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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Literature Review on Women's Anger and Other Emotions

Myths About Women's Anger

In the 1993 study edited by Sandra P. Thomas, several myths about women's anger are exposed. It is pointed out that because women's anger has been neglected by researchers, there is a lack of empirical evidence to refute the "myths, folk wisdom, and misinformation" (p. 4) that prevail.

Among the most common myths and untested theories noted by Thomas is the conclusion that women have difficulty acknowledging and expressing their anger. This myth is given significant attention and refuted by Tavris (1982) who contends that while women feel anger differently than men, "neither sex has the advantage in being able to "identify" anger when they feel it or in releasing it once it is felt" (p. 185). Any real difficulty women have in acknowledging and expressing anger is attributed to status and power discrepancy rather than gender differences (Tavris, 1982; Crawford, Kippax, Onyx, Gault, & Benton, 1992). One study examining sex and sex-role identity with the expression of anger finds that sex is not a factor in anger expression or the tendency to suppress anger (Kopper & Epperson, 1991). A recent analysis of the theoretical perspectives regarding the female and male experience of anger determines as anger as a function of gender has not been adequately tested, it is not clear how women and men differ, if at all, in their experience and expression of anger (Sharkin, 1993).

Various reasons are presented in the literature for the repression of anger in women. Basic among these is the fear that its expression will cause retaliation (Lerner, 1985; Jack, 1991; Crawford et al., 1992; Campbell, 1993), deny the nurturing aspect of women's socialization (Bernardez-Bonesatti, 1978) or drive away the love and closeness women seek (Bernardez-Bonesatti, 1978; Lerner, 1985; Jack, 1991; Wilt, 1993). Lerner (1985) suggests women fear their own anger because, in signalling that something is wrong, it calls for the necessity of change. Jack (1991) notes this requirement to act threatens the established order of women's lives and thus is encountered as fearful. Women are further inhibited from the expression of anger by the requirement to live out the behaviours of the "good woman" (Jack, 1991), and the "nice lady" (Lerner, 1985) rather than being perceived as unfeminine or the "bitch" (Tavris, 1982; Lerner, 1985).

Bernardez-Bonesatti (1978) contends our society permits women the expression of anger in defense of those more vulnerable than themselves but discourages them from expressing anger on their own behalf. This admonition is rooted in the infantile notion of the omnipotent mother, a belief carried by both men and women into adulthood that women's power unleashed is considered devastating (p. 215).

Due to perceived cultural demands or environmental factors, anger often becomes misnamed as selfishness (Jack, 1991), hurt (Tavris, 1982; Valentis & Devane, 1993), sadness, and worry (Tavris, 1982), or transformed into self-righteous attempts to control (Kraus, 1991) or other socially acceptable forms "such as headaches, insomnia, ulcers, back pain, and obesity, that are often treated as though no preexisting condition existed" (Munhall, 1993, pp. 487-488). Munhall notes the critical implications of the transformation of anger into socially acceptable forms. When the acceptable condition is treated while the underlying anger remains unresolved, inevitably the acceptable condition returns.

Greenspan (1993) notes the inherent sexism in the diagnostic labels widely used for female psychiatric patients. Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the most "demeaning categories in the entire psychiatric lexicon" (p. XXIX), was depicted in the then current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-III-R by intense and frequent displays of anger. Greenspan suggests angry women are easy prey for this diagnosis.

Thomas (1993c) identifies the further myths that women use passive-aggressive forms of anger expression, such as pouting, whining, manipulating, backbiting, or gossiping and that the ultimate consequence of denied or suppressed anger is depression. This latter assumption is evident in much of the literature and is discussed in greater detail below. Related to this latter assumption is the belief that venting or discharging anger is necessarily curative. Consistently refuted in the literature (Tavris, 1982; Lerner, 1985; Lerner, in Kirmer, 1990; Thomas, 1990; Thomas, 1991), this myth will also receive more attention below.

White and Kowalski (1994) suggest the pervasive belief that women are not as aggressive as men is another myth to be deconstructed. They suggest that aggression among women has been ignored because it has been defined narrowly in terms of physical aggression. As a result of much female aggression having "gone unnoticed and thus unnamed....female physical aggression seems more unexpected, becomes labeled irrational, and is denied legitimacy" (p. 488). White and Kowalski cite four comprehensive reviews of the literature that argue "that the conclusion that men are always more aggressive than women cannot be substantiated" (p. 489). Two recent books (Bjorkqvist & Niemela, 1992, reviewed by Richardson, 1994; Haug, Benton, Brain, Oliver & Moss, 1992, reviewed by Pellis, 1994) cited by White and Kowalski concur, although Pellis' review of Haug et al. suggests that though "the book does succeed in shaking us loose from any enduring power of the standard sex stereotype....some chapters are poorly disguised political rhetoric, merely presenting new unexamined stereotypes that do little to promote the scientific analysis of either aggression or sex differences" (p. 469). Richardson's review strikes a similar note, maintaining that "recognizing that females are capable of aggression does not necessarily imply that they are as aggressive as males....Indeed, there is considerable and consistent scientific evidence, both in this book and elsewhere, to suggest that there are some very real differences in the directness, frequency, and harmfulness of male and female aggression" (p. 400). Though White and Kowalski do not disagree, in their feminist analysis they suggest that maintaining the myth of the nonaggressive woman "sustains male power" (p. 493) by rendering women as weak, helpless, and in need of male protection. "By deconstructing the myth of the nonaggressive woman, the trap of gendered dualism (male/female: powerful/weak: perpetrator/victim) is recognized and the advantages of the myth to men is diminished" (p. 504). In suggesting available data does not clearly answer the question of who is more aggressive, White and Kowalski promote attention to women's aggression in and of itself (cf. also Bjorkqvist & Niemela, reviewed by Richardson), paying specific attention to the cultural, social, and psychological circumstances surrounding it (p. 504).

The increasingly held assumption that the effects of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) explain outbursts of anger among women is debated in the literature. In a review of the literature, Harry and Balcer (1987) note the lack of scientific knowledge regarding any association between any phases of the menstrual cycle and crime. Maintaining there is no evidence linking fluctuations in reproductive hormones to criminal behaviour, they advise that evidence concerning menstruation and crime should not be admissible in criminal trials. Campbell (1993) similarly suggests the assumption of any link is premature, citing methodological flaws and circumstantial evidence in the research. It is further noted that as researchers include two out of every four weeks in the vulnerability period, with no apparent reason given, it is "little wonder, then that 46 percent of criminally convicted women wound up committing their crimes during a period of time that spans half their cycle" (Dalton, cited in Campbell, p.157). Though studies are becoming more systematic, the suggestion of a relationship remains controversial with some suggesting there is a subgroup of women who are susceptible to hormonal fluctuations that leave them prone to increased anxiety and hostility during the premenstrual phase (Fishbein, 1992).