Why Angry Women Like Cynthia Nixon And Serena Williams Matter

Their righteous rage will pave the way for the women who come after them.
New York gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon makes a concession speech at a Brooklyn restaurant on Sept. 13, 2018, in New Yor
New York gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon makes a concession speech at a Brooklyn restaurant on Sept. 13, 2018, in New York City.

Even in defeat, Cynthia Nixon was full of defiance. On Thursday night, the activist and actress lost her race to be the Democratic nominee for New York governor. Nixon was gracious in conceding to her incumbent opponent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But she vowed to continue the fight.

“This is not a time to settle for the way things are, or sit back and hope for things to change,” she said. “This is a time to fight.” She also addressed those who might identify with her or be inspired by her campaign to eventually launch one of their own: “To all the young people. To all the young women. To all the young queer people who reject the gender binary. Soon you’ll be standing here, and when it’s your turn, you’ll win.”

It was always a long shot ― a major one ― that Nixon would prevail. Her entire campaign was a grassroots insurgency born of righteous anger: at the Democratic establishment, at the empty rhetoric that often dominates politics, at institutional racism and sexism, at the god-awful public transit in New York City. This anger isn’t the wild, reckless sort that bubbles up and bursts out indiscriminately. Her anger was more directed rage, the “well-aimed anger” that Rebecca Traister writes about in her forthcoming book Good and Mad. The kind of anger that has the power to reshape entrenched institutions. For evidence one need look no further than Cuomo declaring, in a hilarious bid to co-opt the structural critique driving Nixon’s campaign, that America “was never that great.”

Listening to Nixon’s concession speech, I couldn’t help but think about Serena Williamswho made headlines last weekend when she got into a heated exchange with an umpire that cost her a game and $17,000 in fines. Williams, like Nixon, was acutely aware of what her individual anger could mean for other women.

“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman,” Williams said during a press conference soon after the match ended. “They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

There is a certain indignity to the idea that these extraordinary women must make their anger really mean something. Men can just rage, with no particular care or purpose, and be lauded for it. Their anger is their genius, their power — evidence of a great fire within. But for women, particularly women of color, openly expressed anger can still come at a steep cost. And afterward, custom requires that it be transfigured into something socially useful. Think of Williams saying afterward that she’s “fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality.”  

But as was clear Thursday night, this thing we require of women, this consecration of their rage, is fundamentally a political act. We are in the midst of, as Traister puts it, the “reemergence of women’s rage as a mass impulse.” My anger is your anger, Williams and Nixon were saying. Our anger is our bequest to the people who come after us. Movements are made of such understandings.