Rebecca Traister speaks at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner.
Rebecca Traister speaks at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner. (Alan Pogue)

‘Consider What the Most Powerful Least Want You to Do, and then Do That’

In her keynote speech at the Observer’s 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner, Rebecca Traister argued that women’s anger has been silenced throughout history — and that daring to speak out is a powerful, subversive act.


I want to start by saying thank you to the Texas Observer for inviting me here to give this speech tonight, and thanks beyond measure both to the journalists whose work we’re honoring and to those who have made the Observer a home for independent thought and righteous storytelling since 1954.

Tonight, I want to address one element of what makes good and challenging journalism so powerful, what makes the stories that these writers and reporters have told — about injustice, malevolent ineptitude, corruption and abuses of power — so absolutely critical and so difficult to do.

I want to talk about the challenges of speaking out.

You heard earlier tonight, in that clip about Molly Ivins, how she was described as “outspoken.”

It’s such a funny word, “outspoken.” People are rarely — I think probably never — outspoken on behalf of power, right? To speak out means overriding the pressure to keep what you have to say in.

And there is so much that people who are themselves on the outside — of power, who are at the margins, whose speech might challenge those inside, those with power — there is so much that they are discouraged from saying, that they are censured for saying.

It should not be lost on any of us here that the title of Molly’s first big bestselling collection of essays is Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?

Of course it was a joke, but it gets to the very heart of something I’ve recently become obsessed with in my work about women and anger, a subject about which I published a book in the fall. I’m going to talk a lot tonight about women and anger, but in doing so, I hope, get to something broader about what brings us to this room:

That there is so very, very much that women — and other people who have agitated from the outside, challenging power and its abuses, including the journalists we honor tonight, including the activists and politicians I write about in my own journalism — so much they have been told they cannot say.

Molly Ivins said those things she wasn’t allowed to say, and we are here in part because what her humor so often conveyed was livid rage at injustice, and that was goddamn heroic.

“What was unique about her,” you heard Rachel Maddow observe earlier, “was that she was not afraid to be angry.”

A willingness to traffic in outrage and dissent — and I want to be clear that being angry is not all yelling and screaming with a fist in the air, but also writing bitingly funny opinion columns, or reporting, editing and publishing stories that should and do make other people angry — is what we are here to celebrate.

It’s that willingness — whether we are newspaper publishers or readers or activists or citizens or non-citizens — that I believe must carry us into a future, if we hope that our future will be more just than either our past or our present.

Because the pressure on those of us whose aim is not to defend power is to stay silent in the face of its abuses; the threat is that if we are not, we will be ignored or not taken seriously or censured for our outspokenness.

The suppression of disruption — not just of political rebellion or organizing, but of querulous speech and, crucially for journalists, storytelling about the conditions faced by the less powerful, stories that discredit the powerful themselves — the suppression of these expressions have a long history.

It’s a history that really became visible to me as I began to learn and think in earnest about women’s expression of dissent and the lengths to which those in power have gone to stifle, erase or ignore it.

How many here have ever heard of a brank — also known as a scold’s bridle, or a witch’s bridle? It was a medieval torture device used to literally muzzle an insubordinate or cranky woman, her head and jaw clamped into a metal cage.

Some of the bridles, which were made of iron, included tongue depressors that would be inserted into the women’s mouth; some of those had spikes on the bottom to pierce the tongues of the insubordinate, those who kept on talking anyway.

The Tower of London features an internally spiked metal neck collar dating from 1588, labeled a “collar for torture,” but described in guidebooks as a device to be “put around the necks of scolding or wayward wives.”

We are not literally dog-collared anymore, but the men who tell us to smile on the street so we’ll be prettier (because anything other than silent, grinning, affable acquiescence from women is coded as unattractive) are echoed around us on the very political stages that I cover as part of my work as a political reporter and commentator.

Truly: People are always telling women — even powerful women, even women who run for president — to shut up and smile.

During the 2016 primaries, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough chided Hillary Clinton, after a primary win, “Smile. You just had a big night.” In 2018, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a news conference about Nancy Pelosi, “I think she should smile a lot more often. … She seems to embody … bitterness.”

The aspersion that a woman who doesn’t smile, but who opens her mouth in dissent is bitter, unpleasant or mentally infirm is so common. And there’s another very literal visualization of this attitude, besides the brank and the public commands that Hillary Clinton smile for us.

If you go home and do a Google image search on any of the women in politics or public life, especially those who threaten white male power — by pressing for reforms or by running to beat powerful men — you’ll turn up photos of them with their mouths open: mid-yell, spittle-flecked, the very act of making a loud noise a sign of their ugly and unnatural personalities.

Look particularly these days for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for Stacey Abrams, for Elizabeth Warren — soon for Wendy Davis. You’ll see them, mouths open, pointing aggressively. It’s not just in one political direction. I’m a left feminist and a Democrat, but I noticed this fall that a story that was critical of Sarah Huckabee Sanders featured a photo of her with her mouth wide open.

These pictures proliferate because the best way to convey disregard for and to discredit those whose voices the powerful wish would go unheard is to show them in an act of vocal complaint. A woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in criticism, is coded in our minds as aberrant and ugly — not as admirable or patriotic.

Speaking out — being outspoken — is not seen as a sign of strength or moral fortitude, as it might more easily be understood in a powerful white man, raising his voice to make his point or establish his commitment and affirm his passions. For example: I LIKE BEER.

Women’s anger is coded as a disruption, something that needs to be dismissed, quieted down, delegitimized, or physically removed from the room. Again, this is not exaggeration:

In the weeks before Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault, when he was simply being heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and women were protesting his nomination in the Senate chamber, yelling about abortion and health care, Senator Orrin Hatch said of one of them — a woman yelling that if Obamacare were repealed, she’d die — “Get that loudmouth out of here. We should not have to put up with that.” A woman whose mouth is loud is not a creature to whom a senator should be subjected.

What angry women represent is a kind of disorder, disarray. The making loud that which is meant to be ordered and quiet. They need to be taken from the room and from the record, and those in power wish very much to distract us from what they have to say.

Again, the attempts to distract that I’m describing are not figurative. In 1964, the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer began to give her testimony before the Democratic National Convention’s credentials committee about how she had been arrested and then badly beaten by police after attempting to register voters in Mississippi.

The president, Lyndon B. Johnson, concerned that Hamer’s speech would alienate white voters, promptly held an impromptu press conference about nothing — or rather, the nine-month anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death — forcing news networks to turn away from Hamer’s words and instead broadcast his own.

Johnson knew that Hamer’s anger would be meaningful, and he sought to divert America’s attention from it.

Think about how, during the #MeToo movement, one of the great revelations was about the systemic use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAS), which paid harassment claimants in exchange for their silence. I recently read one woman’s description of how accepting the terms of her NDA had been like having her tongue cut out.

The powerful are, quite simply, driven to silence the voices of the less powerful, if those voices might in any way imperil their authority. And they’re not wrong.

We know in this country — it is written into our nation’s history, that political and social anger at injustice, at least when it’s been expressed by America’s original citizen, white men, has been so potent — in its chaotic overthrow of order — as to give shape to the country in which we now live.

Because of course there is a form of political dissent, rage, that we are raised to value, to revere, to understand as formative and nation-shaping. It is the rage of our founders:

Give me liberty or give me death, live free or die, the men who in their ire over being taxed and policed without government representation dumped tea in a harbor are credited, correctly, as revolutionaries, birthing a new nation.

And in the founding documents of that new nation, those men promptly codified precisely the kinds of inequality at which they had so furiously chafed: they built their country out of a genocide of its native inhabitants, the enslavement of African Americans, the denial of the franchise and full economic, legal and social parity to women.

The nation — its economy, its courts and government and institutions—were built on the unremunerated labor and suffering of unrepresented people—and those unrepresented people were angry about that from the start.

And yet their anger, its righteousness and prescience, has never been transmitted to us with anything even remotely comparable to the respect afforded the stories of our furious founders.

I bet a lot of people in this room have never heard the story of Mumbet, later known as Elizabeth Freeman. She was a contemporary of those revolutionary founders and her rage, like theirs, had long-lasting legal, civic consequences. Mumbet was an enslaved woman, laboring in the home of a revolutionary politician in Massachusetts in the 18th century. She was physically abused, battered by the politician’s wife.

Mumbet heard the rhetoric of liberty in the home and applied it to her own condition, suing for her freedom. She won her petition, and her case was one of three to serve as a basis for the state of Massachusetts’ abolition of slavery in 1783. Yet her story — righteous, furious, consequential, nation-shaping — is not taught in our history books.

The woman we are taught about as what passes for proto-feminist revolutionary heroine: Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Her voice is in every PBS documentary ever made about the revolution.

And there’s one line from Abigail Adams that is repeated over and over again: Remember the Ladies!

Kind of a dismal request, right?

But in that same letter, Abigail also observed that “all men would be tyrants if they could” — which frankly sounds like something a contemporary feminist might tweet today—and that if the founders did not take women into consideration in their formation of a new nation, those women were “determined to foment a rebellion.”

Listen to what she was doing. Speaking in the terms, using the political frame, of her male peers, the ones we make monuments to: of revolution and tyranny.

Yet Abigail Adams couldn’t say that, could she. So we never got told that she did.

Her anger has not been transmitted to us as righteous, as formative, as critical to our American story.

In fact, it has been, through the passage of history erased. Why? Because those in power recognize the dissenting anger of those on the margins, to be as potentially consequential as the anger of those revolutionary forebears.

Their assessment is not wrong.

If you look at the start of nearly every movement that has shaken the nation and eventually transformed it — and I’m not talking simply of women’s movements — you will find furious women at their start. But you do have to look for them.

Consider how we think of labor in this country — teamsters and coal miners and air-traffic controllers.

But did you know that some of the very first walkouts, and the first labor union in the nation was formed by young women — girls — working at the Lowell textile mills in Massachusetts in the 1830s?

They, too, called on the rhetoric of the founding to object to their low wages and unsafe working conditions, claiming, “As our fathers resisted unto blood the lordly avarice of the British ministry, so we, their daughters, never will wear the yoke which has been prepared for us.”

Black washerwomen went out on strike in Atlanta in 1881 and brought the economy of their city to an absolute standstill. And it was 23-year-old immigrant organizer named Clara Lemlich who in 1909 called for a general strike of garment workers in response to dangerous working conditions. That strike, of 20,000 people, worked. Strikers secured new deals with better working conditions with almost all the shirtwaist factories.

In the past two years it’s been women workers—teachers, fast food workers—who have led the resurgence of a labor movement; earlier this year it was Sara Nelson, the head of the union of flight attendants, who began making noises about a general strike, helping to bring an end to the shut down.

Women opening their mouths and talking to each other, to journalists, to politicians about what they are angry about, and how they might work together to change it, have the ability to pressure governments, companies, to remake legislation and determine elections.

So much of this speech has been about women, but as I have mentioned earlier, what I’m talking about is people at the margins of power in one way or another.

Look at the stories being honored tonight: stories about immigrants, kids, running from violence whose drive to raise their voices and tell their stories in some cases resulted in their punishment, their deportation. Whose very existences have been manipulated by the most powerful — our president — to justify criminalization, deportation, family separation and death. And still they are so desperate to tell their stories, and Hannah Dreier is driven to tell them. I admire her so much.

John J. Lennon a man who is himself incarcerated and so determined to tell the tales of what happens to those who have been policed and locked up, the deprivation and punishments they face inside jails, and so far outside the views of so many of us, so easy to silence. But he is hellbent on making sure that these stories be heard.

And Pam Colloff and Leora Smith, looking not only at others who’ve been shut away in prisons unjustly, but also taking on the flawed forensic science wielded as an authoritative weapon by those desperate to show their power — and silence the disruptive questioning of their authority.

Theirs are voices raised to interrogate and fundamentally challenge the abuses of power, to tell the enraging stories of those who have less of that power, those on the outside, those who the powerful would prefer stay quiet.

All of these stories are models for the rest of us, who want to speak or yell or register our horror, who want to read the stories that have been kept from view, or even tell our own, knowing that they might make others angry.

Consider how the most powerful would try to shut up, ignore, or delegitimize anyone who challenges them. Consider indeed how they do it, all around us, every day: taking away franchise, health care, reproductive autonomy; through deportation and incarceration and daily cruel humiliations; and, of course, the denigration of and attempts to delegitimize the press.

It is so easy to feel trapped and helpless and cowed into scared silence by what is happening around us. It is easy to wonder: What is it that any of us, be us writers or readers or simply civic participants and human beings, can do in the face of atrocity, power abuse, injustice and inequality?

I think that a good place to start — and I hope that Molly herself would approve of this advice — is to consider what the most powerful least want you to do, and then do that.

Which means: Open our mouths, our eyes, our ears. Yell and shout and tell stories and listen to the others who are yelling and shouting and telling their stories. Support the publications that dare, day after day, to open their mouths and loose their tongues.

Pay attention to those on the margins, speaking from the outside. Consider the value of dissenting, scrappy cacophony over a stifling ordered silence imposed by those at the centers of power.

Remember that to her last breath, Molly Ivins advocated the banging of pots and pans, the raising of hell. Never let anyone tell you which stories have value, or that those that discomfit most should not be heard. They should be heard loudest.

Thank you so much for having me here to honor some of the loudest mouths in the room.

Photo by Alan Pogue.