A Reflection on Feminist Rage
By Karly Stilling
So often these days, I am angry.
In the mornings, when I board the bus to work, I search for a seat next to a woman. If she doesn’t move her bag off of the seat next to her, forcing me to sit next to a man, I am irritated. I think, Come on. We have to be in this together.
Walking the busy streets to work, I make it my mission not to move out of the way. Why should I? The men never do. I take the impact of shoulder against shoulder with pride, trying my best to be an immovable barrier. Some say Sorry, some say Watch it!, but I don’t pay attention – I am too busy taking. up. space.
Coming home on the tube at night, I sit with my legs as far apart as my outfit will allow – my personal protest against manspreading. I go one stop further than I need to so the walk to my flat is along a busy, well-lit street. I leave my earbuds in to deter approach, but the sound is off so I can hear what’s going on around me. I am afraid of everyone, and my fear makes me angry. When I step in my door and lock it behind me, the fear is forgotten until I step out my door again, and I become angry at my forgetting.
I know I am lucky to be able to leave my fear outside my door. To have a partner who is kind and unthreatening, and who is not threatened by me. Who makes a point to raise issues of gender parity and equal pay in his male-dominated profession, who supports my goals as much as his own.
My borough, Lambeth, has one of the highest rates of reported sexual violence in London. I am lucky to have a safe space to come home to.
But what am I calling luck? Surely, a safe home and a supportive partner should be the least a woman can expect. And still, I spend my life grateful for this luck while fighting the fear and anger that come at me every day.
A few months ago I got into an argument with one of my partner’s friends. It was late, we were drunk and watching ice hockey in our living room, and it turned into one of those boozy arguments where neither side is really budging because the other side isn’t really listening anyways. I was trying to explain why one hockey team’s logo is racist (looking at you, Chicago Blackhawks) and he was not buying it. He seemed to enjoy getting me worked up, and I was getting worked up but definitely not enjoying it. Later, my partner said I couldn’t get angry at someone who doesn’t know any better. I responded that I wasn’t angry at his friend, but that I was angry. Angry at the system that enables a guy like him, an ordinary friendly white bloke, to go through life without ever having to question the status quo while people of colour spend their lives fighting against its limitations. Angry that what seemed a fun debate for him felt tremendously personal to me – even though I am as white as they come. It felt like the same feminist anger that has been percolating in me for decades: anger at the ignorance of the privileged.
Speaker and author Byron Katie said something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. “Defence is the first act of war.” She means, in part, that a defensive response only contributes to a negative situation. After all, fighting fire with fire just makes the flames bigger.
She’s not the only one to embrace a non-confrontational approach: feminist icon Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says, “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” And she should know – she has had an arguably bigger impact on gender rights in America than most other lawmakers or politicians. All through persistence and an ability to befriend those on the opposite side.
She also says, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” But I’m not sure I know how. Besides, I’m tired of the idea that feminists need to be agreeable to be effective.
There is a story in the Hindu puranas about the dark goddess Kali. A demon who was attacking humanity could not be killed—anywhere a drop of his blood landed, up sprang a new, fully formed demon. Shiva asked his partner, the goddess Parvati, for help. Taking the form of the ferocious Kali, she spread her tongue to cover the whole of the earth so that when the demon’s head was chopped off, she could swallow all the blood.
The demon was killed, but Kali became so crazed from his blood that she went on a rampage, killing every man she came across and wearing their heads as a necklace and their limbs as a skirt. She didn’t stop until Shiva, Parvati’s beloved, lied down in front of her. His submission woke her from her rage and she was transformed back into Parvati, goddess of love.
Rage is what happens when women spend decades swallowing the patriarchal poison, when we have to fight for every scrap of agency: the right to own land, the right to work, the right to vote, the right to control our own bodies. This kind of anger is dangerous—it can so often spiral out of control. But it has also been necessary to become a warrior.
When Byron Katie argues that defence is the first act of war, she is also suggesting that instead of meeting aggression with aggression, we can learn from it. “If you tell me that I’m mean, rejecting, hard, unkind, or unfair,” she writes, “I say, ‘Thank you, sweetheart, I can find all these in my life, I have been everything you say, and more. Together we can help me understand. Without you, how can I know the places in me that are unkind and invisible?’”
But what can women learn from patriarchy that we do not already carry in our bones?
I am in my kitchen trying to open a jar of salsa. I bang it against the counter and twist, but the lid won’t budge. My partner is out of town, there is no one to help me. I think two things: of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who died trying to open a jar of mayonnaise, and then, what good is my feminist rage now? I bang the jar against the counter again, harder, and twist. This time, the lid pops off.
I decide to consider it a feminist victory.