‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity…’ and so is anger!

votes for womenAs a government information librarian, I never forgot an old record I found from an American “insane asylum” from the 1800s. In there it mentioned that one woman was placed in the asylum for “refusing to obey her husband.” This parallels the apparently not unusual behavior of President Woodrow Wilson and his cronies back in 1917, when they tried to persuade a psychiatrist to declare the suffragette Alice Paul insane so they could institutionalize her permanently. The doctor refused saying Alice Paul was strong and brave, but that did not make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men:

‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.’

But when we stop and consider the centuries of historical and genetic evidence, we see that males of our species increased their chance of survival with shows of aggression, while the females survived best my passive, receptive behavior. Females needed male protection to survive, especially after babies arrived. Aggressive females probably did not survive or have the chance to procreate like the more passive ones.

Jumping from historical records to personal experience, I was taught from a very early age not to express my anger. My father was the holder of the anger in my family. The rest of us were afraid of his rage. This fear in myself was so ingrained and unconscious that it took years of counseling for me to finally uncover this new source of power within myself. The first time I tried to get in touch with my anger and express it in some useful way, I instead found myself breathless and confused.

Did I have the courage or the right to express so much pent up rage from decades of standing by while others, usually men, raged on?

Granted, we boomers have lived in a time of transition from traditional female definitions of success to modern independence. Traditionally marriage was a time to celebrate female success. This meant that the woman could now fulfill the proper role of mother and helpmate to her husband. He was the head of the family. and she was the helper who worked to promote her husband’s success.

But since I had no desire to marry at an early age and fulfill this traditional role, where did I fit in? I spent a lifetime figuring this out for myself. In the meantime, I slowly learned through excellent counseling to appreciate and express a full range of emotions, even anger. But I find most women of my age still fear expressing any emotion close to anger.

When we feel anger, it comes from a place deep inside of us whose purpose is to protect us from outside aggression or danger. It tells us when our bodies and minds are threatened and then tells us to react to protect ourselves. Historically women had no way to protect themselves from male aggression or anger, but today we do. I can highly recommend using it.

I LOVE this response to this post! Read the whole comment below:

“The day we stop needing the approval of those around us is the day we take our power back and are free to express the full range of emotions we have. Thanks for this post – it’s very supportive.”    – Gilly 

15 thoughts on “‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity…’ and so is anger!

  1. Hi Laura Lee! Very well expressed and a great reminder of how far we have come (with lots to go still, of course!) While I’m all for being kind and compassionate, sometimes anger is the right response and I believe it can be fully expressed in ways that are healing for the situation rather than inflammatory. May we all have the courage and conviction to stand up for the rights of others and our own as well. ~Kathy


  2. Yes Kathy. I was surprised at the lack of response to a post I wrote earlier this week about our fear of female rage. I think for far too many of us we are actually unconscious of our own anger, as I was for about half of my life. The difficulties faced when we decide to go ahead and challenge ourselves to feel ALL OF OUR FEELINGS can be great. But having access to fear and anger gives us new access to the celebration of JOY!


  3. A very thought provoking post. I probably had a similar upbringing to you even though I’m in the UK. Maybe it’s a generational thing? Anger was suppressed in us girls in my household too. I am the youngest of two. And even now, all these years later, if I ever express emotions that aren’t ‘acceptable’ to the people around me, (because I do believe ALL emotions are acceptable as long as they are expressed in a mature way), I get the same supressive, disapproving attitude, from my mum and my sister, like a deep frost descending on me. After a lifetime of swallowing down perfectly legitimate but difficult feelings, I don’t do that anymore – I speak out, I get angry at the people and situations that provoke my anger and I hand it back, The day we stop needing the approval of those around us is the day we take our power back and are free to express the full range of emotions we have. Thanks for this post – it’s very supportive.


  4. Just reading over this again – your description of feeling ‘breathless and confused’ resonates with me too. When anger has been treated like something bad by those who you look up to as a child, and, continues to be treated that way decades later, even in your adult life, the confusion and fear of your own anger really does leave us feeling the way you describe. And the whole thing with ‘anger management’ classes for angry children in schools used to make me mad (angry even!)😀. It should have been called Anger Supression! I taught it for awhile when working with ‘angry’ children in schools but it was all such BS that I couldn’t play along with it anymore. Thank goodness for the women in history who stood their ground but so sad for the ones who got locked away,


  5. Gilly: When I finally felt my anger it literally took my breathe away. I knew I needed to say something, but I so feared the response! I did finally express my anger and it felt GREAT!
    So glad I could validate your own experiences with early anger. I believe we need to speak up about anger and release it’s power in the world. I picture it as a worldwide explosion of women power! RELEASE YOUR ANGER AND FREE YOURSELF, but always in a safe, supportive environment…


  6. Oh, boy. I’m so bad at arguments that when I find myself even approaching one on Facebook (Stupid! Effing! Facebook!) I’m up twenty times overnight with nightmares about…I don’t even know quite what! It’s pretty horrible.

    There’s a thing that some of my born & bred NYC friends do that just blows me away – they debate for fun. It’s actually done with great love and affection and I watch them and wonder how on earth you can learn to do that.

    I was just never taught how to be angry – when I was upset it was “Go to your room”. Maybe I should take a class.


    • Thank you for your thoughts and your honesty Bonnie. I did need counseling and than a great anger workshop, where I learned about anger, how it works and then we spent some time just feeling angry in a safe environment. These things changed my life all for the better, helping me to normalize anger as an OK emotion like joy and sadness. Not knowing this can range anywhere from uncomfortable to toxic.


  7. I had to go to therapy to be told that it’s okay to express anger and that it’s necessary to establish my boundaries. I also realized that assertion is different from aggression and that was a life-changer for me. Thanks for sharing this, Laura Lee.


  8. I love the historical approach you took. I think some women were also locked up or sent away during menopause. With the loss of estrogen I know I have become less nurturing, less forgiving and do not let things slide by if they bother me. I have an anger not like in puberty, a flare up, and then in 10 minutes everything is fine, but a seething and often documented, I can tick off the reasons, that will just spew!


  9. Love that line about your father being the holder of anger in the family. I remember how we had to “not get Dad mad.” Our mother, however, was allowed to be sensitive. We really hamper each sex in its own way.


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