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Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

Published on Jan 01, 2005 by

Published by USA Today

Interview: Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

In her new book Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, feminist author Phyllis Chesler explores the "shadow side" of sisterhood: women treating each other badly, including why sisters fight, why some women prefer to work for men rather than for women, and other cases of woman/woman cruelty. Talk to Phyllis Chesler about her controversial new book.

los angeles, ca: It seems that females tend to take social life and levels more seriously than males do. Women critique people on their hair, clothes, attitude, and everything under the sun. Men, on the other hand, don't notice or care much about all of that. Aren't we (females) just our own worst enemy? Could it be that "society" put alot of pressure on women (how they look and dress), and not men...therefore, we translate that to each other?

Phyllis Chesler: Bias comes in two genders. Girls and women are as biased and sexist as girls and men. We could, if we choose, refuse to judge the next woman by how thin or blonde she is, or how perfectly symmetrical her surgically altered features are. Women actually care more about what other women think and want women's approval just as much as we want to be chosen by the prince to live in the castle.

seattle, washington: Is there any postive consequence to woman/woman cruelty? I know that may sound strange, but is sometimes shifting our perspective helps us to understand better!

Phyllis Chesler: If we acknowlege it, we have the power and choice to learn from it and to learn not to inflict it on each other. I think if women took the betrayals seriously, we might become more realistic about ourselves, about our limitations, and next time around would develope trust and intimacy over a longer period of time. Women are very good at the rituals of intimacy. We smile, we nod, we gaze, we stand close, so when suddenly someone we've been intimate with steals our job or man or never talks to us again, we feel devastated, mainly because of the level of trust established.

Chicago, Illinois : I am a teacher's aide at an elementary school. One of my favorite sayings (author unkown) is... "We are not here to see through each other, ... but we are here to see each other through." What would you suggest our staff and faculty do to begin implementing and promoting a "no tollerance" philosophy, throughout the school environment, for the "Queen Bee" syndrome and other such social ills? Thanks!

Phyllis Chesler: An excellent question. I think the first thing to is to have a teach-in at the school that tells girls that girls are capable of being mean and cliquish and exclusionary. That girls whisper and gossip and slander. This, sadly, is normal. Therefore, the first thing to do is tell girls that this will be happening, and that they should not blame themselves if it happens to them, and they should feel ashamed that they've caused it. Indeed, what they should do is come to their teacher, who should be trained to take it seriously and not dismiss it. The teacher should stop the forms of bullying that are usually invisible, because girls don't hit each other. That means when a girl enters the cafeteria and her best friend no longer talks to her and has buddied up with another girl, and they either turn their back, roll their eyes, laugh, and refuse to let her sit down with them, that that's an example of how girls intimidate and harass each other. It's a more subtle thing than a fist fight in the school yard.

Some of this may be hardwired, because chimpanzees glare at each other the way young girls sometimes do.

The second thing to do is interest the girls in a team sport so that they have the experience of bonding for the sake of a goal that is larger than one's own self-interest. This is also good because it might teach girls to choose the strongest girls to be on their team. Often women will choose the apparently weak girl to be in their clique.

The third thing that should be done is perhaps martial arts training, to teach girls what their boundaries are. It would be very good if young girls could become courageous enough to stop routine female bullying on behalf of another girl.

Washington D.C.: Your book raises an interesting premise. Not to generalize too much, but I can recall in college how more difficult it seemed for female housemates to resolve issues directly and bury the hatchet (leading to a slow burn of emotions), while male housemates exchanged a few words and insults and the issue was over. This didn't happen all the time, but there was a pattern. Any theories?

Phyllis Chesler: This is THE pattern. Boys and men are allowed to confront and compete directly. They learn rules of engagement. There are winners and losers. After the game is over, the winners and losers may get drunk together. Girls go much more deeply into intimate relationship, and when the smallest thing goes wrong because of our very high expections from that relationship, we don't have an out-and-out fight. We smile and say "that's alright", and then we do a grudge that will not quit. Therefore, the solution is to help women acknowledge our aggression and competition, help women devise rules of engagement so that we can fight fair and then have dinner afterwards.

Comment from Phyllis Chesler: When women fight, it's as if we're fighting for food for our infant chimpanzee. It's very primitive and primate-like. Our back is to the wall and we feel that we're fighting over a matter of life and death. Also, women are very afraid of being isolated socially, especially from a group of other women, so when differences emerge they are so threatening that we usually don't say what we think, and don't show what we feel, but rather we begin to complain or to gossip or to ultimately sabotage and take revenge against another woman whom we feel has deserted us or is not dependable.

china: why the women leader is so hard to her colleague

Phyllis Chesler: Very often women leaders in a male-dominated system are only tokens in that system, and must be twice as good as her male counterpart and is under much greater pressure. She must also keep other women down, because there might be room for only one or two at the top. Finally, she's there because she has internalized the views of the men at the top. What happens is all of us, men and women, understand that male leaders yell, scream, dominate, denigrate, and humiliate. We accept it and take it as a given. We tend to forgive it or overlook it if the man is a great leader. If the great leader is a woman, we expect her to be our fairy godmother, and when she's just like a male great leader, we then decide she's the evil stepmother and demonize her. However, I've interviewed hundreds of women, some of whom describe being treated like indentured servants on the job by female bosses who resemble the ancient mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships in China, Japan and India. And likewise, women professionals and leaders at a high level have described unremitting envy, distance, a coldness, and sabotage from female subordinates. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Women are most comfortable on the job with women leaders who are very humble, who are maternal, who are patient, who give the entire group a sense that we're all in it together, and mainly with women leaders who in no way adopt male leadership styles.

Plano, Texas: Why do women who are unattractive automatically dislike women who are attractive before they get to know each other?

Phyllis Chesler: First let me confirm that this is true. Studies suggest that cheerleaders or homecoming queens or beauty contest winners tend to lose their clique of friends when the rise to this new status level. It's not merely because girls or women are jealous or envious. Women are less interested in status than men are, and are more interested in equality and connection. So a woman who's pretty, who may have her pick of male beaus, signals to a less attractive woman that she won't linger and engage in the rituals of emotional grooming. It's not merely jealousy and envy, it's a worry that the attractive one won't be available.

Washington, D.C.: Have you studied the jealousy that exists between older and younger women in the workplace? What do you make of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky?

Phyllis Chesler: In the book I have three chapters on mothers and daughters, and I think it's a primal relationship, and therefore can be greatly positive AND negative. Older and younger women at one level are competing for limited male resources. At another level, they really want the other to choose HER over the man, because that is part of what I call merging in ecstatic union with the Mother Goddess. For daughters to get out from under that intense maternal umbrella develope intense friendships, and they also do psychological versions of what Electra did to Clytemnestra; namely they "kill" their mothers. In both instances, though, is for her mother to prefer her, not a male son, and not a male lover. When mothers see their daughters leaving home, they're afraid of losing them. To understand older and younger women, you also have to understand the mother - and daugher-in-law relationship. In the workplace, women are shadowed by these early family dynamics. Your female superior isn't just your woman boss, she's also your mother figure who's either very good or very bad. Since you're not her daughter, how do you make an alliance with her?

As to Linda Tripp or Monica Lewinsky, clearly Lewinsky was the child who needed the older woman as her confidante, and Tripp betrayed that confidence, but let's keep it in perspective. The men trying to bring Clinton down betrayed many more confidences, and engaged in greater skullduggeries than did Linda Tripp, who was, from what I understand, afraid of losing her job. In her drawing Lewinsky out and taping it, which is bizarre and diabolical, she either wanted to "get" the President or was trying to arm herself for her own survival.

There are women worldwide who trick little girls into prostitution and slavery, and there are women worldwide who employ female servants who (as in Saudi Arabia) are often raped by the master of the house. Women run sweatshops, where women and children go blind making microchips.

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