A documentary film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, has an interesting audio exchange from the time she was a lawyer pleading a case before the court. Her goal was to educate the male members about the need to establish equality for women in the pursuit of justice. A justice asks if putting Susan B. Anthony on the dollar wouldn’t do it for her. The film interviewer asks how she was able to not explode in anger and Ginsberg replies, “Anger would not have helped me achieve my goal.”
I thought of that exchange when coming across an upcoming book, “RAGE BECOMES HER — The Power of Women’s Anger,” by Soraya Chemaly, a writer and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. Chemaly writes that women and girls are cut off from the expression of anger as a function of being feminine, and wonders what the world would look like if they were allowed to express the full range of their emotions without penalty.
Anger is unquestionably a powerful emotion. Although Chamaly believes that men are given permission culturally to express anger in various ways, many people have difficulty managing that emotion. Its power lies in its intensity and the impulse to strike out physically evoked by the feeling. “I could kill you for that,” expresses the fear of action generated by the emotion.
Young children struggle with feelings of anger often expressed directly by striking out at another. Parents struggle with the challenge of acknowledging children’s feelings while helping them learn how to control the behavior. Controls often have to be provided while they are learning. It is a measure of how threatening their acting out behavior seems that parents often feel compelled to use forceful measures in response to such behavior on the part of their children.
Chamaly has a chapter on Mother Rage, which expresses the rage Chamaly feels on behalf of mothers over the idealization of motherhood and denigration of those choosing to not have children, the struggle that continues over abortion and the many attempts to interfere with women’s power over their own bodies.
She documents many of the indignities visited upon women during pregnancy and childbirth at the hands of the medical profession and others. A stream of negative examples leaves the reader with the impression that having children is a source of torment inducing women’s rage, which they are unable to express.
The degree to which motherhood and the treatment of mothers reduces her value as a person is an ongoing issue and continuing source of conflict for women. Helene Deutsch in “The Psychology of Women,” wrote that the conflict motherhood presents to women is “the inevitable conflict between the interests of the individual and those of the species.” This also refers to a conflict within women themselves.
The psychiatrist Daniel Stern, described the Motherhood Constellation, a particular mindset that emerges during pregnancy and may last for months or years. This mindset, influenced also by culture and individual personality, is one in which a mother’s primary preoccupation is with her baby’s well-being and her own connection to the baby.
In writing about the tasks of new motherhood, Stern describes the mother’s need to show first and foremost her ability to protect her child and to keep him alive. The stress involved in the baby’s dependence and her feeling of responsibility requires an environment in which she feels validated, encouraged and supported.
Unhappily, in today’s world, these are needs too often unmet. And it is the frustration about these unmet needs that Chemaly would like expressed in women’s rage.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.