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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On the Ethics of Hysteria

Women's March (AP Images/Elaine Thompson)

Women's March (AP Images/Elaine Thompson)

Ryvenna Lewis and Sara Tangdall

Ryvenna Lewis is the manager of the Health Care Ethics Internship and Sara Tangdall is the program manager in business, leadership, and social sector ethics, both at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but women these days are angry. We are downright...what’s the word men often use to describe us? Hysterical.

Within the past two years, women’s anger has become front and center in our national discourse.  Examples of female rage are everywhere. From social movements like Black Lives Matter (which was started by women), the Women’s March, and the #MeToo movement, to individual examples like Serena Williams getting angry during the U.S. Open finals, rage is, well, all the rage. And within the past two weeks, the Kavanaugh hearings have thrust women’s anger into the national spotlight like we haven’t seen since, perhaps, the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.

In truth, women have been angry for years. As Abigail Adams foretold in an oft-quoted 1776 letter to her husband John Adams: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” So it’s not so much that women are newly angry. Rather, the activism we are seeing now is a continuation of a tradition of women’s anger.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, protestors were labeled as “hysterical”--a word rooted in the womb (think “hysterectomy”) and with a long history of being used to strip women’s anger of power in an effort to silence them. At the same time, Kavanaugh’s anger during his testimony was lauded as “righteous,” and he was confirmed and is now serving on the bench despite behavior that would’ve easily disqualified a woman seeking the same position to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. On the flip side, Christine Blasey Ford was calm and apologetic during her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ford, like so many women who have come before her, did not have the privilege of getting angry lest she be seen as irrational, laughable--hysterical.

But why has there been a concerted effort to thwart women’s anger and label it as hysterical if it is so irrational and laughable? As Rebecca Traister makes clear in her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, it’s because women’s anger fuels change: “What becomes clear, when we look to the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger--via silencing, erasure, and repression--stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.” Women’s rage has been downplayed in order to maintain the status quo, and women have ingested the message that in order to be heard, we shouldn’t get angry because anger gets us nowhere; we must remain civil. But history has shown us this is a false narrative.

Historically, women have had to get angry and perform acts of civil disobedience before seeing any kind of progress towards equality. Traister points out that many acts of civil disobedience that Americans have held up as shining examples of heroism have been fueled by angry women. She provides Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B Anthony as examples of women who were incredibly angry before engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Traister says, “We are never forced to consider that rage--and not just stoicism, sadness, or strength--were behind the actions of the few women’s heroes we’re ever taught about in school.” These examples also illustrate that when women channel their anger into civil disobedience, social change happens.  Usually, this social change is towards a more ethical society, a society that values and embodies things like equality, respect, and human dignity.

Ethical systems based entirely upon neat, tidy, logical courses of action fail to account for high emotion. And it is high emotion which motivates major social change. Outrage is both passion and action. Purely logic-based systems ask people to feel “reasonable” passion: through acts which are societally supported, primarily through personal giving and volunteerism such as donating to charity, adopting stray animals, feeding the homeless. These are seen as appropriate channels for female emotion. Passion, directed at breaking down structures is less appreciated.

Incremental change to a broken system is simply not always enough. When women are sent messages that the system exists to support a specific subset of men and that female voices do not matter within the system, it is time for that system to end. Not incrementally and not slowly. Outrage or “hysteria” is a useful tool for dismantlement. Society argues for incremental change because it is safer. When you make major changes, there are always repercussions; there are always casualties in the wake of said change. However, women’s voices are calling out for this kind of major change because we are willing to take the risk of being casualties, because we already are, in the current paradigm.

Major societal changes aren’t about a series of reasonable courses of action, because they come about only when countless unreasonable courses have already been taken, when gentle course correction toward a greater good has become a fantasy. It is then that outrage becomes the most useful ethical tool in the arsenal of human emotion. It is, in fact, healthy and very human outrage which drives the kind of civil disobedience which has led to massive civil rights improvements in the modern American way of life.

Let’s be clear: we’re not advocating for burning down buildings to get the appropriate levels of attention for these issues. Justified emotional reactions are not an excuse for terrorism, and we want to be make sure that we’re seen as reasonable people advocating for a course of action which pushes boundaries but doesn’t actually scare anyone. (Because we’re women writing this piece and we’re still worried about appearing unreasonable, and, well, hysterical.)

But there is no framework here, no neat set of tools to decide when outrage is appropriate. It is an ethical weapon, and we use it to tear down walls. Women often have to get mad before progress is made.  In an effort towards a more just, fair, and equitable America--a more ethical society--all women, regardless of political affiliation, can and should use their anger, their hysteria, to do good. We applaud the efforts of Anita Hill, Emma Gonzalez, Tarana Burke, Aly Raisman, along with millions of women working in their own spheres, for their use of anger to achieve a greater good.

Oct 16, 2018

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