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  • Debbie Dougherty

Oh my dear, you misunderstand. We are not angry. We are furious.

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Women, Injustice, and the Anger Gap

Debbie S. Dougherty
She Must Be Angry (picture by Freya Clark) .

Debbie S. Dougherty
COWW--Cranky Old White Woman (picture by Freya Clark)

After reading my last blog post, a friend of mine reached out to share an experience she had while defending her women students from unequal treatment at a university event. The male faculty in charge of the event told my friend that she had “anger issues” that she needed to get under control. Another friend of mine recounted the experience of the only Black woman leader in an organization. She was called out for being “angry” every time she spoke up to address inequity issues—one of the things she was hired to do. Let me put this in very clear terms. She was called angry simply for doing her job.

Why is it that any time a woman stands up for other women, she is charged with being “angry?” More importantly, why do people see a woman’s anger as a problem?

Consider this. When confronted with gendered injustice, women experience more anger, but display less anger than they do in everyday life. Jolien A. van Breen and Manuela Barreto call this phenomenon the “anger gap.” Why does this anger gap exist? It comes down to the power of gendered stereotypes—stereotypes that are driven by race, sexuality, social class, age, and ethnicity.

For example, Black women face the “angry Black woman” stereotype, regardless of what they say or how they say it. In fact, in one experiment, when participants listened to recordings of women sounding angry at work, they were more likely to believe that Black women were angry because of their personalities rather than because of the situation. Ultimately, this attribution translates into lower performance ratings for Black women in the workplace.

White women are stereotyped as “the nice white lady,” so anytime we do something interesting or try to speak to injustice we are called out for being angry, because, you know, being angry isn’t “nice.” Consider the whole “Karen” phenomenon. Originally, the label “Karen” was reserved for white women performing a particularly aggressive verbal form of racism. However, more recently “being a Karen” is used to label any white women who publicly expresses anger.

I asked some friends for labels that they have heard used to describe angry women. They came up with “witch, battle axe, COWW (Cranky Old White Woman), bitchy, the negative one, aggressive, and embarrassing.” In contrast, there are very few negative labels used to describe men. Why? Because we expect men to display anger. The research is consistent and clear on this issue. In fact, anger is so strongly associated with men that people take longer to categorize a face expressing anger as female.

Women avoid displaying emotions when faced with injustice because they do not want to confirm “negative” stereotypes, nor do they want to disconfirm “positive” stereotypes. Hence, the anger gap. There are consequences. Anger may be a productive force to address injustice, but stereotypes cut women off from anger as an option. In this way, stereotypes reinforce hierarchies of injustice for both women and for other marginalized people.

What are our action steps? First, accept women’s anger. Accept and own your own anger. We have earned the right to our anger by living in a world that is filled with violence and injustice toward women and marginalized people. We have a lot to be angry about right now as our rights are being ripped away and our strongest women leaders are being targeted with violence. In fact, I think we should lean into our emotions. We are not just angry. That word is too mild for the violent world that women face every day. It is time to own our rage.So, to those people calling out women for being merely angry at injustice, I say “oh my dear, you misunderstand. I am not angry. I am furious.” #IamnotangryIamfurious

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