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Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law

Published on Mar 10, 2002 by Bianca Zander

Written for New Zealand Listener

The Unkindness of Women


A feminist author sets out to debunk the myth of the kinder, gentler female of the species.

Her name was jennifer and she was different and that was enough. From the first day of high school to the age of 16 when she transferred to another, kinder school - probably one with boys in it - we treated her as you a rabid dog. Her punishment was relentless: poison-pen letters, taunts and academic sabotage, mocking laughter, whispering campaigns. Retrospective guilt: Even though I didn't lead the charge against her - I knew what we were doing was despicable - nor did I do anything to stop it. I was too worried about my own place in the pecking order. The creepy thing is, just like a rabid dog, nobody ever laid a hand on her. Girls are experts at remote bullying.

It is a skill that is maintained well into adulthood.

"Women stab each other in the back chronically," says a young lady who does not wish to be named for fear of further stabbing. She works on a women's magazine, the adult equivalent of a single-sex school. "All-women environments are cesspools of whispering and mean comments about everything from work-related issues to weight and shoes. At the same time, it's a supportive environment where you can bang on about your period pains and everyone sympathizes."

It's possibly just a new stick to beat women with, but the social lives of girls and, more specifically, the feminine capacity for less than sisterly behavior, have lately become popular fields for (pseudo) academic study. Which means that Americans have been writing books with titles such as Queen Bees and Wannabees. From now on playground pariahs and princesses will be organized according to a Greek alphabet system into clusters of Alphas, Betas and Gammas (briefly, Alpha girls are the pretty, popular classroom rulers; Beta girls are their minions; and Gamma girls think they're above all that) and grown-up women are probably best avoided if the central thesis of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, a new book by US feminist Phyllis Chesler is to be blieved. She has written, after 20 years of research, about the ways in which women – including famous feminists – stab each other in the back.

Ouch. Chesler is one of the old guard, a veteran and luminary of the Second Wave feminism of the late 1960s and early 70s, a movement that was grounded in the idea of sisterhood. In shattering the myth of female solidarity, Chesler expected to be called a turncoat, to stand accused of betraying the feminist cause, but instead her book is resonating around the world.

"The phenomenon is really cross-cultural and universal as opposed to only America, or only about teenage girls," says Chesler in a thick Brooklyn accent, on the phone from New York. As well as her interview with a magazine at the bottom of the world, she has done press in Brazil, Germany, Italy and Chile. "What this tells me is that it's not part of a momentary zeitgeist, but that I've perhaps tapped into something that is long-lasting and universal."

Chesler's central premise is that women are not as kind and gentle as we think they are. We have simply become expert at indirect aggression, deceiving even ourselves. Where men will resolve their disputes out in the open – with anything from harsh words to a smack round the head – women will go out of their way to avoid direct conflict, preferring to demolish each other covertly. Usually, this involves much complaining to a third party, another woman who is considered an ally, but not to the person who offended us in the first place. Along the way, the tale-teller will "carefully manage" the recounting of the "past events" so that she is seen in the best possible light and the "other" is demonized. Up till now, you might have identified this diverting pastime as idle gossip, but maybe it's not so idle after all.

Even the most casual observer could accuse feminism of running out of steam since the glory days, when it was a mass movement. "My generation was so lucky," says Chesler. "We had an opening in history in which masses – millions and millions of women – left with the door open behind them, and we met each other in the streets and we partied." Since then, "Feminism" has become an individual pursuit, the domain of a handful of professional career feminists. Things have not turned out as Chesler expected.

"We were such fools that we thought we would have an entire revolution sewn up in a decade. We somehow thought that it would be nirvana beyond that point. I didn't think that the issues of motherhood, working conditions for parents and childcare issues would be so intractable, so utterly resistant. Feminist energy went for the right to abortion, not for the fight to have better working conditions if you choose to mother a child. I'm not saying it was the wrong decision, but I did not think tht younger women would be stuck, as we were, with all the childcare and career possibilities.

I thought that younger men would be better than their male predecessors and some are, but most are not, in terms of housework and childcare. I didn't think that younger women would be so unrealistic – they're going to be CEOs of the top corporations and they're going to be happy and they're going to be thin and beautiful and they're going to have happy marriages and wonderful children…Impossible!"

Back to the Alpha females, the "first among women". Chesler doesn't actually believe they exist. Obviously something has gone horribly wrong in New Zealand; the country is being run by women ("How wonderful!" she exclaims upon hearing this news). And why are most of them first-born and from families without boys? "I think that 'first-born' gives male and female a certain kind of advantage that we don't quite totally understand, and having no son to then put all your hopes for future greatness in, means that you might even let your daughter carry your standards." Powerful women also tend to be taller, apparently.

But can these tall, powerful women work together without resorting to Machiavellian tactics? Of course they can, says Chesler, but only if they acknowledge that they have not always played fair this far. The whole point of her book is to point out that until women are honest with themselves about what they are really like, there is no hope of winning the real fight – which is still against oppressive, patriarchal culture.

"If women started to very consciously and mindfully be kind to each other instead of cutting and cruel and nasty and if we began to thank each woman each time she did something she didn't really have to do…it's not going to feed anybody, but it's going to begin to change the quality of the air that women breathe."


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