By Norma Barnett | Special to The Sun
Last fall, writing in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, the answer to the question “Should women be angry?” came easily. We need our anger. I haven’t changed my mind. By the end of that piece, though, I reached the more difficult question: What do we do with our anger? How might it affect the way we live and treat others, when we allow ourselves to include anger in our valued repertoire of feelings?
I stood up for speaking up, and I stand by that. But speaking up more, which I do now, takes me about two inches down the road of life.
I begin with a caveat — my view might be quite different from yours. I do not think much about women’s “rights” or women’s “empowerment”. These concepts lead toward tangled questions about the “rights” of women and where they stand in relationship to the “rights” of immigrants, poor people, the mentally ill, even the “rights” of decent men. Seeking “empowerment” can become a quest for power, relegating the status of others’ claims to a lower rank.
I am a “moralist,” someone driven by a compelling interest in what it means to lead a good life. I am not talking about the good in terms of conventional propriety. I am not speaking just about what I do, but who I am as a person. Do I speak up for just myself? Am I just angry, or am I holding a complex set of beliefs about what I owe to others and the larger good? Do I recognize the effort it takes to weigh competing values? Does this or that situation call for compassion, or calling out abuse? Can I hold my firmly held moral commitments with humility as well as with courage?
It’s not all about me, or you, for that matter. We can be angry, but we must raise our gaze to some larger good. We must be able to talk about what we believe is good and hold ourselves accountable to our standards and to those others that we affect.
Today when I think about women and anger all these philosophical musings have very practical consequences. I do speak up more, but if someone, whatever gender, is unwilling to listen with curiosity, my anger dictates that I exit the discussion and turn my efforts elsewhere. I look for the possibilities for talking to others, different though they may be.
I have to admit that I use power, including influence, all the time. Others have been angry at me, which prompts me to wonder about my own ways of exercising power. I think about whether my use of power is driven by my anger and my ego, or if it has value to and for others. I have witnessed repeatedly this past year how quickly people criticize what others with power do, and how seldom people question their own use of power. We want those with institutional power to use it as we see fit, and we often dismiss them when they disagree or disappoint us.
Particularly, I have noticed how readily those on the left challenge those in positions of leadership, and especially women. In the last week I have heard female leaders described as being not supportive enough, not listening enough, having their own agendas, not moving fast enough, moving too fast; one woman is too aggressive, and another is naïve at best and perhaps just looking out for her own paycheck. I recently witnessed a woman speaker, a community activist, being told to keep to the facts and not express her opinions. I heard one man state categorically that we should stop talking to a newly elected official because, after one month in office, she said something that angered him.
Criticism is legitimate, but leaders willing to seek and use power with an eye to the common good deserve more from us. Women especially need our appreciation and honest dialogue, because, and here I am angry, men routinely interrupt and dismiss women when they speak up. Female Supreme Court Justices are interrupted more frequently than their male colleagues.
What do I, in my feminist anger, owe women who seek power? I owe them my own power — to stay involved, to seek contact and conversation, to call out ways in which their exercise of leadership is demeaned or denigrated, to be direct in my concerns or criticisms. I will not allow myself to abandon the world of power.
I think a lot about how I should respond to the cruel, corrupt, and dishonest behavior of those in power. Can one speak to abuses of power while being kind and respectful? I don’t think so. I am watching Nancy Pelosi carefully, a woman who has been more courageous and effective than anyone I have seen in national politics. Her refusal to let the president give the State of the Union Address was an exercise in raw power. Because she is socially adept and incredibly skilled in her very female style of communication, she was touted for treating the president with “respect” during the government shutdown. Softened with the velvet glove. her use of power was blatant and even manipulative. Don’t get me wrong; she did the right thing, but it was not mutual and it was not respectful. It was a power play, as was her refusal to fund a wall, and she won. She shamed the president, equating his behavior with the behavior of toddlers.
Can women meet dangerous abuses of power with conventionally respectful behavior and kind words? No, we need to match the energy of destructiveness, cruelty and corruption with a steely spine and no mincing of words.
Any of us might test our own moral boundaries at times, for good reason or bad; the world is a messy place. So I’ll keep watching Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and myself, vigilantly. Our anger and use of power must be in the service of some vision of the collective good; it must strengthen our moral core, not diminish it.