Righteous Anger

Righteous Anger

Introducing our Winter 2023 special section, “Feminism After Dobbs.”

by Tabitha Arnold

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, my body responded with anger. I say body because the anger felt entirely physical. Animalistic in its intensity, it was like the cry of a trapped creature. Outsiders had placed a limit on me and on millions of others who shared with me the capacity to become pregnant. To the justices, who rule not as judges or as scholars but as clerics, our promise is contained in the womb. Whatever we are outside that organ means nothing in comparison to the people we could bear. So my anger was an assertion of myself: only a person could feel this way. No one could deny my humanity now.

My response to Dobbs felt visceral and personal, but it could have been different. Anti-abortion women reacted to the decision with elation. I am a child of the American right, and anger is my first political memory. Everyone around me was so angry all the time, and not just at the “abortion mills.” The world was changing around us and might leave us behind, which was an intolerable prospect. Progress threatened our churches, we thought, but more than that it threatened the country. A nation without the church in power—our church—was a nation in ruins. Anger is not always righteous, and it does not always look like a pro-choice rally. Sometimes it is a picket outside a clinic. 

The anger I felt as a child was an anger that adults transmitted to me. With it, they hoped to mold me into a foot soldier. But my anger shifted targets when I discovered that our side in the culture war had only two roles for a girl. The first was reproduction, and the second was to keep all the other girls in line. Much like a military, the Christian right runs on conformity. There was no uniform, but strict dress codes protected our modesty. As women in waiting, girls were thought of mostly as future wives and mothers. And any political inclinations had to follow an established trajectory. The right needs its Kellyanne Conways and its Amy Coney Barretts to soften the face it presents to the world, so women could enter right-wing politics without sustaining much reputational damage. Yet as I got older, I noticed that there seemed to be no room for the anger I was beginning to feel—anger at the men in authority over me, anger at the women who obeyed them.

The dress codes exhausted me. I could map out my future with paces around my mother’s kitchen. Even in church, the center of my life, I could not expect to have authority. Any role I could have would be handed to me by a man with real power. I would only ever be a reflection of him.

I knew vaguely of feminism, knew it to be the enemy, but in secret I began to suspect those feminists might have a point. I could not deny what I saw to myself. Women in my world occupied a second and subordinate tier to men, and I would never be an independent person. My worth depended entirely on my sexuality: on my purity and my capacity to bear children. My mind never entered into anything at all.

Midway through college I knew the right was no longer my home. So I went in search of a new one. I eyed the pro-choice movement and lurked in the comments of popular feminist blogs. This was the Obama era, and liberalism was ascendant. I defended Obama passionately on my college campus. But I knew I wanted more than a polite rally or a quiet moment at the ballot box. The entire structure of the world needed to change, I thought. The exploitation of the poor had radicalized me, as had the violent foreign policy of the United States, the vulnerability of the right to an abortion, and the moral imperative of rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Obama was not Bush, but he was no savior either. No politician would be. The answer had to lie somewhere else. 

At this crucial moment I discovered the left. I would not be a socialist if I were not a feminist first. Feminism put language and theory to the exploitation I knew so intimately and encouraged me to think of myself as an actor in a communal struggle. It primed me, then, for the left, and for socialism in particular. I thought that if I had the right to an abortion, to be truly free I must also have the right to a child, and that was a prohibitively expensive proposition in the United States. Yet liberal feminism, by which I mean the professionalized feminism that became mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s, confined its ambitions to the boardroom and its fights to the courtroom. Capitalism did not threaten it, nor did it pose any threat to capitalism. I wanted a feminism with teeth.

Only in the left did I find a home for my anger. It at last had a purpose. Before, my anger had become an amorphous thing, and it had grown heavy. I knew, instinctively, that anger could easily transform into cruelty. I had seen this happen during my past in the right; the right thrived on this very transformation. I did not want this to happen to me or my rage. In the left, I found the ideas that helped me use it as a force for social and political change. Socialism told me that yes, the structure of the world did need to change, but I had comrades, and they were angry too.

 “At some level, perhaps not too well articulated, socialist feminism has been around for a long time,” the late Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in 1976.

You are a woman in a capitalist society. You get pissed off: about the job, about the bills, about your husband (or ex), about the kids’ school, the housework, being pretty, not being pretty, being looked at, not being looked at (and either way, not listened to), etc. . . . A lot of us came to socialist feminism in just that kind of way. We were searching for a word/term/phrase which would begin to express all of our concerns, all of our principles, in a way that neither “socialist” nor “feminist” seemed to.

Be mad, socialist feminism told me, but do something about it. No one can vote their way out of patriarchy or get promoted out of capitalism. The right fights to win power for itself, and so must we. 

Anger is useless unless it is given shape and marshaled as a force that can propel a broader political movement to power. With this issue of Dissent we assert our full humanity to those who would deny it. In doing so we take stock of where we are now, and what might happen next. We must understand how we got to the end of Roe so we can collectively decide on our future. The Roe decision did not end the fight for reproductive justice, and its loss is not the end, either.

We must also understand the appeal the right can have for women so we can provide them with real alternatives. Something is indeed wrong, the right tells angry women; blame the LGBTQ community, blame critical race theory, blame the left. Reactionary groups like Moms for Liberty arise from this stew. The right’s message can be seductive. It’s easier to punch down and not up. It’s a cheap way to feel powerful.

The left, by contrast, tells a harder truth: there is no freedom to be found in the right, with its fixation on hierarchy and subordination. The left does not serve power but rather challenges it, and that is a difficult task. But it is not impossible. We look to the labor movement and to the recent past for lessons. Above all we look ahead with hope and determination. We know that liberal feminism has failed, but in its demise, we see an opportunity for something more meaningful to rise. I am here to tell you that if you are angry, you are in the right place. There is a home for you, and a fight we can still win.

Sarah Jones is a senior writer for New York Magazine and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. Her first book is forthcoming from Avid Reader Press.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: