“Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” : Phyllis Chesler

womans-inhumanity

“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

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18 comments
  1. smash said:

    “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.” Whoo. What a powerful quote.

    Thanks for this piece!

  2. A potentially wide-ranging topic … I’ll touch on just one aspect:

    Part of our socialisation to be emotionally available to those who demand it from us, and not to have healthy boundaries about our relationships and energy expenditure, seems to be our assumption that little distinction should be drawn between women acting in political solidarity with one another, and maintaining personal relationships with all women. [And/or considering ourselves personally responsible for ensuring collaborative relations with all women, despite that being, frequently, practically unuseful.] Assuming personal responsibility for ‘smoothing’ over every matter that makes even distant relationships potentially uncomfortable. Elevating the importance of a ‘smoothed over’ relationship far beyond that of what the relationship offers to the struggle. Doing what we’re socialised to do – agree and ‘play nice’ even where this entails no forward motion for the struggle – a state of apoliticism.

    [Too often, ‘sisterhood’ is used uncritically – collapsing the different importances of political solidarity and comfortable interpersonal relations. The latter, sadly, does not guarantee the former. And our socialisation pressures us to prioritise the latter at the expense of building the former.]

    It strikes me that this is a major impediment to our political progress that is unlike any found in other social movements. It’s important that we find a way to surmount this.

  3. I received the book today thanks Rain !

  4. rainsinger said:

    collapsing the different importances of political solidarity and comfortable interpersonal relations. The latter, sadly, does not guarantee the former. And our socialisation pressures us to prioritise the latter at the expense of building the former

    liberationislife: Excellent point, conflation of personal with political – from the attitude of ‘I dont want to critique your work, because I dont want to hurt our friendship’ to the other extreme of ‘I will criticise every little trivial point, because I do want to hurt your feelings as hard as possible, and I know exactly which personal buttons to push in order to do it’

  5. I read this book about halfway through, and it’s in my library. It got so painful to read, because I have experienced much of it…from childhood and not ‘fitting in’ as a hardcore tomboy and nonfeminine, to P.E. where I was really harassed for not wearing a bra and sometimes it came down to fights, to the infighting of Lesbians and women’s feminist political and social groups…the horizontal hostility, sometimes in the workplace, where I expected female solidarity working in a pretty much all male (nontraditional) field, thinking we were going to have the feminist revolution and come together as tradeswomen on the job. So often that didnt’ happen, it was so painful, cuz each women thinks she has the individual solution and is fearful to be seen with other women cuz of ‘what will the men think?’

    I just couldn’t read it anymore. Maybe it would be worth picking up again. And you’re right, we need to figure out HOW to resolve our conflicts, work through them, or even ‘agree to disagree’ and work on the areas where we do agree. Nobody agrees with ANYBODY 100%! That is purely unrealistic. I don’t do party lines either….and hold contradictions within myself, as others do within themselves, but at least maybe we can have a meeting of the minds and our female souls, where we CAN connect. Because on a spiritual level, I very, very deeply believe in Amazon and Female Sisterhood….I know it when I feel it(especially in circle and on a spiritual level amongst Dykes and Goddess women and Sister Amazons) and those moments I feel it are GLORIOUS. I just would like to see it also translated to everyday life on a far more frequent basis….
    -in Sisterhood,
    -FeistyAmazon

  6. I agree with the part which is about finding ways of more successfully dealing with conflict – we need practice at it and we need to be committed to it – if only through our understanding that we weaken a movement unless we do.

    As to the rest, meh, I just expect someone within the feminist movement to behave like a decent human being and not a male-identified prick. I don’t totally buy her theory that unrealistic expectations of other women is the source of conflict, particularly within an internet context. I think there are other factors at play. I think there can be some truths in it though, in some contexts.

    Thanks for summary; I have read a short article, a while ago, along similar lines and so I’d like to read this book some day

  7. Being male-centred is an ongoing fact of life for us though … in the collective sense, although perhaps not for each of us individually. I don’t think we can dismiss it as a reality within the feminist movement. Especially when this isn’t a conscious choice for us, but something that’s ground into our psychology and practice in a way that invisibilises it to us.

    And then, there’s the point that *stopping* being male-centred doesn’t fix all problems either, as issues amongst separatists attest to.

    [rainsinger your point about intentional button-pushing amongst women who know each others’ “buttons” was interesting – was glad to realise I could mostly relate this to my experience with men. In a sense, having the close collaboration with women required for this knowledge sounds quite appealing to me 😉 But I don’t mean to trivialise the importance of dealing with the issues you reflect on via Chesler’s book.]

    Anyway, amongst feminists, I have definitely found that there’s lack of knowledge about bullying, lack of attention to the differences between personal interactions and political solidarity. And this latter problem can lead to lack of respect for women’s boundaries. So I think this could support her idea of unrealistic expectations of other women.

  8. I really liked this. I agree that women being hostile hurts far more. Most radical feminists don’t care what men think or say, but feel very differently about other women, and especially other radical feminists being hostile.

    The bit about unrealistic expectations is an interesting point. I think sometimes this argument can be used to excuse or justify behaviour that is out of order. But it does remind me of when I was younger and being amazed at the raesons some friends would fall out with other friends. Very petty reasons and they had totally unrealistic expectations.

    I agree it is often, although not always, about good conflict resolution. But I also agree taht we first as a community, have to recognise and analyse the issue.

  9. rainsinger said:

    Anyway, amongst feminists, I have definitely found that there’s lack of knowledge about bullying, lack of attention to the differences between personal interactions and political solidarity. And this latter problem can lead to lack of respect for women’s boundaries.

    I’ve been interested in this topic for some years – Chesler’s book is not the first, or last reading of mine on this topic, just the most recent 🙂 As feminists, we have done a great deal of consciousness-raising, writing, analysis and theorising about the personal and political relationships of male vs female, we have even deconstructed at length the various nuances of male solidarity, construction of masculinity, ‘brotherhood’ and the “Bro-Code” culture – but we have rarely put the gaze of that analysis on ourselves – and probably for very good reasons! I certainly haven’t come to any firm conclusions just still exploring it.

    Awhile ago, in my day-job I was presenting a training workshop thingy to bunches of women middle managers, on women’s management styles towards other women. The seminar was based on research about conversational language development in kids aged 6-10 years – conversations/group dynamics between child age peers without adults around. The researchers findings included interesting sex differences in the conversational styles between male and female same-sex groups in group play activities. But thats another story for another time.

    I was struck by the ‘patterns’ of similarity, in the various stories the women told, of their relationships with other females in their youth, and later I held a similar session with 20 or so radfems at a radfem gathering (actually, it was more of a lazy Sunday morning consciousness-raising session LOL). Also finding stories with similar patterns, and relating childhood incidents to similar incidents in adult life in feminist activist and lesbian separatist groups. Stories ranging from wonderful strong positive relationships, to the other extremes of stories of pain about mothers, competitiveness and sibling fighting between female kin – sisters, cousins etc. One woman felt her teenage high-school years had been straight out of the Hollywood movie Mean Girls, and felt deeply ashamed to admit that she had felt “safer” at school, being ‘one of the boys’ than in all-girl groups.

    your point about intentional button-pushing amongst women who know each others’ “buttons” was interesting – was glad to realise I could mostly relate this to my experience with men.

    Yes, this is interesting, I guess it relates to degree of emotional closeness – so ‘know your buttons’ means that the aggressor is close enough to have learned them. One of the patterns found in the research on little kids, was that all-girl groups tended to relate in ‘horizontal heirarchies’ of ‘social connection’ like concentric circles around a “star” person (or pair – or ‘inner circle’ sometimes) Another way of saying, who-is-best-friends-with-whom, and who is next-best-friends and so on, in concentric circle layers, from the ‘inner circle’ to the outer fringes of the circle. Whereas boys groups created ‘vertical heirarchies’ or pyramids, that we are all so very familiar with :)- but that pyramid model did not apply to girl’s groups in the research. The topics of the conversations was also very different, girls were more about sharing intimate personal ‘secrets’, their own, or other girls etc. Its a generalisation of course, but I’m guessing that girls/women who shared their intimacies more often with boys/men, than with other girls/women, find men will also *know their buttons* too 🙂

    Lastly, I do apologise to anyone who has been triggered/upset by my post – one of the things I have stumbled across (and was unprepared for!) in presenting these sessions in the past, is an unspoken, untalked about pattern of pain that some women are carrying in relation to their relationships with other women, and I do apologise if my post stumbled unwittingly onto raw spaces.

  10. smash said:

    Great comment, Rain. I am learning a lot from this conversation. I have definitely experienced hostility from women and radical feminist women, and I find it disheartening. Thank you for providing this resource to help put those experiences in context.

  11. ybawife said:

    I i

    I have real issues with Cheslers work as it is often out of sinc with her real life. But I must say Womon and Madness is an epic. This new book not so sure!

  12. Thank you, Phyllis. Well said. Now we can have a look with this out in the open.

  13. I wonder if this is why women are oppressed?

  14. teutah said:

    This is excellent!!!!! I’m doing my A2 English Coursework and this has helped so much

  15. I disagree with Chesler’s assertion that women expect too much nurturing from other women. I’ve never expected “nurturing,” even from my own mother. I only expected not to be abused.

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