On Feminist Anger: Manifestations in Resistance
Rohitha Naraharisetty examines Feminist Anger and its manifestations in resistance through the narratives of three women.
There are three women who come to mind when thinking about feminist anger. Their actions, words and experiences are wildly different, and yet they have much to teach us about the ways in which anger is manifested and received.
“SCUM will not picket, demonstrate, march or strike to attempt to achieve its ends… if SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President’s stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six inch blade.”
Thus proclaimed Valerie Solanas, who is primarily known for shooting Andy Warhol, as she wrote the SCUM (Society for the Cutting Up of Men) Manifesto in 1950s America with incandescent fury jumping off the pages of her text, grabbing the reader by the head and dragging it into the depths of its searing rage. The SCUM Manifesto was a slim pamphlet that made Betty Friedan vocally distance herself from the brand of “man hating” feminism. Ti-Grace Atkinson, who grew impatient with the trajectory of the feminist movement, tried to publicly align herself with Solanas, only to be told “SCUM is not for you. SCUM is for whores, dykes, criminals, homicidal maniacs.”
A little over two decades later, Audre Lorde, in ‘The Uses of Anger’ wrote this of anger: “This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” In another essay ‘Eye To Eye’, she stated: “Anger, used, does not destroy. Hatred does.” At almost the same time as Solanas caused a stir within predominantly white feminist circles, Lorde was occupied with forward-looking concerns of difference within the feminist movement, and began speaking about her invisibility as a black lesbian feminist in the 60s with anger being a key theme of this articulation.
“I alone knew what I had suffered. I alone knew what it felt like to be alive but dead.”
In 1981, a small village in Uttar Pradesh saw the massacre of twenty-two men who were lined up and shot by Phoolan Devi, or the Bandit Queen, as she later came to be known in the media following the days of her violent and legendary act of revenge. By this time, Phoolan Devi had already gained notoriety as a “dacoit” who looted from the rich and redistributed the loot to the poor, after escaping her much older husband to whom she had been forcibly married as a child. She had been held in captivity and was gang-raped during this time by upper caste Rajput men in an act of caste-based violence against her as someone who belonged to the Mallah caste. The men she later killed were all Rajput men.
What are the modalities of anger at work that at once bind and distinguish these three very different women from different contexts?
Phoolan Devi and Valerie Solanas, though vastly dissimilar in every way, embody the same violent fantasy of how an anger born of suffering manifests itself. Neither of these women sparked movements, however, and are remembered for their actions and words that threatened to upend every societal structure through crime and violence if taken beyond the scope of the individual. They represent the anger, which, when left to fester, explodes in ways that destroy rather than create. This is the outcome that Lorde, in her meditations on anger, warns us against. In her view, anger is not violent; it must and can never be destructive. This is the prerogative of hate. Anger is survival. Does this make Solanas’ and Phoolan Devi’s anger less valid? This seems misleading, as their anger, like Lorde’s, is born from the experience of suffering, which Lorde describes as “the nightmare reliving of unscrutinsed and unmetabolised pain.” It would seem, therefore, as if anger is a deeply personal and isolating experience unless it is channelled in some way.
Can anger be feminist if it is channelled violently?
Violence has never been allowed to those who have consistently and ruthlessly been on the receiving end of it. Does feminist resistance to this repeated generational violence foresee a change in the status quo by creating new structures or is the destruction of existing structures the more desired goal? Can they, in fact, be two sides of the same coin?
When Frantz Fanon spoke of decolonizing and the modes of the native revolting against the colonisers, he said: “Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.” His advocacy of violence as the only tool for the colonised to meet and overthrow the “rot” of imperialism both materially and mentally, comes from a wrath that is at once blazing and lucid. It comes from a place that metabolises anger into a change that is destructive.
Can the anger of the colonised be feminist anger?
It would not seem so, if Fanon considered as his subject the male, or masculinised native – which he arguably did. Or put another way, can feminist anger find space in Fanon’s decolonizing approach? Answering this question requires us to insert a feminist lens when reading Fanon for his very glaring silences on women and the gendered aspects of colonisation, especially of the mind. In doing so, it is necessary to ask whether the violence he advocates can be supplanted; whether the destructive goals of decolonisation undergo change to become constructive instead.
If the answers to these questions lean towards those that affirm how there is no space for feminist anger in Fanon’s anger, it is instructive to ask why feminist anger manifested as violence has never been taken up as a strategy the way Fanon’s and others’, such as the anger born out of the Naxalite movement have become legitimised. Are “ legitimate” revolutions necessarily violent, and are they then not allowed to feminism?
Here, it becomes relevant to ponder the meaning of violence. Experiences from the margins show us that physical violence makes up only a fraction of the vast spectrum of violence that is available for inflicting on others, such as psychological, bureaucratic, emotional, and other such invisible forms. Feminist anger is indeed born from these invisible lacerations first; Lorde speaks of a glance she endured as a little girl from a white woman on a train that conveyed disgust and hatred, an experience she was unable to share with her mother or anyone else at the time and had to carry with her through her childhood.
If it were Fanon responding to the same incident in his adulthood, it might have looked very different from the way Lorde responded. And yet black women’s anger is still the more feared, reviled anger than that of their male counterparts. When feminist anger is itself received with such trepidation, channelling this anger into violence is without question a strategy that is unavailable for a feminist revolution. Indeed the very idea of a revolution is unavailable, for that entails violence that allies validate as justifiable and legitimate. All we have had were several different movements, under different banners, each with different strategies but with one thing alone in common: a decisive lack of guerrilla style overthrow of structures such as what makes others, such as communist movements with specific contexts (Naxalbari being one of them) become revolutions. Revolutions are studied, pondered upon, discussed, given space in the public imagination precisely for their violence in ways that feminist anger channelled into violence are not.
Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto has been summarily dismissed as a diatribe from a lonely and profoundly disturbed woman, whose experiences and her articulation thereof got her institutionalised rather than elevated as a radical, revolutionary heroine. This is not to say that SCUM Manifesto is not a deeply problematic text for its essentialisms and its advocacy, in no uncertain terms, of male genocide. It is to say that the violence it endorsed is de-contextualised, taken literally, and is used as a way to not allow room to critique the text for its problematic elements while taking its energy and anger seriously. The text reads more like a violent, yet improbable fantasy; it does not provide tools or strategies to arrive at the destination she describes. This is a realisation that only comes with actually taking the context and the emotion seriously rather than reading it with wry amusement as the ramblings of a madwoman.
Phoolan Devi was a similarly highly controversial figure, and would have been forgotten as a mere footnote in history had it not been for the recognition she received from marginalised quarters who viewed her actions within a structural context; who lent visibility and space in the public discourse for her in recognition of the fact that she deserved to be thought and spoken about. Her anger turned into violence would have been met with erasure if there had been no intervention which asked for her anger to be taken seriously, and used as an interrogation of the structures within which she operated without endorsing the violence she used therein.
Where do these ruminations on feminist anger and violence leave us? Certainly not towards a plea for violence in feminist movements. It is to say that violence has been appropriated and claimed by masculinised actors working on behalf of a liberatory politics of the oppressed. This has taken place to the extent that it is seen as the most effective form of resistance. However, violence has been a tool wielded predominantly by men; this has made it appear outlandish in the hands of women, and thus illegitimate. Between white and black men, although the former have been the ones to wield violence, it might appear to make sense for the latter to retaliate in the same way, as Fanon suggests, because of their both being men and hence having equal, rightful access to violence. For situations in which oppressors and the oppressed share no single common aspect, it is impossible to use the same strategies.
All of this leads to a siloization of politics in which revolutions cannot be feminist, and feminisms cannot be revolutions; and any woman who is violent is held at arm’s length by both. It is as if movements cannot intersect; indeed, gender concerns are given secondary priority in most other resistance movements; subordinated to class concerns, for example, as if class is not a feminist issue or patriarchy is not a class issue. And therefore, violence becomes a strategy to exclude feminist politics as a less important, less urgent politics. And violent women are remembered in isolation, floating in the ambiguous space between revolution and feminism. There is therefore an urgent need for Lorde’s strategy on the uses of anger to be applied to all movements, rather than try to incorporate violence as a legitimate manifestation of anger into feminism. This would allow for violent manifestations of anger to be studied rather than strategised. Violence must be uncoupled from revolutions in order to make them less masculinised and more far reaching in their effects and goals.
All anger comes from personal experiences of suffering, and from pain that is realised and turned actionable. Yet only some kinds of anger are allowed to be violence, which makes feminist anger less important in the larger scheme of things. Violence has always been the prerogative of oppressors, and to claim it for oneself is not emancipatory in any context. And so taking up violence as a tool is never the answer for any politics; it is not feminist, it is not anti-caste, anti-class, anti-racism, anti-fascism. As Lorde reminds us, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”