“As feminist women, we knew that we were doomed without sisterhood – so we proclaimed it, even in its absence. We wanted to will it into existence, verbally, without wrestling it into being.” ― Phyllis Chesler, ‘Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman’ (2002/2009)
Feminist writings on ‘horizontal hostility’ among women, tend to focus on articulating various means by which to reduce it, ‘work-around’ it, or heal it through creating new foundations of feminist community ethics in our relationships with each other. Although there is always recognition that the hostility exists, they also reflect a strong desire to quickly ‘move on’ beyond the problem, to the outlining of more-or-less utopian “solutions”. Hence we have a number of books speculating on how female-friendship and feminist ethics should be.
If you are looking for similar ‘solutions’, this book is not for you. Phyllis Chesler does not provide any ‘solutions, but seeks to go to the ‘root’ and unpack the common characteristics of female experience of such hostility both personal and political in an attempt to more fully understand, in the lines of ‘Understanding the problem, is half the solution’. (But only half!).
While male violence against women, is obviously far more obvious a threat and with far more serious consequences to women and feminism, Chesler notes that then female-to-female aggression becomes taboo and is trivialised as “drama”, one we are taught to disregard as irrelevant or will magically disappear come the revolution.
Chesler acknowledges that other feminists might see her research as “frivolous”, or “giving ammunition to the enemy”, and she is defensive in several places throughout the book on her reasons for tackling the topic. She believes that “drama” among women is serious indirect violence with common patterns that apply globally across the female sex, also crossing both within and across class and race lines. From women throwing acid into each other’s faces, (both literally and metaphorically) to gossip leading indirectly to honour killings, to adolescent girl cliques just being “drama queens.” It’s an extremely psychologically devastating experience, one that easily triggers existential crises and works against personal as well political solidarity.
Chesler sets the context for her topic of womanly hostility with quotes from researchers, exploring the metaphors of myths, clarifies with stories drawn from literature, anthropology, psychology and the anecdotal personal stories of herself and those of around 200 interviewees with an impressive bibliography collected over 20 years.
Delving into the raw emotional psychology that motivates internalised misogyny against women by other women, Chesler positions its base in the nexus of the paradoxical problematic childhood experience of Mother-Daughter and Sister relationships that we learn in childhood. One interesting note, is the common claim of young second-waver feminists to call themselves ‘Motherless Daughters’.
As a mirror-image to the male-gaze towards women of Madonna/Whore – Chesler posits the female-gaze towards women as Fairy Godmother / Evil Step-Mother. Like boys, infant girls first love, is their mother – but:
“[As a result of internalized sexist views,] women unconsciously expect constant nurturing from other women, and this expectation is irrational. In reality, normal women are quite aggressive and competitive toward other women. Women have been taught to deny this. The denial leads to grudge-holding, rumor-mongering, slander, and ostracism. This sort of indirect aggression is painful to experience, since most women also depend on other women for emotional intimacy, friendship, and social approval..
Nurturing, emotional intimacy, support and ‘social approval’, these concepts tend to be more highly valued by women-in-general, rather than men-in-general. Because of that learned value-system applying to other women, women hold unrealistically high expectations from the behaviour of other women – and often feel far more betrayed and personally affronted when other women fail to uphold such values. Girls and women are constantly criticised, demeaned, belittled by society as a whole, so when other women criticise us, it wears us down far more strongly – even when the topic is not personal – women take it far more personally from other women. Its like our mother or sister betraying us all over again like happened when we were girls.
As girls are socially conditioned against using direct physical violence, this does not mean female capacity for aggression is lessened, or as many women (feminists included), would like to believe – relatively nonexistent compared with men’s propensity for aggressions. Rather than direct aggression, female-on-female aggression tends to be indirect – by 8 years of age, many girls are already skilled mistresses of the art-form of feminine sabotage: gossip, shunning and the withering gaze (or the ‘Medusa Stare‘ : aka “If looks could kill“) become primary weapons. By adolescence, cliques, betrayal and intrigue – along with skilled verbal manipulation ( the sarcastic put-down is almost an art-form it itself) and passive-aggressive tactics, have been added to the arsenal.
Chesler does not ignore the political impacts of such behaviour patterns within and across feminism, members of a social group with limited or no power, will undermine and manipulate other members within that social group, in order to achieve “power”, even if the “power” achieved is of no substance whatsoever.
One of the biggest messages I received on reading this work, was the insight that women-in-general are very weak in conflict resolution, we either keep fighting and arguing with no discrete outcome (or both sides “lose”), or one side or other walks away in silence – and it is this which I believe is the most problematic for feminism. We don’t know how to negotiate with each other for a win-win deal.
“That girls avoid use of physical violence in resolving conflict, does not mean that these conflicts are resolved in meaningful and enduring ways. Girls might smile, give in, give up – and then continue the conflict behind their opponents’ backs. Girls might also smile, give in, make fatal compromises, because their need to belong (or not to be excluded) is more important to them than sticking to their principles.” ― Phyllis Chesler, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman