we do both." When the marches are over and the headlines tell a new story, that's something we could all do well to remember.