Good and Mad, or Incoherent and Willfully Blind: The Deep Thoughts of Ms. Rebecca Traister
The Women’s March of January 2017 was incoherent and angry. Ashley Judd’s hilarious “Nasty Woman” speech contained nary a coherent thought. My wife asked her online friends what the women marchers wanted. A friend of hers answered with a picture of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar taking a selfie with John McCain and Bernie Sanders. The Minnesota-Nice senator admires these men (or are they human beings?), and hence sees herself as beneath them and hence beneath all men. That is why these women were in a tizzy?
Righteous anger is a not un-laudable reaction to a perceived injustice or a slight. When the injustice is real and remediable, anger points toward constructive political action. Still anger is a short madness, said Horace, and can be a bad counsellor. People become angry for a reason, but is the reason a good one?
Enter Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger to explain the anger of women. Buy the book and reflect light on it. The white dust jacket, when sheened properly, has a subtle imprint on it. “F*CK F*CK F*CK F*CK” appears all over it. By Zeus, Ms. Traister is angry! And she is happy other women are angry too. She wants them to get angrier. Women’s anger is a revolutionary force. F*CK Yah Sister!
The “outward signs of [women’s] progress [are] so visible, so indisputable, that it [seems] hard to conceive of being so belligerent,” as Ms. Traister concedes. Indeed, women make up an increasing number of lawyers and medical doctors, rapes have been on the decline for years, more women are in the workforce, women earn nearly 60% of undergraduate degrees, sex discrimination is illegal and frowned upon, diversity is celebrated, ever fewer women claim to think motherhood and marriage are important elements of their identity, and so on. A feminist agitator in 1968—a Betty Friedan, for instance—would marvel at the strides made in women’s advancement. Perhaps feminists should declare victory and close up shop.
Some inequalities linger. There are fewer women CEOs and fewer women in some hard sciences, engineering and high technology. Yet such inequalities are not simple products of discrimination. Why are biology departments, which graduate more women on average, not discriminatory while physics departments, which graduate fewer, are? Why is political science, with lots of women graduates, nondiscriminatory, while philosophy, with fewer, is? The lingering differences between men and women is a product of genuine choice: women choose to go in other fields and to take non-CEO jobs because women are free to follow their interests and talents—and these interests and talents are different from men’s, in the main.
Ms. Traister rolls her eyes at such bunk. She is angry, despite the evidence, or because of it. She has complaints, some systematic, others occasional. Let’s look at her list of grievances.
Sometimes systematic misogyny stokes the anger. Women face “the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment.” “Sexism . . .mingle[s] with class and race to create unequal opportunities and outcomes.” Women face “bias, oppression, and inequality” that the women’s movement “aims to dismantle.”
Men head this system. Feminists face “the structural difficulty of persuading women to express sustained, public anger toward their most direct oppressors: men.” Women do not even notice the subtle ways that men oppress them: “double standards, intellectual disregard, objectification, sexual harassment, pay inequity, differential domestic expectations and burdens, unequal representation, the banality of daily diminution.”
Women still have a long way to go. How far? Ms. Triaster implicitly adopts Susan Moller Okin’s standard of justice.
A just future would be one without gender. In social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes. No assumptions would be made about ‘male’ or ‘female’ roles; childbearing would be so conceptually separated from child rearing and other family responsibilities that it would be a cause for surprise, and no little concern, if men and women were not equally responsible for domestic life or if children were to spend much more time with one parent than the other. It would be a future in which men and women participated in more or less equal numbers in every sphere of life, from infant care to different kinds of paid work to high-level politics
The argument is simple: all disparities (at least the ones that feminists do not like) are traceable to discrimination and oppression; systems of oppression are eliminated when all disparities disappear. Until then: feminist rage against the system.
Troubles plague this disparities-equal-oppression argument. Feminists such as Ms. Traister are highly selective in the disparities they complain about. Until Ms. Traister complains about the sex disparities in auto mechanics, electricians and other vocations hers appears to be a demand that society’s benefits be redistributed to upper middle class white women. Does she think that murder laws, which disproportionately convict men, are disparities that need to be erased? Of course not, but why?
She makes a series of other charges referring to specific events and personages in our politics. Because Trump—authoritarian misogynist. Because Hillary. Because Harvey! Harvey! Harvey! Because Clearance Thomas. These events reveal that cads and rakes are celebrated and women, labeled whores and sluts, are denigrated. Here the system comes home to roost. Obviously Trump, the thrice-married, serial cheater and lover of porn stars, is, after all, a sign that the sexually-repressive Handmaiden’s Tale has come to America. Or so Ms. Traister implies.
Her arguments make sense if you believe in the innocence and veracity of all women and hence in her fevered interpretation of events. Ms. Traister has, borrowing from the bard, “no other but a woman’s reason; she thinks [it] so because she thinks [it] so.”
Ms. Traister is right that part of that drama in human life plays out between men and women. Her imagination only sees a drama concerning power and equality. Women are angry because men have power and they are not equal. Sex and love are expressions of power. Differences in job distribution are signs of patriarchal power.
This leads to the second big problem with her disparities-equal-oppression argument. We live in a multivariate universe. Perhaps some lingering sexism exists. Nature, nurture, and choice make up the ways men and women lead their lives—and all of these aspects are valuable to each of them. Men and women love one another—so they will make sacrifices for each other. Men and women work together—and bring different priorities to the table. Men and women attract one another and for different reasons—and such attraction is not simply objectification and it often misfires. I would be angry too if I inhabited Ms. Traister’s ugly, false world where every relationship is power and all men are guilty. Perhaps she should consider reading some Tolstoy or Jane Austen—or leaving her hidebound ideological world to consider people who love and strive and what makes human beings happy.
Standing as a refutation to Ms. Traister is the paradox of female happiness: as women do better they are more unhappy and likely to be medicated. More equality promises to deliver happiness for feminists, but it never does. Expecting to achieve happiness through securing equality is like trying to achieve youth by resetting one’s clock: no amount of equality yields contentment. Ms. Traister’s radical feminism, with its sterile understanding of what women should want, may do much to empower women, but it does not a little in making women angry about the human situation itself.
Scott Yenor is a professor of Political Science at Boise State University and author of Family Politics (Baylor, 2011); David Hume’s Humanity (Palgrave, 2017); and Reconstruction: Core Documents (Ashbrook, 2018).