Soraya Chemaly

Rage at the Ballot Box

Air Date: September 12, 2018

Soraya Chemaly, Director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project, talks about her new book “Rage Becomes Her” and political equality.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, Soraya Chemaly is author of the forthcoming Simon and Schuster book, “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.” An award winning activist and writer Chemaly focuses on the intersection of gender in our politics, media and culture. An explosive, poignant examination of contemporary womanhood, feminism, and it’s plight and justified fury at the condition of the political system, Chemaly’s book is essential reading to understanding the gender inequities that pervade America. Indeed, Lady Liberty has been discriminated against the filed and diminished even in this present millennium. So today we’ll consider the counter offensive to reassert women’s status, to channel that anger towards constructive policymaking, toward the goal that our politics, the US Senate and House of Representatives in particular, and ultimately the White House will be more representative of the women whose votes in each election, election after election outnumber those of men. Soraya, a pleasure to have you here.

CHEMALY: Thank you so much for having me, Alexander.

HEFFNER: To me that’s an important opening context. The fact that women are the majority of the folks who vote in each election cycle and yet they’re not represented adequately, not even reflecting this sort of base level that they should be. Why is that still today?

CHEMALY: Well, I think people, a lot of people make the assumption that women will always vote for women and they will always vote in their own interests, but that’s a very complicated proposition, particularly if you look at our political system, is the ever evolving end result of Millennia of politics and religion and social norms. And so women as much as men are subjected to our society’s expectations about gender, gender roles. And that undermines us as leaders because the superstructure of our social organization, of our workforce, of our philosophy, of our science, favors men’s perspectives and ideas and conflates masculinity with leadership and femininity with nurturing: one’s public, one’s private. It’s all very Cartesian. So we are deep in the trenches of a backlash that reinforces those ideas that wants to put women back in the private sphere, which of course really in the United States, mainly meant upper middle class white women, immigrant women, black women working class women were always working; always in the public sphere, but not as political, powerful, politically powerful people that had leadership roles. And now women want those roles, are capable of having those roles, and so we’re in the weeds of the biases and nuances that are impeding our ability to have equality.

HEFFNER: What are some examples where that conflation does not occur?

CHEMALY: The conflation between masculinity and leadership?

HEFFNER: Right, to the betterment of women.

CHEMALY: So when women claim leadership or authority in areas that they are traditionally associated with. So I can be an angry mother. So if you look at conservative women politicians, one of the first things they do is squarely prioritize motherhood. So you think of mama bear politics, you think Sarah Palin claiming this role, and that’s a way of easing masculine confusion or threat. That’s saying, I know what my priorities are. I’m a woman; I’m a mother first. Right? And so we know that when women are mothers, they can be angry if they’re angry as teachers, as educators. If it’s a nurturing role that confirms gender binaries, then women generally speaking, are free to do that. But if they transgress into spaces thought of as traditionally the realm of men and their authority, their attempts to claim power or leadership or public authority are renounced, they are rejected often quite with a lot of hostility, so if you look online, one of the most harassed group of people online are women journalists because they’re speaking publicly and they’re saying, I know I have knowledge and I have the authority to do this and I have this status, and so they’re subject to enormous amounts of harassment.

HEFFNER: What about in terms of the body politic or the public square, broadly, places where the completion doesn’t occur because we were as a society or these particular women were able to transcend either so that their rage or their anger was interpreted more, right? Or because they became household familiar names. I’m thinking of women like Doris Kearns Goodwin or Cokie Roberts, people who became acceptable not because they were women necessarily but because they had that expertise.

CHEMALY: Right, and that’s definitely the case. I mean, we know that women have expertise, they are well trained. There are some brilliant thinkers and they can speak publicly, but very often they’re in a position where they’re the lone woman, the exceptional woman, so it’s not normal for women to be in those positions. There are several funny descriptions for what that’s like, whether it’s in media or academia. Katha Pollitt once coined the phrase “the smurfette principle,” which is one woman in a group of 10. Right? And we’ll see that over and over and over again. And so there’s no doubt that we have these exemplary women. What we need though is many exemplary women.

We need exemplary women to be considered normal and not exceptional.

HEFFNER: Women are fighting for, for a certain justice that is specific to their gender that has been targeted ceaselessly for decades. How do they come out of this #Me Too movement moment with a broad respect because they are channeling the rage effectively to prosecute criminals who should’ve been jailed years ago.


HEFFNER: Or who should’ve been off TV years ago. What’s the next step for #Me Too?

CHEMALY: So I think that it’s easy to point to a person who’s clearly acted in criminal ways. Frankly that’s the low hanging fruit right now. What we have though is a seeming difficulty and inability with challenging the cultures that enable that, the institutional cultures that made it possible and continue to make it possible. So for example, I hear a lot today, men will say to me, well, the, the men in my company won’t meet with women anymore because they’re scared they’re going to be accused of something which is quite a remarkable entitlement, right?

Because you think, well, first of all, women, no woman has the ability to just say, I’m not going to meet with a man because I’m just not going to do that, right? They might harass me or they might think I’m lying. It’s just not, it’s not an available option for women in the professional world, but it definitely an available option for men because they still make up the majority of the c suite. The majority of law partners, the majority of Hollywood moguls. And so we need men to recognize that what we’re saying is valid because we have a big problem with that, just credibility and we then need them to act in the interest of the larger community. And so even when I hear, oh, you know, #Me Too has ruined the fun of work need to, has made it very difficult for us to collaborate across gender, I think, well, if you as men in these spaces feel that you’re being unfairly treated or that the institution will actually go after you in some way that’s unfair, that’s not the result of women saying #Me Too, that’s the result of the same critical breakdown of institutional care and response to create workplaces that are fair. And so we really need the first, the recognition that what we’re saying is valid and that it’s meaningful. And unfortunately Pew does these annual studies that show that the majority of American men think sexism is over and done with, and that it’s not relevant and it’s not an obstacle. Whereas the vast majority of American women, regardless of their political bent, are saying, actually, this affects my life everyday. And that information gap, that knowledge gap is very consequential in our lives.

HEFFNER: In that situation, when you point to the Pew Survey, and I think folks would say the same about racism.

CHEMALY: Yes, exactly the same.

HEFFNER: In that environment, what is the road to a more sensible outcome for women and men in a harmony that you know is a new modern harmony that is not threatening either gender, is there. Is there a path that you see?

CHEMALY: Yeah, I think there are several things. One is that men and women have always been far more alike than they are on different, but our culture really exaggerates differences and it does it institutionally. So if you think again of our labor force, we have an immensely sex segregated labor force and that starts off in schools. It starts off in early childhood socialization. So one thing that we need to do is look at early childhood education. We need to look at the customs and traditions and religious beliefs and the way our schools are structured with an eye towards dissolving that kind of extreme polarity. And that polarity affects gender identity, sexual identity. I mean a lot of the bullying and incivility we see at early school in early school environments is just gender policing. It’s gender policing from adults and it’s gender policing from children who want who want their approval and so we see, for example, the parochial schools have much higher rates of bullying and harassment and that’s not rocket science. I mean we understand what the mechanism is there and it’s almost always gender policing. So even a little boy who wants to cross gender empathize is subject to much more rigid rules about not doing that than a girl who is allowed to be a tomboy. Right? And so the policing that we see in early childhood has a very long tail. So if by the time you get to high school, a lot of high school boys who are then again, like masculinity doubles down in adolescence and so that’s another time when boys are more likely to withdraw from thinking what’s like to be a girl, what is this going to mean for her if I do X, Y, or Z? They’re not encouraged to do that.

HEFFNER: How can you foresee the rage or the anger constructively manifest so that we can achieve the society we want to today?

CHEMALY: So I think we’re seeing it, right. I mean if there’s any silver lining to this presidency, it is that literally tens of thousands of women are running for office. I mean it is an historic shift. And so women are voting yes, but this shift towards saying I can run for office, I’m going to run for office is really unprecedented. And so all of the organizations, mainly Democratic ones that support women running for office, that you either train them or they try and get them funding or they support them in other ways.

HEFFNER: We’ve had Amanda Litman here, doing that.

CHEMALY: Yes, that’s right. And so they’ve seen exponential growth in interest. And I stressed that it’s Democratic because we have this political divide that is widening and we tend to think of it as conservative versus liberal or progressive, but it is deeply gendered. So when we look at participation of women on the right, it’s static or maybe growing, but very, very small, certainly not in terms of their representation in Congress, but on the left it’s exploding. And so those very different approaches to gender and gender roles are fueling the larger political divide.

HEFFNER: That’s why it would be so powerful and we’re recording this and won’t know the answer, if Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski takes to the floor of the US Senate and argues for women and men against a radical or extremist Supreme Court nominee, the outcome of which may be known to our viewers as they’re watching. But I was saying to you, I would love to see a woman be able to make the case that Ted Kennedy did against Bork and say, no, this is a back alley abortion America…


HEFFNER: And, and not be marginalized just because they are a woman making that argument.

CHEMALY: And, and beyond marginalized really vilified, right? And so if you look at corporate cultures, we know that when minority groups or a person who is part of minority group advocates for themselves or if a woman advocates for other women, they face penalties in the institution. So they need champions within the institution to take that on for them. And that’s just a result of bias. We just, we know that there are study after study that shows that same thing in Congress, right? I mean if a woman is outspoken in defensive women’s rights, she will not get as much traction. She will not be as successful as a man who does it, not in a chivalrous way, not to say I’ll do this for you, little lady I, you know, I can, I can do it much better than you can, but to say, hey, we know this problem exists and we’re going to stand up and say the right things and do the right things because they are the right things to do. It shouldn’t really just fall on those two conservative women’s shoulders to take this on. It really, there are, you know, upstanding conservative men who likewise should say this is appalling. It’s really unconscionable that we are considering this, and right now what we’re instead saying is these women need to take it on because it’s a women’s issue, and that’s what we need to get beyond.

HEFFNER: There are examples across the pond in the UK have women leaders who may not have been vilified. And Hillary Clinton is an example of someone who was vilified for both corruption and for being a woman.


HEFFNER: And if we take examples in our current political culture of folks who might challenge, women who might challenge Donald Trump in 2020, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, is there an oratorical path for these women to present their rage and their intelligence in a way that’s going to be understood and accepted by women, men, everybody.

CHEMALY: So I think it will be understood whether it’ll be accepted, I think is a bigger question. Elizabeth Warren rage Tweeted throughout the presidential election and as she was able to do that to great effect in resonance, but what was so interesting about that to me it was she wasn’t really doing it on her own behalf. It was almost as though she was a proxy for Hillary Clinton who couldn’t do it. Hillary Clinton was castigated for being inauthentic. And if she spoke strongly, she was strident and shrill and either way she really, she really couldn’t win in terms of authenticity and self-expression. But Elizabeth Warren went to town, you know, and we see over and over again that if women are angry on behalf of other people, they are again, fulfilling that role of a prioritizing others. We have this tremendous pressure to take the lessons of childhood which are undoubtedly to girls prioritize other people and to use it politically that way. So if you look at organizations that have been hugely successful, Moms Against Drunk Driving, there are several mother-related movements against gun violence. The Children’s Defense Fund. Women are able to articulate strong political anger and power within those frameworks, so I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens and I think we really can’t talk about that in the role of these women politicians without talking about race and colorism because the darker a woman politician is, the more resistance and vilification she gets from a certain quarter. On the other hand…

HEFFNER: What happened to Barbara Jordan? We loved Barbara Jordan, the Congresswoman. Sorry.

CHEMALY: Some people loved Barbara Jordan with Congressman.

HEFFNER: Well, but at that point the parties were not as polarized and therefore there were black Republicans and Democrats, but I mean we have regressed from a moment where …

CHEMALY: I think we have progressed. I mean, did you see what happened this week? I don’t know when we’ll air, but this week with Maxine Waters, there was a California prosecutor who shared a post in Facebook. The text that he wrote in Facebook was horribly racist and misogynistic. It was really just unbelievable that he posted it and he has of course stayed in his job because he has free speech and he has the right to say this and people at his place of work believe it doesn’t affect his work, but this woman is often outspoken. She’s had her mike cutoff by a contractor or a conference because she’s speaking and he really didn’t like what she said, you know, she’s been targeted for years for speaking in anger and very clearly and in opposition and she hasn’t really backed down. But I think someone like Barbara Jordan was a moment in time and yes, we embrace certain people, but right now we don’t have that…

HEFFNER: It occurred to me what that might have possessed, that moment, and that is a moment when nationalism and feminism work in a unison, and unfortunately Waters has been maligned to the point where you can’t view her without looking at, it’s the, like you talk about in the book, it is casting dispersions, “otherizing” someone on the basis of their race or their political allegiance. But that seemed to me to resonate. These women who are running for office remarkable candidates in 2018. I hope, and I know we probably share this hope that there will be a new Contract for America that these women will offer and it won’t be called a Contract with, or for America, it will be something that they draft, and my hope is that that will inspire a cultural shift so that once again, nationalism and feminism can be a joint cause.

CHEMALY: And I think that the nexus of that is in citizenship, right? So many of the debates we’re having right now are fundamentally about who gets to be a citizen, who to define citizenship and Trump’s supporters are holding onto an idea of a patriot, of a citizen, that is closely tied to white masculinity and dominance, that’s easily demonstrable. That’s why we have a problem with guns and the word control. And what we’re seeing in this efflorescence of diversity and of women running for office and this polarization is a stake in the ground that says, actually, no, we’re full citizens. And that doesn’t mean we’re happy that you’re giving us some rights. It means we are demanding to be fully participant, to define what the culture means, to shift and to contribute to how we think of our politics. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now. And so the 2018 elections, the degree to which we have confidence in that change, confidence in these women as leaders and capable of defining citizenship will, we’ll see.

HEFFNER: “Rage Becomes Us.”

CHEMALY: “Rage Becomes Us.” Rage is us, right?

HEFFNER: I mean, isn’t that the tectonic shift required I think ultimately for coequal representation, coequal economic security, freedom, wages. Because what is that, I keep coming back to this question. Is there a range that we haven’t captured in this conversation that you want to speak to you?

CHEMALY: I think it’s the idea that rage is not only a negative emotion that is destructive, it is a virtue and it should be considered a feminine virtue. Rage can be contemplative. It can be transformative. It’s the first line of defense against injustice. Rage is the response to threat. I mean we have, anger is tied up in so many different aspects of our lives and our emotions, but it’s directly tied to our political lives and our economic lives because we’re constantly having to manage these feelings. And if you’re a woman, you are seriously constrained in your ability to defend yourself and to advocate on behalf of the ideas that you may believe in or the political positions that you might want to strengthen, by restrictions on this emotion, by restrictions on the expression of anger and that starts off in early childhood and it’s tied deeply to gender role expectations and expression. And so yes, I’m hoping that as we move forward, we can understand rage as this positive force. We can understand anger as a way of understanding the world around you and then deciding what to do, because usually when girls and women feel angry, we all of us, men and women tend to attribute sadness to them, which is an interesting difference. Boys can be sad and they’re called angry, which is actually super destructive, right? And so boys don’t have much leeway to express many emotions and they’re not ever taught to think about or talk about those emotions.

Studies show over and over again that adults and parents will talk to boys about anger but not about other emotions. Whereas with girls, they’ll talk about almost anything but anger and so that gendering of our emotions has political consequences. So if we could degender those emotions, if we could let boys have the full spectrum of emotions that they as human beings feel openly, we’d be a much healthier society. Same thing with girls and anger: we need girls and women to be able to say, I am angry without facing huge penalties.

HEFFNER: And how does that work tangibly in terms of our own speech? The vocabulary we use.

CHEMALY: Oh my goodness. And that’s such a good question. Well, women grow up learning to minimize their feelings, negative feelings of anger. So they’ll say, I’m irritated. I’m frustrated. It’s really nothing. I can’t believe he did that, but you know, I’ve gotten over it and the words, we often don’t even give children, especially girls the words to articulate these feelings, but they’re basically told to ignore their anger. And the title “Rage Becomes Her” is a play on several things, one of which is that when you can’t articulate your anger, when you can’t think about it, when you can’t label it, when you can’t name it, it becomes material in your body. It becomes part of a whole range of mental distress and also physical ailments. And we tend to think of many of these ailments, interestingly, not coincidentally as women’s sicknesses, right? Anxiety, depression, various forms of physical, sort of chronic pain and illnesses. And it’s not to say that suppressed or diverted anger causes these things, but it is an undeniable significant factor in the manifestation of many of them. And so our language I think really reflects the cultural norms that prevail in our society and our language is not comfortable with combining women and anger. Just even in the simple word no.

HEFFNER: In the seconds we have left, Soraya.


HEFFNER: Besides the idea that we elected the locker room talker and that that discussion was in some ways given merit by his election, how do men reform their language in a way that’s going to be constructive?

CHEMALY: Well, I think that the major way men can do that is to think about the ways that they’re policing women’s speech all the time. You know, the disruptive interruptions, women interrupt, but we interrupt for different reasons. We tend to interrupt to continue a conversation as opposed to divert the conversation or we use words like mansplaining to describe a common problem that we have. I just think some self-reflection usually would help in interpersonal contexts that then become public when they happen on a panel in the newsroom, for example.

HEFFNER: Well, thank you.

CHEMALY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I encourage everybody to take a look at “Rage Becomes Her.”

CHEMALY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: It’s a terrific read. Appreciate your time today.

CHEMALY: Thanks so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.