25 September, 2003


Woman's Inhumanity to Woman is one of the first books by a Western feminist that attempts to look at how women treat each other with the oppressiveness women have always attributed to men. While domestic violence, rape and harassment by men against women occur daily on a worldwide scale, women also continue to oppress, dominate, wound, undermine, backstab, overwork, underpay, beat and kill other women around them. Chesler, a psychologist and bestselling author who was part of the Feminist Movement of the Seventies, points out that it is integral for feminists to deal with women's sexism, and not let it remain a silent and taboo topic as it has in the past.
Psychological studies show that women are more prone to indirect aggression, which can be both verbal and non-verbal, and includes gossip, backbiting, rumors and shunning. This often leads to "social death" of the victim, and can be a painful and isolating experience. In some cultures, where honor killings are practiced and where women have an active part in getting the men to mobilized against the girl perceived to be defiling honor, it can lead to real death as well. Chesler looks at primate studies to show that undercurrents of competition between females is commonplace, and this often leads to aggressive behavior, including infanticide. The targets of female aggression are more often than not, other women and children.
Amongst teenage girls, physical fighting is not as common as amongst boys, although in some cases, as in Mexican street gangs, girls are expected to fight actively. More common is spreading gossip when the other person is not around. This verbal shunning leads to the social exclusion of one person from the group, leading to rejection. Teenagers also actively shame and ostracize their contemporaries to protect their own self-interests.
Women score high on interpersonal relations - warmth, positive emotions, good listening and communicating skills. But the same women can exhibit aggression and cruelty, especially towards other women. This is the paradox of the mother-in-law who can be cruel to the daughter-in-law while being a wonderful mother to her own children.
Chesler spends three chapters analyzing the myths of the mother-daughter dyad, and how that relationship is often fraught with conflict and violence. Drawing on research by Freud, Melanie Klien and Nancy Chodorow, Chesler looks at the way girls compete for their mother's affections and attentions, and respond to maternal anger and retaliation, more than boys do. Mothers can try to control daughters through coldness and silence, sexual surveillance, and maternal envy. Chesler, quoting Rozsika Parker of MotherLove/MotherHate: The Power of Maternal Ambivalence, writes that one mother "felt ill" when her daughters wore "unflattering shapes, clashing colors and horrid fabrics", and that mothers can often experience daughterly deviance from what the mother desires as "an almost physical wound." Feminists who desire a different life than the powerless ones of their mothers are reluctant to listen to their mother's stories, and experience "matrophobia" as they try to free themselves from the complicity of that fate.
Myths and fairy tales have often held strong clues to the hidden relationships between women. The Stepmother is an established trope in fairy tales, and can stand in for other social roles: the co-wife, the sister-in-law, the mother-in-law. Women's experience of other women as lifelong rivals and potential replacements complicates the aging process, where older females often compete directly for resources and attention with younger, more fertile ones.
Women also long for a good relationship with sisters. Working class women and non-white women "tend to report a strong and positive relationship to their sisters." While women long for intimacy with other women who are "best friends" and substitute sisters, they also fear betrayal. Sister relationships, like other primary relationships, are complicated and fraught with contradictory emotions, with love, jealousy, envy and competitiveness all playing out in the same emotional field.
In the workplace, women continue to treat other women in traditional, patriarchal ways. Competition is exacerbated by notions that there are only a fixed number of slots for women. Women have a harder time trusting women in power, especially if they are seen to be exhibiting male behavior. Incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace are minimized by female employees, who laugh off reports. One recent study demonstrated that women scientists rejected proposals by other women more than male scientists did. Women must learn how to work together with non-intimates without personalizing differences, as men have been trained to do, the author suggests.
In spite of the competitiveness and aggression, feminist groups and movements have brought significant changes for women globally. Starting with the vote, women have gained important advances in all spheres of public and private life, including the workplace, political representation, financial mobility and independence. Like the practice of friendship, the sisterhood of feminism is not a natural process, as we might think from the literature in existence, but an ongoing and complex commitment, something that has to be courageously and persistently practiced on a daily basis, Chesler suggests.
Rich with anecdotes, analysis of myths and psychological studies, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman blazes a trail for feminists and social activists to acknowledge how women can harbor the same feelings of sexism as men. Acknowledging the natural aspects of female aggression clears the way for women to embrace all parts of themselves. The introspection that comes from looking at women's internalized sexism is an important and necessary process - for the feminist movement as well as other social movements who continue the struggle for equality and freedom for the human race.

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