I used to be angry about all of it. How we aren’t allowed to make choices about our sexuality. How we aren’t allowed to make choices about our lives and our bodies. How we have been told time and again that our nakedness is shameful and needs to be covered in case it ‘encourages’ the supposed male breeding imperative. Fuck you.
My anger came from feeling powerless about my situation, about the system and about the extent of abuse–both conscious and unconscious–that I had experienced. Anger made me feel in control again. I saw others going through the same desperation, the same suicidal feelings, the same oppression, and I got angry. The inequality that people suffered, day after day, both men and women. It made me furious and I ranted about rape culture in my articles (furiously).
Then one day I stopped being angry.
At first, I felt guilty about not feeling angry. What had happened? Wasn’t anger a healthy expression at the outrage in the world? I should be feeling it!
“Feminists,” I told myself sternly, “should be angry. There’s a lot to be angry about.”
I teach my kids is that it’s okay to be angry. Let it out. Mostly they’re angry from not being able to go to bed when they want. Or that I give the last ice lolly to their sibling. Both stem from feeling ‘second best’, insecure and powerless. Being angry allows them to assert their will and perhaps have it change my mind. Unsurprisingly they get most upset when I remain calm and unyielding… because it means their anger isn’t working. Note to self: sometimes you have to let it work, so that they can see they have power.
I know about second best; through being adopted, and never living up to the ideal child that my adoptive parents wanted, and also from polyamory where I felt demoted from primary partner to primary-in-name-only partner and then no partner at all. I was angry about it. And in my experience feeling powerless about feeling oppressed, second-best–or in some way insecure either directly within yourself or indirectly reflected back at you from the mirror of the world–will ignite anger.
That is, in broad strokes, what the feminist in me used to be angry about. Our so-called powerless, second best-ness.
But for a period of years before I stopped being angry, I’d been working on my self-esteem because I feared the impacts my extremely low self-esteem would have on my children. My privilege enabled my healing; through education, through systemic benefits, through easier access to therapy. I am grateful for it. It gave me access to tools so that I could heal. That didn’t mean the work wasn’t hard. Because as anyone who has done the work can confirm, a lot of it is working with the largely invisible subconscious. How do you know if you’ve built up your self-esteem? For one thing, you stop feeling as powerless and second best. You have far less need to feel angry.
So the radical conclusion presented itself to my mind. Maybe I wasn’t angry because I truly didn’t feel powerless and second best – any more. Despite the injustice I saw around me every day, it simply didn’t resonate like it once had. I didn’t see myself as powerless or insecure. And try as I might, I couldn’t get angry. Privileged people find it easier to be less angry, not because they cannot see the injustice, simply because most of the time it isn’t personal to them. The risk is that when it’s not personal, it becomes easier to ignore; not because it is less important but because it becomes less urgent to deal with. Anger is no longer needed for me to survive. I have wielded my privilege to live in a liberal, financially secure household and accessed the resources easily available to me, to heal.
I believe that I’m not angry anymore simply because anger is a deeply urgent response mechanism to the feeling of being personally powerless and second best.
Not feeling angry, didn’t mean I couldn’t feel anything else. I did feel an abundance of other things; determination to bottle that feeling and distribute it as much as I could (because you know, feeling powerful and secure is wonderful). Motivation to empower others, to widen our range of choices, so they might feel less desperate and less suicidal. Grief at the experience of so many. And an unparalleled ability to laugh about the hate that spewed relentlessly into my email account due to my ‘provocative’ lifestyle and outspoken views.
Angry feminism is often the most visible face of feminism. It does the work of unpacking the invisible knapsack of patriarchal privilege by calling out examples in vitriolic real time. We cannot avoid angry feminism, and nor should we want to because the anger is the emergency and human response to feeling powerless and second best. The purpose of anger is to assert will. To reclaim power. Anger speaks to those who are angry. It is a valuable and valid response. But movements, like charities, should not only have emergency response systems but also sustainable development systems. Angry feminism is not the only way to work as a feminist. And we can all choose to work in the ways that suit us best.
Whilst angry feminism is akin to an emergency response, if it is the only response it is not sustainable in the long run. I cannot be angry anymore. So I’m more like the sustainability team in a charity. I’m the one who comes in after the angry feminists have located the wound and stymied the bleeding. Without their vigilance, I would not know what to work on.
As an educator in the feminist and polyamorous movements, my work is currently in the domain of ‘agency [power] and responsibility.’ Helping people understand how it works, and why when you have agency, it is better for everyone that you assume responsibility for it (and not for other people’s). There is very little responsibility for power in this world because our society is built in a hierarchy which has for its sole purpose to pass the buck. Politicians blame other politicians. Managers blame staff, staff blame managers. Few stand tall and say, I have personal responsibility for my power.
Although I was part of the emergency response team in the beginning, I’m better equipped now to explain rationally and potentially with less provocation than is created by outraged anger, what may redress the power inequality and how people might choose to take responsibility. How they might modify the underlying wounds which prompted those oppressive behaviours in the first place. But I’m still part of the same team. I have children whom I neither want to perpetuate nor suffer from the system. I do not want them to further the oppression. And if that isn’t urgent and important work, I don’t know what is.