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Good and Angry

A few weeks ago, I had the great experience of attending a lecture by Gloria Steinem. She was in Baltimore to address a conference on feminism and the law, and she was terrific. Smart, warm, funny, profound, and at almost 74 years old, as beautiful as ever. A total inspiration. During her talk, she offered up what is fast becoming one of my favorite new sayings: "The truth will set you free, but first it'll piss you off." And in one exchange, Steinem said that she doesn't expect today's young feminists to be grateful for what her generation accomplished. No one ever changed the world out of gratitude, she said. Sometimes anger is good.

Steinem's words resonated when, just before going to press, I reread Maria Blackburn's story about Lillie Shockney ("Shockney Therapy," p. 44). Shockney is the force behind the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, and a survivor herself. As Maria was working on her article, we talked a lot about making sure we got the tone right. We had all seen too many maudlin breast cancer articles, and we didn't want to reduce to a tear-jerker our story about Shockney's significant accomplishments in advancing patient care. No doubt Shockney is kind, empathetic, and generous with her affection. And no doubt she and her patients shed many tears. But Shockney is fierce, motivated not just by tenderness for her patients, but by outrage when she thinks they're not being treated as well as they could be. (I love the scene in Maria's story when Shockney — all five feet two of her — can't help but speak up during a congressional hearing, asking what shouldn't be an outrageous question: Why can't excellence in treatment be the rule instead of the exception?) We wanted to make sure our story reflected her power as much as her compassion.

Several years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about her experience with breast cancer in Harper's, and complained that pink ribbons and teddy bears infantilize women, encouraging them to accept their status as victims rather than demand truth — about their condition, and about what factors (specifically environmental pollutants) contribute to the disease. She wrote that she was sustained through her treatment by "a purifying rage."

I know — we all know — too many people who have succumbed (or not) to all kinds of cancer. Thinking about Ehrenreich, Steinem, and Shockney, I guess we should all be a little grateful for their anger.

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