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Posted in: Feminism, Jihad & Terrorism

Published on May 01, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

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Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

"Man's inhumanity to man" -- the phrase is all too familiar. But until Phyllis Chesler's now-classic book, a profound silence prevailed about woman's inhumanity to woman. Women's aggression may not take the same form as men's, but girls and women are indeed aggressive, often indirectly and mainly toward one another. They judge harshly, hold grudges, gossip, exclude, and disconnect from other women.

Like men, women are exposed to the messages of misogyny and sexism that permeate cultures worldwide. Like men, women unconsciously buy into negative images that can trigger abuse and mistreatment of other women. But like other social victims, many do not realize stereotyping affects members within the victimized group as well as those outside the group. They do not realize their behavior reflects society's biases.

How women view and treat other women matters. Are women oppressed? Yes. Do oppressed people internalize their oppressors' attitudes? Without a doubt. Prejudice must first be acknowledged before it can be resisted or overcome. More than men, women depend upon one another for emotional intimacy and bonding, and exclusionary and sexist behavior enforces female conformity and discourages independence and psychological growth.

A continuation of Women and Madness—Chesler's bestselling book that broke the story on double standards in psychology—Woman's Inhumanity to Woman draws on important studies, revolutionary theories, literature, and hundreds of original interviews. Chesler urges us to look within, to treat other women realistically, ethically, and kindly, and to forge bold and compassionate alliances. This is a necessary next step for women, without which they will never be liberated.

Interview from The New York Times: "Women Are Nurturing? How About Cruel, Especially to One Another"


"Everyone who cares about violence, both physical and psychological, must read Phyllis Chesler's myth-shattering and idea-transforming book. No intelligent discussion of the provocative issues she raises will ever be the same after this book becomes part of the cannon. Some politically correct feminists will shudder, but they cannot ignore Woman's Inhumanity to Woman."
Alan M. Dershowitz

"Important and brilliant. Here is the book to end all books about the subject that dares not speak its name. Until we understand woman's inhumanity to women we cannot begin to make our society more just. Phyllis Chesler has written a healing book to teach us how to love ourselves and each other.
Erica Jong

"Phyllis Chesler's book tells the truth. Such a wealth of learning and academic irreverence. This is profound and helpful thinking."
Kate Millett

"A must-read for every woman."
Shere Hite, author of The Hite Report

"I have always admired Chesler's stunning honesty and I admire it again in this current work. I admire Chesler's willingness to follow the logic and evidence to its conclusion even it this conclusion is contrary to fashionable ideology. I will encourage people to read this. Best wishes for a deserved success.
Robin Fox

"Drawing from a deep well of experience, reflection, and scientific research, Chesler has painted a revealing masterpiece of Woman's dark side. With relentless objectivity and admirable candor, her courage exceeded only by her integrity, Chesler hammers sharp nails into the coffin of feminist wishful thinking about sex and gender roles, explodes the sophomoric myth that only men victimize and abuse women, and drives a large stake through the heart of Rousseauesque fantasies. Chesler's love of truth will make her some poserful enemies, but this book is way beyond Simone de Beauvoir."
Lou Marinoff

"Once again Phyllis Chesler braves uncharted waters. In this lucid book, she explores a topic forbidden among feminists for too long. She provides an understanding of jealousy and anger among women, yet she is also compassionate. Like her groundbreaking work, Women and Madness, this book will strengthen feminism and help to end the sad bitterness Chesler so ably describes." —Susan Griffin

"I love what Chesler has done in this very important work. I find Chesler's careful perspective confirming, provocative and comforting."
Judy Grahn

"The dynamite between these covers comes with responsible, even loving, warnings to handle its contents with care. There's anger here but also much undeniable pain and provocative, well documented truth. This is a brave book. Her work is our public conscience."
Letty Cottin Pogrebin

"I love this book. I have long believed that internalized violence is the number one enemy of the oppressed and that mere 'hoodism' is not the answer. And in order to achieve liberation, the oppressed must change, that change being more important than changing the oppressor."
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

"As the connoisseur of our collective unconscious, Chesler shatters 'the myth of sisterhood' espoused by the feminist movement. Chesler challenges us to explore the origins of our mistreatment of one another. The search for truth and justice, Chesler concludes, must begin with a good hard look in the mirror. If courage is as contagious as fear, we can thank Chesler for helping us face the mirror together—something women traditionally avoid."
Christine Ann Lawson

"Writing with passion and force, Chesler brings her knowledge of an astonishing range of literary and scientific work to bear on this subject in a profoundly moving way. She powerfully, vividly documents instances of this inhumanity and makes clearer than ever why feminist struggle still matters and how much we still have to overcome."
Paula Caplan

This is a big, bold, exhaustively researched and painstakingly probed naked exposition of the shadow side of the female psyche. Bravely Chesler has shown us the Medusa head of feminine emotional energies -- rage, rivalry, envy, spite, ostracism, the lot -- leading us on a jolting journey that reveals the dark features and stark landscape of those forces that fuel the many faces of woman's inhumanity toward woman. The great themes of human female drama -- matricide, genocide, sibling scapegoating -- once the domain of Greek tragedy or myths are here laid simply before us in everyday occurrence. the details of each tale picked up and handled carefully, scrupulously explored. And the whole, filtered through a sophisticated psychoanalytic lens, that dares to glare on every facet of its grim material, turning it around dynamically, systemically, politically, personally, an exercise that produces a critical genre that not only, or not merely, fulfills the feminist agenda, but itself crafts a superbly multidimensional way of thinking.

But the climax of this work, in my opinion, comes in the last chapter, where acquired wisdom, experience, matured vision and, perhaps, psychoanalytic savvy converge to point the way toward a new level of feminist consciousness by turning it inward: the "enemy," or the "cause" of female suffering and subjugation is no longer definable in terms of the "Other" gender, and its masculine tyranny or patriarchal destructiveness, but potentially lurks within the bounded bonds of every woman's interpersonal experience with other women. The recognition that either through base instinct, imitation, masquerade or identification, intra-gender demons carry as much toxic weight and destructive power as any male Gorgon, generates a new post-irate, humanistic feminist narrative, if you will, one that calls for intra-sister tolerance, restraint, respect, compassion and affiliative dialogue. Once the enemy is identified as also within -- a true psychoanalytic insight -- the path is forged for a new ideological course, to which the author herself points. A chastened sisterhood, aware of its own self-generated and perpetuated aggression will, hopefully, appeal to the humanity in each of us.

This book will become an immensely important contribution to feminist literature, partly because of its bold disclosures but predominantly because it makes explicit what has thus far been hidden from view and therefore vastly expands our awareness."
Anna Aragno

Selected Media Reviews

"An intriguing analysis…advice on how women can stop undermining each other…feminists and sexists alike should find the package challenging."
— Kirkus Reviews

Second Wave feminists have for 30-plus years operated under the assumption that sisterhood is powerful. Indeed, women acting in concert have forced society to redefine gender, domestic relations, and the workplace. Still, despite huge gains in public visibility, female ascendance has been hampered by a rarely acknowledged reality: women often betray, hurt, and humiliate one another. Mothers stymie daughters, biological sisters compete, girlfriends gossip maliciously, and women bosses exert arbitrary and capricious authority. Chesler (Women and Madness, etc.) has been studying this phenomenon for 21 years, and her research is fascinating, resonant, and unsettling. While the book focuses on psychological rather than political factors and pays too little attention to race and class, it is nonetheless a groundbreaking look at how women perpetuate oppression. Anthropological, biological, literary, and sociological theories are also tapped, giving the book added heft. Although the text is somewhat repetitious and self-congratulatory, it is highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.
— Eleanor J. Bader, Library Journal

Chesler, author of the bestselling Woman and Madness, explores the "shadow side" of sisterhood: women treating each other badly. How could her own mother have been so mean to her? How could someone who "borrowed" published ideas from her not acknowledge her or say "thank you"? In this treatise on breaking the "cycle of cruelty" between women, controversial feminist Chesler addresses why sisters fight, why some women prefer to work for men rather than for women, and other highly subjective cases of woman/woman cruelty. From the "demented Demeters" and "murderous Electras" of Greek mythology to modern-day Mommie Dearest, Chesler warns, mothers and daughters are doomed. Whether they acknowledge their mothers' viciousness, as Chesler does, or whether they're "unconscious" and suffer "amnesia" about the hurt, she says, the patterns are set. Throughout girlhood and into adult life, women repeat the basic lesson in Chesler's words, "maternal envy teaches daughters to be passive, fearful, conformist, obedient as well as similarly cruel to other women." Thus, she says, "an assertive woman manager might be viewed as bitchy and non-maternal." This comment is certainly more digestible than, say, "what complicates the aging process is a woman's life-long experience of all other women as rivals and potential replacements." Chesler draws her evidence from interviews with an unspecified group of women with horror stories: backstabbing by feminist colleagues, sadistic gynecologists, battering lesbians, etc. Needless to say, her book sometimes comes off as quite cynical, despite her claim that "I would like women to treat each other in good ways." (Mar.)Forecast: It's prickly and contentious, but it's Chesler so expect some buzz in the academic feminist circles she inhabits.
Publishers Weekly

"Chesler's credentials are impeccable, her explanations thorough, her research well documented. [she] seems to be advocating a return to an idea that inspired many feminists in each of the movement's phases. This is not about men vs. women or women vs. women: It's about people learning to fair."
St. Petersburg Times

"Fascinating... Chesler takes on the sisterhood like Sherman took Atlanta . [Woman's Inhumanity to Woman] is a provocative take on the nature and behavior of women."
Seattle Times

"Seeing women, like men, as capable of both courage and jealousy, of providing care and causing pain, is no more nor less than acknowledging women as fully human. [This book] is the perfect place to start confronting this truth."
Deborah Tannen, Washington Post

"A heady amalgam of research . . . again, Chesler's voice is breathtakingly bold, ruthlessly honest, provocative, challenging and compassionate. This is rough terrain, and Chesler is leading the way. This book's usefulness [is in] furthering an open conversation among feminists–men and women alike–who want to get past the infighting to a more expansive view of human liberation."

"An important book . . . Woman's Inhumanity to Woman proves that Chesler still has a thing or two to teach the kids after all."

"The first book in which a feminist, as an insider, spills the beans...A staggeringly thorough study of the cruelties, conscious and unconscious, that females visit upon one another."
The Denver Post

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