‘Lift the lid, and there’s a well of rage’: why women are mad as hell (and not afraid to show it) | Women

There is a jar of severed heads sitting on the windowsill of Gemma Whiddett’s waiting room. China heads, to be precise, that customers have gleefully smashed from the shoulders of figurines she finds in charity shops. She drops the latest head into the jar, with a satisfying clink: all ready for the next session.

Whiddett manages Rage Rooms in Norwich, where customers can make an appointment to smash up heaps of unwanted crockery, small electrical appliances and miscellaneous jumble, using scaffolding poles. The concept first caught on in Japan as a way of working off stress, before spreading across the US and Europe, and is promoted as a fun, liberating means of venting everyday frustrations. And in Norwich around two-thirds of the customers are women.

“We had a group of little old ladies come in and I did wonder if they knew what they’d booked. But they absolutely got stuck in,” says Whiddett, a cheerful 40-year-old who reckons the most satisfying smashables are breadmakers (“They last for ages”). They get a lot of primary school teachers, she says, but this afternoon’s booking is for three impeccably mannered teenagers.

Maddie’s parents have driven her up from Suffolk for a belated 18th birthday celebration with friends Annabel and Kitty. The girls, fresh from trawling Norwich’s vintage clothes shops, explain that they’ve never done anything like this before. But they all know the episode of the Netflix series Sex Education where a bunch of teenage girls cathartically smash cars in a scrapyard, and they’ve all seen rage room videos on TikTok, where they’re often pitched as the antidote to relationship angst. “Block his number and smash up a printer instead,” as TikToker @vickaboox urges her almost 800,000 followers.

Seventeen-year-old Annabel, who recently did her A-level mocks, admits being “a bit nervous” as they’re ushered off to don protective boiler suits, boots and masks. Minutes later, she is hurling plates at the wall and pulverising a toaster as everyone else watches on camera in the waiting room. “It feels weird at first because you know everyone’s watching you, but once you get into it, it’s great,” she enthuses as Whiddett sweeps up the remnants. Later, the rubble will be carefully sorted for recycling.

Once upon a time, women showing anger in public might have been deemed unladylike, even shameful. Yet ours is increasingly an age of rage. Last December, the BBC crunched data from the Gallup World Poll – an annual snapshot of emotional reactions across 100 countries – and found that while both sexes reported similar anger and stress levels in 2012, women’s were on average six points higher than men’s by 2022. The gap widened significantly during the pandemic.

Female wrath can be a powerful catalyst for change, channelled into movements such as #MeToo, the protests against sexual violence in India and Pakistan, and the recent Iranian women’s uprising against the regime’s “morality police”. But not all anger is so productive. It’s harder to know what to do with the blind fury that often accompanies grief, hot menopausal rage, or the everyday stresses of work and parenting.

Teenager Maddie smashing things at Rage Rooms in Norwich
Teenager Kitty smashing things at Rage Rooms in Norwich
Teenagers Maddie, Annabel and Kitty at Rage Rooms in Norwich
‘It feels weird at first, but once you get into it, it’s great’: teenagers Maddie, Annabel and Kitty have a smashing time at Rage Rooms in Norwich. Photographs: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Smashing crockery, punching pillows or communal screaming – as practised by a group of Massachusetts mothers, whose film of themselves howling across an empty football field went viral last year – may feel cathartic. But it doesn’t solve the root causes of stress, and some psychologists question whether hitting things might strengthen the association between anger and aggression for some people. Kevin Bennett, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, has argued that “if you have aggressive tendencies to begin with, going to a rage room seems counterproductive”.

But in Norwich, Whiddett maintains she has never had to stop a customer getting too overheated; they get lots of hen dos, and lately she’s noticed more people using their visit to process emotions. “Perhaps they’ve recently gone through a breakup or they’re grieving. We’ve had a lot of people who have lost someone close to them.” They regularly see NHS and “blue light” workers, professions that have had a particularly difficult time during the pandemic, and sometimes, she says, it can be oddly moving. “Some people will come out and cry. Some will come out hysterically laughing. Some get really shaky because it’s a rush of adrenaline. It’s a total release.” Is that what many women crave?

In casual conversation with Lia, a good-humoured 50-year-old of British and Ghanaian heritage, you might never guess she was angry about anything. But she has a private list of things that infuriate her, from racism to lockdown. When the order came in March 2020 to stay at home, one of her three adult daughters was pregnant. Lia was furious at being separated from her new grandchild and her elderly mother. “To me, it felt really dangerous telling people what to do for the greater good. The overwhelming majority of people I knew were very happy to go along with that narrative. It was like, ‘We’re doing as we’re told – if you don’t, you’re selfish.’ That made me so angry,” she says. “As an intelligent woman, I didn’t feel I needed a man telling me how to live my life and run my family. I thought it should be down to individual families to assess the risk.”

In retrospect, she suspects that lockdown triggered memories of growing up as a teenager, resenting the police. “I felt very angry with authority then. When I became a mum I tucked all that way.” The murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer in May 2020, sparking Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, only heightened those feelings. “My daughters were all sending messages and videos, and talking about racism. I knew they’d experienced racism at school, but they were suddenly talking about the pressure to look a certain way, to straighten their hair,” Lia recalls. Her job involves providing equalities training and she was swamped with emails from people anxious to respond to Black Lives Matter. “Some were wanting me to work for free – ‘Can you just look at this?’ – some just saying, ‘I hope I never did anything to upset you.’ I’d been doing this work for 20 years and these people never once reached out to me before.”

Police at a vigil for Sarah Everard in London, March 2021
Police handling of a vigil for Sarah Everard in London, March 2021, was a catalyst for women’s anger. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

But what brought the strands of Lia’s anger together was the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a serving police officer in March 2021, and the heavy-handed policing of a vigil for her. Again and again when researching this piece, I hear women identify that as a catalyst that unlocked anger about how men had treated them in the past.

Jess, an occupational therapist from London who mainly treats women in their 20s and early 30s, says that after Everard’s death she noticed an increase in the number of clients raging at everyday misogyny, whatever their original reason for seeking help. “Young women were coming to me saying, ‘I can’t go for a run because this has happened. I get these comments on the street.’ It was like the scab had been knocked off and everyone was bleeding,” she recalls. She’s also noticed a broader backlash at feeling lied to, strung along or abused by men on dating apps. “During lockdown there seemed to be this boom in horrible behaviour – just using women for lockdown relationships, then binning them off afterwards,” she says. “There’s a lot of anger, but where does it go? Because men don’t want to hear it.”

Meanwhile, Lia remembers spending the Mother’s Day after Everard’s death furious. “It really hit me for the first time: I am black, I am a woman – the duality of that, the misogynoir. It’s good that these things have a lot of media attention; it opened people’s eyes. But it seemed to really take over – the feelings of anger and not knowing what to do with them.”

Lia says that among her left-leaning friends she can open up about that now. But there are still things she feels she can’t raise because they contradict the “acceptable” left view. On the subject of lockdowns, she says: “I still don’t feel safe to say what I really think online, and it’s also like that with the whole transgender conversation. I would never say to my female friends what I really think – which is not that I want to discriminate against anyone, far from it, but I do want to see women’s rights kept safe.” Her frustration with feeling silenced or scolded is widely echoed by gender-critical women on the left, with the Labour MP (and domestic violence survivor) Rosie Duffield saying it felt like being in an “abusive relationship” with her party. Yet there is arguably female anger on both sides of this issue, with YouGov polling last year showing women more supportive overall than men of trans rights.

Lia follows arguments on social media but holds back from commenting publicly. In real life, too, she avoids confrontation, wary of being stereotyped as an “angry black woman”, especially in the very white rural area where she lives. “I try to be nice, because they may never have met a black person before.” Towards the end of our conversation she confides: “I’m scared of expressing my feelings, so I can’t get them out of me.” She has previously experienced anxiety attacks, and in lockdown sometimes felt depressed.

London, UK. 5th March 2022. Women meet outside Charing Cross Police Station for an all-woman march and rally at New Scotland Yard. They called for an end to male violence against women and girls in all its forms.
A rally in London in March 2022 calling for an end to male violence against women. Photograph: Peter Marshall/Alamy Live News

Anger, as John Lydon sang, is an energy. Or, put more scientifically, it serves an important biological and social purpose. Fear of angering our peers makes humans follow social norms – perceived injustice or rule-breaking is a classic trigger for anger – and rage also primes us physically to counter threats. It makes hearts beat faster, blood sugar levels rise, breathing quicken and senses sharpen. But preparing for fight or flight isn’t much help when the trigger is a traffic jam or Twitter spat, and unnecessarily raising your blood pressure may have downsides. Chronic anger and stress are linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as depression and self-harm (the latter are more commonly reported by women). Anger is a tool most of us could benefit from learning to use better, according to Boiling Point, a landmark 2008 report from the Mental Health Foundation, and doing so would help people “achieve goals, solve problems and nurture social relationships” as well as improve mental and physical health.

Anger is surprisingly little studied compared with sadness or fear, says the foundation’s head of applied learning, David Crepaz-Keay, perhaps because it doesn’t have a lucrative market in treatments. But research suggests that men typically project rage outwards while women are prone to turning theirs in against themselves. “One of the reasons why you see higher levels of reported self-harm in women than men, if you control for other things, is that women have internalised it and men have gone out fighting,” he explains. “That is a form of self-harm, too, but it’s not pathologised as such.” His hunch, however, is that younger generations are “less gendered” about emotions, accepting more readily that men can be sad or women boiling mad.

When Pragya Agarwal was growing up in India, she remembers repeatedly being told she was too “emotional”. That sparked a lifelong curiosity for the behavioural scientist, who is visiting professor of inequities and social justice at Loughborough University, and author of Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions. “I always wondered about those boundaries on emotional expression,” she says cheerily over Zoom from Ireland, where she’s researching another book. “When do you become ‘too angry’ or ‘too sensitive’? I was always told, ‘Girls aren’t angry’ or asked, ‘How will you ever get married?’”

In fact, she says, there’s little evidence of biological differences in men’s and women’s capacity for anger. But anger often involves confronting or demanding something from others, which makes it a “high status” emotion associated with power. Lower-status individuals, who risk being punished for asserting themselves, learn to mask it. Research shows that girls are encouraged to regulate their emotions from babyhood, she says. “It’s the implicit and explicit messages parents give: you shouldn’t shout loudly in a supermarket or use your outside voice,” she says. “But if you tell girls to be quiet, or reward them for being quiet, tell them not to shout loudly, not to take risks, we’re telling them that that’s what we expect from them.

People gather for the Women's March in Washington, D.C. on January 22, 2023, the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade,
A march in Washington DC in January, on the 50th anniversary of Roe v Wade. Photograph: Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“So women internalise that anger, and it’s expressed in terms of despair or sadness. We learn that crying is seen more sympathetically.” That’s especially true, she says, for women of colour. When she first moved to Britain more than two decades ago as a student, Agarwal remembers feeling that she “needed to be a ‘good person’ to fit in” and not to create a fuss.

Now, she tries not to rebuke her six-year-old twin daughters for getting angry, encouraging them instead to reflect on why they feel that way. “What I’m trying to do is not to judge the emotion but say, ‘Why are you feeling angry at the moment? Do you want to change the situation or do you want to express it in the right way – how can you do that without hurting yourselves or anybody else?’” Would a fairer society, in which women felt freer to let rip, inevitably be an angrier one? Not quite, she says: “I suppose an equitable society would be one where emotions are not gendered or generally labelled, but where all of us can learn to navigate different emotional thresholds without being judged or penalised for it.”

Gallup’s female and male anger scores first began diverging in 2017, the year the Italian actor Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The outpouring of experiences that followed exemplifies the power of what Agarwal calls “collective anger” in driving change. In mass social media, with its global reach and algorithmic preference for highly emotive content, female anger found the perfect vehicle to spread virally. But #MeToo also perhaps reflected a growing sense, after Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election despite being caught boasting about “grabbing” women, that playing nicely wasn’t working. Hillary Clinton had made herself stay calm and measured when debating Trump, to avoid being called shrill or emotional, and much good it did her. The unashamed anger of #MeToo, however, seemingly got results. In her 2018 bestseller Rage Becomes Her, the American activist Soraya Chemaly argued that the shaming of female anger had silenced too many women for too long; a Ted talk she gave that year arguing that anger could not remain “the moral property of boys and men” has been viewed almost 2.5m times. That autumn, when the US senator Elizabeth Warren was branded overly aggressive while running for the Democrat presidential nomination, she embraced it. “Over and over we are told women are not allowed to be angry,” she wrote. “It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.” She lost to a man, but her words resonated, particularly with younger women.

To generation Z, it is anger that increasingly looks authentic, while suppressing it is deemed, at best, bad for mental health and, at worst, complicit with injustice. Unlike their mothers, young women have grown up seeing anger portrayed as empowering in popular culture: Beyoncé joyously smashing car windows with a baseball bat in the 2016 video of Hold Up or the Disney comedy She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, which reinvents the angry green monster as a hotshot female lawyer enraged by mansplaining. Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel The Power, about women discovering the ability to electrocute people at will, has been adapted for an Amazon Prime series this month, and even the #anger on Instagram is full of inspirational quotes about “honoring” rage because “if your anger isn’t flowing out of your body, it’s probably turned inward on to yourself”. But for a generation that grew up watching angry women portrayed on screen as bunny boilers, letting it flow may take rather more practice.

On a grey afternoon in January, a small group of women gathers outside the anonymous black door of a Georgian townhouse in Marylebone, central London. Ranging from their mid-20s to early 60s, they have been drawn together by word of mouth or Instagram messages. Having started out as strangers, what they are about to do is curiously intimate. The only clue to what connects them is the discreet white badges some wear stamped with the words Anger Ambassador.

This is only the second meeting of the Women Are Mad (Wam) group, which seeks to normalise conversations about anger. It was brought together by Jennifer Cox, a psychotherapist. She insists this isn’t therapy, even though the conversations do go deeper than venting to friends over a glass of wine. “Therapy is about releasing the pressure so you can carry on and feel, ‘Well, I’m not the only one,’” she explains, offering shortbread biscuits baked by a Wam member in the shape of the group’s initials. “Whereas this group is more about sitting with the pain of this and getting into the sources of the anger.”

She created the group and its @WomenAreMad Instagram rallying point after realising how often she saw patients in her private clinic with symptoms ranging from anxiety, depression and eating disorders to migraine and eczema, who turned out to be furious and whose conditions seemingly improved after exploring that anger. “If you lift the lid, you very quickly end up with this kind of well of rage. And women are very frightened of expressing it or calling it anger, but the relief when you do is huge.” Could more women benefit, she wondered, from that relief? When she opened the group’s first meeting by asking what made them angry, answers varied from the brutal crushing of Iran’s anti-hijab protests to matters more domestic.

Jenny Berglund, a freelance executive coach, says that since joining she has become more conscious of infuriating workplace incidents she might previously have brushed off – citing a colleague who declared that Sarah Everard “should have learned self-defence”. But expressing anger in professional settings is difficult, she points out. “Work is a place where anger is taboo. You don’t want to be Dominic Raab-ing it all over the place and shouting at people.”

A rally in Istanbul, Turkey, in January 2023, in support of Iranian protests at the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
A rally in Istanbul, Turkey, in January, in support of Iranian protests at the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Photograph: Dia Images/Getty Images

When Cox mentions women being encouraged to self-soothe with meditation and yoga rather than explore what is actually bothering them, the group nods vigorously. “Yoga makes me angry,” groans Juliet Cowan, 49, an actor and single mother of three who prefers writing as an outlet. The standup show she’s performing at London’s Vault festival this month, covering midlife challenges, from menopause and parenting teenagers to her divorce, is called Fuck Off and Leave Me Alone. Yet even this group struggles with the idea that expressing anger makes you a witch, a nag, a “crazy bitch”. What do they think would happen if women everywhere were truly honest about why they are furious? “I think most of us would feel in physical danger,” Cowan says. “You would be pariahs in the community,” Cox agrees. “You wouldn’t have any sex ever again,” says Olivia Lee, 43, a comedy writer whose work regularly explores maternal anger and whose personal flashpoint is invisible domestic load (her children are seven and two).

“I feel that what’s happening now is we’re working, we’re paying half the bills – why are we still doing so much more at home? It’s almost like feminism has got us to that point and it’s stalled. We need to make the balance fairer so we can work and not go mad, not be furious and overwhelmed.” Her husband constantly volunteers to help, she says, but she still carries the mental list of everything that needs doing. “I’m like, ‘That’s the whole problem – I need everything that’s in my head to be in your head.’ That for me would be equality.” She can’t remember feeling so angry five years ago, so what changed? “I thought I had it sorted: we both work, we both have good careers, this is equal. And then you have kids, and you realise that it’s not.” A 1996 study from the US that Agarwal unearthed for her book found anger levels increased with every child added to a household, more so for mothers than fathers.

The idea that small children can occasionally drive you mad is not new. Sixty years ago in her feminist classic The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan described frustrated suburban housewives swallowing tranquillisers like cough sweets to numb their feelings. But parenting through lockdown brought it alive again, with a government study of mental health under Covid finding women more likely than men to have significantly adapted their lives to accommodate childcare and housework, linking this to higher levels of psychological distress.

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Anna Mathur’s children were five, three and one when lockdown began, and she was in the middle of trying to write a book. She vividly recalls “a bubbling sense of rage” rising up. “Something would fall out of the cupboard and I’d find myself wanting to scream and shout and throw things,” she says. Everyone’s patience snaps occasionally, she reasoned, but this felt different. “That’s where the shame comes in – am I just a bad person, have I changed? The archetype of motherhood is that patient, loving maternal figure, and I was feeling more like I wanted to run away from my kids.” When Mathur, a trained psychotherapist, started discussing anger on her website and her podcast The Therapy Edit, responses flooded in from women saying they’d never been on such a short fuse.

Even in normal times, she points out, the pressure on mothers can be explosive. “I remember talking about self-care once and encouraging mothers to think of what tiny little acts you can put in the day that you could devote just to yourself, and people were saying things like ‘Brush my teeth’ or ‘Have a shower’. Those are basic fundamental acts of self-respect. Even people in prison get those.” While her book The Little Book of Calm for New Mums offers advice for managing stress, she says women shouldn’t be shamed for feeling it in the first place. “If your boss was screaming in your face, you’d walk out. Just because it’s your child doing it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a physiological reaction.”

Woman's clenched fist , arm leaning on red table top
‘All that stress – if I kept it in, it would probably have repercussions.’ Photograph: Martina Lang/The Guardian

But while maternal rage is increasingly acknowledged, the frustrations of daughters in caring roles is more taboo. When Nasreen’s widowed elderly father had a heart attack in 2007, she was living in America, where she had built a career she loved. Nonetheless, she dropped everything to return to London and nurse him.

“I had a life where I was able to do things that I probably would never have done here, but also just being able to be me,” she says over the phone. “Then suddenly I was at home looking after him. There was anger then, definitely.”

Her father recovered from heart surgery, but then broke his hip, and a stroke has left him unable to speak. A decade and a half later, Nasreen, 63, is still his live-in carer. She hasn’t had a holiday for six years and, although she pays care workers so that she can hold down a job working with children with disabilities, looking after her father consumes almost all her free time.

He was always a difficult man, she says, and illness has made him very frustrated. “I have lost it with him a few times, and a few home truths have come out. But all that stress – if I kept it in, it would probably have repercussions. I try not to lose my temper with him, I try to walk away, I try to use strategies we use at work. But I don’t feel nice about it.”

A Carers UK spokesperson says it’s “understandable to feel frustrated” looking after a loved one, advising people to set aside time for themselves, not bottle up feelings and join its online meetups, or see their GP if they’re worried about their own mental health.

For mothers at the end of their tether, Mathur suggests burning off stress with exercise and apologising in an age-appropriate way to children if you do shout. If you really feel yourself losing it, she says, “literally step away” for a moment; take deep breaths, or focus on something outside the window. “Another little thing is just to look at their eyelashes or their little hands. Look at your teenager and think, ‘I remember when you were a baby.’ Try to re-engage with that maternal feeling. They’re just a child trying to negotiate the world and you’re a grownup.”

But what if you get so angry that deep breaths aren’t enough?

Three years ago, psychotherapist Julia Pegg was running a men-only anger management programme for the Sheffield branch of mental health charity Mind when she found herself increasingly fielding inquiries about places for women. Her first female-only course filled up so quickly that Mind now runs several a year, with a waiting list. Some people seek help voluntarily, but others are referred by police, probation officers and social workers, including after incidents of domestic violence. “Studies show that a lot of women’s anger is more directed towards loved ones – their partner, the kids,” Pegg says over Zoom from Sheffield with her colleague Dovile Vilkeviciute, who recently took over running the course. “Historically, public displays of anger aren’t something we see as often in women.”

The course covers deeper drivers of rage, including childhood experiences, and aims not to eliminate anger but to help clients channel it so that it doesn’t emerge as aggression. Techniques involve slowing down and interrupting the thought process leading to rage, so that you can engage more rational thinking instead. “It’s a skill – it takes practice,” Pegg says.

Clues that it might be time to consider an anger management course include loved ones “starting to walk on eggshells” around you, Vilkeviciute says. Another red flag is stewing over things: are you still thinking about someone who cut you up in traffic last week? Passive-aggressive behaviour, Pegg says, is still a form of anger: “People say, ‘At home if somebody upsets me I will give them the silent treatment’ – is that something that lasts for days and days? How often are you losing it – every other day or once a month?”

Alex was 29 when she realised she needed help controlling her temper. She had always been fiery, she explains over the phone, lashing out verbally if she felt rejected or criticised. “I just thought, ‘That’s how I am and if people are too sensitive to deal with it, that’s their problem.’” She rowed with her landlord, walked away from relationships and was “making enemies” at work. The final straw, she says, was getting into a screaming argument with a stranger in Tesco. “I knew it wasn’t a normal reaction to somebody being a bit rude to me in the milk aisle.”

Looking for help, in 2020 she stumbled across the Mind course. With sessions shifted online due to Covid restrictions, Alex initially kept her camera off, nervous about introducing herself to strangers as a “crazy angry person”. She cried at times, reflecting on what anger had cost her in the past: “You might say or do something that’s really bad or hurtful, and someone else just doesn’t want to put up with it, or with you … It’s really painful.”

But anger was never demonised on the course, she says, which felt like a “very safe space”. She still uses the techniques she was taught, including identifying the early sensations of anger building up and walking away or asking to get back to the person later. Today, Alex sees anger in a more positive light. “I used to see it as: ‘This is what protects me and it makes me scary and brave.’ Now I definitely still really value anger, but I see it more as: ‘How do I want to use it?’

“We would joke about it on the course – will we ever be Zen and completely at peace? No. But I definitely think anger is a real motivating force. I want to use it for passion projects, for drive and for being brave.” But if control is what matters most to Alex, for many women the magic is in sweet release. Back in Norwich, Whiddett says she thinks that smashing stuff takes people back to being kids again, the last time they felt this free to let loose. She has cleared the last shards of Annabel’s session and resets the room for Maddie, who emerges exhilarated after breaking up a hairdryer. But it’s Kitty, the quietest of the three, who seems to find her turn most cathartic. “It was just feeling like everything’s coming out,” she says. “I feel a lot lighter.” And, with that, the girls gather their shopping, thank everyone politely and exit into the unexpectedly warm February sunshine.

Some names have been changed.

@WomenAreMad is planning a Scream on the Green on 26 March in London.

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