Could the recent spate of viral speeches and essays penned by mothers complaining of feeling “tired”, “undervalued” and “fed-up” actually be about feeling angry?
Kristine Ziwica urges “angry mothers” to embrace the transformative emotion traditionally denied women.
Late last year when Anne Marie Rice was presented with the Leneen Ford AC Woman Lawyer of the Year Award at the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland’s Annual Dinner, she confessed she was feeling “tired”.
Rice’s acceptance speech, which was subsequently retweeted by prominent Australian journalist Annabel Crabb, soon went viral. When the speech was re-published in Women’s Agenda a few weeks ago, it triggered more feedback from women who said that they had previously “struggled to articulate” why professional life has been so all consuming and exhausting.
Over the weekend, I re-read Rice’s speech with an eye towards writing about the potential transformative power of “angry mothers”.
I have been ruminating for a few weeks now about the fact that one of the only culturally acceptable ways for a woman to lay claim to feeling angry — without being dismissed as a bitch, hysterical, un-hinged — is when she does so “as a mother”.
But this kind of “angry mother”, usually angry on behalf of others not herself, most often her children and family, is considered socially acceptable because she reinforces, rather than challenges, the traditional gender norm of a woman as a carer who puts others’ interests and needs ahead of her own.
I started to wonder what would happen if mothers en-masse named and embraced their anger – but this time, not on behalf of others, but on behalf of themselves.
Can you imagine what would happen if mothers worked themselves up into a righteous lather about the inequalities and systemic barriers that continue to sideline them, otherwise known as the “motherhood penalty”?
Anger transformed, and “transformative”
While re-reading Anne Marie Rice’s speech, I queried whether what she really meant when she said, “I’m tired” was that she was “sick and tired”, and by that I mean angry, the kind of “productive”, “transformative” anger we have heard so much about this past year.
In addition to many essays (including one of my own for Women’s Agenda) exploring why anger, an emotion commonly denied women, is actually quite a rational and productive response, the last year has seen numerous books on the topic hit the shelves, including the excellent “Rage Becomes Her” by Soroya Chemaly and “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister.
All explore anger’s relatively recent rebranding as a constructive, “approach” emotion that energises people and encourages them to move towards challenges rather than retreating. And all encourage women to claim and channel their anger.
Chemaly writes that “anger is a transitional tool that helps you change the world around you”.
Traister explores how an “impulse that many women have taken pains to hide or disguise or distance themselves from” has “ignited movements for social change and progress”.
Changing the world and igniting movements – yes please!
Mother’s anger bursting through the floodgates
The kinds of things Anne-Marie Rice talked about in her speech, including a desire to challenge the now decades old trope that women can “have it all” if they just try hard enough, clearly hit a nerve. That laser-like strike and associated response suggests this was in no small part driven by an entirely understandable strain of mother’s anger.
Really, at its essence, Rice was diagnosing a fundamental problem: women have entered the workforce in large numbers, but the world of work and our workplace cultures and broader public policies have not transformed.
So in that regard, this Anne Marie is not unlike another Anne-Marie, also a lawyer, Anne Marie Slaughter, whose 2012 article on similar themes for the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, also went viral and triggered a global response. (The original article was one of the most widely read pieces in the Atlantic’s history with over 3 million views.)
Looking for another recent example, I pondered whether the viral response to a 2017 Harper’s Bazaar essay written by Gemma Hartley about “emotional labour”, “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re Just Fed Up”, may also have been driven by a heretofore socially unacceptable form of “mother’s anger” that is now increasingly bursting through the flood gates.
Name it, own it, use it
In her seminal feminist work published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan famously described women of the era’s widespread unhappiness as “the problem that has no name”.
The viral response to Rice, Slaughter and Hartley, all of whom have been lauded for their ability to put their finger on and articulate something women of our era have widely felt but struggled to express, is, I believe, at its core about anger.
And the reason the response of many has been to thank these women for articulating something they have “struggled to express” is because anger has traditionally carried a highly gendered price for women.
Luckily, that’s changing.
Call it “tired”, call it “fed up”, call it “undervalued”, but what if we just call it angry?
If, going forward, we name this for what it is, anger, we might tap into the now well documented transformative power of that emotion and unleash a powerful, new wave of “angry mothers” poised to become a powerful political and cultural force.
First we get mad, then we get even.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica