Once upon a time, a long time ago, I believed that all women were kind, caring, maternal, valiant, and ever-noble under siege – and that all men were their oppressors. As everyone but a handful of idealistic feminists knew, this was not always true. Living my life and researching women’s psychology have helped me to understand that, like men, women are really human beings, as close to the apes as to the angels, capable of both cruelty and compassion, envy and generosity, competition and cooperation.
One of the reasons it is difficult for a woman to acknowledge that women – including herself – are aggressive and cruel is because these are not socially acceptable traits for women to have and because a woman’s best friends and confidantes are usually other women. Most women rely on a family of female best friends.
Women expect to be emotionally ‘groomed’ (listened to, sympathised with) by those women who most resemble themselves. This is why ‘difference’ (in appearance or ideas) is so threatening to most women who rely upon shoulder-to-shoulder egalitarianism and ‘sameness’ among their female intimates, rather than male-like hierarchies with a leader and a chain of command.
Female-female aggression and competition is normal and may, to some extent, be ‘hardwired’. In addition, women, like men, have internalised sexists beliefs. We either idealise women as fairy godmothers or we demonise them as evil stepmothers. Women often have higher and different expectations for other women than we do for men. We tend not to forgive women when they fail us. We tend to have more compassion for male failure or imperfection.
Where do we go from here? Everyone I interviewed for my book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, almost without exception, ended our conversation by asking me what steps women might take to deal with women’s unacknowledged aggression and sexism, and what might the parents of teenage girls tell their daughters about how to handle female taunting and ostracism. Thus, what should women do?
Humbly accept that change is a process. We must first accept that change is a process – one that can’t be rushed. We will have the rest of our lives to work on transforming envy and conformity into tolerance and individuality, and on doing good, not evil, in the world. So, what should women do?
Acknowledge and do not deny the truth
We must acknowledge some painful truths. A woman must admit that women are normally aggressive and competitive and that oppressed women are also very angry; as such, they tend to take their anger out on each other. Such an acknowledgement may help a woman become more realistic about what to expect from other women and become clear about her own limitations as well.
Each woman must develop a strong sense of self and a sense of her own utter uniqueness. No one can take your ‘good’ away from you. Honour your own ambition; honour other women’s ambition. Support strong women who are ‘different’ from you, not only weak women who agree with you totally and who therefore do not threaten you.
Be strong enough to take criticisms
Women often become offended and emotional very quickly. We may be oversensitive to criticism because we have been excessively and unjustly criticised by both women and men from a very young age; we also might have been treated as if we were invisible. Women have been readied to hear unjust criticism where none exists. Therefore, I would like to see women learn how to hear each other gently, respectfully. At the same time, a woman must become strong enough to hear outside, diverse and critical voices. Asking another woman what she really thinks is not the same as asking her to support you, right or wrong, or to falsely flatter you.
Learn to express your anger
A woman may hold a grudge against another woman for a long time; she might turn others against her entirely unsuspecting victim. A woman might instead learn how to express her anger verbally, directly, to the woman who has offended her – and then let go of that anger. This is not easy to do. Perhaps here is where women can learn some rules of engagement from men about how to fight fairly and then, win or lose, move on, befriend our opponents, or at least quit holding a grudge.
Learn to ask for what you want
A woman must be encouraged to put what she wants into words, to ask for it directly rather than waiting for someone to guess what it is she wants. If a woman cannot get what she wants, she does not have to blame herself, give up, disconnect or become enraged. She must learn that she can get what she wants another day or at another job or with another person. Women must be encouraged to move on as well as stay the course.
Do not gossip
Do not initiate gossip about another woman; if you hear gossip, do not pass it on. Let it stop with you. It’s perfectly all right to talk about a woman when she is not present as long as she is someone you like, love, care about, and if what you are saying will not damage her reputation or ruin her life. It is not all right to punish and sabotage another woman whom you may envy or fear by slandering her or by turning other women against her.
No woman is perfect
If you behave badly, apologise directly and move on. Cut yourself some slack and cut the next woman some slack too. If she has slandered or sabotaged you, talk to her about it directly; deal with it quickly. Do not let it fester.
Treat women respectfully
Finally, even if we disagree with another woman, we must do so respectfully, kindly. We must cultivate the concept of an ‘honourable opponent’. We should not automatically demonise our opponents and competitors. Women are not obligated to ‘love’ or ‘hate’ each other. We do not even need to ‘like’ each other. I am suggesting that women treat each other in a civilised manner.
These suggestions may not seem radical. Trust me: they are. If every reader begins by acknowledging each point as true, and if she vows to bring this new-found consciousness into her daily interactions with other women, she will be part of a profound psychological evolution. It takes many individual ripples to form a wave.
Dr Phyllis Chesler is the author of 18 books including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness.