“I’ve tried to put this rage back in the bottle,” a colleague confessed to me over her chickpeas and kofte at lunch. “But I can’t.”
Little girls get the message shockingly early. My sacred duty, my value as a human being and my value especially as someone of the female persuasion, was measured entirely by whether I was capable of making the people in my life happy. My feelings, my needs, my wants were of little importance, and to be a “good little girl” I should sacrifice them eagerly on the altar of those whose satisfaction always mattered far more than mine. Adults, and especially adult men. When I struggled against this system of control, and asserted that maybe it wasn’t fair, I was told that I “owed it” to people to be nice to them. Only a bad girl, a selfish girl, would suggest that she didn’t.
As a young woman, in a realization that not only changed but saved my life, I observed that I could either continue to twist myself into a pretzel to make everyone else happy, or I could make ME happy. I chose me.
It would take nearly a decade after that for me to fully unpack everything contained in that observation. But one of the first things that came out of the box was anger. I will be forever grateful to L7, Bratmobile, Babes in Toyland, Salt n’ Pepa, Tori Amos, the Sex Pistols and others who taught me that I was allowed to be angry. It was one of the first of many “unapproved” feelings that I would come to welcome and own. Anger taught me to say “how dare you!” Anger taught me not only that I could want things without shame, but those desires deserved to be honored and defended, with force if necessary. Anger made me my own champion.
Our world does not like angry women. This is why some men tell women to “smile, baby!” when they pass them on the street. An angry woman will not hesitate to defend herself. She has slipped her leash, the tether of “niceness” and “goodness” that she has been taught all her life is the ticket to being loved and accepted. An angry man is often admired, especially if that anger is of the “righteous” kind, in defense of someone’s honor. We forgive a man’s anger, especially if he is provoked. A man getting angry is asserting the power of his rectitude. But an angry woman is a hateful, spiteful, ugly creature, to be feared and ostracized because she does not know her place. Worse yet, she has “lost control” and is “hysterical.”
I’ve been called a bitch more than once to my face, and I’m sure even more often behind my back. I’ve been called all the “code words” our society uses to place the orange cones around a woman to signal that she is dangerous — “strident,” “loud,” and “intense.” Women are not supposed to defend themselves. We are not supposed to be our own champions. We are supposed to secure that right to a defense by convincing a man to defend our honor for us. That is why women are particularly adept at being passive-aggressive. It’s how we’ve been taught to promote our wants and desires with others and still retain our mantle as a “Good Girl” who doesn’t get angry.
One of the great things about being a pagan and therefore free to embrace multiple goddesses and gods is that I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a woman enraged, a woman at war. I know because the goddess who literally followed me for decades is Freya, Norse goddess of love and also magic and death. She is most often rendered as a beautiful blonde woman, seductively posed, the epitome of desire. They try to make her into the Norse version of the popularized conception of Aphrodite. Which is utterly and completely wrong. She is not some innocuous little sex kitten whose existence is keyed to fulfilling male fantasy. She IS the goddess of love and sex, and partakes of it for her pleasure and for her purposes, without apology and entirely on her terms. When Loki tries to intimate that she’s slept with all the gods of Asgard, like it’s a thing to be ashamed of, she tells him to fuck right off with that bullshit. She will not be made to feel bad for enjoying a god’s (or man’s, or dwarf’s) bed. And the other gods present back her up on this.
The thing about Freya is that she is indomitable, fierce, and independent. People like to go on about Odin and Valhalla and the glory of dying in battle. The truth is — half the fallen go to Freya to live and drink in her hall, Sessrumnir. And Freya by right picks her warriors from the fallen BEFORE Odin. Many of the stories of the Norse gods involve a pattern — stranger shows up, looking for glory by defeating one of the Aesir, and shouting that if he wins, he’s going to cart off Freya as his prize. Freya, of course, isn’t having it. And none of the Aesir dare to even suggest that it’s an option without being met with Freya’s rage. In fact, the only time that “Freya” is sent to wed a potential opponent of Asgard to appease them, it’s actually Thor, dressed as Freya, because he wants his hammer back.
Freya is a wife, a mother, a lover and a goddess. But at no time does she place herself in a subservient role to anyone. She wields her power directly. She does not need to exert influence over gods and cajole them into doing what she wants. She has her own agency, she is her own champion. And yes, she gets angry. She is a warrior.
Freya is not alone in this. In the pagan world, the warrior goddess, the goddess who is not only victorious in battle but relishes it, is ever present. You can find her in nearly every pantheon. She is not only ruthless but righteous, a thing to be feared but also revered and respected. In its suppression of paganism, it is easy to see how the early Christian Church had a vested interest in stripping its rival of this very potent source of power. Look for examples of warrior women in Christianity and most begin and end with Joan of Arc, who leads armies, mostly as a figurehead, and is also considered to be not quite right in the head.
In this time of rage, where women’s anger is rising, we need to learn that (as Johnny Rotten says) anger is an energy. And it’s a powerful energy that can be used productively. Anger is only to be feared when you are on the wrong side of it. Which, of course, is why so many men are so terrified. They should be. The oppression of women, the casual violation of our bodies and repression of our voices, is wrong. And women are right to be angry. We are entitled to our anger. Which is why, of course, society works so hard to preserve the status quo by convincing women that our anger is not, and could never be appropriate.
As someone whose path in life has been claimed by a warrior goddess, I have some advice for my sisters as they discover, and attempt to embrace, anger that will no longer be denied:
We need to own our anger, embrace it, love it because it is part of our full human selves. Loving and owning our anger, or any of our emotions, really, is a lot like loving and owning a big, scary dog. It needs proper feeding, training and a leash, for its own good and yours. And just like every dog owner is encouraged to develop a connected and positive relationship with their dog, you need to do the same with your anger. Sit with it. Get to know it — its line, its shape, its habits. Feed it when it’s hungry, but not so much it becomes unhealthy. Let it run when it needs to, but it should never roam so freely that you can’t call it back to you and restrain it when circumstances demand it. Trust your anger. Listen to it when it’s trying to tell you something. Its instincts are not often wrong. Give your anger a job to do — anger likes to work, and will work with you if you teach it how. Anger left to aimlessly wander your universe will find things to chew on and destroy, so cage it or train it and do whatever it takes to curb that inclination. Remember always who is the master of the relationship, but your mastery should never feel overbearing. And if you are under attack, or need to go to war, do not ever hesitate to unleash your anger, and let it fight on your behalf.
Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions, is a natural part of your human self. If feminism is a movement to recognize women as fully human and full participants in human society, then embracing ALL our emotions, including anger, is critical to feminism. If we do not fully acknowledge all the parts of our humanity, we cannot expect anyone else to. It’s time to see the expression of anger not as weakness or as lack of discipline, but as part of being a fully realized person in the world. We are not hysterical. We are human. We are our mothers’ savage Warrior Goddess daughters. And we will not lower our voice.
Props to Wendryth Berginsdottir, bard of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose song “Savage Daughter” provided no small inspiration. You can hear the song here: https://wyndrethsavagedaughtershieldmaid.bandcamp.com/track/my-mothers-savage-daughter-studio-2